Why does the New Testament tell slaves to submit to their masters? Numerous passages give advice to slaves. Some give advice to Christian slave masters. How can this fit with the gospel of the Kingdom and the proclamation of God’s righteousness?
If we hear these “slavery texts” rightly, they can offer us fresh insight regarding the upside-down kingdom of Christ and what it means to take up our own cross and experience his life. If we hear these texts rightly we will not minimize the badness of slavery; neither will we see these texts as mere accommodations to the moral blindness of the time in which they were written. We may still wonder why the New Testament church approached slavery in exactly the way they did, but it does become clear that their approach was rooted squarely in the gospel.
While it has often been distorted, the New Testament approach to dealing with slavery is simply one manifestation of how Jesus would have us approach relationships, institutions, and structures. The beautiful thing about the kingdom is that we can approach good and bad situations out of the same basic orientation of mind and heart. For example, we don’t apply hatred to enemies and love to friends; instead we extend love toward both friends and enemies. More generally, when we face evil, we overcome it with good (Romans 12:21).
Following are three dimensions of our posture toward human relationships and institutions.
- We identify first and foremost as God’s child and God’s slave. All other service, whether to friends or enemies must find its proper place as part of our service to him.
- We operate with love. This includes both proactively doing good for others and accepting the various sufferings that result from others doing evil.
- We trust God’s vindication, reward, and overflowing blessing both within and beyond our present life.
I believe these three points, and more, are embraced in the call to take up our cross and live a cruciform (cross-shaped) life. The New Testament approach to slavery puts a good deal of flesh on this bare outline.
The deep problem with slavery is that masters claim what only belongs to God.
Slavery is bad. Though the New Testament gives advice for dealing with slavery, it does not call it good. Slavery is often brutal; sometimes more so, sometimes less so. The material conditions of slaves vary; some are better provided for than others. But there is one constant about slavery: the slave’s labors and living arrangements are under the control of the master. Another person holds the (legal) right to say where one goes and what one does. This level of control should not be held by another human.
To be sure, a Christian in the situation of slavery can serve God triumphantly, but the arrangement does not befit their status as a slave (servant) of God. Paul does reassure slaves that they can serve God as “a freedman of the Lord.” But he quickly adds “Do not become slaves of men.” Jesus bought us with a price. Choosing to be a slave shows a failure to appreciate that Christ is our master. Even when Paul counsels slaves not to “be concerned about” their condition, he adds a qualifier: “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23).
Servants of the Lord guard their freedom to serve him without restriction. Israel was not to allow their fellow Israelites to be sold as slaves because they were God’s servants, whom he rescued from slavery in Egypt (Leviticus 25:39-55). In the letter to the Galatians, Paul enjoins us to stand firm in freedom as sons of God (rather than living as slaves or minors under the guardianship of Torah). This freedom, though, results in serving each other through love. Peter emphasizes freedom as well, even when he is urging believers to be subject to human institutions.
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a coverup for evil, but living as slaves of God. (1 Peter 2:16)
The Master in Heaven Relativizes “masters according to the flesh.”
The New Testament proclaims that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28). Yet, various texts mention or imply that there were Christian slaveholders. Does the fact that slavery remained in the church represent a failure to live up to the teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free? Perhaps in a sense it does. As we have seen, slavery is definitely not to be accepted as a good, or even neutral, thing. Slaves should avail themselves of opportunities to be free. The letter to Philemon is often seen as indirectly requesting that Onesimus be set free. However, the proclamation that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus also finds its application even when the legal institution of slavery remains in place.
In a certain sense, Christianity declares slavery irrelevant. The gospel declares that any useful work, whether done by enslaved or free Christians, will be rewarded by God. All Christians, even slave masters, have a master in heaven to whom they will give account. All, slaves included, are to be treated with justice and fairness. No one has a license to employ threats to manage other people. All should be willing to serve and provide benefits to other people. The Christian assembly and the Lord’s Supper are to embody social equality.
The term lord or master (Greek kurios) is worth digging into in this connection. Kurios was a common term for God in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Itwas a title claimed by Roman emperors. Kurios was also the word used to describe a master who had slaves. Referring to Jesus as Lord thus conveys multiple resonances. Translating Kurios as “Lord” brings interesting nuances to the slavery texts. Human masters are “Lords according to the flesh” while the slaves are really “slaves of Christ.” And ‘lords’ have a Lord in heaven who will show them no preference over those they hold as slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9). While Christian slaves should obey their earthly lords, they are really serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:22-24). In this way the whole question of slaves and masters is reframed in light of the true Master in heaven.
