ON THE BIBLE, CHRISTIANITY AND SLAVERY PART 2: THE NEW TESTAMENT

A.B. Melchizedek
9 min readFeb 17, 2024
Photo credit: National Museum Liverpool

Following in the tracks of the Old Testament (OT), the New Testament (NT) is also hot on the heels of not endorsing slavery.

The NT was within the reign of the Roman Empire and slavery was not necessarily the OT kind. It was an institution with a lot of nuance ranging from the sort of slavery we are familiar with in the 21st century (The Trans-Atlantic slave trade), the kind the OT prohibited to the kind of slavery (Caesar’s household slaves for example) with a standard of living far better than the average freeman within the empire. Some slaves had the potential to buy their freedoms, some did not. Slaves however were second class citizens having no rights and a slaveowner was entitled to without permission, “use any of the holes” of his slaves. As nuanced as it was, it was definitely not a fantastic practice and the New Testament had some commentary on it as well.

Bible critics are very quick to point out Paul admonishing slaves to obey their masters and they take this as a slam dunk shut case that he was in support of slavery but before we further explore his admonition to slaves, shall we dig a little deeper on Paul’s overall thoughts on slavery?

Paul writes to Timothy,

Knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine

(1 Timothy 1:9–10)

Did you catch that? He lumps “Kidnappers” in with the unsavoury characters he mentions. Some translations like the ESV render that as “enslavers”. This is a clear reference to the OT law in Exodus 21:26 against kidnapping people and selling them for profit,

He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.

So once again, we have the Trans-Atlantic slavery, the sort of slavery we remember in the 21st century condemned in the NT.

Secondly, Paul advises the church not to be slaves. He writes to the Corinthian saints,

Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.”

(1 Corinthians 7:20–23)

In other words, if a person becomes a Christian while a slave, there is consolation for them; they are the freemen of Christ and even the so called freemen are Christ’s slave but if they can be made free, they should take advantage of that.

If you are a freeman, Christ has paid a price for your redemption from sin, death and the devil, do not then afterwards become a slave to a man. Clearly Paul does not praise slavery as this wonderful institution with God’s approval.

Third, Paul writes an epistle to a Christian slave owner in the New Testament, a man called Philemon. This man had a runaway slave named Onesimus who had now become a Christian under the ministry of Paul. What did Paul tell Philemon to do as he sent Onesimus back to him?

For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

(Philemon 1:15–16)

Paul persuades Philemon to receive his runaway slave as a brother in Christ. In order words, he was prompting Philemon to release his slave.

Why do we never hear of Paul condemning the Trans-Atlantic slave trade? or stating that slavery is not an ideal state to be in? or persuading a fellow Christian to release his slave? Precisely because it does not fit the agenda of portraying the Bible as pro-slavery.

“Jesus never said a word about slavery” they say (Note that the fact Jesus never spoke about something does not mean He approved it, this is the “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality” argument all over again), well what did Jesus say his mission was?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;”

(Luke 4:18)

Jesus’ mission included proclaiming liberty to slaves and those who were oppressed. As if the Old Testament was not clear enough, Jesus again emphasizes that oppression, which characterised the slavery the critics say the Bible endorses, was one of the situations the Spirit of God was upon Him to end by bringing liberty into it. Now this was spiritual of course, for the slavery of the Israelites was a type and shadow of the slavery of mankind to sin, death and the devil. The Exodus of Israel was a type of Christ liberating his own people, “the Israel of God” as Paul calls it, from this slavery. In order to do this however, Jesus Christ had to die on the cross, a death reserved for the worst of the worst, as well as for slaves, as Paul writes,

but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

(Philippians 2:7–8)

Now if Jesus’ overall mission was to deliver humanity from spiritual slavery, why in the world do we think He was in support of physical slavery?

Ah! The point is too theological, I concede, but what if I told you God Himself shows His disapproval of slavery in the New Testament? Remember Babylon the great that was to be judged for her sins? What was one of the sins she was to be judged for?

And I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities…

The kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived luxuriously with her will weep and lament for her, when they see the smoke of her burning, standing at a distance for fear of her torment, saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.’

“And the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore: merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble; and cinnamon and incense, fragrant oil and frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and bodies and souls of men.””

(Revelation 18:4–5, 9–13)

Some translations again, like the ESV translated “bodies and souls of men” as “slaves”, which is what that refers to as is clear even from any other translation. Trafficking in slaves was one of its iniquities. This remember is a contravention of Exodus 21:26 of the OT law.

Note that the Father (Revelation 18), the Son and the Spirit (Luke 4:18) who anointed the Son have all shown a negative disposition towards slavery in the New Testament. The Godhead is, surprise surprise, unanimous on this issue.

Now back to Paul and His instruction for slaves to serve their masters and to serve believing masters well.

Remember one of the principles established from part 1 of this article? The fact a practise is regulated in scripture does not mean that it is endorsed or approved of.

Paul in his epistles was introducing Christ into the household structure which was in place in Rome under the Paterfamilias system where the father had absolute authority over his household and could kill his sons or send them into slavery. This household would typically include slaves hence Paul addresses every member of the household. Husband, wife, children and slaves.

Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.

And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”

(Ephesians 6:6–8)

Notice here that Paul addresses the slave owner as well as the slave, a factor critics almost never point out. To the slave, serve your master as you would serve Christ, to the master, know you have a Master yourself, the Christ, who would judge you at the end of your days. In this context, this is not the ringing endorsement of slavery people make it out to be. Similar dynamic in Colossians,

Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.

Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.

(Col. 3:22–4:1)

What about slaves serving believing masters well?

“Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed. And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things.”

(1 Timothy 6:1–2)

This is a pastoral epistle written to the pastor of a congregation as opposed to an entire congregation of saints hence the language and style of this admonition is different to the other epistles.

The idea here is that Christian slaves should not be rebellious within the Roman household but rather should honour their masters. If a Christian slave has a Christian master, this should not make the master despised in their eyes. Why would a Christian master be more likely be despised? Because the Christian master did not treat his slaves with the severity and nonchalance of an unbelieving master. The Christian master had been trained (evidence of this is the teaching of Paul to the Ephesians and the Colossians as considered above) to see his slave as a fellow human being and to be fair with him as he would be judged by his own master, Christ. The unbelieving master had no such scruple.

So even within this admonition to Timothy, the teaching of Paul which has brought Christ into the roman household and into the slave-master relationship casts its thick shadow.

So what have we learnt?

(a) The New Testament repeats and affirms Exodus 21:26, which condemns the 21st century slavery we are used to.

(b) Paul could not have been pro-slavery as he

  • Advised Christians not to become slaves of men
  • Advised slaves to attain their freedom if they could
  • Persuaded Philemon, a Christian slave owner, to receive his runaway slave as a brother not a slave, i.e. to release him from slavery
  • Affirmed Exodus 21:26 in 1 Timothy 1:9–10

(c) Jesus Christ’s mission was to redeem mankind from spiritual slavery and if this is so, He could not have been in favour of physical slavery.

(d) God in the New Testament judges Babylon the great for a host of sins which includes trafficking in slaves.

(e) Paul’s admonition to slaves is part of a wider framework of bringing Christ into the typical roman household which would have included slaves.

…to be continued

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A.B. Melchizedek

Crusader for the truth of the gospel and the logical coherence within the context of the scriptural worldview.