Why does the New Testament accept slavery, when treating another person as property is inhuman?
Ephesians 6 5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. (NIV)
Why require slaves to live in a way that falls far short of the kingdom of God, a society where everyone treats each other the way God treats us in Christ? Ultimately, injustice must yield to Christ’s reign, so why doesn’t the New Testament call us to speak out against institutionalized systemic injustice?
In the big arc of the Bible’s narrative, slavery is wrong. The Bible begins with humans equal under God (Genesis 1:26-27), and the first time slavery appears it’s labelled as a curse (Genesis 9:25). The Bible concludes with the powers of evil falling, when avarice ceases and no longer are “human beings sold as slaves” (Revelation 18:13).
So why doesn’t the New Testament call God’s people to condemn slavery? The tough questions are our friends, friends that challenge and reshape our understanding.
Let’s see if we can make sense of what Paul’s saying by examining what he did.
When Paul released a slave
There’s one example of Paul setting a slave girl free. According to Acts 16:16, she “earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling.” Paul realized she was enslaved by a spirit, so he used the authority of King Jesus to release her (16:18). The slave owners “realized that their hope of making money was gone” (16:19), so they had Paul and Silas arrested, charged with upsetting the ordered life of the city and “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (16:21).
Slavery was enshrined in Roman law. If Paul and Silas took on the fight against this injustice, it would have become their life work. They could no longer have travelled from place to place to proclaim the good news of an alternative kingdom under the leadership of God’s anointed ruler (Acts 28:31).
Paul knew that the slave/free distinction would eventually disintegrate in the reign of King Jesus (Galatians 3:28), so he spent no time fighting it. He spent all his time calling people to recognize Jesus’ leadership, to come under his authority. The reign of King Jesus will resolve all injustices.
When Paul returned a slave
In his many imprisonments, Paul would have met runaway slaves who’d been recaptured. He knew how their masters would make an example of them to deter any others in the household who might have the crazy idea of seeking freedom. On one occasion, as Paul heard the slave’s story, he recognized the slave owner — a man named Philemon. Philemon had given his allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ through Paul’s preaching.
Paul had no way to stop the Roman authorities returning the slave to his owner, so he wrote a letter for the slave to carry with him. It’s such a warm letter, saturated with the human affection Paul feels for Philemon. And for the slave!
He’s not just a slave; he has a name. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Philemon 16).
Curious! Paul hasn’t attacked the institution of slavery. He’s undermined it. Onesimus might be a slave in the eyes of Rome, but in Philemon’s eyes he is a fellow human, a brother in the family.
Now comes the masterstroke to ensure the Christ-perspective transforms this relationship. When the returned slave arrives at the door, Philemon is not to shame him and make an example of him. He’s to hug him and show him the same affection as if Paul himself had turned up (v.17) — something akin to the prodigal son’s return. Philemon is to release Onesimus from the social debt incurred by running away (v.18), on the basis that Philemon owes Paul a huge social debt for saving his life (v. 19). If Paul came back for a visit, Philemon would give him the guest room (not the slave quarters), so Paul calls Philemon to treat Onesimus like that (v.22).
Paul didn’t condemn slavery in the Roman Empire. He focused his efforts on those who give allegiance to King Jesus, knowing that enduring social transformation can only come serving him.
How to overcome injustice
It hurts to watch real people being hurt by injustice, devalued as less than human, crushed by profits, politics, and power, especially when the injustice is violently or systemically enforced. But evil cannot be fixed by condemning it, exposing how bad it is, demanding people do better. The broken social systems of this world are beyond repair.
God’s method for dislodging sin’s grip on the world was not condemning it; he shouldered it, bearing it himself on the cross. It is irrational for the church to demand people who don’t recognize King Jesus behave as if they did. Sure, it’s easy to shame leaders for their evil choices, but that won’t change the world. We need to spend our finite resources is calling people to recognize the one ruler who can change the world.
That’s why the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery. There’s no hope in trying to make a better Roman Empire. The only hope is in living as the kingdom of God.
So instead of condemning slavery, the Bible transforms this unjust relationship by calling both sides into mutual submission to each other as servants of King Jesus:
- Slaves, work as if you were serving Jesus as your master (Ephesians 5:5-8).
- Masters, transform the way you treat your slaves in light of how your Master treats you, because he doesn’t see them as any less than you (5:9).
The world is transformed not by condemning sin, but by bringing people to give their allegiance to King Jesus, so we treat each other as he treats us. That’s the goal of the gospel.
Our mission is the same as one given to Jesus:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:17).
- Why slavery? (Gen. 9:18-29)
- Kingdom lifestyle: submitting to each other (Eph. 5:21)
- Why doesn’t the Bible condemn bad rulers? (Eph. 6:12)
What others are saying
John Chrysostom (AD 347 – 407), Homily On Ephesians 22.6.9:
Society arrangements, like laws made by sinners, acknowledge these distinctions of classes. But we are all called to accountability before the law of the common Lord and Master of all. We are called to do good to all alike and to dispense the same fair rights to all. God’s law does not recognize these social distinctions. If anyone should ask where slavery comes from and why it has stolen into human life — for I know that many are keen to ask such things and desire to learn — I shall tell you. It is avarice that brought about slavery. It is acquisitiveness, which is insatiable. This is not the original human condition.
— M. J. Edwards (ed.) Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 8:206.
Stanley E. Porter, “Reframing Social Justice in the Pauline Letters,” in The Bible and Social Justice, ed. Cynthia Long Westfall and Bryan R. Dyer (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 148–149:
Paul was not a haphazard thinker who simply wrote a few words on the basis of the occasion or moment to some of those who were in churches that were connected to him. I think that Paul had a keen insight into both his contemporary socio-economic context and larger theological issues concerning the plan of God and the work of Christ both past and present. This enables Paul to develop a strategy that attacks from within the very heart of the Roman socio-economic system. Rather than avoiding the pressing issues of his day, or focusing upon only one or two particular issues, Paul develops a broad strategy that confronts the structures of the Roman Empire at its very heart, and provides the mechanism for its transformation from within. This mandates those who are “in Christ” to live out in their relations with each other a clear demonstration of what it means for Christ to eliminate the traditional barriers and boundaries of life and develop a new set of standards for what it means to be civil. True civility, according to Paul, can only be achieved within the church, as individuals live with respect, love, and obedience to each other under the guidance of Jesus Christ. I think that Paul had the hope that believers would continue to exemplify this model in their continuing lives together long after he was gone, but in expectation of the return of their Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. I believe that this still provides a good model for believers today.