In this present-day, non-religious, democratically oriented form of society we lack—fundamentally—the habits associated with being subjects under a sovereign or master. The western hemisphere is largely comprised of countries living out the transition from royal governance to variations of constitutional or dictatorial republics. Where once there were kings now there are presidents and constitutions. In the former no question existed about the royal sovereign being, in fact, sovereign. The crown ruled whether or not one liked the crown. In our day, however, this very statement is emotionally scandalous and, for some, morally absurd. Today’s First World man cannot grasp the idea of a natural hierarchy; such a notion exists only as a form of oppression or artificial subservience.
I myself am the product of these influences and it’s true, I have no etiquette, no habituated resources to draw from in imagining life as a royal subject. Recognizing this, therefore, moves me to question the impulse of modern commentary—an impulse I share—that condemns such past arrangements as oppressive. Is it really unnatural to render obligation to another human being because of their positions as ruler? Is it true that such positioning is only appropriate when master and servant have agreed to the terms of service? Should I answer “no” to these rhetorical questions, I would find myself on the deep end of modern opprobrium: “How can you say that?! No man (or woman) has a right to command another against his (or her) will!”
This very problem echoes in the back of my mind when reading Jason’s excellent entries on slavery (The Abolitionists Legacy, Part 1 and The Abolitionists Legacy, Part 2). I am in total agreement with him, and I love how he laid out the historical and biblical details relevant to a humble and godly consideration of the horror that was the African slave trade. Mine is a theme on the outskirts of Jason’s, specifically, with what moral lens do we view the proper duty of servants? My rebellious impulse—a sinful tendency which I have yet to overcome—wanted to approach it as something like “the virtue of slavery,” but that is wildly misplaced, bordering on scandal. I include mention of it in order to be clear that what follows cannot properly be read as somehow lauding slavery and similar cruelties. And this caution is unfortunately needed given what I have said about modern sensibilities.
So the question: with what lens do we view the proper duty of servants? A true answer begins by acknowledging hierarchy within the created order. In the beginning God created. The most basic hierarchy begins with the very different natures of the creature and the creator. As Christians we acknowledge this. It is not even at the level of believed proposition; it is fact. The creature owes by nature obedience and gratitude to its Creator. And immediately this statement requires another admission of fact about nature: reality consists of material facts and moral (non-material) facts. For in saying that a creature owes something to its Creator we speak to moral categories not material ones, which would of mechanical necessity produce what the Creator wanted through the material qualities given to the creature.
For example, bees make honey not in obedience to a moral obligation to do so but because they’ve been built that way—honey is the necessary consequence of bees in hives. To press this further, a drone is naturally the servant of the queen. This is a natural hierarchy. Being disbelievers in such things we would use different language like “functional differentiation.” But the truth is larger than material function. Drones serve the hive; the queen’s function has greater significance to the hive. But we must pause at the word “significance.” Human beings grasp this idea not bees. The drone operates on material/mechanical instinct, knowing only its task, doing what it is built to do. This, again, highlights the two categories of reality, material and moral.[i] Whence this moral valuation? It derives from the image of God in Man. The human being differs from all other created things in that, “in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen. 1:27, NASB)
Of all creatures man alone can chose to disobey the natural order. To illustrate by means of the bees, suppose bees were endowed with the image of God. Then we can imagine a drone choosing to separate from the hive in order to enjoy some nectar for its own sake. The drone’s material nature allows for this possibility. As modern observers we could even say that the bee is behaving true to its nature. We could assess the hive as having so large a drone-capacity that the temporary self-enjoyment of one impacts the hive not at all. On purely mechanical grounds the errant drone is fully justified. But our hypothetical drone-in-God’s-image would be a fool (a sinner, in fact). Its nature includes a hierarchical order in which the drone is most drone-like when serving the hive. Choosing to abandon this order of nature the drone does harm to itself and to the hive. This is a moral fact, applicable to the image-of-God-drone.
And so it is with the human being. The hierarchies of nature, of our nature, must be honored if we are to be most human, which is to say fulfilling both our material and moral nature in bearing God’s image. So here comes the controversy. What are these natural hierarchies? One of them is servanthood. A Christian cannot avoid this admission, especially when the one we worship “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) The fact of a servant requires the fact of a master. Consequently some human beings will be, should be, masters to others.
Can you hear that assertion without also hearing a siren warning oppression? Not likely. And this is what I warned about in my introduction. Lacking the instincts and societal support of honorable servitude, I must strive to hear these words in their natural resonance rather than what I am accustomed to. We have in our time an idolatrous relation to choice. I will not develop that idea here, allowing instead other hierarchies to rattle this idol: the family order, parents over children, husbands over wives. The word “over” pricks mightily at the modern sensibility—surely this sanctions oppression! But disengage that sensibility and hear instead the words of the Apostle Paul[ii] in Ephesians 5:15 – 6:9. It’s too long to quote in full, but read it and see the mutual subjugation complementing the hierarchies of husband-wife, parent-child, master-servant.
Ultimately anyone who bears the responsibility of being a master within some hierarchy must do so knowing his (or her) place in the full hierarchy which begins and ends with the Lord Himself. He reigns sovereign over every master. The centurion whom Jesus praised is among our greatest examples. If you are a master then you fulfill your mastery best when you serve the Master well. Is this not the example of the Apostles? All these hierarchies fit together. Break them and we find oppression. Ignore them and we find oppression. Embrace them in the Lord and we find mercy, holiness, and beauty.
[i] C.S. Lewis builds on this duality brilliantly in Mere Christianity. It is the “is” versus “ought” distinction.
[ii] Incidentally, appealing to the Apostle carries weight because he holds a hierarchical superiority to you and me. It is in the nature of things that his words are superior to mine. And I thank God for this.