Paul on Slaves

Note: The following guest post was contributed by Kyle Hendricks, a really bright guy that I met blogging. You should check out his site HERE

__________

Slavery is something we’ve been learning about here in America since we started school.  We learned about the horrors of the colonial American slave trade and how wrong slavery is in general.  You’d be hard pressed to find someone in America who does not think that slavery is a moral evil.  That is why pictures like the one below are so troubling.

billboard

To make matters worse, Paul seems to say the same thing in Ephesians

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling… (Ephesians 6:5)

It is unclear what this picture is supposed to convey since it doesn’t state an actual argument. But the intuition that I believe this picture is supposed to give the people that see it may be 1) Christians are inconsistent with their own beliefs, 2) Paul would have endorsed the slavery in colonial American history, and more broadly 3) the Bible commands something immoral. Christians claim to get their moral values from the Bible, but the Bible teaches values that are obviously outdated and evil.  Christians are, supposedly, being inconsistent because they claim to believe the Bible is the authoritative word of God, but they pick and choose what to follow and what not to follow.  The issue of slavery is something they choose not to follow.  People may also get from the word “slaves” and the African American man bound in the right that the Bible would fully support the horrendous institution practiced in colonial America.  The power in this picture is in the fact that we 21st century Westerners already have preconceived ideas of what “slavery” is, what “masters” are, and the relationship between masters and slaves. We then plug those ideas and definitions into the biblical text. My goal here is to significantly diminish the force of this picture by responding to these concerns.

Notice that the picture above is emotionally manipulative.  First, it uses a single sentence from the entire passage in Colossians without considering its context.  In fact, the statement in the picture isn’t even the entire sentence, which is strange considering they put a period at the end.  Second, the picture of an African American man bound by the neck gives off the impression that Paul is talking about or morally approved of this kind of slavery.  Many people are going to be emotionally swayed by this picture, but few will actually research it for themselves.  Does this passage endorse the kind of slavery that we think of today?  Not at all.  What Paul says to slaves here is an extension of what he teaches in 1 Corinthians.

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)

Paul teaches here that people should seek to live as best as they can in the circumstances they’re in.  The world is fallen, and some of us are not necessarily in the most ideal situations, but Paul calls Christians to live in obedience to God in whatever situation they’re in rather than fret about trying to get out of the situation.  Making our lives about getting out of our current circumstances can distract us from making our lives about serving God and being examples to the world.  This includes slaves.  Slaves certainly could seek freedom if they had the opportunity (v. 21), which would have been perfectly possible in the first century (1), but they were encouraged not to let that get in the way of living for Christ in the situation they’re in.  Some people were slaves when they became Christian, so Paul encourages them to be examples of faith to their masters.

Let’s look at Colossians 3 again in full.

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:22-25)

Paul has a slave’s character in mind.  A slave glorifies God by being a hard worker, just like any of us glorify God when we work hard in our jobs or circumstances.  This provides a good example for non-Christians to see and to be attracted to the faith.  Paul has the same thing in mind in Ephesians 6

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. (Ephesians 6:5-8)

This does not mean that masters can mistreat their slaves.  After each of these passages, Paul tells masters how they should treat their slaves.

Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1)

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. (Ephesians 6:9)

Paul seeks to transform the relationship between masters and slaves. Even though they are masters, they have their own Master in Heaven, God.  Paul considers himself a slave to God (Romans 1:1(2), so Christian masters are also slaves to Him. God treats them well and will judge their actions against other people made in the image of God, so masters should treat their slaves as God treats them.  He even explicitly tells masters to stop threatening their slaves.  God cares about the characters of masters just as much as he cares about the characters of slaves.  Masters, if they’re Christian, are slaves to a good Master, so they should seek to be good masters of their own slaves.

In his shortest epistle, Paul appeals to Philemon that he accept back Onesimus, who likely ran away from Philemon, “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord,” (Philemon 16).  He tells Onesimus to “receive him as you would receive me,” (v. 17) and was confident that Onesimus would “do even more than I say,” (v. 21).  This is another example of Paul transforming the relationship between masters and slaves.

Paul also condemns slave trade.  In 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul lists “enslavers” in a list of sins that are “contrary to sound doctrine.”

Why didn’t Paul try to end slavery?  Why didn’t he tell Christian masters to release all of their slaves or tell Christian slaves to run away?  I think much of it is that Paul was more concerned with how Christians lived in their fallen situations than with overthrowing earthly institutions.  There’s also the fact that many freed slaves found it difficult to make a living, so they may have had a more stable situation under their master. (3)

So we see that Paul is against the mistreatment of slaves and taught that enslaving others is wrong.  His teaching that slaves should obey their masters and work hard for them is simply part of his teaching that all Christians should image God and be witnesses for Christ in whatever situation they’re in.  There’s also no indication from the Bible that this kind of slavery ought to be practiced in our society today, since these passages only address how slaves and masters ought to act rather than command that slavery occur.  When you consider all of this, what Paul says about slaves doesn’t come off the way the picture above is supposed to make us think.  The whole context diminishes the force of the picture.

