Many people have been saying over the years that the Bible endorses slavery. This notion is largely based on Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, and 1 Peter 2:18.
Ephesians 6:5 reads,
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
Colossians 3:22 reads,
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
1 Peter 2:18 reads,
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
Three times the New Testament tells slaves to submit to their masters and to be obedient, good slaves. This reads in stark contrast to modern American sentiments of despising the horrors of slavery which we fought so hard to fight against during the American Civil War in the 1800s.
Ironically, more slaves exist today, right now, than the entire African slave trade throughout history up to the end of the Civil War. We just don’t see it happening in our day to day lives as slaves are no longer in the open market. And the number is in total, not per-capita. Even so, slavery is happening and we need to be sensitive to the topic.
So this requires some contextual reading. Remember that context is critical when quoting individual phrases in any book, and particularly when quoting the Bible. The most critical context needed is literary context. You have to open up a Bible and read the surrounding chapters that set the context of the quoted statement. Also, understanding the statement must correlate with and compliment the broad theme of the whole. What is the overall message of the entire book? Another context is historical context, which is reading the words in light of what individuals were experiencing and used to practicing in their environments, culture, and political situations during the time the statements were written.
Now when it comes to the slavery problem, a number of Christian apologists look only at the historical context and suggest that slavery was normal back then, therefore it was acceptable to them, but since we’ve done away with it now, those verses just don’t apply to us anymore. Well I’m speaking up to tell you now that no verse in any book of the Bible, Old Testament or New, condones captive slavery, neither expressly nor by inference. Those who argued in the 19th century that it does condone slavery were abusing the scriptures, and I’m going to show you how and why.
1. Ancient Judaism had a brutal history with slavery
The most important thing to remember about slavery during Biblical times is that everyone who was either a Jew or appreciated that Jesus came from the Jews appreciated the fact that ancient Jewish history made it impossible to embrace captive slavery. They completely, thoroughly hated it, they despised it fiercely. Think about how many times God’s people were subjected to captive slavery. They spent centuries (430 years in fact) of hellish captivity in Egypt before God sent Moses to finally lead them out of Egypt.
This event was not their only bout with being in captivity. Much of the violence in the Old Testament was that of ancient Israel defending itself against people who kept trying to seize them and bring them into captivity while taking over their land. So why would Jews, especially those who loved the story of Moses, ever want to become slave owners when they had such a nasty, bitter taste in their mouths about the despicable action of slave ownership?
Yet, Old Testament history also had stories of triumph through these times of slavery. Joseph, who was bullied by his brothers and thrown in a pit to die was captured by slavers and, by God’s grace, grew through the ranks of the slave workforce and eventually became one of the highest officers of his master’s domain. He ultimately had the power to retaliate against his family, but instead he blessed them all. All this happened without giving any credit to slave ownership, but rather it happened in spite of it.
2. Slavery was often voluntary, not in captivity.
Contrary to Hollywood depictions and American history, many of the people in this culture were not actually snatched up by some thugs and chained up and told to fight gladiators or chained up in ratty barns. Many if not the majority of slaves in this culture were actually voluntary. Now I know that you if you’re not a believer are perhaps cussing under your breath, as if I just said something unforgivably stupid and nonsensical. But intelligence requires us to look at things that might take us by surprise.
During those days some people would get caught up in financial debts they could not immediately pay. They needed money to have a marriage or to buy a house. They didn’t have a banking system with mortgages. So they would literally go to the people with the money they needed and offer themselves over to them as slaves until their debts would be paid off. They would work for a number of years, living with their masters doing whatever their masters asked them to do, until their debts would be absolved.
Today in our civilized society we call it “employment”. We are more civilized about employment than they were back then. Even so, how many of us have credit cards and mortgages and cars that we have to pay off? How many of us can live self-sustaining lives without either being employed by a business or owning one, or both? Who today can buy a house with a garden and live off of the house and garden without owing anyone, ever? In this sense, most of us are slaves.
