Have you ever faced a skeptic—maybe a family member or a friend at work—who threw slavery at you as evidence that the Bible can’t be trusted? They argue that if you are using the Bible as your authority on what is right and wrong, then you are basing your deeply held beliefs on a morally deficient revelation. If the Bible is wrong about something as elementary as slavery, how can it be trusted in its central claims about Jesus?
And so the issue of slavery often comes up when people wish to discredit the Bible—to show that it is not worth your admiration and trust. Sometimes these criticisms really sting. And sometimes, Christians don’t know how to answer—especially when the text in view is one like 1 Timothy 6:1-2:
1 Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against. 2 And let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.
Some people read this text and think that because Paul tells slaves to honor their masters, he must also be endorsing slavery. But is it really true that telling these Christian slaves to submit to their masters is the equivalent of approving slavery? The answer is no for several reasons:
1. Telling someone to submit to an authority does not imply that the authority is morally approved.
God told the Israelites to seek the good of the city while they lived under the authority of Babylon, all the while God planned to destroy Babylon for its wickedness. Peter tells wives to submit to a husband’s authority, even those who are “disobedient to the word” (1 Pet. 3:1-2). Peter tells Christians to submit to governing authorities, even though those authorities were persecuting them (1 Pet. 2). No, God condemns any exercise of authority that is contrary to His holy will. And there are many elements of both Roman slavery and American slavery that were against God’s law. Treating a person as property without recognizing their dignity as image-bearers of Almighty God is sinful and condemned everywhere in the Bible. And yet that feature was endemic to both Roman and American slavery. So telling someone to submit to an authority is not an endorsement of the one wielding that authority.
2. The Bible Often Condemns the Means by Which Slaves Were Taken as Slaves.
In the first century, slavery wasn’t race-based like it was in the American South. People were taken as slaves through a number of means: warfare, piracy, highway robbery, infant exposure, and punishment of criminals. In all of this, there was always prevalent the issue of kidnapping people in order to enslave them. What does the Bible say about kidnapping?
In 1 Timothy 1:10, the apostle Paul says that kidnapping or man-stealing is against God’s law. Most interpreters recognize that this man-stealing was for the purpose of slavery. That is why the ESV has it as “enslavers” and the NIV as “slave traders.” Certainly, the background for Paul’s command is the Old Testament law:
Exodus 21:16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (ESV).
Who is to be put to death? The one who takes the man and the one who holds him. This is significant because some people have made the case that while the Bible does condemn slave-trading it does not condemn slave-holding (e.g., Douglas Wilson, Black and Tan, 56). If this view were correct, there would not necessarily have been any moral problem with Christians owning slaves in the American South during and before the Civil War.
But Exodus 21:16 says that both the kidnapping and the enslavement are punishable by death. And this is the background for Paul’s own thinking about the matter in 1 Timothy. The entire system of Southern slavery was based on kidnapping people from Africa. The slave-traders stuffed these Africans into ship holds where they suffered and died by the thousands. That slave-trade was an abomination. And it is fallacious to suggest that the slave-holders are not morally implicated in the slave-trade. You cannot defend those who participated in the slave trade, nor can you defend those slave owners who created the market for man-stealing.
So the Bible definitely condemns the means by which slaves were taken as slaves—especially kidnapping, which was punishable by death.
3. The New Testament forbids Christians from coercive violence against slaves.
Ephesians 6:9 “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
Yes, there were Christian slave owners in the New Testament. But no, they were not allowed to threaten their slaves with violence. And obviously, if they weren’t allowed to threaten with violence, they weren’t allowed to actually do violence against their slaves. It may have been allowable under Roman law for a master to abuse or even kill his slave. But it was not allowable under God’s law to do such things. You might call that slavery in some sense, but what kind of slavery is it that doesn’t allow the master to coerce his slave through violence? It’s certainly not Roman slavery. It’s certainly not like slavery in the American South. This is something so different one wonders if you can call it slavery at all.
4. The New Testament commands Christians to treat slaves like brothers.
When Paul wrote to the slave-owner Philemon about his run-away slave Onesimus, Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother… If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (Phlm 16-17).