(1) See chapter 11 of The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James S. Jeffers.

(2) The word translated “servant” in Romans 1 can also mean “slave”.  See here

(3) See chapter 11 of The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James S. Jeffers for more information on this.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Paul on Slaves

  1. “… the impression that Paul is talking about or morally approved of this kind of slavery.”

    No. That’s your reading of it. It is putting the passage into the context of an image that is typical of the last few hundred years. It is an image in the context of colonial slavery, and yes it is emotive in that it appeals to our modern perspective and our disapproval of such recent practices.

    The context is also significant because there were people of the time, including theologians, that used this passage from the bible to justify colonial slavery. So, the broader point, which you missed in your preamble, is not at all whether Paul may or may not have approved. Far more important is the modern connotations about the cherry picking of the bible by Christians, who now not only want to avoid living by this passage, but recently used it as an excuse for slavery.

    “but few will actually research it for themselves.”

    Did you research it? Do you actually ask the PAnonbeleivers.org what they intended by it? Typically, for the religious, ‘research’ means no more than doing the apologetics, researching what confirms your own case. Affirmation is the tool of religion, not critical analysis. See later.

    “Paul teaches here that people should seek to live as best as they can in the circumstances they’re in.”

    If you think that makes slavery any better I’m not sure where you are coming from.

    “Making our lives about getting out of our current circumstances can distract us from making our lives about serving God and being examples to the world. This includes slaves.”

    Why hasn’t God started straight out with, “OK, stop that slavery nonsense! Then you might be better able to focus on ME!” Still all rather selfish of this God, but at least it might have stopped slavery a few centuries sooner.

    “Slaves certainly could seek freedom if they had the opportunity” – Ah. The Libertarianism is strong in him. Did you miss the point of slavery? The whole point of slavery is that the slaves do not get the opportunity to do what they want, to have a say in their lives.

    “which would have been perfectly possible in the first century ” – Perfectly? You mean occasionally, if your master had a conscience, and if you performed some service that he appreciated, or if you followed whatever contorted rules *the masters* set down for you? This is total nonsense that is simply excusing slavery under the intent of rescuing the bible, in order “to significantly diminish the force …” – Fail.

    “This does not mean that masters can mistreat their slaves.”

    Oh, that’s nice. How very condescending of you. Why did God not say, loud and clear, knowing how easily humans say things the wrong way (poster being a case in point) or interpret things the wrong way (poster being a case in point), why didn’t he say, “STOP WITH THE SLAVERY! DO YOU HEAR ME!” If ever there was a message God could have given that would have been it; had God given messages, had there been a God to give them. A far better commandment than some of the hopeless ten Moses was given, supposedly.

    But no, instead we get, “Paul tells masters how they should treat their slaves…”

    You are papering over the cracks here. You are not fixing things up for the bible. If anything you are making it worse.

    “masters should treat their slaves as God treats them”

    Which is pretty much as slaves. But, oh that’s OK, because he loves you while enslaving you. As your earthly masters do.

    “God cares about the characters of masters”

    Now enough to prick their consciences about the whole slavery business though.

    “Paul also condemns slave trade.” – At last, something worth listening to. It could have been clearer elsewhere.

    “Why didn’t Paul try to end slavery?”

    I think you are missing the trick here. Isn’t Paul supposed to be inspired by God? Isn’t the bible supposed to be the word of God? Well, now we can get to the actual context of that poster, because it’s in that context that the poster is really opposing the Christian appeal to the bible as the word of God:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/03/year-of-the-bible-lawsuit-pennsylvania_n_1934584.html

    U.S. Middle District Judge Christopher C. Conner … emphasized, however, that his decision to grant immunity “should not be viewed as judicial endorsement for this resolution. It most certainly is not.”

    “At worst, (the Bible resolution) is premeditated pandering designed to provide a re-election sound-bite for use by members of the General Assembly,” Conner wrote.

    He called the resolution’s language “proselytizing and exclusionary,” and said the measure “pushes the envelope” of the separation of church and state.

    “At a time when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces massive public policy challenges, these (government) resources would be far better utilized in meaningful legislative efforts for the benefit of all of the citizens of the commonwealth, regardless of their religious beliefs.”

