This is a rather difficult passage for me to respond to — because much of my personal response is not to the passage itself, or to Paul, but to people. If there is anything that people are passionate about, it is how to prioritize what Paul says about the status of people (women especially.) The thing is that people honestly reading Paul, in this case, often come to the opposite conclusion. Now, as I’m not a woman, and have no desire to enforce submission, much of the argument does not affect me personally — and, if I were not walking through the passage, I’d leave the arguments to my friends.
Observing this argument has taught me one thing: Different people read Paul very differently. People like to quote their favorite passage when quoting Paul. He seems to range from supporting an authoritative model with people on the top, and people on the bottom in one place — yet in another (Galatians 3:28) he denies that there is any difference between the freeman and the slave — or between men and women, in God’s sight. In one place, he commands people to comply with the system, in another he denies the ultimate truth of the system.
Perhaps this is the trick to wrapping my head around Paul. He was writing at a time when Christians were the minority, and it was a religion of slaves. There were a few people on top, but most were on the bottom. Christians were already targets for persecution. Acts 19 tells us about when Paul was on a preaching trip in Ephesus, and he got in trouble for stirring up a riot. Christianity was seen as taking away ‘customers’ in a city who’s economy included making idols to the goddess Artemis.
Considering that an idea that might lead to a loss of customers was enough to produce a great riot, perhaps Paul is being a bit pragmatic. Christians are not to try to overthrow society, and change to world to be more like the church. Perhaps Paul is calling on them not to fight this battle? He is actually calling on Christians to be extra ‘good’ — working hard. He’s calling on nothing but positive attention.
Of course, reading this, I see that there still are slaves and masters, even if we use different titles now. I also see that threats are still part of the master’s toolbox. We might be a more just society than the ancient Roman empire, however even within the church, few seem ready for the kingdom of Heaven.
In spite of this seeming set against Galatians 3:23, Paul’s last words in this section ring pretty much the same: “Remember, both you and they have the same master in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.” There really is a sense that the hierarchy that we live with is something that is of this world, and not part of our eternal identity. The question is: How much should I conform to the world, and how much should I live as if I am in heaven? What battles are worth fighting?