In a previous post, I gave an overview of how elements of the Christian faith led to slavery’s demise in the western world. Here are a few key references to slavery in the New Testament along with a brief analysis below each reference. (Biblical quotations are from the NIV, 1984.)
Jesus on Slavery in Mark
43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:43-45)
The word servant can also be translated slave. Jesus sets up servants (or slaves) as the model for his disciples to follow. And he claims that he came as a slave to serve others, ultimately by giving his life for many.
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. . .
14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (Jn. 13:3-17)
Washing the guests’ feet was usually done by the lowliest slave in the household. Jesus models servanthood by washing his disciples’ feet. By setting up slaves as models to imitate and by serving as a slave, Jesus elevated the dignity of slaves.
Paul on Slavery in 1 Corinthians
21 Were you a slave when you were called? 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. (1 Cor. 7:21-24)
Throughout 1 Corinthians 7, Paul encourages believers to remain in their current situations. Coming to faith in Christ shouldn’t lead believers to abandon the circumstances they were in before they became Christians (e.g. married, single, circumcised, uncircumcised, slave, free). Why? Because Paul doesn’t want believers to think that their circumstances, in any way, affect their status in the Lord. Ultimately, those circumstances are irrelevant (“circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing” (7:19)). At the same time, Paul gives exceptions to this general principle. To focus this on the slavery issue, Paul doesn’t want slaves to think that being enslaved affects their status in the Lord. They shouldn’t think, “If only I was free then I could really serve the Lord.” But he is not against slaves gaining their freedom; he even encourages them to do so.
Paul on Slavery in Galatians
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
This is a radical statement of equality beginning with the negation of various social identity markers and concluding with an affirmation. Among believers, racial, economic, and gender distinctions don’t exist as a barrier to unity and ultimately they don’t exist at all. Paul’s reasoning is clear: “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul on Slavery in Ephesians
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. 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. (Eph. 6:5-9)
First, Paul makes a distinction between two groups of people—slaves and masters. Second, since Paul’s letter is addressed to believers, in addressing the two groups, Paul is acknowledging that some Christians were slaves and some Christians were masters. Third, since Paul’s letters were intended to be read aloud in church gatherings, Paul assumes the presence of both slaves and masters in the same gathering. Not once did Paul advocate separate churches for slaves and masters. The church was a place where both groups should worship and learn together. Fourth, Paul gives instructions to both slaves and masters. The authority of masters over slaves was unrivaled, but Paul believes he has authority to instruct masters in the way they should treat their slaves. Fifth, Paul did not call for the abolition of slavery in the church. Why not? That’s what we need to explore below. Sixth, both slaves and free have the same Master in heaven who will “reward each one for whatever good they do” (6:8). Therefore, in the ultimate sense, slaves and masters are equal. Seventh, Paul believes that the Christian faith should influence the way both slaves and masters carry out their roles. Slaves should “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord” (6:7) and that means respecting and fearing their masters. Masters should “treat your slaves in the same way” which presumably means that masters should carry out their roles as if they were serving the Lord. In particular, masters should not threaten their slaves because the Master of masters is in heaven and he does not show favoritism toward masters.
Paul on Slavery in Philippians
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5-8)
Paul claims that Jesus took the “very nature of a servant” and that mindset should be the believers’ mindset.
Paul on Slavery in Colossians
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. 1 Masters, treat your slaves with justice and fairness, because you know that you also have a master in heaven. (Col. 3:22-4:1)
This passage adds the following items to our understanding of slavery. First, slaves should be obedient “in everything” (3:22). Second, instead of the Lord rewarding “each one for whatever good they do” this passage focuses on the negative aspect with the statement, “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs” (3:25). Third, masters should treat their slaves “with justice and fairness” (4:1). Therefore, masters should not show preferential treatment to one slave over another.
Paul on Slavery in 1 Timothy
All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare[a] of their slaves. (1 Tim. 6:1-2)
First, slavery is a “yoke” that some people are under. Second, a slave that doesn’t show full respect to the master could cause God’s name and Paul’s teaching to be slandered. Third, Paul does not want Christian slaves to disrespect their Christian masters. The root of their disrespect is stated as “just because they are fellow believers.” Imagine the scenario. You are a Christian slave and you attend church gatherings regularly with your Christian master. In those gatherings, you learn that everyone is in the same family (thus “brothers and sisters”) and everyone has the same Father in heaven. And then you go home where you are expected to follow your masters orders. Can you see where the confusion might set in for the believing slave? Fourth, sharing the same faith with their masters should not encourage Christian slaves to be disrespectful to their masters, instead it should encourage slaves to serve “even better because their masters are dear to them” (6:2). Fifth, believing masters are expected to be “devoted to the welfare of their slaves” (6:2).
Paul on Slavery in Titus
9 Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10)
First, while some slaves were known to talk back to their masters, Christian slaves shouldn’t behave in that way. Second, some slaves stole from their masters, but Christian slaves should prove themselves to be fully trustworthy. Third, when slaves are subject to their masters without talking back and without stealing, “they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10). Evidently, in that culture, submissive and trustworthy slaves spoke highly of both the slaves and their masters.
Paul on Slavery in Philemon
The entire letter is relevant since Paul is writing to the slave owner Philemon on behalf of the slave Onesimus. (Here’s the link to the letter.) Paul’s letter to Philemon has been used to support both slavery and abolition. The text is ambiguous in a few places and some think that ambiguity is purposeful. For example, How was Onesimus separated from Philemon? And is Paul suggesting that Philemon should free Onesimus? Those questions are debated.
Here are a few things we can be fairly certain of. First, while Paul was in prison, Onesimus became Paul’s son (v. 10). That means Onesimus became a believer and Paul became his father in the faith. Second, although Onesimus was useless to Philemon, he became useful to both Philemon and Onesimus (v. 11). Third, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon (v. 12). In doing so, Paul seems to be recognizing Philemon’s authority over Onesimus. Fourth, Onesimus was separated from Philemon “for a little while” (v. 15). Was Onesimus a fugitive? We don’t know for certain. Fifth, Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. Sixth, Paul suggests that Philemon may have Onesimus back for good “no longer as a slave . . . but as a dear brother” (v. 16). Sixth, Paul refers to Onesimus with dignity—”a dear brother,” “fellow man,” “brother in the Lord” (v. 16). Seventh, Paul doesn’t want Philemon to punish or charge Onesimus (v. 18). Eighth, Paul says that he will pay back whatever Onesimus owes Philemon. (v. 19). Ninth, by instructing Philemon in the matter of his slave Onesimus, Paul is asserting his authority, albeit in a soft manner, over Philemon. As he says, “not to mention that you owe me your very self” (v. 19).
Peter on Slavery in 1 Peter
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.
(1 Pet. 2:18-21)
First, believing slaves should be submissive even to harsh masters. That means they may have to endure a beating for doing good. Second, if they do endure a beating for doing good, “this is commendable before God” (2:20). Third, they were called to endure in this way “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21). Christ is the model for believing slaves because he endured beating for doing good.