What kind of slavery is it that tells a master to give up threatening and to treat his slaves like his brother? Again, it’s not Roman slavery. It’s nothing like slavery in the American South. So the Bible isn’t endorsing either one of those. This is something else entirely. And that is why slavery cannot continue where the Kingdom of God holds sway. The Bible completely undermines all the defining features of slavery: kidnapping, coercive violence, treating people like property rather like brothers created in the image of God.
5. The Bible encourages slaves to get out of slavery if they can.
1 Corinthians 7:21 “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.”
If the Bible were endorsing slavery, then it wouldn’t be telling slaves to take opportunities to become free. And yet that is exactly what Paul does.
6. The Bible forbids Christians from voluntarily entering into slavery.
1 Corinthians 7:23 “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.”
The command couldn’t be clearer: “Do not become slaves of men.” If the Bible were endorsing slavery, then it wouldn’t be forbidding Christians from becoming slaves.
7. The Bible condemns racism.
As I mentioned earlier, slavery in the New Testament was not race-based. But slavery in the American South was. The Bible forbids treating someone else as less than human because of their race. God created man in his own image—all men—not just white ones or black ones or red ones or yellow ones. Because of that, every person—not just some people—every person has inherent dignity and worth as image-bearers of almighty God. For this reason, the diversity of races is not an evil to be abolished but a glory to be celebrated. God intends to gather worshipers for Himself from every “tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). And we know that in Christ “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11).
So no, the Bible does not endorse slavery nor the evils inherent in slavery. On the contrary, it abolishes them in the name of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not command us to take up arms in violent revolution to abolish slavery. It does, however, introduce a new kingdom in the world that will one day overthrow all unjust authorities. And we are called as the church to be an outpost of that coming kingdom. And wherever the church goes, slavery must flee because the Kingdom of Christ will not abide unjust authorities.
When the critics assail scripture, they often make confident assertions about things they know very little about (1 Tim. 1:7). In this case, when they rail against the Bible’s alleged endorsement of slavery, they are misrepresenting what the Bible actually teaches. Every word of God is pure and good and wise and right and good for us–including what it says to us about those under the yoke.
“Your word is very pure,
Therefore Your servant loves it.” –Psalm 119:140
*I’m in the midst of a series on the pastoral epistles at my church, and this post is an excerpt adapted from the message on 1 Timothy 6:1-2. You can download the audio here or listen below.
When using proper exegesis, context is king. In the time this was written slavery had a very different meaning than today. Modern slavery was much different because it is always forced and completely against the will of the enslaved. In the time of Jesus slavery was often used as a method of repayment of debt agreed to by the indentured for a period of time. Also it was very difficult in that day to even be able to provide for the necessities of life and some preferred the guarantee of being provided for in exchange for servitude especially if one had a loving master.
I think many of the commands to slaves can also apply to employees today (be good workers, show your employer respect, …).
However, I don’t think the issue is whether the Bible accepts some of the culture of the day (it clearly does). The issue is how much it does it. If you explain away too many things (without attempting to apply them to life today) then you are left with two questions:
1. I thought the Bible was supposed to be revolutionary for its time. How come it accepted all these Hebrew/Greek/Roman practices that we now reject? Can its message really be relevant to our day?
2. If we can ignore so many teachings, how do we know which parts of the Bible we should listen to and which we shouldn’t?
There is still the problem of Leviticus 25 44. I was trying to answer someone who was able to dismiss the Bible’s other teachings because of this verse’s endorsement of slavery. I didn’t know how to answer. Although such slaves were not to be stolen people, so probably were in debt, they could be lifelong slaves and bequeathed as property.
Very good, very helpful. Thanks. BibleWorks’ed – http://bit.ly/wapuNn.
You avoided all Old Testament instructions to the Israelites about their slaves. These are what I have most often heard about from people as being offensive. Particularly troubling to them is the instruction about what happens if you beat your slave and injure him in Ex. 20:20-21. The line “because he is his property” also seems to undermine your assertion that the Bible flatly condemns the notion of people owning other persons. Leviticus 45:44-46 also seems to undermine your point about selling and buying slaves and also refers to them as one’s “property.” Could you interact with these passages?