The institution of slavery must not be allowed to negate brotherhood or the human value of loving service. This is why Paul can say such things as, “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.” (1 Timothy 6:2) Slavery is bad, but it does not change the fundamental reality that work is good. It is a way of serving the Lord and serving other people. Work is not first and foremost about getting paid but about getting something worthwhile done. Of course, the worker deserves a share of the benefit deriving from their work, but whether we are well or poorly compensated on earth, “whether slave or free,” we work for the love of God and for an eternal reward. I explore what slavery passages teach us about the goodness of work and how we should think about its value in “What We learn from New Testament Advice to Slaves.”
The Dinner of the Master in Heaven, or the Lord’s supper, speaks to the social status of slaves. Slaves shared with their masters not only the loaf and cup of remembrance, but the full love feast. This contrasts sharply with the standard custom of slaves serving their masters food first, and only getting to eat afterward. 1 Corinthians 11 severely rebukes abuses of the Lord’s supper and makes clear that the love feast is a shared meal of rich and poor. It is to be eaten together and shared among all or else the Lord’s dinner will degenerate into a bunch of private meals and make a mockery of the body of Christ.
The Way of the Cross Grows from Trust in Divine Vindication and Reward
Nowhere is the NT response to slavery more closely tied to the way of the cross than in 1 Peter. In chapters 2 and 3, Peter puts all relationships in the context of Jesus’s example. Jesus’s way is love and honor for all people even when they are unjust and evil. For the Lord’s sake we are submit to human institutions of government and empire. We honor all people. Slaves honor and submit to even harsh and violent masters without revenge or reviling just as Jesus suffered and did not seek revenge or return reviling with reviling. Jesus rather committed himself to the Father who judges justly, our Shepherd and Overseer. Peter then applies this concept to wives, especially those with unbelieving husbands. Their practice of honor and submission might even draw their husbands to “obey the word.” Husbands are to apply the principle by living with their wives in honor and understanding. Peter wraps up by describing how this mindset applies to all relationships:
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless… (1 Peter 3:8-9)
This reminds us that Christian exhortations to slaves are simply specific ways of working out the Christian approach to all of life and relations, the way of Jesus that honors all people and bears the cross without resorting to slander, violence, or threats. Slavery, as other forms of ill-treatment is a chance to identify with the cross of Christ and his suffering love.
This cross-bearing is sustained out of confidence in God. We imitate Christ who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). We too “entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (4:19). We are “guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5). And, God “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” us (5:10).
Do the Epistles Reflect a Social Conservatism that Waters Down Jesus’ Prophetic Teachings?
Do slavery passages in the letters of Peter and Paul domesticate Jesus’s message and the fiery words of James and the Revelation? Paul counsels slaves to be good slaves and masters to be good masters. Doesn’t this leave the underlying unjust structures in place? Everybody is supposed to play nice, but the fundamental problem seems left in place: some people are regarded as the property of others, their function in life—this temporal life anyhow—is to make things better for their masters. Where is the message of liberation, justice, and a new society?
On the face of it, Paul’s letters seem to mark a step backward from the Torah. The Old Testament forbade outright slavery (for fellow Israelites), limited debt service to seven years, and imposed a land regime that, if followed, ensured widely distributed land ownership and prevented the rise of permanent, generational, landed and landless classes. If indeed the gospel calls for more radical righteousness than Torah, why don’t we see explicit calls for a wider distribution of capital and the elimination of slavery for all people, not just Israelites? Why don’t we at least get a blunt command: “Slave owners repent and free your slaves!” (The closest we see to that is the letter to Philemon where Paul’s indirectly worded non-command command seems to be that Philemon should free Onesimus, but the letter still acknowledges Philemon’s claims on Onesimus.)
I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer to that question. I think the slavery texts in the Epistles clearly portray a response that is thoroughly rooted in the Gospel. At the same time, it seems like blunt statements that slaveholding is, in and of itself, sinful would also fit with the Gospel. Perhaps part of the answer is that demanding immediate emancipation could do more harm than good, if master’s simply threw their slaves out to fend for themselves. The New Testament emphasis rather places responsibility for the wellbeing and respectful treatment of slaves onto their masters. It seems to me that if masters really take responsibility for their slaves and learn to treat them with justice and fairness as brothers (eventual) emancipation is the only logical outcome.
