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.”[1] 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:[2]

  1. Neither skin-color nor ethnic/racial origins indicated slave status.
  2. 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.
  3. Both the enslaved and their owners shared the dominant cultural values, social codes, and religious traditions.
  4. Slaves could own property, and some even owned their own slaves.
  5. The education of slaves was encouraged, which made them more valuable. Some slaves were more educated than their owners.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.”[3]

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.”[4] 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.’”[5]

Conclusion 

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.

 

[1] James A. Brooks, “Slave, Servant,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, eds. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1511.

[2] 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.

[3] Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, PNTC, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery,” 176.

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Posted by Travis Flanagan

I am a believer, husband, and expectant father who loves serving the Lord and the local church. I am currently an associate pastor of youth/discipleship and a pastoral research assistant for three pastors. Educationally, I have a BA and an MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Criswell College. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. My research interests include the early church and Greco-Roman voluntary associations (and especially the relationship between the two!).

14 Comments

  1. This is a very controversial subject and I admire you for tackling it. I know I am the first of what is to be a long list of fiery commentary.
    I do think that New Testament (Roman) slavery was very different from American slavery. Paul’s admonition to Christian slave owners was to not threaten their slaves (so, ostensibly, if a slave asked to be freed, a Christian slave holder would have to grant that slave freedom in keeping with the tenants of Christ.)To the slaves, he admonished them not to run away and, yes, to serve honorably even if the “master” was cruel.
    These are hard concepts, no doubt. But Christianity, true Christianity, that is, is often hard. It requires us to put God before ourselves and to serve the agenda of Christ at real and potential cost to ourselves. To be a Christ pleasing Christian, we must have a servants heart.

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  2. Thank you for this good work. One of the most functional tools in the enemy’s tool-box is redefinition. If something good, wholesome and effective can be redefined as smarmy, good people can be condemned for doing good things. But how do we stop accepting the world’s definitions and still communicate with the world? We are so busy rephrasing that we have no time to evangelize. I just wish people would learn to read things in context. Thanks again for your efforts to encourage that!

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  3. Good points here. I always remember what John MacArthur said on this issue.. If I recall correctly…The Bible doesn’t condone or condemn slavery, It doesn’t attempt to change the social order of the world. BUT unlike the world, slaves and owners blended into the church without distinction of status. And true, the slave position rightly depicts our relationship to our Lord.

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  4. Reblogged this on The Biker's Wave and commented:
    This is a very good article on Slavery in the Bible. Many skeptics point out that the Bible condones slavery. It clearly does not. Read on…

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  5. I would only add that humans make a mistake judging GOD.
    HE decides right and wrong; HE alone determines “morality”…not us.
    Everything belongs to GOD, and HE may do with it as he sees fit.
    Whatever HE does IS righteous and if we have a problem with it…tough!
    I don’t apologize for GOD, I serve HIM.
    I recall a conversation with a recently indoctrinated (publicly educated) young man who said, ” Do you know what we did? When we found the natives in the Caribbean were barefoot, we thought that was nasty. We planted Mesquite which has lots of thorns so they’d be forced to wear shoes. It killed millions!”
    Rather than point out the lack of any truth in his disjointed rant, I responded:
    1. Who is this WE? “We” didn’t do anything, Spaniards did. He agreed.
    2. Going barefoot all the time is, in fact, pretty nasty. He agreed.
    3. Mesquite sure puts a great smoky flavor on meats. He agreed.
    4. I then told him that some of those same men led many to Christ, which led to them receiving eternal life. I told him that the LORD works in mysterious ways, and sometimes he kills a few million…to save a few thousand. His jaw dropped.

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    1. How do I respond to this statement? I know it is not directed to me, but I feel compelled to do so. As Paul said in I Cor. 6 “…Not everything that is lawful, is beneficial.” You are speaking from your faith, which I greatly appreciate, but are you speaking from faith with love? Are you trying to impart a grain of wisdom from God– because that is all that we can really comprehend in comparison to Him–or are you trying to make the young man’s jaw to drop. Could you possibly put yourself in that young man’s shoes? How would you feel if you were him coming from a standpoint of skepticism? Would your answer provoke any thoughtful, positive pondering on the behalf of Christ? Or would it–if you were the young man (I know it’s hard, but try to empathize)–drive you further into to your shell of skepticism?
      I proclaim Faith as a virtue because Christ proclaims it. It is good. It is profound. It is in the top three virtues of humanity. But love is even better. May we all reply in Faith, Hope and above all Love.

