The Bible and Slavery

by Steven Chan

Some have wondered why Paul did not ask Christian masters to release their Christian slaves. A brief answer is as follows:-

  1. The concept of masters and slaves is somewhat akin to or comparable with our employer-employee relationship – in that it was part of the socio-economic system of the day.

It should also be noted that slavery as described in the Old Testament generally involved the voluntary entrance into slavery for economic sustenance or due to debts (Lev 25:39) or due to theft (Ex 22:3) (kidnappings and selling those kidnapped were punishable by death sentences – Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7) and there were provisions for the release of Hebrew slaves by redemption (Lev 25:47-55) or in the 7th year (Ex 21:2), or in the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:39-41).

  1. There would be no real issue for so long as the Christian masters treat their slaves appropriately as per Eph 6:9: “And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master alsois in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him”. Clearly, those masters or employers who mistreat their slaves-employees would be answerable to God.

So, the nature of the relationship itself between masters and slaves or employers-employees is a neutral matter (i.e. neither good nor bad) although Paul did suggest that if one can become free then one should take advantage of that: 1 Cor 7:20-23: “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it.22 For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called.”

  1. The letter to the slave-owner, Philemon showed that Paul expected Philemon to treat Onesimus, the runaway slave, in a Christian manner. Both the slave and his master have equal standing as far as salvation is concerned (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11)
  2. The approach of the teachings of the Bible is geared primarily towards changing the thoughts and attitudes of disciples so that they will conduct their lives in such a way that God is glorified (1 Cor 10:31); they do not attempt to change the socio-economic-political structures per se.

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet 2:13) So slaves were exhorted to conduct themselves in the following manner (1 Pet 2:18-23):  “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. 19 For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. 20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously”

The changes to the socio-economic-political system to be aligned with the principles and teachings of Christ would come about when people are transformed by the teachings of Christ (Rom 12:1-2). Such is the nature of the approach adopted by the word of God – changing the thoughts of men (2 Cor 10:5) to be captive to Christ – and then all the necessary changes in society would follow as one seeks to live by the principles given by God.

  1. To expect Paul to require Masters to free slaves would be akin to expecting Paul to require the governing authority of the day, the Roman emperor to change how they rule the land – that would make Paul a political activist!

But we should note that Jesus did not object to Governor Pontius Pilate’s sending Him to be crucified on a false charge because Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world: John 18:36: ” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”

Similarly, His apostles would not attempt to directly challenge the socio-economic-political system of the day.

They focused on changing the inner person (2 Cor 4:16-18) – and then the matters/systems of the world would change as a result or consequence of that personal change.