Slavery & the Bible (Part 6) The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Slavery & The Bible – GFTM Series:

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

THE THIRD WAY: THE CHRISTIAN WAY

In the last article of this series, we established that rebellion and civil disobedience weren’t good options for Christian slaves. So, what could Christian slaves do? Is there a third way? Obviously, being a slave wasn’t the ideal situation, but are there Christian principles that all Christians should live by, even slaves?

The answer is yes. Let’s look at these principles, and then at the New Testament passages that address slavery in context. Remember: CONTEXT IS KING when it comes to understanding written and spoken communication! Once we understand the context of the passages, I believe the “problem verses” — including those people hostile to Christianity like to cite — will no longer be problems.

Before we do this, remember part of understanding the context of a written work is understanding historical context, so let me remind you one more time that Roman slavery was NOT the same as American slavery, as we discussed before. (Read more here.)

The Christian Work Ethic: Honor Christ in All You Do

Humankind was made in God’s image and designed to partake in work (Gen. 2:15). Work isn’t the result of the Fall into sin and the curse on creation, but humankind was designed for meaningful, productive work before the Fall. Only after the Fall did work become toilsome and frustrating (Gen. 3:17-19). Even now, humankind is meant to partake in meaningful work, including both artistic or more practical work. Again, because of the fallenness of the world, work is not always rewarding or fulfilling, but it’s still unnatural and against God’s plan for humans to be idle. Paul even goes so far as to say if someone won’t work, he shouldn’t eat (2 Thess. 3:10). Furthermore, we’re to do our best at the tasks we’re given, even if the situation isn’t ideal. For example:

Colossians 3:23-25

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”

(Also see verses like Proverbs 14:23; 6:6-11; Ecc. 9:10).

 

Be a light to the World… Glorify God… Humble Your Enemies

Christians are to live in such a way that it inspires others to want to be better. (Sadly, this is easier said than done because saved Christians are still sinners and often fail at this.) Christians are to live their lives by the example of Jesus Christ, prayerfully hoping to lead others to liberation through Christ. Not only that, but Christians are to conduct themselves in such a way that even their enemies – even those who hate them – feel shame when they speak harshly about them.

Matthew 5:14-16

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

1 Peter 3:15-18

“… but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…”

 

Love Your Enemies

God loved us when we were in rebellion against him and dead in our sins, and he sent his Son to die for the sins of the world. Just like God loves us despite our sin, we are to love others, even our enemies.

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Luke 6:27-28

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

 

Personal Sacrifice for the Good of Others

Christians believe in a God who left a place of perfect shalom to enter our violent world and be tortured and die on a cross to free the world from sin. Christians are undoubtedly commanded to follow their Savior’s example.

Philippians 2:6-8

“[Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Luke 9:23-25

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself

Matthew 20:26-28

“… whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

John 13:15, 13:35

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you… By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

The “Problem Verses”

Now, let’s look at our 6 “problem” passages addressing slavery/servanthood from the New Testament and see how these principles help us to understand the thought behind lines that appear troubling.

As you’ll see, whenever you hear a troubling line from the Bible, often simply reading it in context brings understanding. And though I provide more lines of the passages here than memes that claim the New Testament supports slavery, I recommend you read more than just what appears in this article to get the full context of the argument or flow of thinking in these letters by Jesus’ Apostles. But to assist in understanding, I will provide the context briefly. (Additionally, all the background I gave you in this series so far will help your understanding as well.)

#1

Before this, Paul is addressing those who have newly become Christian, including those married, unmarried, widows, the circumcised (Jews) and uncircumcised (non-Jews), and then he writes…

1 Corinthians 7:20-24

Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant [slave, servant] when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [slave, servant] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant [slave, servant] of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants [slave, servant] of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

Interestingly, you never see those hostile to Christianity using this verse as a meme to say that Christianity promotes slavery. Notice Paul is saying your position in life isn’t the most important thing, so serve God where you are. Christ gives a freedom that transcends this physical world. But he also says to NOT remain a slave if possible and NOT to sell yourself into slavery (a common practice for the poor in ancient Rome).

 

#2

Ephesians6

Back in Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul starts with the command to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” He goes on to say in 5:21 that Christians should live “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” addressing husbands and wives and children and parents, and then he writes…

Ephesians 6:5-9

Bondservants [slaves, servants] obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants [slave, servants] of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant [slave, servant] or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

Interesting again: Memes made by those hostile to Christianity never include Ephesians 6:9, where masters are commanded to treat his slave with mutual respect. Not only that, but God, the master of all, does NOT favor the slave master over the slave (“there is no partiality with him”)! Whether this passage is addressing indentured servanthood or slavery-proper, the command is clear: treat each other with genuine, mutual respect. God, the master over all, will reward and punish both justly, regardless of who is the earthly master or slave.

 

#3

slaverymemeNT2

Once again: What’s wrong with this billboard? If you don’t know, you haven’t been reading this series.

Colossians 3:18-4:1

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Bondservants [slave, servant], obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants [slaves, servants] justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.

