Why Doesn’t the New Testament Condemn Slavery?
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5)
William Knibb, a British missionary to colonial Jamaica, wrote home:
The cursed blast of slavery has, like a pestilence, withered almost every moral bloom. I know not how any person can feel a union with such a monster, such a child of hell. I feel a burning hatred against it and look upon it as one of the most odious monsters that ever disgraced the earth.1
Most of us aren’t surprised that Christians led the fight against slavery in the early nineteenth century. We aren’t surprised that Christians still lead the fight against human trafficking today. What is surprising, however, is that Paul tells the slaves at Ephesus to submit to their masters instead of helping the slaves to throw off their chains.2 We clearly need to dig a little deeper into what life was like at Ephesus.
Paul does not condemn slavery outright for historical reasons. It is almost impossible for us to utter the word ‘slavery’ without thinking of the appalling transfer of three million black Africans across the Atlantic between 1492 and 1807. Roman slavery was very different. Most slaves were prisoners of war and had they not been enslaved on the battlefield they would almost certainly have been slaughtered instead.3 Whereas black slaves in the New World tended to be slaves for life, most Roman slaves could win their freedom within a decade. That doesn’t mean it was right, but it does mean it is wrong for us to read these verses without being aware of our own cultural baggage.
Paul does not condemn slavery outright for practical reasons. Historians cannot agree on the population of first-century Ephesus, but some estimate that its 250,000 free citizens were outnumbered by anything up to 400,000 slaves. Paul is smart enough to see that calling for their immediate emancipation would actually destroy them, since Roman slavery at least ensured that the very rich had a vested interest in providing for the very poor. The Roman orator Cicero lamented that conditions for most poor workers were worse than those of slaves, and that “the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.”4 Friedrich Engels argued something similar during the Industrial Revolution:
The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labour only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence ... Thus, the slave can have a better existence than the proletarian.5
Paul was smart enough to see that legal freedom might not bring the Ephesian slaves true freedom at all.
Paul does not condemn slavery outright for theological reasons. He tells us throughout his letters that unbelievers are slaves to sin and that the Gospel frees a person from the inside out. He therefore helps the Ephesian slaves to see that they are freer than their masters if they work as willing slaves of Jesus Christ, and he helps the Ephesian masters to see that they will only know true freedom if they recognise that they have obligations towards their slaves because they are also slaves of Christ themselves. The nineteenth-century German thinker Goethe observed that “Nobody is more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe that they are free.”6 Paul refuses to short-change the Ephesian slaves with superficial liberty. He teaches them how to be truly free on the inside.
That’s why Christians shouldn’t be embarrassed by these verses. We should see them as instructions which are just as relevant to employers and employees today as they were two thousand years ago. They teach us how the Gospel transforms the daily grind of our working hours, no matter how difficult they may be. They tell us that the way we work from Monday to Friday is as much an act of worship as the way we sing on Sundays.
My good friend Nathan discovered the transforming message of these verses a few years ago. He worked for a small business which was in serious trouble. His boss responded by cutting everybody’s wages while expecting them to work harder than ever. Nathan applied for other jobs but was unsuccessful in all his interviews, and he began to feel as much like a slave as any of the original recipients of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It was a real act of sacrifice to Jesus that he guarded his heart towards his boss (6:5) and kept working hard for him even when he was not looking over his shoulder (6:6).7 It was an act of faith for him to work for Jesus as his true Employer (6:7), believing that Jesus would reward him fairly even if his boss didn’t (6:8).
Then one of Nathan’s work colleagues was diagnosed with cancer. Although he was not a Christian, he had been so impressed with Nathan’s attitude at work that he turned to him in his hour of crisis. Nathan was able to help him to prepare for death, first at the photocopying machine and then later at the hospital. When Nathan preached at his colleague’s funeral, he was able to tell the man’s widow and children how he led him to repentance and faith in Jesus before he died. Shortly afterwards, Nathan found a better job, but when he looks back on that year he says he would not have been freed early for any other job in the world. Because he learned to live as a free man, though chained to a desk he hated, he was able to lead a fellow slave to freedom through the Gospel.
Paul therefore taught slaves to experience true freedom whilst still slaves, but he also sowed the seeds for the eventual overthrow of slavery in years to come. When people saw the godly character of Christian slaves, they began to take Paul seriously when he argued that the slave trade was evil (1 Timothy 1:10), that slaves should gain their freedom if they could (1 Corinthians 7:21), that masters ought to view their slaves as equals (Ephesians 6:9 and Galatians 3:28), and that they ought to set them free at the proper time (Philemon 16). Although governments resisted his teaching for many years, the historian Rodney Stark argues that Paul’s teaching eventually won the day:
Of all the world’s religions, including the three great monotheisms, only in Christianity did the idea develop that slavery was sinful and must be abolished. 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.8
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, Straight to the Heart of Galatians to Colossians, published this month by Monarch Books.
To read more free chapters from the Straight to the Heart series of commentaries, please go to www.philmoorebooks.com
1) Peter Masters Missionary Triumph Over Slavery: William Knibb and Jamaican Emancipation (2006).
2) Before we rush to condemn Paul’s instructions to slaves, it is worth noting that he was in chains too (6:20).
3) The Roman jurist Gaius tells us this in his Institutes, written in 161AD.
4) Marcus Tullius Cicero writing in 44BC in his essay De Officiis or “On Duties” (1.42).
5) Friedrich Engels wrote this in The Principles of Communism (1847), which was adapted the following year by Karl Marx into The Communist Manifesto (1848).
6) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his novel Elective Affinities (1809).
7) Paul uses the same Greek word for obeying in 6:5 as he used in 6:1. He tells slaves literally in 6:6 not to offer “eye-slavery as man-pleasers,” because Jesus is their true Master and he is watching them all the time.
8) Rodney Stark in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (2003).