Proverbs 22:7 reads,
“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”
So while the scripture here needs to be read in light of the fact that people more often than not voluntarily became slaves to pay off debts slowly, so could we read these scriptures replacing the word “slaves” with “employees” and “masters” with “bosses”.
Ephesians 6:5 would read,
“Employees, obey your bosses with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
Colossians 3:22 would read,
“Employees, obey your bosses in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
1 Peter 2:18 would read,
“Employees, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your bosses, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
This is not an improper reading, because the only difference between an employee and a slave is whether the employee is serving voluntarily or not, and many of these slaves of this time put themselves in this position.
There are of course the other kind of slaves, the kind we most associate with the term “slavery”, the horrible, despicable action of capturing someone and trading them on the market whether for the workforce or for sex or for some other horrible thing. These slaves were obviously prominent in the historical context of the reading of these scriptures, but because many slaves were voluntary the statements are only generalized into assuming that we are all dealing with people we are expected to obey, period. I’ll discuss the notion of obeying a tyrant later, but for the rest of this discussion I’ll assume that we’re dealing with slaves in captivity and not voluntary workforce.
3. The gospel of Jesus and His kingdom did not mean immediate revolution.
So what of the involuntary slaves or for that matter those who were never able to pay off their debts?
Remember that the arrival of Jesus was not meant for a human revolution but a spiritual one. Slavery of both kinds was normal, and Jesus didn’t come to suddenly shake this up and create a political situation but to change individual hearts and turn them towards God. This non-intention to revolutionize things politically is what irked the Jews, indeed this why they crucified Jesus, because he claimed to be the Messiah but the Jews thought the Messiah was going to clobber the Romans who were occupying Jerusalem and crucifying Jews left and right. In this sense, the Jews were slaves in captivity themselves, yet again, now to the Romans in their own land. They thought the promised Messiah who had been prophesied to come for centuries would bring God’s kingdom with a physical iron fist. But that didn’t happen.
The victory that Jesus came to bring was the victory over sin cutting off mankind from God’s presence. Through Jesus, mankind can now ask holy God to dwell in him and rule over him by being a part of him, no longer relying on the law and on the sword.
That is the historical context of the gospel. 1 Corinthians chapter 1 starting at verse 20 reads,
20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. 21 Were you a slave when you were called [to follow Jesus]? Don’t let it trouble you — although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
“Don’t let it trouble you” that you’re a slave. In other words, just because you came to know God by believing in Jesus and letting the Holy Spirit dwell within you doesn’t mean that everything in your physical life is going to be overhauled instantly.
But don’t let yourself fall into slavery, either. Slavery is bad. If you’re in a bad situation, that’s .. well, that’s bad. Bad things happen. Don’t do bad to yourself. Don’t be stupid. And for that matter, Paul said this, “although if you can gain your freedom, do so,” specifically because if he didn’t he knew that some may think he was condoning slavery by saying “don’t worry about it”, which he wasn’t.
Remember voluntary slavery and apply 1 Corinthians 1:23
By the way, if we apply this scripture, namely verse 23, “You were bought at a price, do not become slaves of human beings,” to the discussion we had earlier, that slaves were often voluntary, and also to the Proverb that states that “the borrower is slave to the lender”, the message we should be getting is that we Christians should not be putting ourselves into debt! We should not buy things we cannot already afford. We should not be borrowing to buy our cars. We should not be borrowing to go to school. We should not be borrowing to build church buildings. If we borrow to buy or build a house, we should pay it off quickly. Why? Because not borrowing frees us to do the work God, who bought and paid for us through Jesus, would have us do. Is this a mandate for all Christians individually? No, I believe it is a principle for all Christians in general.
4. Love your enemies.
Finally, I want to discuss this notion of obeying a tyrant captor. But first let me repeat the scripture I mentioned earlier, in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 21,
“Were you a slave when you were called [to follow Jesus]? Don’t let it trouble you — although if you can gain your freedom, do so.”