Once again, I see memes citing Colossians 3:22, but not 4:1, where masters are commanded to treat their slaves/servants “justly and fairly”! (Also, hostile feminists like to cite Colossians 3:18, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” while ignoring 3:19, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them”!) Colossians 3:18-4:1 is basically the same exact thought Paul expresses in the Ephesians passage we looked at above. Like Ephesians 6, people in all walks of life must honor others by living in harmony with them. Just as Christians follow a servant-master who willingly died for the sins of the world, Christians aren’t to just keep the peace, but sacrificially love and serve others.

Furthermore, those making memes of Colossians 3:22 also ignore a verse that appears shortly before it, Colossians 3:11:

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

Also see similar statements in Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 12:13.

Benjamin Reaoch writes, “In both [Ephesians 6 and Colossians 4] Paul gives commands to masters as well as slaves, and in this way challenges the perception that masters had absolute rights over their slaves.”[1]

 

#4

slaverymeme3NT

1 Timothy 6:1-2

“Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves, servants] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 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.”

From the context of this passage, I have a hard time believing Paul is addressing a slave owned by a cruel master or a situation of slavery-proper since earlier in the same exact letter Paul condemns “enslavers” (1:10) as sinners! (Why didn’t the person who made the above meme include this?) Clearly, the Christian “slave” or bondservant being addressed here is under the authority of a Christian. Basically, Paul is saying to the bondservant: Just because your “master” or boss is also a Christian, don’t take that for granted – don’t take unfair advantage of him because of this. What is really important to note — whether Paul is talking about a true slave/master relationship or simply a boss/underling relationship — Paul speaks of them as equals in worth and value: “they are brothers”!

 

#5

Titus 2:9-10 is very similar to 1 Timothy 6:1-2. Just before this, Paul addressed older men and women and younger men, and in 2:7-8, he writes, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” He then continues…

Titus 2: 9-10

“Bondservants [slaves, servants] are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”

Again, Paul commands Christians to respect their bosses and to do their jobs without grumbling. This good conduct points others towards God.

 

#6

1 Peter 2:18

“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.”

For this last one, let’s look at the controversial line alone before looking at it in context to the rest of the passage. The word (oiketai) translated as “Servants” in 1 Peter 2:18 is not the same word (doulos) used in the other passages we looked at above. As we discussed before in this series, doulos is a word that covers a wide range of types of servanthood, including slaves, indentured servants, and even workers under contract. The word Peter, an Apostle of Jesus and one of Jesus’ original 12 disciples, uses (oiketai) is related to the ancient Greek word for house, and oiketai denotes a house servant, someone more closely connected to the family or household. If there’s a possibility that doulos is not speaking of slavery-proper in every case it’s used, the connotation of oiketai is certainly less likely to be referring to true slaves, but servants. In fact, of the 6 translations we looked at before, 4 out of 6 translated oiketai “servants” instead of “slaves.”

Now, let’s look at more of 1 Peter. I think it will do us good to read a larger potion of 1 Peter 2 and to comment as we go:

9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.

11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.

 

Again, we see this idea that Christians, in the light of God’s mercy that they have received, should be living in such a way that even Gentiles (nonbelievers) and evildoers will glorify God because of Christians’ honorable conduct.

 

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants [bondservants, slaves (“doulos”)] of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

 

Peter continues this idea, again stating that by conducting yourself honorably to everyone and in every situation, it will silence the foolish. Christians have been set free – free not to live selfishly, but free to love God and mankind. They are to honor everyone, even the emperor and governors, but God is the ultimate authority. In other words, there’s no reason to fear the emperor; as strange as this may sound to modern ears, only God has the power and authority to be given the honor of being feared. (That being said, since the authority of God stands over the authority of the emperor, to “honor” doesn’t mean Christians blindly follow emperors — or governments — clearly opposing God’s law. A similar point could be made about Christian servants under evil masters.)

 

18 Servants (“oiketai”) be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

 

Now, we already spoke about how oiketai likely means servant and not slave, but let’s imagine the worst situation – that oiketai does mean slave. And not only that, but the master isn’t just a jerky boss, but a cruel, harsh slave-master. After all, the passage above mentions “suffering unjustly” and even speaks of being beaten. In our last article, we looked at how revolt and even civil disobedience or nonviolent protest meant certain, horrible death for Roman slaves, and runaway slaves were treated horribly as well. So, what Peter is doing here in this passage is giving hope to the hopeless slave. The Christian slave belongs to Christ, not his earthly slave-master. The slave-master’s evil behavior and the slave’s unjust suffering does not go unnoticed by God. God, the true overseer, the just and merciful overseer, knows all and will judge all.

Not only that, but the slave can find solace in knowing that his Lord and Savior also suffered unjustly, but through his suffering and death, he accomplished the greatest good and he will wipe away every one of his people’s tears (Rev. 21:4).

NEXT:  Before we move on to the Old Testament, one last question should be asked: Why didn’t Jesus or his Apostles simply tell slave owners to free their slaves?

Slavery & The Bible – GFTM Series:

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Works Cited

[1] Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate by Benjamin Reaoch.

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4 thoughts on “Slavery & the Bible (Part 6) The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

  1. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 9) Did Christianity End Slavery? What History Tells Us. | god from the machine

  2. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 8) Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves? | god from the machine

  3. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 7) Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament | god from the machine

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