In this article John van Rij, Pastor from Invercargill, helps us to understand slavery in the Bible.
Slavery and the Apostle Paul
I was once walking in the mountains around Arthur’s Pass and entered a hut for a break from the rain. I noticed that there was a Bible in the hut, which I opened and flicked through it, noticing that someone had added commentary in pen. The Bible opened to Ephesians 6:5 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.” The word “slaves” was circled and a comment written in the margin: “Slavery! How typically Christian!” This was no carefully researched attack on Christian faith. Yet we as Christians feel the weight of this comment. There is much in the history of slavery that is rightly abhorrent to people living in the 21st century. We look back on the horrific abuses in the United States with shame that some who claimed the name of Christ participated in or justified such a terrible mistreatment of human beings.
As we read our Bibles, should we be ashamed of the fact that Paul addressed masters and slaves? Can we rely on the Bible as an ethical document? How can we deal with texts such as Ephesians 6 in a way that is neither morally problematic, nor intellectually dishonest? Should we be ashamed that the Bible doesn’t just say, “You shall not enslave people” in the same way it says, “You shall not murder?”
What I offer here are pointers to help us on our way, not a comprehensive treatment of the subject. What does Paul’s instruction that slaves obey their masters indicate about his view of slavery?
1. It’s complicated
One of the reasons slavery is complicated is that it has taken many forms in history that are distinct from each other. The slavery in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Rome, in the 18-19th century USA, as regulated in the Old Testament and modern slavery are all distinct kinds of slavery with some overlap, and many differences. We must be careful with what is meant by the word “slave,” or “servant,” or the underlying words in Greek and Hebrew.
There is also a spectrum of slavery. This is partly why we have various English words like slave, servant, bond-servant, indentured servant, employee, staff, serf, and peasant. Some of these words have strong negative connotations for us. Our voluntary submitting to a contract to work for someone is at one end of the spectrum, with lifelong chattel slavery at the other.
We ourselves are also complicated people. We bring our own assumptions, agendas, and questions to the text. Paul must be understood in his own context without imposing an agenda or our own context on to his writings. It takes patience and humility to recognise that simplistic answers may not be possible. Some questions require us to think carefully and avoid answers that have rhetorical power without being entirely accurate.
2. Paul never addresses institution of slavery directly:
We can list the relevant Pauline texts in 5 categories, excluding metaphorical slavery:
Instructions for mutual respect for slaves and masters Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1.
A call for slaves to respect their masters, for a good witness 1 Timothy 6:1-2
Statements about the equality of slave and free “in Christ” Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11.
An instruction to be content as a slave, and pursue freedom if the opportunity arises 1 Corinthians 7:20-24.
An encouragement to receive a slave as a brother in Christ Philemon
In none of these cases is Paul addressing slavery in itself. He is writing letters to people who were a part of a society that had slavery woven into it. This does not necessarily imply endorsement of the Roman practice of slavery, as Gavin Ortland explains:
By analogy: I might say to my friend, “Go vote in the next election!” Does this mean my overall philosophy regards democracy as the ideal political system? Or what if I encourage a soldier on the battlefront to follow the orders of his commanding officers—does this reveal my complete perspective on the military, the war he is fighting in, or war itself? Not necessarily. You would need more information to determine that.
Paul’s silence does not ‘prove’ that Paul endorses slavery. At most it shows that in Paul’s immediate priority in these letters was not on the overthrow of the Roman slave system, but a transformed way of walking within that system.
3. Paul never justifies slavery from the Old Testament or creation
This fact is particularly striking in the context of Ephesians 6, where the relationship of husband to wife and parents to children are both grounded in the Old Testament and in Creation (Ephesians 5:31, 6:2). There is much in the Old Testament that Paul could draw on in his instructions but Paul does not invoke these to instruct the slaves he wrote to. This implies that Paul does not see slavery as an essential feature of society, as with marriage and children. Slavery is a result of the fall even as regulated in the Old Testament. This is similar to the way that divorce is not a good thing in itself, but necessary because of sin.
