Slavery and the Bible

In my message Sunday two of the verses from Titus that I exposited (2:9-10) addressed “slaves.” I said that I would post a more detailed explanation of the slavery issue as it is addressed in the New Testament. Here it is.

One of the reasons for this post is the misunderstanding that many people have when it comes to the biblical view on slavery. Slavery was a reality in the biblical world, and the writers of the New Testament don’t shy away from addressing it. Here is an extended excerpt from John Stott’s commentary on Timothy and Titus. He is addressing two verses from Timothy, similar to our Titus passage, that talk to slaves. [Stott was from England, so the spelling of a few words will be slightly different]

3. Slaves (1 Timothy 6:1–2) Having given Timothy instructions about the treatment of widows and elders, the apostle now broaches a third social relationship, namely the behaviour of slaves towards their masters.

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them. These are the things you are to teach and urge on them.

Slavery has been described as a ‘monster abomination’. Not that there is anything demeaning about service, when it is given voluntarily. On the contrary, Jesus himself demonstrated its dignity by washing his disciples’ feet. He called himself both servant59 and slave, and added that each of his followers must be ‘the slave of all’.61 What is degrading, and fundamentally destructive of a person’s humanness, is when one human being is forcibly owned by another and is thus robbed of all freedom. Slaves have three defining characteristics. Their person is another’s property, so that they may be bought and sold; their will is subject to another’s authority; and their labour is obtained by another’s coercion. Paul does more than hint at these things here by describing slaves as being under the yoke of slavery (1). For yokes are designed for animals, particularly for oxen. And when the yoke is used in Scripture to picture a human experience, it usually symbolizes an oppressive regime. True, Jesus spoke of his teaching authority as a yoke, but he added at once that, unlike other yokes, his is ‘easy’ to wear.64

So slavery was a form of tyranny. Even though some slave-owners were kind to their slaves, since they saw them as a valuable investment, the institution itself was a denial of human personhood. It was also a ‘gigantic cancer’, which drained the political, economic and moral forces of the Roman Empire. Why is it, then, that neither Jesus nor his apostles called for the complete and immediate abolition of this horror? Probably the main reason is that slavery was deeply embedded in the structures of Graeco-Roman society. All well-to-do people had slaves, and very wealthy people had several hundreds. They were regarded as essential, especially as domestic servants and farm labourers, but also as clerks, craftsmen, teachers, soldiers and managers. It is believed that there were more than fifty million of them in the Empire, including one third of the inhabitants of Rome. In consequence, to dismantle slavery all at once would have brought about the collapse of society. Any signs of a slave revolt were put down with ruthless brutality. The fact is that ‘monstrous evils’ like slavery ‘are not, like giants in the old romances, to be slain at a blow’. They are so firmly rooted that any attempt to tear them up may pull up the foundations of society with them.

At the same time Paul enunciated principles which undermined the very concept of slavery and led inexorably to its abolition, even though Christians are ashamed that it did not happen sooner. What are these principles? At the beginning of this letter he has declared ‘slave traders’ to be in breach of God’s law (1:10); in his earlier letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians he has also shown slavery to be in breach of the gospel. He has implied the equality of slaves and slave owners by declaring that they have the same heavenly master, who shows no favouritism. In consequence, he has told masters to provide their slaves with what is ‘right and fair’, although in those days there was no such thing as ‘justice’ for slaves.68

Paul has also written of the radical transformation of relationships which the gospel effects, so that slave and slave owner become brothers. Indeed, ‘there is neither … slave nor free … for you are all one in Christ Jesus’, equally God’s children and heirs without any distinction between them.70 Meanwhile, even while slaves remain in bondage outwardly, they can enjoy an inner freedom in Christ.

In both verses 1 and 2 the slaves whom Timothy is to instruct are clearly Christians and church members. There is a difference between the verses, however. Whereas in verse 2 we are explicitly told that their slave owner is a believer, in verse 1 it seems likely that he is not. So Timothy is to adjust his teaching to the context. First, slaves should consider their masters, even though they are unbelievers, to be worthy of full respect. That is, they will treat them with respect because they consider them worthy of respect, which they are as human beings, irrespective of their behaviour. Then there is another and missionary reason why slaves should respect their masters. It is because the reputation of God’s name and our teaching (literally ‘the teaching’, meaning that of the apostles) are at stake. If slaves show disrespect for their masters, they will bring discredit on God’s name and the apostles’ teaching; but these will not be slandered, but will rather be honoured, if they respect their masters (1).

Secondly, those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them (‘must not take liberties with them’, reb) because they are brothers. Evidently some slaves were guilty of this twisted reasoning, and were taking advantage of their masters’ Christian faith. Christian employees in Christian firms today sometimes make the same mistake. Instead they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them (2a), or ‘are one with them in faith and love’. The two ‘because’ (hoti) clauses are parallel. Because their masters are brothers, slaves must not show them less respect. Instead, because they are believers and beloved, they must serve them even better. The faith, love and brotherhood which unite them in Christ, far from being an excuse for neglect, should be a stimulus to service. These are the things, Paul writes to Timothy in conclusion, which you are to teach and urge on them (2b).

He is to pass on to the church the instructions he has received from the apostle. These instructions have concerned the church’s social responsibilities, particularly in relation to widows, presbyters and slaves. These three groups are disparate in several ways. They are men and women, slaves and free, young and old, workers at home and in church, church leaders and church members. What unites them? It is the word ‘honour’. The church is to ‘honour’ real widows and care for them (3). Presbyters who lead well are to be counted worthy of a twofold ‘honour’ (17). Slaves are to regard their masters as worthy of ‘honour’ (6:1). The same Greek word, as either a verb (timaō) or a noun (timē), occurs in each of these three verses. Indeed, the duty to honour people is much emphasized in Scripture. For example, ‘Give due honour [niv “Show proper respect”] to everyone.’72 Again, ‘Honour one another above yourselves,’ or ‘Outdo one another in showing honour’ (rsv). Every human being is worthy of honour, even pagan slave owners, because they have been made in the image of God. Once we perceive the intrinsic worth of human beings by creation, and therefore recognize them as worthy of honour, all our relationships are enriched and ennobled.[1]

[1] Stott, J. R. W. (1996). Guard the truth : The message of 1 Timothy & Titus. The Bible speaks today (142–144).Downers Grove,Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

About Pastor Andrew

Follower of Jesus, Husband to Carissa, Daddy to four daughters, Lead Pastor at LifePoint Church in Vancouver, WA.
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2 Responses to Slavery and the Bible

  1. Jesse says:

    I’m curious. Before I start any type of dialogue, may I ask which approach to the Bible you take: the fundamental concept that every word of the Bible is God breathed and therefore infallible or the historical/critical method that takes into account when the books were written and the ideals and beliefs of the time? From what I have read, it seems the later.

    • Hey Jesse-
      Thanks for the question. Your question seems to imply that the two approaches you listed are mutually exclusive. In my view they’re not. I do affirm what you call the “fundamental concept,” but I also wholeheartedly ascribe to what you describe as the “historical/critical” method. You can really responsibly do both at the same time. I hold that 2 Timothy 3:16 is true, and I also spend a good deal of time in the historical/critical area because it sheds a lot of light on given texts.

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