Masters (“lords according to the flesh”) are reminded that are reminded that they too are under a Lord. He shows no partiality. The significance of this can hardly be overstated. Double standards are the norm of fallen human society. Let a master attack a slave out of rage or mess around with a slave woman and, while frowned upon, it will be generally accepted without serious consequences. Let a slave lash out physically or fool with a free woman in the house and the indignation and consequences will be severe. God makes no such distinction. Paul is keen to remind the rich of this:
Masters are to avoid threatening and to treat their slaves with justice and fairness. What does the apostle have in mind by justness and fairness? Avoiding threats and violence is surely part of what he means. So too is adequate material provision. Everyone deserves the fruit of their labor. Paul stressed this eloquently in 1 Corinthians 9. Even draft animals get to eat. Those tending cattle share the milk. Those plowing fields share the resulting crop. Workers are to enjoy the benefit, and even if Paul does not demand emancipation of slaves, he surely calls for them to enjoy the fruit of their work. The words justice and fairness call for respect toward slaves as fellow human beings and brothers in Christ. Humane treatment is not enough. Respect is required. In practice this respect should lead to clarity about what is and is not the slave’s responsibility, time off for rest and for participation in the life of the assembly, respect for slave marriages and families, and in general respect for human dignity. I believe the logical outcome is transitioning away from slavery altogether toward other arrangements for work and social and economic structure.
Some Implication Questions
How should free people respond to slavery around us or in other parts of our world? Should we, nonviolently but actively, help others escape? Should we negotiate with slaveholders to bargain for freedom? What difference does it make if slavery is illegal or legally sanctioned? I don’t have experience in working with these situations, but the question was driven home to me as I helped children in church prepare a skit based on the American underground railroad. In those stories we encounter slaves who purchased their freedom from their masters, slaves who ran away, and other people who helped them escape to safer jurisdictions. This forces a question, does Christianity commend the option to escape from slavery when such an opportunity exists? Certainly, if one has a chance to purchase his own freedom, that chance should be taken. If that is not feasible or desirable, should one run away? Should those not enslaved facilitate an (often illegal) escape? It seems we should at a minimum live up to the Old Testament standard for treating escapees. “Do not return a slave to his master if he has taken refuge with you. Let him live among you wherever he chooses, in the town of his pleasing. Do not oppress him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
Do modern free persons face situations that are analogous to slavery and call for an analogous response? Sometimes people attempt to apply advice to slaves directly to employees. “Employees be subject to your employer!” Of course employment is (should be) quite different than slavery in that it is both better compensated and voluntary. Employment is also specific rather than all encompassing. An employee devotes himself to the employers purposes for specific hours, whereas a slavemaster lays claim to direct the slaves entire life.
One takeaway for employees is the simple point that God values and rewards all legitimate work. Another take away for employees, and all of us, is how we respond to situations where someone else gets the better end of the deal. Sometimes these are situations where we have limited options and the other party (perhaps an employer) holds all the leverage. If we have opportunity to escape from those situations to situations where we are treated with justice and fairness, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity. If we don’t have the opportunity we should still do our work out of love and service for other people and ultimately for God himself.
 Scripture cited from the ESV but may be slightly adapted: for example reading “slave” where the ESV used the softer term “servant” or technical term “bondservant.”
 Why does Leviticus 25 allow buying non-Israelite slaves and treating them as property? I see the OT Law as the civil law of a nation, which does make concessions to human nature and prevailing mores. Torah left the institution of slavery intact but limited it by proclaiming every Israelite to belong to God. The New Testament build on and advances the ethics of the Old Testament. The New Testament does not give a civil law for a people group but calls forth the church whose members reside within every nation.
 Galatians says there is not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus. As regards the first pair, scripture enjoins that Jews and Greeks live in full fellowship without demanding that Greeks become Jews (or Jews become Greeks). With regard to the second pair, male and female obviously remains a significant difference, though the exact nature and extent of that difference is greatly disputed. Clearly slave and free can be equally Christian, but it seems like slave and free is a difference that should utterly disappear, unlike the difference between male and female.
 The Septuagint used it not only for the Hebrew word meaning Lord, but also as a euphemism for the divine name YHWH (Jehovah or Yahweh). This practice was indicated in the Hebrew manuscripts was well, and continues in many English Bibles with the use of LORD (all caps) for YHWH in the Old Testament.
 Additionally kurios could be used as a term of respect like our “sir.”
 I am glad that those potlucks which we call “Fellowship Meals” remain among Anabaptist churches. We need to recover and reemphasize the theological meaning of such meals and recover the deep connection between the love feast and the remembrance.
 Jesus references this practice in the parable of the unworthy servants. “Will any of you how has a slave plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” (Luke 17:7-8)
About the Author: A disciple claimed by Jesus and called to varied responsibilities: brother, husband, father, householder, steward of the scriptures, editor, bookkeeper and analyst, writer, etc.
My faith has been nurtured in the Amish and Mennonite tradition, within which I serve, and enriched by my interest in the church across time, place, and tradition.
My craft training is in residential construction, and my academic training is in philosophy (B.A. Grove City College; M.A., PhD University of Tennessee, Knoxville). I have attempted to broaden those skills through various other endeavors in craft and scholarship, but even in those, my basic training as a carpenter and philosopher shapes what I do.