Best estimates suggest that over a quarter of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves – a staggering figure. And since it was in the midst of the Roman Empire that Christianity was born, slavery was a reality that Christians have faced since our inception. So how did the earliest Christians view slavery? And what is the Bible’s take on slavery? Is Kevin Rudd right when he decried the Bible for viewing slavery as a ‘natural condition’?
Well, the short answer to that last question is a resounding no (that’s Aristotle). But Kevin isn’t alone in his confusion about what the Bible teaches when it comes to slavery – parts of the Bible can be perplexing at first glance when it comes to this topic. As a prime example of this, in Ephesians 6:5-9, the Apostle Paul instructs slaves and says to them, “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” This can be striking to modern readers – is Paul condoning slavery?
What the Bible Really Says
Although it’s not clear from this passage in isolation, a closer look at the Bible shows that it does not condone slavery. Here are a few examples:
1) First of all, 1 Timothy 1:10 condemns the slave trade as a wicked practice, and explains that it is “contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” Condoning slavery? Doesn’t look like it.
2) Secondly, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul counsels slaves to be content with their difficult situation, but if they have opportunity (lawfully) to gain their freedom, they should do so (7:21). And conversely, he commands free people not to becomes slaves (7:23). Rather than condoning slavery, this passage seeks to minimise and avoid it.
3) And thirdly, we can look at the book of Philemon. In this short letter, Paul is writing from prison to a Christian named Philemon. This man was a slave owner, and one of his slaves ran away and somehow came into contact with Paul, through whom he became a Christian. Paul then writes Philemon a letter, in which he appeals to him to be reconciled to his runaway slave, whom Paul is sending back to him, and to welcome him “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
Runaway slaves in the Roman Empire faced severe punishment or even execution if they were caught. Yet Paul counseled this slave to return willingly to his master, and counseled his master to freely forgive him – and free him! There is so much to say here, but let it suffice to note that this is clearly not pro-slavery. If we take the time to really look, it is clear that the Bible does not condone slavery.
A Greater Purpose
Ok, but if the Bible isn’t pro-slavery, why do parts of the Bible (Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18) instruct slaves to submit to and obey their masters? Isn’t that contradictory, or at least some kind of tacit approval of slavery? Once again, a closer look at what the Bible really says will clear things up for us.
Here is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:1-2: “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.” Notice that there is a pretty clear purpose here for slaves respecting their masters.
You can see the same idea in Titus 2:9-10, which says, “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please then, not to talk back to them, 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 Saviour attractive.”
Do you see the common link? Slaves are instructed to submit to their masters not because of any approval of slavery, but because by doing so, they commend the gospel through their lifestyle. The number one priority of the early Christians was the spread of the gospel, and when faced with the evil of slavery, they recognised that the best way to spread the gospel was not the outright rebellion against slavery.
If every slave who became a Christian was told to rebel against their masters and fight for their freedom, Christianity would have died off very quickly! Instead, early Christian slaves were encouraged to “bear up under the pain of unjust suffering” (1 Peter 2:19) in order to make the gospel attractive. Just as Jesus Christ suffered unjustly, so slaves were to follow his example (1 Peter 20-23); and by doing so, they would further the cause of the gospel.
So although the early Christians did not approve of slavery, they had a much greater mission to focus on. They had a gospel to proclaim. This was their top priority, even if it meant submitting to unjust slavery.
One of the key difficulties with our reading of passages like Ephesians 6:5-9 is that we are coming from a ‘fight for my rights’ perspective, while in Paul’s mind, a Christian should be less concerned about asserting their own rights and more concerned about making the gospel attractive.
The Challenge For Us
It should strike us that even though early Christians saw the institution of slavery as an evil, they were so committed to the cause of the gospel that they were willing to reverently submit to their masters and endure suffering in order for the gospel to spread.
Even in the midst of the inhumanity of slavery, a slave could find their confidence and their humanity in the fact that they were a child of God. And even more than this, they could demonstrate a more noble and loving humanity than their masters, lovingly submitting to them out of reverence for Christ, and by this showing the power of the gospel to transform lives.
A closer look makes it crystal clear that the Bible is not pro-slavery. But there is also a huge challenge here for us. Early Christians were willing to endure submissively under the unjust suffering and evil of slavery for the sake of the gospel – would we be as committed as that?