Monday, June 1, 2009

Eph. 6:5 on Slavery

Right of the bat as we look at Ephesians 6:5 we have to ask the question: Does the Bible condone and even endorse slavery? This question is sort of the elephant in the room particularly when the Bible tells slaves to obey their masters.

ESV Ephesians 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,

To answer this we have to compare and contrast ancient forms of slavery with modern slavery as we have in the New World and early America. Slavery in the first century was not a racial and ethnic form of discrimination and subjugation as it was in the New World/early America.

The Bible is quite clear that kidnapping is wrong. Therefore, kidnapping for the purpose of slavery, whether in piracy or in war, which was known in the ancient world as some of the ways you could get slaves, is wrong. Yet, this form of acquiring slaves was no longer the main way of acquiring slaves by Paul’s day. [1]

NAU 1 Timothy 1:9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers 10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.

NAU Deuteronomy 24:7 "If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.

The Old Testament also had strict laws about how to treat the alien in the midst of Israel, e.g. someone racial different. The alien/sojourner in the land was to be treated with remarkable respect and dignity. Just was to be the same for him. He was even to be allowed to given thanks offerings to the Lord if he so wished. Slavery was not racial. Races were treated with respect, albeit at times God judged the nations for idolatry.

NAU Deuteronomy 24:17 "You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow's garment in pledge.
NAU Deuteronomy 24:18 "But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.
NAU Deuteronomy 24:19 "When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

NAU Deuteronomy 26:11 and you and the Levite and the alien who is among you shall rejoice in all the good which the LORD your God has given you and your household.

NAU Deuteronomy 1:16 "Then I charged your judges at that time, saying, 'Hear the cases between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him.


In the Old Testament and in the first century Roman Law, one could sell oneself into slavery and under certain prevision by oneself out. Four ways ancient slavery was different: [2]
  1. Skin and race was not a factor.
  2. Freepersons could sell themselves into slavery. Dio Chrysostom states they were “under contract”. We know that sometimes people entered slavery to secure high profile jobs in wealthy families that afforded people with status and wealth. Slaves could earn their own money. One foreign king’s son even voluntarily became a slave so that he could become a Roman citizen and avoid paying Roman taxes.
  3. Slaves could become highly trained and educated. Some served households as tutors. Others taught higher education (like our college).
  4. Slaves could buy freedom and become Roman citizens.

Slavery was not all a bed of roses. Children had while you were a slave belonged to the master. Marriage of slaves was not equal rights as the freeperson. Some masters were cruel, there are discussions in the ancient world how to use fear to get slaves to submit and keep them in line, yet there were debates about how ineffective this was.

“Modern readers [of the Bible] need to free themselves from a number of assumptions about first-century slavery, including assumptions that there was a wide separation between the status of slave and freedperson, that all slaves were badly treated, and that all who were enslaved were trying to free themselves from this bondage. It is true that Roman law distinguished sharply between the status for slave and free in terms of legal powerlessness of the slave, but in practice there was a broad continuum of statuses between slave and free in both Roman and Greek society. For example, slaves of Greek owners could own property, including their own slaves, and could obtain persmission to take employment in addition to their duties as slaves…” [3]
“Many slaves in the Greco-Roman world enjoyed more favorable living conditions than many free laborers. Contrary to the supposition that everyone was trying to avoid slavery at all costs, it is clear that some people actually sold themselves into slavery in order to climb socially, to obtain particular employment open only to slaves, and to enjoy a better standard of living than they had experienced as free persons. Being a slave had the benefit of providing a certain personal and social security.” [4]

Paul tells slave to buy there freedom if they can but not to worry and fret about the fact that they are a slave. In fact, in the church slaves and freemen were equal, according to Paul (cf. Gal. 3:28).

NAU 1 Corinthians 7:21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 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. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

Slavery in the ancient world, while like any human institution had its injustices, but it did not have the systemic injustice that we see in American slavery. To suggest that Paul and the Bible would have endorsed American forms of slavery is false. By the same manner, to consider the Bible as endorsing evil and racism because it mentions slaves and tells them to obey falls is an anachronism where you understand the first century by our modern forms of slavery. I dare say, slavery in the ancient world at this time was less cruel and much more civilized than we find in the modern world within the last three hundred years right up to the present.

It has been Christian efforts in the world that have sought to abolish slavery, many of the Christian making their arguments right from the Bible (e.g. William Wilberforce).
“Although it has been fashionable to deny it, antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently “lost” from history until recently. Finally, the abolition of New World slavery was initiated and achieved by Christian activists…Slavery was once nearly universal to all societies able to afford it, and only in the West did significant moral opposition ever arise and lead to abolition.” [5]


[1] Lincoln, Ephesians p.418.
[2] Adapted from Hoehner, Ephesians, 801-2
[3] Lincoln, 416-17.
[4] Lincoln, 418
[5] Stark, For the Glory of God, p.291; Qtd. Keller The Reason for God, p.267 n.23

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