You say, “Treating a person as property without recognizing their dignity as image-bearers of Almighty God is sinful and condemned everywhere in the Bible.” Treating people as property, period, is wrong. One cannot treat a person as property and still claim to recognize their dignity as image-bearers of God. Slavery is when one person owns another person. You can argue that slavery was different in ancient Rome or Israel than in Antebellum America, and no doubt it was, but it was still slavery. And slavery is wrong. This is an issue because the Bible never condemns slavery per se. Indeed several passages in the Hebrew Bible condone slavery. For example Lev 25:44-46 says slaves can be bought, sold, and inherited as long as they are not fellow Israelites. Exodus 21:16 is not saying slavery is wrong, only that enslaving someone who is kidnapped is wrong. Just a few verses later Exodus 21:20-21 says that a slave is property of their master, and thus a master is only to be punished when they beat their slave and the slave dies within 2 days. If the slave survives 2 days after a beating, then the master is not to be punished. You can argue that the Bible condemns the means by which slaves were taken as slaves, but we must still admit that the Bible never condemns slavery per se. One might argue that slavery was ok back then, but wrong today. This is fine if you are a moral relativist, but problematic if you are a moral realist/objectivist.
Assuming for the sake of argument that Paul did write the pastoral epistles, why does he not just come out in condemn slavery if slavery is wrong? One might respond that slavery was just too embedded in the culture for Paul to come right out and oppose it. But elsewhere Paul condemns many things that were deeply embedded in the culture (e.g. Romans 1). In Galatians Paul did not hesitate to condemn the Jews for refusing to eat with gentile Christians even though that was embedded in their culture. Since slavery is wrong, why not come out and condemn it?
I would also add James 5:4 to this list: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
The problem is when we use the term “slavery” to mean both what the Israelites had vs. what America practiced. American slaveholders were participants in kidnapping, which was–as you point out–was a capital crime under the Old Testament. Also, if a slave escaped to another region and if his master came looking for him, the people of that region were expressly *forbidden* from handing him back to his master.
This was a huge issue in Antebellum America, because Southern slaveholders knew quite well that if your slave can run away and you can’t pursue him to another area and take him back, then there’s no way to enforce it. That’s why they were so adamant that the North had to enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws, and they were also adamant that local authorities had to force locals to help them catch their slaves, whether those locals wanted to or not. And naturally anti-slavery folk certainly didn’t like being forced to help some slaveholder catch his wayward “property.” American slavery–as it was practiced–was completely incompatible with the Bible.
Slavery was practiced everywhere for thousands of years. No one wanted to *be* a slave, but there was no organized abolitionist movement until Christians started reading their Bibles and realized that what they were doing and allowing was contrary to God’s word. That’s why virtually all the originators, spokesmen, leaders, and advocates of the abolitionist movement were either devout Christians or at least big supporters of the Christian worldview. At the end of it all, they couldn’t square *owning* another human being with the truth of Genesis 1:26-27. Look at a biography of William Wilberforce.
And of course, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, the simplest argument against slavery was the Golden Rule itself: If you wouldn’t want to be a slave, you shouldn’t hold slaves.
I’m still mulling over this interpretation. I’m not sure how I feel about it. My initial feeling is that it erases too much of the word…. To be honest, when I first read these passages on my own they caused me considerable angst and puzzlement. But I eventually came to understand this: That any understanding of those passages has to be preceded by an understanding of Paul. And Paul was a man who was willing to sacrifice anything and everything for spiritual salvation. Part of this–certainly the fact that he favored abstinence over marriage–had to do with the fact that he expected that Christ’s return was, more or less, imminent. If not within his lifetime, then certainly within a century or two. Hence anything and everything about the earthly realm was irrelevant–grossly irrelevant, in fact–compared to spiritual salvation. Debates about the earthly order, slavery, the genocide, persecution and predations of the Roman Empire were a distraction from saving our eternal souls. That’s, at least, what was given to me as I prayed over these passages.
In fact, if memory serves, one of my early posts here four years ago was on this very subject. I believe Denny moderated that one, maybe believing that I was saying slavery is ok. I’m not saying that. I think this is Paul’s way of saying, in the modern vernacular, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, keep your eyes stayed on Him.”
Thanks for helping us understand slavery in the Bible.