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We should acknowledge right from the start that the terminology of “slave” and “master” is highly offensive. And the reason is that our concept of “slavery” today is quite different from what existed, for example, in the time of Paul when he wrote Colossians 3:22-4:1. So let’s proceed carefully as we try to understand what the Bible actually says about this controversial topic. Needless to say, this is far from an exhaustive treatment. But I hope these ten observations will help. 

(1) Immediately upon hearing the word “slaves” we run into a problem. People today can’t think of that word without associating it with the racial slavery that was so prevalent in the early years of America until the Civil War. The enslavement of black people in this country is such a reprehensible and nauseating chapter in our history that steps have been taken by English translators of the Bible to remove it entirely. That is why you see in the ESV the word “bondservants.” Few people will flinch when they hear that term, but “slaves” is another matter.

(2) We must remember that the slavery that existed in the ancient world, especially in Paul’s day, rarely if ever had anything to do with race. The color of one’s skin was irrelevant when it came to the issue of slavery in the first century. Slavery was almost entirely the result of military conquest or economic indebtedness. A conquered people could be enslaved by their enemies and forced to work in service to them. More often, when an individual incurred massive amounts of debt that couldn’t be repaid, he could actually sell himself into slavery to his debtor until such time as his labor paid off the amount he owed.  

Some were slaves because they were born of slaves. But in general, they were well-treated. Yes, there were instances of brutality and oppression, but many of the sort of people Paul addresses were educated and professionally trained and were often paid for their services. They could even purchase their freedom.

(3) Another thing to remember is that slavery in the ancient world rarely if ever suggested the moral or intellectual inferiority of the enslaved. Slaves were often quite well educated and extremely competent. There was never the thought that one was subjected to slavery because they lacked human dignity or worth or were in some sense of an inferior quality of person. So please put out of your mind altogether any link between Paul’s use of the word in Ephesians and Colossians and the race-based slavery that provoked our Civil War here in America.  

But let’s not paint too rosy a picture! Slavery was still, in most cases, involuntary and their legal rights and economic choices were greatly limited in comparison with those who were free.

(4) The question most often asked is this: Why didn’t Moses in the OT and Paul and other NT writers insist on the immediate abolishment of all forms of slavery? That’s a good question. We must first observe that, in the OT, the Mosaic Law regulated slavery in such a way that it was immensely more humane than the way it existed in surrounding pagan nations. Moses insisted that slaves be set free every seventh year (Exod. 21:2). The Law of Moses also commanded the death penalty for manstealing (Exod. 21:16), and generally sought to limit the institution in protection of the slave.

(5) In order to understand the Bible, we must recognize what is known as progressive revelation. This simply means that God does not always reveal his full and final will to us all at once, but instead he does so gradually, incrementally, over a long period of time. The content of God’s revealed will in a very real sense grows. It develops from early seed form into the full flower in the NT. So, we must be careful that we don’t pull a single verse out of its context and then assume that this is what God intended for all of human history. 

(6) When God did reveal himself and his will to his people, he often would accommodate his revelation to particular cultural and historical contexts. In other words, as Paul Copan explains,

“Sinai legislation makes a number of moral improvements without completely overhauling ancient Near Eastern social structures and assumptions. God ‘works with’ Israel as he finds her. He meets his people where they are while seeking to show them a higher ideal in the context of ancient Near Eastern life. . . . [Thus] Given certain fixed assumptions in the ancient Near East, God didn’t impose legislation that Israel wasn’t ready for. He moved incrementally” (Is God a Moral Monster? 61).

The Mosaic Law was designed to help God’s covenant people, Israel, live in the midst of a perverse and wicked world. God’s instruction to Israel was thus often adapted to this reality to enable them to survive amidst the pagan nations that surrounded them. Again, Copan is helpful:

“God didn’t banish all fallen, flawed, ingrained social structures when Israel wasn’t ready to handle the ideals. Taking into account the actual, God encoded more feasible laws, though he directed his people toward moral improvement. He condescended by giving Israel a jumping-off place, pointing them to a better path. . . . In fact, Israel’s laws reveal dramatic moral improvements over the practices of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples. God’s act of incrementally ‘humanizing’ ancient Near Eastern structures for Israel meant diminished harshness and an elevated status of debt-servants, even if certain negative customs weren’t fully eliminated” (61). 

(7) This means that often times God’s revealed will served to regulate and restrain immoral behavior rather than immediately and instantaneously abolish it. God tolerated or permitted polygamy in Israel, but never endorsed it as the ideal toward which people should strive. God tolerated and permitted divorce for a variety of reasons in the OT, but did not endorse it. That is why when Jesus was asked about the grounds for divorce, he said: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).

What this means is that Scripture is known to regulate undesirable relationships without condoning them as permanent ideals (see Matt. 19:8; 1 Cor. 6:1-8). Paul’s recommendation for how slaves and masters relate to each other does not assume the goodness of the institution.

(8) We must also recognize the difference between what is described in Scripture and what is prescribed in Scripture. In other words, often times certain practices are simply described or portrayed as occurring without any suggestion that what is described is good. We must never think that everything recorded in Scripture is designed to tell us how to behave or how to believe. We read in the book of Job of the counsel of his friends, most of which was in error about the nature of God. Simply because the Spirit records for us in Scripture the beliefs of Job’s counselors does not mean we are to believe what they said about God. The author of the book simply describes their beliefs without endorsing them (see Job 42:7-8).

(9) Someone might still object and say, “Okay, even if we agree that we are dealing in most cases with a less egregious form of slavery, and that perhaps God is accommodating his revelation within a historical context, I still don’t understand why the Bible doesn’t say more against slavery and simply abolish it altogether.” That’s a perfectly legitimate question. 

One answer is that the authors of the NT, including Paul, were hesitant to call for immediate action to overthrow unjust cultural structures lest they be the cause of civil and social unrest. The early church was an oppressed people, living largely under Roman rule and law. Therefore, they chose not to advocate social upheaval that might potentially smear the reputation of the gospel. So it is clear that Paul is adapting to a temporary and ultimately repugnant social construct.

(10) Another response to the question is that the authors of the NT, and Paul in particular, did go to great lengths to articulate principles that would eventually undermine and abolish any and all forms of slavery. His strategy was to teach a theological perspective that sowed the seeds for the end of slavery; a spiritual atmosphere, if you will, incompatible with slavery and thus one in which slavery would eventually die out. 

The clearest example of this is the short book of Philemon. Philemon owned a slave by the name of Onesimus. Many believe Onesimus stole money from Philemon. In any case, Onesimus ran away and made his way to Rome where he became a Christian and came into contact and relationship with Paul. If the Bible were in any sense pro-slavery, it would make sense for Paul to order Onesimus to return to Philemon and make restitution to his master and to obey him. But instead Paul asks Philemon to receive him back “no longer as a bondservant (slave) but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother; . . . so . . . receive him as you would receive me” (Philemon 16-17).  

In other words, don’t look at Onesimus as your slave. Look on him as your brother in Christ. Slavery as a cultural and social institution was still in place, but Christians should no longer treat one another on that basis but as equal brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s point is that the logic of the gospel stands opposed to any and all forms of slavery. That is why he envisions and actually encourages slaves to obtain their freedom if the opportunity arises (1 Cor. 7:21-23).

Although the preceding observations may not fully satisfy our expectations, we must be willing to submit to the wisdom and authority of Scripture and God’s way of addressing problematic topics and challenging ethical issues.