What Does the Bible Have to Say about Slavery?
Day 1 – What Does the Bible Have to Say about Slavery?
Ephesians 6:5-9, ESV
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. 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.
At first glance, you could read this and try to justify slavery. Some have done that, and that’s not a correct application of God’s word. However, it’s always important to take a literal, historical, grammatical, and contextual approach to the Scriptures in order to uncover the author’s intent behind the sacred scriptures. The implications are huge. Millions of people could be enslaved in the name of God, or millions could be set free. In this text, it’s important to first wrestle with the issue of slavery at an overview level. So…
What Does the Bible Say About Slavery?
First, you need to understand that slavery was a way of life for the 1st century Greco-Roman World. Many sources estimate there were at least 12 million slaves in that time. The society depended on the slave class for goods and services.
As the Apostle Paul writes this letter to the church in Ephesus, he’s addressing the social structures of his day. He has previously addressed husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, parents, and children; and lastly, he addresses masters and bondservants (or slaves or servants depending on the translation).
For many of these bondservants, it would have been the very best option for them. Many slaves were the product of an unloving father or mother that discarded them as unwanted babies soon after their birth. In that time within the Greco-Roman culture, children were not valued as they are today. If the child was deformed, a girl (because girls were viewed as inferior to boys), or unwanted for any other reason, it was culturally acceptable to toss the child out with the trash. Other passers-by would often scavenge the heaps of trash for children, raise them as slaves, in exchange for food, water, and often protection. Many slaves were not, however, given this safety and shelter. Many were forced into harsh environments, or worse, used for prostitution. The fate of the slave depended on their master.
Some slaves were slaves voluntarily; in order to pay off a debt they could not pay financially, they would agree to work off their debt with years of service and slowly earn back their freedom. Some slaves were bought or purchased by others, which was condemned by the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:10). The Apostle Paul was a reformer, to be sure. He communicated that all people were one in Christ in his letter to the church in Galatia.
While some slaves worked in harsh environments, others had skilled professions as bookkeepers, estate managers, tutors, educators, medical professionals, police officers, and some even worked their way up as political leaders. Not all slaves were poor, uneducated, and unhealthy, as we tend to think. Yet slavery shouldn’t be seen as a good thing, even in these circumstances.
It’s important to note that the Bible never commends the actions of slavery, and furthermore, it absolutely condemns every act of evil of injustice, or harsh treatment towards any human being, including slaves. Additionally, it’s important to note that Bible affirms the idea that all people are created equal in their value, being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-29), deserving dignity, value, worth, and respect. All of mankind has been made in the image of God: male, female, Christians, non-Christians, masters, bondservants, all are made by God and for God’s glory. As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the church in Galatia, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27–28)
So, in conclusion, the Bible consistently condemns any and all harsh and unjust treatment of humans, and especially between masters and slaves. The Bible elevates and empowers all people in equal standing before God as loved, cared for, and valued citizens of heaven, no matter the circumstances on earth.
This leaves Christians to operate under a new set of Kingdom guidelines, that we show dignity, value, and respect to all people regardless of their color, creed, or class. As Christians, we are can find unity in the midst of diversity by serving the same Lord as our Heavenly Master. Tomorrow we will look at the implications of this as Christians, as well as metaphors used by early Christians to describe the relationship that exists between Jesus and his disciples, and how the Apostle Paul raises the bar for all employers and employees.