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      1. Yep.
        Faith with love…
        JESUS commanded us to love one another (meaning believers), as HE loved us. Notice how he showed his love to his disciples…He was blunt, told the truth with no sugar coating, corrected them, and often yelled at them for their lack of faith or understanding of scripture.
        I think it did provoke thought on his part. I also prayed for his soul, and for GOD to open his eyes to the truth.
        I don’t ever feel the need to apologize for GOD, or my beliefs. Again, GOD decides right and wrong…and HE’s always correct as it’s HIS decision to make. So when I read something in scripture that is hard for me to accept as coming from a loving CREATOR and FATHER…I know that I need to adjust my thinking to HIS.
        I don’t go down the path of “well, Christians have done some bad things, too.”
        Of course we have, we’re just forgiven of it and the penalty for it was paid by JESUS. The record of it in heaven was blotted out. It no longer exists.
        Rather than trying to get others to emulate me, or look at me for an example…I want them to look to JESUS and the scriptures and emulate CHRIST.
        The enemy tries to paint believers into a box. An undesirable box that consists of only prohibitions. When we do anything outside of the box defined by the enemy, we’re called hypocrites and then used as an example to prevent nonbelievers from even considering what we have to say.
        Christians are set free. We’re not in a box, and we shouldn’t allow the enemy to define us.
        So yes, sometimes I shock a little. They’ve maybe never met a Christian like me who won’t hesitate to debate with them on evolution, history, scriptures, or the “morality” of GOD. I can win those debates with reason, science, scripture, and history. Maybe I can get one to think about it a little more deeply than simply dismissing it by the tired old “all Christians are hypocrites” lie. Maybe some will come to the truth.
        It’s most assuredly out of love, and a sincere desire that they might be saved. Sometimes love yells at you and demands to know why your faith is small, or why you are ignorant of the truth.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Tough love may work–yes, it sometimes works–within the family. I can, and sometimes do, give tough love to my children but I do not impose it on those outside my family. Jesus spoke kindly to His disciples, rarely do we have an example of Him becoming grave or stern with them. When He did speak to them in that way it made a profound impact because it was out of the ordinary for Him to do so.
        His apostle Paul, within Divine inspiration, wrote in Colossians”… to season our words with salt so that they are full of grace and wisdom so that we will be able to answer and inspire others.”
        Yes, Jesus did command us to love one another and that by our love the world would recognize us. We are to love all people but especially love those inside the household of faith.
        We are first and foremost called to be fishers of mankind. How can we obey our Lord’s most fervent command when our words are not seasoned with salt, tempered with grace and humility and grounded in love that expresses truth with kindness? Berating a young man–public school educated or otherwise–is counterproductive to the household of faith. I respect your feelings and I do not mean to be harsh. I admonish that we must be gentle, yet, truthful ambassadors for our Lord. No ambassador is more imperfect than I am. Yet He uses me anyway.
        May God continue to bless you.

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  6. This is very insightful. With the modern, western view of slavery, I think people (myself included) have been somewhat confused about the apostles’ usage of slavery language. They seem to use it in a positive way, as if we should be proud of our slavery with Christ. At first, this does not make sense. This post presented the ideas in an easy-to-understand way. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

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      1. You’re welcome!

        Like

  7. This is an excellent and a useful article. I fully agree that the biblical notion of slavery and the particularly horrible American form were very different things.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Controversial topic. I’m still thinking about the content and the subject. As someone of African-Caribbean origin, slavery can be an emotive subject. However, I’m not someone who blames people in the here and now for what happened in the past. I assess people according to their own actions and beliefs. As I say I’m still thinking about the topic and your article.

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    1. Thanks for reading. I’m glad the article spurred on some thoughts.

      Like

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