The Bible’s Supporting Players: Silas

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A faithful traveling companion of Paul, Silas might well be a model for some of today’s social activists who fight against the exploitation of workers.

Silas is best known for sharing imprisonment with Paul in Philippi and the seemingly miraculous event in which an earthquake caused the prison doors to open and their shackles to break (Acts 16:25-27). But it is what got them into this jam in the first place that sheds light on his character and the nature of his faith.

When Silas and Paul first arrived in Philippi, a leading city of Macedonia and a Roman colony, they ventured outside the city gates to find a spot on the riverside which they had been told was a place of prayer. (There was no synagogue in the city.)

We are told in Acts 16:11-15 that the two itinerant preachers found a group of women gathered there, possibly socializing while doing laundry or praying. Seizing the opportunity of a receptive audience, Paul and Silas, a “prophet” in the sense that he had been anointed by the Holy Spirit, began to talk to the women about Christianity.

We don’t know how most of the women responded, but we do know that one of them, Lydia, was profoundly moved by what she heard. After she and her household were baptized by Silas and Paul, she begged them to stay at her house while they were in town, an invitation the weary travelers gladly accepted.

Proclaiming Salvation

Although the timing isn’t clear, Silas and Paul returned to the riverside place of prayer in search of more converts. On their way, they encountered a young slave girl “who had a spirit of divination” (Acts 16:16, NRSV). This was a gift that brought her owners a lot of money, although, as a slave, none of it was for her.

This girl followed Silas and Paul around for several days, calling out to anyone who could hear that the two men were “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17).

Rather than being pleased by this apparent display of devotion, Silas and Paul were annoyed, evidently distrustful of someone who engaged in pagan acts of divination. Believing she was probably possessed, Paul and Silas stopped and turned to face the girl. Paul charged the evil spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. And so it did.

But this compassionate act of Paul and Silas, while spiritually freeing the exploited slave girl, angered her owners, who now faced a serious loss of income. The slave’s owners seized the well-meaning pair and dragged them into the marketplace before the local magistrates. They charged Paul and Silas with a breach of peace as Jews “disturbing the city” (Acts 16:20). In other words, the men were guilty of upsetting an intrinsically exploitive status quo.

Standing Up for Beliefs

Just as today’s social activists and yesterday’s civil-rights leaders have suffered for courageously standing up for what is right, so too did Silas and Paul. The magistrates ordered them to be beaten and imprisoned. But Silas and Paul didn’t give up the fight. We know that Paul was successful, thanks in large part to his faithful companion, Silas.

God may be telling us through the life of Silas and other early Christians that we must not be passive in the face of injustice. Slavery and worker exploitation, especially of children and women, are in some ways worse today than was the form of slavery that existed in the time of Silas and Paul. Today’s activists include Kailash Satyarthi of India, who has been responsible for freeing more than 75,000 bonded and child laborers since 1980. Jesse Sage works with the internationally focused American Anti-Slavery Group. Ann Jordan is director of the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at the human-rights organization Global Rights.

These and others like them would surely admire Silas and Paul’s spirit of social activism in fighting injustice. These are issues for all of us to consider.

Next Month: Joanna

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