    Some more background on the guy who put up the poster, Pierce, and an apology for the fact that it was misunderstood, from Pa. Nonbelievers President Brian Fields.
    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/03/07/pa-atheists-use-race-slave-imagery-in-billboard-against-the-barbaric-christian-bible/

    “The bible is NOT holy or moral as promoted by the Pa. House of Representatives in the ‘Year of the Bible,’ … The bible was used as an excuse for many very bad things, including American slavery.”

    You see the point? You see the point?

    Except for the Timothy bit your post hasn’t done much to diminish the intended message of the poster; and for that matter hasn’t done much to diminish your misread message of the poster.

    “There’s also no indication from the Bible that this kind of slavery ought to be practiced in our society today, since these passages only address how slaves and masters ought to act rather than command that slavery occur.”

    You are digging a deeper hole for yourself. This misses the point of slavery. When slavery is practiced the slaves don’t get a say.

    “When you consider all of this, what Paul says about slaves doesn’t come off the way the picture above is supposed to make us think.”

    Again you miss the point of the poster. The point is that recent colonial Americans USED this passage to EXCUSE slavery; and in that context the bible is cherry picked to suit one’s needs, and so is hardly a book worthy of legislative support in ‘The Year of the Bible’.

    “The whole context diminishes the force of the picture.”

    Only if you misunderstand the message, as you have. Which brings me back to your apologetics research. This was done and dusted with explanations of all this back in March. How come this is appearing here now without this explanation, without the more complete background? More cherry picking, this time of the news around this poster. Your ‘researching’ passages of the bible isn’t the sort of research worthy of the name. You have only used more stuff from the bible, to support your misrepresentation of the poster, and you still failed in that.

    You may think the poster went too far in its imagery, and I’d agree. Not because the intended message was wrong, but that it should have been a little more obvious to the PAnonbelievers that it could be misconstrued. For some believers you have to spell out your message. Being subtle or ironic doesn’t work; and spelling it out with imagery doesn’t get through either it seems.

    Some irony missed: “Notice that the picture above is emotionally manipulative.”

    Is this a criticism of the poster? And virtually all of Christian messages aren’t? What’s the problem? You want some really emotive and misrepresenting posters? Try these:

    Not only misrepresentation but a simple lie: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/feb/06/asa.advertising

    How emotive are these? http://www.cafemom.com/answers/658320/What_do_you_think_of_these_Christian_billboards

    The history of slavery is complex, and colonial America has its own twists on it. If you want to do the barest of research on the extent to which Christians have both supported and opposed slavery you could start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_slavery. This does not detract from the message of the billboard but supports it: the bible is cherry picked, and isn’t worth a ‘Year of the Bible’, at all, and much less one supported by legislature.

  2. Christian-bashing has become so acceptable, almost required. This stuff is net even eyecatching anymore to mainstream secularists. The ridiculing, arrogance is expected. Makes me weary.

    • William,

      Atheists are bashed all the time by the religious, and always have been. Christians in the US and the UK have privileges not afforded to non-Christians , and to atheists in particular. In the US there is supposed to be separation of church and state, yet the poster referred to in the OP is highlighting legislative moves to favour religion, and one particular religion. Here in the UK Christianity is the state religion, and theologians are unelected members of our second house of government. So your cries of victimisation don’t stand up.

      Do you oppose Christian billboards? Do you think Christianity should be entirely a personal matter that should not be promoted, evangelised, sold? Do you think Christians shouldn’t be calling non-believers ‘sinners’, but instead minding their own business? Do you think Christians should not be interfering in the lives of other people? Isn’t it odd that when it comes to wanting the Christian way of life many Christians support and claim personal autonomy to believe and practice their beliefs, and yet are so busy interfering in the lives of others?

      You seem to miss the point of secularism.

      Secularism is about the separation of church and state, and isn’t atheist or anti-religious. There are many Christian secularists who support the separation of church and state.

      The secular agenda entirely supports freedom of belief, but acknowledges that this can only be achieved fairly and without favour by the separation of church and state.

      The atheist agenda is generally two-fold:

      One is to support the secular agenda, which is part of what the poster was about, in opposing legislative support of a belief system.

      The other is to promote a world view based on reason and evidence. The atheism bit is a conclusion of that. Most atheists did not start out as atheists. I was raised a Christian. As I studied philosophy and science I came to realise that there was nothing to distinguish my Christianity from any other religion, and that there was no evidence to support any of them. So, atheism is my working conclusion, and my atheist agenda to promote that point of view comes out of that conclusion.

      But even as an atheist I, and most others, are still secularists, and support freedom of belief. Putting our point of view across, as atheists, amounts to nothing more than the freedom of belief and freedom of expression that you enjoy. Get over it.

  3. Pingback: Paul on Slaves | A disciple's study

  4. Pingback: The latest moral outrage, part 1 (via Toward a Moral Life) | Pilant's Business Ethics

Comments are closed.