4. Slavery in Roman times was different
There are some similarities and differences between slavery in the American South, and Roman slavery. We must be careful not to see these as the identical and misunderstand Paul, or to overstate the differences and sanitise Roman slavery. Roman slavery was not race based. Many slaves were either born into it or were captured in battle. There were also opportunities to become free, though this may not have been possible for many. Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 indicates that enslaving yourself was an option that some considered. Slaves were not denied education but had many different occupations. “In addition to being farm workers or semiskilled laborers, slaves were also artisans, workers in crafts, architects, physicians, administrators, philosophers, grammarians, writers and teachers.”
While some slaves had it good, we can be sure that abuse of all kinds happened to many slaves. By law slaves were what Aristotle called “human tools.” In terms of numbers, the estimates vary, putting between 15-30% of the population as slaves during the time Paul wrote. There is enough here for us to recognize that the situation that Paul addressing in Ephesians is not the identical as in the US in the 19th Century, though there are some similarities. We should also remember that Paul is not writing as a member of a powerful church that was influential in the ancient world. He is part of a small and vulnerable religion with no immediate means to resist slavery.
5. Be Careful with Chronological Snobbery
It can be easy to assume that things are so much better now than they were in 60A.D, and we would have been more moral than anyone at the time. While much progress has been made, particularly in removal of state-approved slavery, there are still an estimated 45 million slaves in the world today. One in four victims is a child. Much of this slavery is driven by the demand for consumption in the West, and delivered at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. Whether we call something slavery or not, there is much in the modern world to be ashamed of. For example, is our prison system far superior to a system where a thief would work in a household until he had worked off his debts? While we may not have a slave in our house, there may be folk on the other side of the world working in appalling conditions that enables our lifestyle. Who picked the tomatoes in the can that we just used for lunch? Let us not assume that we are morally superior to others living in an earlier time.
6. Paul Asserts Equality of Humanity
In stark contrast with the commonly held views of women, children and slaves, Paul asserts a radical equality of people made in the image of God, in keeping with the Old Testament. Paul affirms that both slaves and masters have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. Masters are to be just and fair in their treatment of slaves. Even if the master-slave relationship remained, they were brothers, and their interaction was governed by God being the master of both. Christ died for both slave and free. Both slave and free are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God”(Eph. 2:19, ESV). This has immediate application for us in our churches today. Do we teach and demonstrate this equality? Some people who get pushed to the fringes of society, and it can be implied that they are worth less than others. Do they experience the same thing when they come to church? Are foreigners, the poor, those with disabilities, the elderly, the very young etc. treated with dignity?
7. The Gospel Paul Preached Undermines Roman Slavery
While Paul does not directly address the institution of slavery, the gospel that he preached was and is ultimately incompatible with various essential elements of Roman slavery. Paul does not start with the institution, he starts with the preaching of the gospel, and presses it home to show how it radically redefines the way we walk. Just as Jesus had taught that true greatness means being last of all and servant of all, so Paul emphasized the humility that comes from the gospel. Roman Slavery allowed masters to treat people like things, to make economic gains at the expense of others, and to maintain a sense of superiority over others. Paul’s gospel undermines this directly. People are not things, we are to look to the interests of others, and we are of equal worth before God. It is therefore not a coincidence that Christians have been at the forefront of resisting the evils of slavery throughout history and today.
Jimmy Agan sums things up well:
While not directly condemning slavery as a social institution, Paul was creating a Christian community in which slavery should be viewed as a departure from God’s purposes in creation and redemption, and in which human relationships should be so transformed that slavery cannot continue to exist.
Agan, Clarence Dewitt “Jimmy,” 2013. "Slaves and Masters in Pauline Corpus" (Lecture notes, Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis).
Harrill, J. A. 2000. ““Slavery".” In Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Ortland, Gavin. 2018. “Why It’s Wrong To Say The Bible Is Pro-Slavery.” The Gospel Coalition. June 7, 2018. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-wrong-say-bible-pro-slavery/.
Rupprecht, A. A. 1993. ““Slavery.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters , edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, 880. Leciester, England: InterVarsity Press.
n.d. “Slavery Today | International Justice Mission.” IJM. Accessed October 28, 2019. https://www.ijm.org/slavery.