The Bible & Slavery

The Cursed Field – The Place of Execution in Ancient Rome – Crucified Slaves, by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878.

Skeptics often like to criticize the Bible for not addressing issues they think it should’ve addressed (and often for addressing issues they would prefer it didn’t). Typically, however, it is more of a case of the issue not being answered as plainly as they would like. I get it; we all like things to be spelled out simply so we can have our answer quickly and move on. I get frustrated at times with some of the codes I have to use in engineering when I read a page that is supposed to be addressing a particular issue I’m working through, and there’s no single bullet point that says “if this, do that.” With project deadlines and impatient clients, the last thing I want to do sometimes is wade through hundreds of pages of code provisions, find some nuanced recommendations and dire warnings in the commentary, correctly interpret everything, and try to implement a solution that is safe, justifiable, and not over the top (knowing that almost anything I come up with can or will be second-guessed by someone). But, do you know what? If structural design was just picking components out of a book without needing to understand the concepts behind those choices, engineering wouldn’t be needed. In fact, “engineering judgment” presupposes an understanding of the concepts involved so as to make a reasonable choice because the engineer can “connect the dots” and foresee the consequences of a certain choice even when there aren’t explicit guidelines. So what about the Bible and slavery? Is the Bible wrong for not clearly condemning it? Or are the concepts there if we take the time to investigate? Let’s work through that today.

The Romans and Greeks both used a lot of slaves. Unlike Christianity’s high view of work as being done “for the glory of God” no matter how menial the work might be, they tended to view manual labor as undignified and beneath a free citizen. But manual labor is rather unavoidable, even in today’s relatively automated world. Therefore, both of those “civilized” societies required a lot of slave labor to keep their societies functioning.  In that culture we find Paul, a Roman citizen and a Christian, writing letters of encouragement, correction, and instruction, to various people and churches across the Roman empire. Would he address slavery in any of those letters? He did, but not the way we would prefer in our day. He doesn’t harshly condemn it or encourage a slave revolt. And yet… we find that Paul actually guts the institution of slavery if we give his statements more than a superficial examination.

Paul wrote the Galatians that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Ga3:28] He wrote similarly to the Corinthian church [1Co 12:13] and to the Colossian church [Col 3:11]. The consistent message was that the free Christian and the enslaved Christian were both equally valuable and loved brothers or sisters in Christ, both formerly slaves to sin and redeemed out of that universal slavery by the sacrifice of Jesus, both adopted children of God, both heirs of the promise. But Paul takes the ignominy out of slavery when he refers to himself as a “slave of Christ” [Ro 1:1 NET, Tt 1:1 NET]. The Apostle James does introduces himself likewise [Jm 1:1 NET]. In several letters, Paul gives instructions on relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and slaves and owners. Here we might be tempted to think that giving instructions for how slaves and their master should relate to each other is implicitly condoning the practice of slavery. But consider what he tells them:

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ {as Paul considered himself}, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” [Ep 6:5-9, see also Co 3:22-4:1]

Did you notice what Paul did there? He didn’t need to condemn slavery; rather he reminded the slaves and their masters that they were both under one Master who would not show partiality between them. He enslaved the slavemasters, so to speak, just as he was himself a “slave of Christ Jesus”. This idea is really just building on the observations of Job and King Solomon, who both observed that master and slave, rich and poor, were all made by God [Job 31:13-15, Pr 22:2]. And in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave.” [1Co 7:21-22] Here he both reiterates the idea of being a slave to Christ, as well as encouraging slaves to seek their freedom, if possible.

But then Paul writes a letter to Philemon, a Christian in Colossae. In reading a letter between two other people, we only get part of the story, but the traditional interpretation is that Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, had found his way to Rome and to Paul, who led him to Christ. Philemon had every right to have Onesimus severely punished or even executed under Roman law. But this is where Paul really takes the concepts above and applies them to a personal situation and shows what slavery looks like in a Christian setting. No Christian could treat a slave the way they often were in that pagan culture, or the way they were in the American South, without recognizing that he was dishonoring Christ. Onesimus, as a newly converted Christian, was Philemon’s brother now. So Paul pleads with Philemon to “do what is proper” [Phm 8]. Paul sends Onesimus back to his master with the letter we have in our Bible, telling Philemon that Onesimus is Paul’s “very heart”, like a son to Paul, and one he had wished to keep with him instead [Phm 10-14]. And yet, Paul wanted Philemon to do right by Onesimus, not out of compulsion by Paul, but because he had received him back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” [Phm 16]. And staggeringly, Philemon was to accept Onesimus as he would Paul! [Phm 17] Paul would even take responsibility for any debts owed to Philemon, even though Philemon is indebted to Paul for his salvation [Phm 18-19].

Whether Philemon released Onesimus or not, he could not see a brother in Christ as property, or as a “living tool” (as Aristotle described slaves), or even as an inferior human or subhuman, as many American slaveowners did. This changed the entire dynamic of slavery and set it up to implode from the inside. Freeing Onesimus would be the most natural response for a Christian slaveowner, but even if he didn’t, or if Onesimus chose to stay in that role (as some slaves in good households did), that servitude could never be the cruel and barbaric life that it could be otherwise. The Bible simply doesn’t allow that, if we read it. So in the words of Saint Augustine, “Tolle lege!” (“Take up and read!”)


To explore this topic deeper, check out chapters 8 & 11 of Alvin J. Schmidt’s book Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

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