“The Bible is pro-slavery.”

It’s a common charge these days. Part of the New Atheist attack on religion, it also comes from various progressive circles in order to defend certain social views (in line with the so-called redemptive-movement hermeneutic).

The claim is not incomprehensible. It has some apparent, face-value support—and not just in Old Testament law regulations, but in New Testament epistles written by the very apostles of Jesus Christ:

  • Ephesians 6:5: “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters.”
  • Colossians 3:22: “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.”
  • 1 Peter 2:18: “Servants, be subject to your masters.”

How should Christians respond to this concern? It’s a complicated issue that one brief article cannot resolve, but here are several initial appeals that may be helpful to at least draw attention to its complexity.

Defining ‘Slavery’

When we read verses like Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, and 1 Peter 2:18, we hear the common English translation “slave” in light of our own historical context. We typically think of race-based, chattel slavery in which the slave is the property of the master and lacks any legal rights. This kind of slavery is manifestly among the most despicable institutions ever to disgrace human civilization. It is not, however, what is in view in these texts.

[Race-based, chattel slavery] is manifestly among the most despicable institutions ever to disgrace human civilization.

The Greek word (doulos) can be translated “slave,” or sometimes “servant” or “bondservant,” and often referred to people who had a surprising level of legal and social status in the first-century Greco-Roman world. Most were not “slaves” from their birth, or for their whole life, or because of their race—for instance, the Roman jurist Gaius (second century) claimed that most slaves were prisoners of war who actually would have been slaughtered if not made slaves.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, Israelite regulations freed slaves every seventh year (Ex. 21:2), commanded the death penalty for manstealing (Ex. 21:16), and generally sought to limit the institution in protection of the slave. Further, slavery was generally not organized by race but by circumstance and economics (for example, foreigners, debtors, and so on).

To be clear, slavery in any sense perverts God’s created intention for human beings, and there are some harsh passages we have to deal with. But there is a vast difference between the deplorable wickedness we see in a film like 12 Years a Slave and, say, what Paul is addressing in the first-century Ephesian church, or Abraham’s relationship with his top servant (Gen. 24:2).

This doesn’t answer the question, but it does more accurately frame it.

Consider the Whole Bible

Progressive revelation simply means that God didn’t reveal his will and character to humanity all at once, but gradually over a long period of time. Thus, you have to look at the entire narrative of biblical revelation to interpret it fairly, rather than just pull a verse from here or there.

Christians also believe God accommodates his revelation to particular historical contexts, and even to fallen social structures within them. This makes sense when you think about it—unless we require that God refrain from giving any instructions or laws to a particular people at a particular time until all societal evil has been removed. An ethical exhortation in an ad hoc document (like an epistle), then, may not tell you everything you need to know about God’s will and character. In fact, it will probably give you more of a picture of day-to-day life as a Christian in a certain context than the Bible’s overall ideal with respect to institutional and structural evil.

By analogy: I might say to my friend, “Go vote in the next election!” Does this mean my overall philosophy regards democracy as the ideal political system? Or what if I encourage a soldier on the battlefront to follow the orders of his commanding officers—does this reveal my complete perspective on the military, the war he is fighting in, or war itself? Not necessarily. You would need more information to determine that.

Similarly, practices like slavery, polygamy, and divorce were common in antiquity. Biblical instruction that allows for them in certain contexts isn’t necessarily biblical approval. We must interpret them in relation to everything else the Scriptures say.

Biblical instruction that allows for [certain evil practices] in certain contexts isn’t necessarily biblical approval.

In particular, there are two massive mountain peaks in biblical revelation that must be taken into account: creation, which tells us all humans are made equally in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–28, 5:1–3, 9:6), and the gospel, which tells us God has overcome racial/social/religious divisions at the cross (Eph. 2:11–22; Gal. 3:28), and will one day create a people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:19) who dwell together in perfect harmony.

Creation is essential to consider because it reveals God’s original intent for the human race. And the gospel is essential because it reveals the ultimate trajectory of God’s redemptive work.

If we latch onto Ephesians 6:5 but neglect the larger context of the biblical story, we may miss the forest for the trees. By analogy, imagine saying “You’re a bad doctor” because the incision really hurt—without considering his medical degree or the purpose of the surgery.

Explosive Gospel Logic

Someone might say, “Okay, even if we grant that we’re dealing in most cases with a less egregious form of slavery, and that perhaps God is accommodating his revelation within a historical context—still, why doesn’t the Bible say more against slavery?”

I sympathize with this concern. However, one final consideration has helped me think about this over the last few years, and deepened my conviction that the Bible as a whole is utterly opposed to any form of slavery: Philemon.

It is surprising that Philemon is not brought into this discussion more consistently, since it was Paul’s letter to a slaver owner (Philemon) about his runaway slave (Onesimus). In fact, the whole occasion for Paul’s writing is that Onesimus, since running away from Philemon, has become a Christian.

If Scripture were truly pro-slavery, what would you expect Paul to say here?

Strikingly, Paul instructs Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave . . . but as a dear brother”—and he appeals to Philemon to “receive him as you would receive me” (v. 17).

In other words, Paul dissolves the slave/master relationship, and erects in its place a brother/brother relationship, in which the former slave is treated with all the dignity with which the apostle himself would be treated. Thus, even before the actual institution of slavery is abolished, the work of the gospel abolishes the assumptions and prejudices that make slavery possible.

Even before the actual institution of slavery is abolished, the work of the gospel abolishes the assumptions and prejudices that make slavery possible.

Paul’s epistle to Philemon may not amount to a full abolitionist manifesto—after all, like the other passages above, it’s operating in a particular context and doesn’t speak at the societal level. Nonetheless, I think it shows how the logic of the gospel is utterly opposed to slavery. I wonder if this is partly why so many ardent abolitionists have been Christians.

And at the very least, considering Paul’s exhortation to Philemon makes it difficult to simply quote Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 and then consider the issue settled.

Still Wrestling

I suspect my reflections here will not fully satisfy everyone, since they don’t fully satisfy me, either. There’s much more that needs be said about this challenging topic.

Hopefully, however, it’s still useful to draw attention to the differences between ancient slavery and slavery in more recent times, and to consider how God works throughout history in imperfect situations, and to see slavery in the larger context of God’s greater purpose in creation and redemption. Above all, I find it helpful to consider the example of Jesus Christ himself, to whom all of Scripture points. When I consider Jesus, and his sacrifice on the cross, I know I have reason to trust that God’s heart is good.

I still have many questions about this topic. But this gives me the hope and perspective I need to keep wrestling with it.