A recent conversation with one of my sons spurred me to consider slavery as it is addressed in the New Testament because the Bible is sometimes criticized by skeptics who point to its treatment of slavery. Indeed, there are instructions given to the nation of Israel that seem to accept slavery as a practice, and the New Testament does not expressly condemn it.
So, what does the Bible really say about slavery?
To start with, we need to view slavery in historical context. Slavery has been common among all nations through most of history. We tend to view slavery through the lens of racism in the United States, but servitude has taken many forms over the centuries (captors in war, indentured servants, etc.). Not surprisingly, slavery was also common in the culture in the 1st Century AD.
For Christians, Jesus is the lens through which we view all of the Scripture. So, for a Christian take on slavery, we need to view it by the light of the New Testament. Following are the references to slavery in the New Testament and some commentary to put it in perspective.
|Matthew 18:21-35: Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.'”Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”|
The selling of the servant and his family into slavery is part of the parable, but using slavery as part of the parable does not mean slavery is being endorsed as a practice. Jesus uses the example of the master/servant relationship as a parallel in some respect to the God/man relationship.
Priests still owned slaves:
|Mark 14:66: “And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed.”|
The term “servant” or “maid” refers to slaves, not employees like a butler, cook, or maid.
Jesus mentioned servants in another parable:
|Luke 12:45-48: “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
Again, the parable uses the master/servant relationship as a parallel to the God/man relationship. Jesus references the cultural institution of servitude to make a point about man’s relationship to God. In fact, many of the parables Jesus told used the master/servant illustration.
The statement is accurate that Jesus never condemned slavery. We do not find Jesus even commenting on the institution of slavery. The only mentions of it are in these parables. so, what are we to do with that?
Jesus was not a social revolutionary. Many people followed him, at least for a time, because they thought he came to overthrow the Roman government and reestablish Israel as a self-governing nation. Those same people rejected him (like Judas) when it became clear that Jesus was not going to lead a social revolution. In fact, he came to die!
He came to conquer a more significant foe (sin and death).
If you read what Jesus consistently said, he did not talk about social change; he spoke about individual change. John the Baptist did not urge the Roman government or the Jewish theocracy to repent; he called for individuals to repent and make way for the Lord – in their hearts. From these observations, it becomes evident that Jesus was not principally concerned about government and social change; he was focused on the individual relationships of people to God and individual change. If someone was looking to Jesus for social change, they would be disappointed (and many were, they even called for his death).
Jesus was concerned with eternal things, not temporal things. He was focused primarily on the evil, godlessness and sin in men’s hearts. He called people who were focused outward to turn inward. He said things like, “Don’t try to remove the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye; remove the plank in your own.” He called people to forgive others as God the Father forgives you.
One of the more well-known parables Jesus taught is found in Matthew 18-21-33.
|Matthew 18-21-35: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’
Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
‘At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
‘His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
‘Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’”
The parable clearly says something about how we should treat each other – forgiving each other and cancelling each other’s deb.t. I will come back to this after I review other New Testament references to slavery.
Some refer to a passage in Ephesians to justify slavery or as proof that Christians endorse slavery:
|Ephesians 6:1-9: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother, that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 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.”
This passage does not endorse or reject slavery as a practice. Servitude was part of the fabric of the culture. Early followers of Jesus were not in any position of authority in the government to make any difference. As Paul said elsewhere about learning to be content in all situations, the message was about pleasing God in your circumstances, whether as a son or a father, a servant or a master. Paul echoes Jesus’s example of relating these relationships of authority and subservience to the relationship between God and man. It should be noted that Paul adds the statement that God is not partial to anyone in either circumstance. The primary concern is not temporary circumstances but the eternal relationship to God.
Other passages about masters and servants are these:
|Colossians 4:1: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”|
|1 Timothy 6:1-3: “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.
Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.”
As with Jesus, Paul did not speak out against slavery or other social evils in the Roman Empire. He is focused on the relationship of the individual to God. Some say that Paul may have not addressed things like slavery because he believed that Christ was coming again soon. I think it is more because the things that ultimately matter are not the temporal, but the eternal. Significantly, Paul equates slaves and free persons as sons of God, and thus all part of the body of Christ and spiritually equal.
These words are consistently echoed elsewhere:
|1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”|
|Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”|
|Colossians 3:11: “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.”|
Perhaps, most importantly, the early Christians identified with the slaves. James opens his epistle with the following words:
|Romans 1:1: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God….|
|1 Corinthians 4:11: “This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ”|
|Ephesians 3:7: “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.”|
|James 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ….”|
The term “servant” or “bondservant” means “slave” in all of these passages. Indeed, throughout the New Testament, the apostles and leaders of the early followers of Jesus called themselves servants, just as Jesus called Himself a servant.
