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.


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 Christians claim to get their moral values from the Bible, but the Bible teaches values that are obviously outdated and evil.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.