Even before you began following Christ, you probably knew that aspects of Christianity offend unbelievers. The Bible prepares us for this rejection (Gal. 5:11, Rom. 9:33). Many modern minds struggle to understand why God would command slaughter of entire nations, or why he would call on wives to submit to their husbands. But even many Christians stumble over the way the inspired apostle Paul addresses slaves and their masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; Tit. 2:9).
At least three problems arise when we read these texts:
- Paul nowhere acknowledges the horror of slavery. Instead, Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters in everything. And he instructs masters to treat their slaves with fairness and justice. Wouldn’t fairness and justice include setting them free?
- To make matters worse, Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries sinfully used texts like these to defend slavery in the United States and Europe. Many of these Christians staunchly upheld the authority and infallibility of Scripture.
- Skeptics of Christianity and the Bible have used texts like these to argue that Christianity is harmful. Here’s an example from a 2007 debate between atheist Sam Harris and pastor Rick Warren:
Harris: Slavery, on balance, is supported by the Bible, not condemned by it. It’s supported with exquisite precision in the Old Testament, as you know, and Paul in First Timothy and Ephesians and Colossians supports it, and Peter—-
Warren: No, he doesn’t. He allows it. He doesn’t support it.
Harris: OK, he allows it. I would argue that we got rid of slavery not because we read the Bible more closely. We got rid of slavery despite the profound inadequacies of the Bible. We got rid of slavery because we realized it was manifestly evil to treat human beings as farm equipment.
When teaching from these passages, we must be sensitive to concerns and respond seriously to objections that the Bible is primitive, irrelevant, and immoral. But how?
Relieving the Tensions
Some of these tensions can be relieved by explaining the differences between slavery in Paul’s day and Western practices during the last few centuries. A good commentary can provide this help. The Dictionary of Paul and his Letters includes a nice article by A. A. Rupprecht on slavery. Here are some bullet point facts about slavery in ancient Roman society:
- In Paul’s day, some 80 percent to 90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome were slaves.
- Slavery was not race based.
- Some slaves were prisoners of war. Many others were men and women who sold themselves into slavery in order to relieve a burdensome debt.
- Slaves had certain rights under Roman law and could normally be expected to be released after seven years or by age 30.
None of this background should imply that slavery was desirable. This was still a corrupt system. Paul elsewhere instructs Christians to gain their freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21). And in 1 Timothy 1:10, he condemns slave-traders. Also, many Bible readers miss the implications of Paul addressing both slaves and their masters in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. He expects them to fellowship together in the same church as brothers and sisters in Christ. They sing together, eat together, bear each other’s burdens, and, as history will tell us, suffer together when the Roman world persecutes Christians.
Deeper Answer to Human Slavery
But these explanations, while helpful, don’t deal with what Paul actually says. Many pastors, apologists, and scholars only worry about defending Paul against endorsing slavery and miss his point. Paul has a more powerful weapon against human slavery than any abolitionist ever had.
Let’s look at Colossians 3:22: “Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” The phrase eye-service is important here for Paul’s argument, but it’s difficult to recognize in our English translations. The actual word he uses for eye-service is ὀφθαλμοδουλίαις (emphasis mine). You can see in the the second half of the word is a form of the word doulos, the Greek word for slave. It’s a word that many scholars believe Paul coined himself. Basically, Paul says, “Slaves, don’t act like eye-slaves.”
If I told you, “Don’t be an eye-slave,” you’d assume that I meant, “Don’t be enslaved to someone’s perception of you; to pleasing people.” Why? “Because you’re free!” Right?
But that’s not what Paul is saying. Paul instructs slaves not to labor for freedom but to shift their allegiance. “You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:24).
Paul’s answer to slavery does not satisfy modern readers because he calls the church to slavery to Christ rather than autonomy. We have many obligations in this world as spouses, parents, children, employees, and more, but all these relationships fall behind our ultimate allegiance to Christ. Before God there is no slave or free, humanly speaking. All, whether slave or master, belong to Christ.
So another objection arises. “You see, that’s just what’s wrong with Christianity. The God of the Bible is a tyrant who expects us to be mindless slaves.”
But everyone is enslaved to something to someone, whether we know it or not. The Bible gives us only two options: either you’re a slave to the world or a slave to the God who created it. What directs your decisions, affections, and behavior? What do you believe will give you the meaning, joy, and satisfaction you lack? What do you possess right now that you would would lie, cheat, or steal in order to preserve?
Slave to Something
If God is not the center of your life, if he does not hold your ultimate allegiance, then you have been enslaved by something or someone less satisfying and loving than God. Every slave master except God will fail you. Slave masters never work to satisfy their slave. And when you fail, that master can offer no forgiveness, only misery and shame.
But not so with God! He alone can satisfy. He alone has paid the ultimate price in his Son in order to forgive you of all your failings. The dominion of God is the dominion of rest, grace, mercy, and joy. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28).
Paul uses the lowest of all people in the eyes of this world—-the slave—-to show that you are more free as a slave to Christ than when you are enslaved to the idea of human autonomy.