The ideology of scripture is that while God does not always come to cause an immediate revolution, He is, however, in favor of righting wrongs. We all agree that slavery, particularly slavery in captivity, is a horrific wrongdoing. So if you can get out, get out! That is what the Bible explicitly says! “If you can gain your freedom [from captivity], do so.” I don’t think you can get any clearer about whether the Bible condones slavery or not. Clearly it encourages people to enjoy freedom and liberty. So this matter regarding the American Civil War, was this going against scripture? Absolutely not, this was the opportunity to gain freedom! Christian slaves and Christians who hated slavery alike found the opportunity in their numbers and seized the opportunity by force. Praise God!
But what if they weren’t ready by the numbers? What of the captives many centuries ago, or even perhaps captives today in the black market, how should they deal with their captors? Is it ridiculous that the Bible would even suggest that they “be good, obedient little slaves”?
Welcome to the kingdom of Jesus. King Jesus said this once, in Matthew 5,
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
By the way, where it says “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles,” this is referring to the Roman occupation, where a Roman soldier would grab a Jew, a stranger, sword in hand, and say, “Carry my things.” It was literally a momentary form of captive slavery. Jesus was saying don’t just pick up his things and carry them the distance he asks for them, do it again. Help twice the amount he’s demanding.
This crazy idea of loving your enemies is the literary context, the gospel message, the kingdom of Jesus, and the theme of the New Testament all rattling people’s brains all at once, and it’s something that’ll always be foreign to non-believers. Jesus is literally telling people to not only obey a tyrant but double up on obeying a tyrant.
He goes on,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I love how in that last verse he finishes off suggesting that this weird behavior is not only perfect, but just as the rain falls on the wicked so does God demonstrate this character every single day.
This is King Jesus talking. This instruction from the king is the context of all three of our “obey your masters” scriptures. The whole idea is to shame the tyrant with love.
Proverbs 25:21–22 reads,
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,
And the LORD will reward you.
It’s beautiful. We all know that slave owners, namely captors, are enemies of slaves. Yet this principle of loving your enemies, not the idea of condoning what your enemies do, is what drives this crazy notion that slaves should be good, obedient slaves to their masters. It is strange, but it is wonderful, and in no way does it condone slavery in itself.
So when you read these verses, read them in their literary context, in light of loving your enemies. Read them with the surrounding text with that understanding.
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
(In other words, nah, it’s not a good thing to be captive, but guess who’s gonna burn for it and who’s gonna be rewarded for obedience.)
1 Peter 2:18–25
18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”[e]
23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,”[f] but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
So you see it has nothing to do with condoning the sin of captive slavery, and everything to do with demonstrating God’s love under any circumstances, even oppressive ones.
What about instructions to the masters?
It wouldn’t be right to talk about literary context without also observing that following Ephesians 6:5–8 is verse 9,
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
So what of it? If the Bible is written to believers, how can there be slave masters in their midst?
First of all, there is still no indication here that slavery is endorsed. We must go back to 1 Corinthians,
20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
What does the kingdom of God do? It changes hearts, not immediate physical realities and politics. So if a slave master comes to know God by believing in Jesus and receiving the presence of the Holy Spirit, it is not known whether he will drop everything and free his slaves. This changing of the heart can be an ongoing work.
Secondly, we also don’t know if this is referring to the employment situation, but I would assume that it actually is. We discussed this blurred line between willful employment and slavery earlier. I believe that this is referring to bosses, not captors. It’s saying, simply, “be kind to your workforce”.
It is simply never defended.
There are many controversial scriptures that fill the Bible, but nearly every one of them have some sort of backing explanation for why things are the way they are. Were slavery, namely forceful slavery — captivity — considered a reasonable activity, I have no doubt that, just as is patterned throughout the Bible, a defense would be made to support it.
Instead, we see recognition in Colossians 3:22–35 and in 1 Peter 2:18–25 that slavery amounts to hardship. The hardship might be self-inflicted debt payoff, but it is always a loss of freedom and liberty for the slave. There is simply no reference in the Bible to suggest that slavery in general is a good practice that God condones or supports. The Bible merely acknowledges the fact that people are in the situation of slavery, and points out the character of God despite these hardships.