There are 767 references to “servant” in the Bible, most of them in the Old Testament. Significantly, people like David and the prophets were universally referenced themselves and others as “servants” of God. Servitude, therefore, was not looked at as being evil, as we do today. The idea of the servant is a key concept in our relationship to God. Jesus is called “God’s chosen servant” in Matthew 12:15-21, echoing Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus modeled that servant relationship to God the Father, and he instructed his followers accordingly:
|Matthew 20:26-28: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.“|
Jesus exalted the servant’s role to the first position. Jesus urged his followers to aspire to be servants. In another passage, He tells His followers not to call anyone Rabbi, or father or instructor, but “the greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11)
So, does all of that mean that Jesus and the early Christians endorsed slavery as a social institution?
The answer is a definitive, no! If we modeled Jesus and followed Him the way He instructed, we would forgive, cancel the debts of slaves and free them because the Father forgives us, cancels our debt and sets us free! We would treat our neighbors as ourselves and seek to serve them, rather than require them to serve us.
Slavery continued for a long time after the 1st century because people are seriously flawed and have continued in their sinful ways, rather than follow the example of Jesus. People are more apt to find ways to justify their wrong behaviors than to change them. The entirety of the Scriptures, from Genesis to the New Testament, is the story of the process of man responding to God. From the abject barbarism of ancient times, it has been a steady process of change, with many periods of regression, and, in some ways, we have made little progress.
The instruction from God was always received through the filter of the culture and understanding of the people at the time. The instructions in the Old Testament seem barbaric today, but those instructions were a step up from the understanding and practice at the time they were spoken. The ultimate instruction from God comes through Jesus who was God who came in the flesh to reveal the true meaning of the Scripture and of God’s intentions and purposes.
Understanding the progression from the Old Testament (old covenant = the law) to the New Testament (new covenant = grace) is critical. The Mosaic Law, it turns out, was only a placeholder. (Galatians 3:23-25) Jesus was God who became man, so we must read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. Jesus changed the paradigm. He summed up the law and the prophets with one simple phrase: Love God above all else; and love your neighbor as yourself.
We do not understand God’s love and grace without the law and justice that must flow from it. We do not understand our need for grace unless we understand the law and our inability to comply with it. We do not appreciate God’s love until we know that we have earned justice, but He has given us grace.
We can extend that same love and grace to our neighbors because God loves us. A natural extension of loving our neighbors is doing away with the institution of slavery. If we do not want to be slaves, we should not want others to be slaves. If we aspire to be followers of Christ, we aspire to be servants of all.
It is a choice that we must make, however; Jesus does not compel anyone. People should not be forced to be servants/slaves. That is not how God operates. That is not how we should operate.
We remain individuals flawed by sin, however; and so we continue to be slow to change. We fail to love each other sometimes. We react according to our sinful nature more often than we would like. We are a work in progress, like humankind has been a work in progress, and this temporal life is the proving ground and the crucible for that change.
Our individual relationships to God are of primary importance. We can not take anything with us when we die. The message of Jesus is to lay up our treasures in heaven where there is no decay. Treasure the relationship with God above all else.
The issue of slavery, that some people use to call the Bible into question, is a distraction. It points us only toward the sad history of mankind in which people follow primarily the dictates of the human heart, the lust for things, power, influence, control and ego. Slavery is evil because it is completely contrary to the example of Jesus and the second greatest commandment of loving our neighbors. It is, ironically, a necessary example of our relationship to God and a corollary to the first commandment: to love God above all things.
But, servitude is not the defining characteristic of the God/man relationship. The defining characteristic is that God calls us sons and daughters and brothers and sisters with Christ. It is not a characteristic that makes us equal to God or Jesus, for we only enter into that relationship on God’s terms and by His great grace.
In the end, there is a matter of greater concern to God than social evils like slavery: it is the evil (sin) in the hearts of people. Jesus did not come principally to save the Jews from Roman oppression; he came to free all people from the oppression of sin. Though not insignificant, social evils are only temporal; but the evil of sin has eternal consequences. As we follow Christ’s example and learn to live it out, however, that reality should bear fruit in the way we live and, in turn, in the society in which we live, as we allow God to eradicate the sin from our hearts, to remake us in His image and to model his example.
In living out the paradigm change Jesus exemplified for us, social evils will necessarily be eradicated as well, including slavery as an institution, and racism as well.
The example that history teaches is that we are slow to learn, Even those who call themselves by the name of Christ are often slow to change. In fact, the characteristics that drive people to be leader s are the very attributes that Jesus addressed when He said the greatest among you are to be the servants of all. The Mother Teresas of the world do not usually aspire to be political leaders. So, we plod along with many ills in our society. But, those things are not God’s fault or the fault of His instruction to mankind. The fault lies in the hearts of men.