Does the New Testament Condone Slavery?
Earlier this week Haden’s post answered critics who claim that God is immoral because He condoned slavery in the Old Testament. Clearly this is not the case, for Old Testament slavery was completely different from the nineteenth century enslavement of African-Americans by American plantation owners. As a companion piece, I will now examine slavery in the New Testament, drawing many of the same conclusions.
Mentions of Slavery in the New Testament
Slavery is a topic that arises multiple times in the New Testament. Three mentions of it are found in the household codes of Ephesians (6:5-9), Colossians (3:22-4:1), and 1 Peter (2:18-25). The main Greek word used to denote slaves in the New Testament is doulos, occurring 126 times. The related term oiketes is also used four times. Interestingly, the way English translations of the Bible translate these words differs greatly. The HCSB, my translation of preference, translates doulos as “slave” 123 out of 126 times, and as “servant” the remaining three. The ESV, a very popular translation today, translates it as “servant” 94 times, “slave” 19 times, and as “bondservant” 13 times. The NASB, acknowledged by scholars as a very literal translation, translates doulos as “slave” 98 times, “bond-servant” 23 times, “bondslave” four times, and “servant” once.
The ESV and NASB translate oiketes as “servant” and the HCSB brings it into English as “household servant.” Oikos is the root word here, which refers to a house or building, so the HCSB translation is to be preferred (as is confirmed by multiple Greek-English lexicons).
Many of these occurrences are literal references to slaves/servants who had little to no rights and did the work of others. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines slaves/servants as persons “totally responsible to and dependent upon another person.” Yet the New Testament authors also use the term doulos in a metaphorical way, usually with the phrase doulos Christos—“slave of Christ” (cf. Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1; Jms 1:1; 2 Ptr. 1:1; Jude 1).
Slavery in the Roman World
Since many of the mentions of slavery in the New Testament are literal, we need to understand slavery the way it was understood in the time of the New Testament. The gospels, letters, and other documents of the New Testament were not written in a vacuum; they were written in the middle of an economically booming first-century Roman world. The trouble most modern readers of the Bible have with understanding slavery is getting past the concept of African-American slavery in the New World. To read modern ideas back into the Bible is anachronistic and should be avoided at all costs. In a fantastic essay, Scott Bartchy identifies nine ways in which first-century Roman slavery differed from slavery in the New World:
- Neither skin-color nor ethnic/racial origins indicated slave status.
- Slaves who escaped their owners could seek to make themselves “invisible,” but risked severe punishment if caught. Unlike America, there was no free North to escape to.
- Both the enslaved and their owners shared the dominant cultural values, social codes, and religious traditions.
- Slaves could own property, and some even owned their own slaves.
- The education of slaves was encouraged, which made them more valuable. Some slaves were more educated than their owners.
- Because of #5, many slaves functioned in highly responsible positions, such as managers of large farms, households, or businesses. Some physicians, accountants, tutors, sea captains, and municipal officers were even slaves.
- Slavery was despised and slaves had no honor, but slaves as a group were not at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Instead, impoverished freepersons who had to seek day labor made up the lowest level. Some of these even sold themselves into slavery to obtain job security, food, clothing, and shelter, which would be provided by the master.
- Roman slaves had no consciousness of being their own social class. There was no sense of slaves as a group suffering a common plight and gathering to cause upheaval.
- Slavery was not lifelong, and many Roman slaves were set free by the age of thirty.
Does this mean that being a slave in the world of the New Testament was a glamorous thing? No, far from it. There were imperial laws against the mistreatment of slaves, but it still happened. The point is that the purpose and process of Roman slavery was much different than the slavery we read about in US history books.
New Testament Teachings on Slavery
The New Testament’s main teachings on slavery come in the three household codes I mentioned above. According to Ephesians 6:5, slaves were to obey their masters just as they were to obey Christ. 1 Peter 2:18 commanded slaves to submit to their masters, even if they were cruel. Why? 1 Peter is all about suffering (read it through and see!), and the suffering of a righteous slave is one example Peter uses. Suffering for doing right will bring favor (1 Ptr. 2:19).
In Ephesians and Colossians (very similar letters), Paul also has a word for masters or slave owners. They were to treat their slaves fair and to provide them with what they needed (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1).
So think about this: These letters were written by Paul and delivered to the church or churches in the cities of Ephesus and Colossae. Once delivered, the letters were read out loud to everyone in attendance. Based on Paul’s addresses to both slaves and masters, this suggests that the church contained members from both parties. Yes, the churches had slaves and slave owners. And Paul did not see anything wrong with this. Instead, he sought to ensure that the master-slave relationship was governed according to the laws of Christ and that both sides were treated fairly. In his usual Pauline style, he turned the master-slave relationship toward the gospel, reminding both slaves and masters that they all have a Master in heaven (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1).
The Metaphorical Use of Slave Terminology
Why did Paul and other New Testament authors use slave terminology to describe their relationship to Christ? Peter Davids attempts to explain this in his commentary on Jude. He suggests that the use of doulos, especially in conjunction with Apostolos (“apostle”), “indicates that in the minds of the users of ‘servant’ [or ‘slave’], it is not a term of humility per se (‘I am just a nobody’), but an indication that in their eyes their status comes, not from themselves but from the one to whom they belong and whose delegate they are.”
He makes this conclusion based on the treatment of Lord Caesar’s slaves. “This fits with what we know of the culture of the Roman Empire, in which highly placed imperial slaves had tremendous authority, for they represented their master, Caesar. While technically they held only the social rank of slave, because of whose slaves they were they were to be treated with respect, for to disregard Caesar’s slave doing Caesar’s business was to disregard Caesar.” In a similar fashion, Paul and others saw themselves as the Lord Jesus’s slaves doing His business. He was the source of their authority and their reason for doing what they did.
Finally, Bartchy notes that “Three keywords in Paul’s vocabulary—‘redemption,’ ‘justification,’ and ‘reconciliation,’—draw directly on the process and results of manumission from slavery, which releases the believer from the slavery of sin and alienation (and from ‘social death,’ if a slave) and elevates the Christ-follower to the status of ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ and a ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’”
It must be stated that the New Testament allowed slavery. But what this does not mean may be more important than what it does mean. It does not mean that the New Testament allowed the mistreatment of individuals for any reason or that it allowed some people to be treated as property. In many ways, slavery was a profitable way of life for those who had lost their way. It provided them with the basic necessities of life until they could be released or buy their freedom and stand on their own two feet again.
It also does not mean that God is a moral monster who enjoys some of His prized creatures mistreating others. Instead, the concept of slavery is a beautiful picture of our relationship to Him, our Master. He is the true Master and Owner of everyone and everything.
 James A. Brooks, “Slave, Servant,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, eds. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1511.
 S. Scott Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World,” The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, eds. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 172-74.
 Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, PNTC, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 34.
 Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery,” 176.