Following the general indictment of (gentile) humanity in the early chapters of Romans, Paul argues that "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ" is the best available cure for the problem of sin (hamartia), a problem that ought no longer to trouble the saints (Rom 3:22; compare 1:16-17). What were the contents of this category, "sin"? A primary attribute of "sin" as described in Romans is lack of control of one's body. In baptism, Paul asserts, "the sinful body" (to soma tes hamartias) is destroyed so that "we might no longer be enslaved to sin" (doulevein hemas te hamartia; Rom 6:6). Sin causes the sinner to "obey the appetites" (to hupokovein tais epithymias) and to yield his "members" (ta mele, i.e., bodily parts)75 to impurity (akatharsia; Rom 6:19). Sin is linked to death—sin "leads to death," the end (telos) of "the things of which you are now ashamed" is death, and "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:16, 21, 23)—just as those guilty of idolatry, homoerotic sex, dishonorable passions, and other offenses were said by Paul to "deserve to die" at the conclusion of Rom 1:18-32.76 He imagines sin, therefore, as a bodily condition, as was righteousness, with sin resulting in death and righteousness in life.77 Sin "reigns in your mortal bodies so that you obey its desires" (Rom 6:12). Righteousness (di-kaiosyne) involves yielding your "members" to God. The body ought to become an obedient instrument of God as opposed to an obedient instrument of desire (Rom 6:13, 17-18, 19). In this way, Paul suggests that two types of slavery are possible: slavery to desire and impurity or slavery to God and righteousness. Christ followers who do not control desire join gentile idolaters in a dishonorable, debased sort of "slavery."
Paul was not the first ancient author to connect slavery and desire. As noted in the first chapter, slaves in the ancient world were often represented as morally suspect or exempt. They were morally deficient and less capable of self-control than their masters; they were supposedly "unscrupulous, lazy, and criminous,"78 different "by nature," and lacking the requisite faculty of deliberation.79 Tied to this negative evaluation of slaves was the accusation that a free citizen could become a "slave" to luxury and desire,80 and "free" or "slave" could be differentiated on the basis of self-mastery. Masters mastered both their own bodies and the bodies of their slaves, at least in theory, but slaves were incapable of mastering their own bodies, both literally and figuratively.81 This confusion between the material circumstances of slaves—who could not control their bodies because their bodies were owned by others—and slavery to desire as a problem that could trouble masters is evident in the writings of a Roman contemporary of Paul, Seneca the Younger. Seneca recommended that Roman masters occasionally invite deserving slaves to dine with them since, "if there is any slavish quality in them as a result of their low associations, it will be shaken off by keeping company with men of gentler breeding" (Sen. Ep. 47.16). In other words, slavish slaves could be improved by the company of noble noblemen. This argument only becomes possible if one presupposes the moral failings of slaves and the moral superiority of masters. Seneca then went on to argue that even masters can become "slaves," one to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all to fear. He concluded, "No slavery is more disgraceful than that which is voluntary" (Sen. Ep. 47.17). Thus, Seneca proposed that slavish slaves can benefit from the example of their honorable masters. At the same time, he sought to shame citizen men into rejecting "slavishness," that is, indulgence in lust, greed, and excessive ambition, once again linking slaves with dishonorable behavior.82
Paul may have had this traditional association between "slavishness" and desire in mind when he composed Romans. The "sin" that the "slaves to sin" engaged in was largely sexualized. Sin and the passions (ta path-emata) were linked, and the body, prior to baptism, is said to be inherently sinful (to soma tes hamartias). Without faith in Christ, bodily parts were said to be obedient to impurity (ta mele humon doula te akatharsia), lawlessness, and shame.83 Like Seneca, Paul suggested that all were in danger of becoming "slaves" to the appetites84 and warned against "yielding one's members" to sin, impurity, and lawlessness (Rom 6:13, 19). Still, unlike Seneca, Paul suggested that the cure for slavery to lust was slavery to God rather than moral improvement through the study of philosophy.85 To Paul, all of the brothers and sisters in Christ must choose "slavery to sin" or "slavery to God," whether they were slave or free.86 All will yield their members; the question was to what, God or lust? Anyone who rejected
Christ was portrayed as essentially incapable of virtue, whether slave, freed, or free. One can sell oneself to impurity, lawlessness, and desire, or one can sell oneself to God.
Juxtaposing the slaves to sin with the slaves of God in Romans, Paul emphasized the significant break between the brothers and sisters in Christ and everyone else. He did so in bodily, sexual terms, with negative slavery conforming to the Greco-Roman trope "enslavement to lust" and positive slavery defined as slavery to (his) God. Slavery to God, Paul argued, leads to a kind of bodily discipline in which one's body becomes an instrument of dikaiosyne (righteousness). By placing these two slaveries in opposition to one another, making a very real institution—slavery—stand for devotion to God or devotion to desire, Paul subverted traditional status conceptions to some degree, even as he built upon the commonplace association of slavery and desire. Instead of simply reinscribing the traditional relationship among enslavement, lust, and shame, Paul asserted that slavery to God is advantageous, demanding that all the believers become the right kind of slave.87 Still, he continued to play upon ancient assumptions about "slavishness," even as he asserted that all gentiles in Christ, regardless of status, must become God's "slaves."88 The link between slavery and sexual immorality was both preserved and contrasted with a positive, righteous slavery—slavery to God.
By employing slavery as a positive as well as a negative metaphor, Paul partially undermined ideological apparatuses that supported slavery. In Paul's schema, slaves were not necessarily morally deficient, for they shared the status "slaves of God" or, even better, "freedmen of the Lord" (1 Cor 7:22), and "sons of God" (Gal 3:25-29) with their free brothers and sisters in Christ. "Slavery to God," especially for actual slaves and other low-status people, could be understood as especially salvific since, as Dale Martin points out, "to raise one's status by becoming the slave of a good and powerful master was to be saved from a harsher or less honorable fate."89 Paul utilized status language to elevate the lower-status, slave Christ follower even above the higher-status free person. Both became, metaphorically, members of Christ's household, but within that "household" the slave was granted the higher relative position. The slave became Christ's "freedman," but the free person became Christ's "slave." Both free and slave became members of the most prestigious household of all, the household of God. In return, people of higher status had to "give up their own interests" and "identify themselves with the interests of those Christians of lower status," while people of lower status gain status enhancement by joining the household of God, even though they remained enslaved. Thus, while Paul did not advocate the abolition of slavery, he challenged the presuppositions that made this hierarchical structure possible.90 Paul continued to build on the theme of metaphorical slavery later in the letter, distinguishing those who live "according to the flesh" from those who live "according to the spirit." There he asserted that, in the spirit, the "slaves of God" have become something even better, the "sons of God."
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