Quick Responses to Bad Memes #3

If you see this meme…

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Reply with these…

PicsMeme1

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Sincerely,

God From the Machine

More from GFTM:

Quick Responses to Bad Memes #1

Quick Responses to Bad Memes #2 (Ricky Gervais Version)

The “Telephone Game” Myth: Has the New Testament Been Changed Over Time?

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Slavery & the Bible (Part 8) Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves?

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

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Read Part 7: Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

TWO LAST BIG QUESTIONS

So, we’ve spent the last few articles exploring the New Testament response to slavery. Before we move on to the Old Testament, there are two last, big closing questions we need to answer:

#1 – Why didn’t Jesus or the writers of the New Testament simply tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

#2 – Did it work? — Meaning, did the New Testament response to slavery effectively fight against slavery?

 

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RESPONSE TO BIG CLOSING QUESTION #1

Why didn’t Jesus or the writers of the New Testament tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

Slavery was so prominent in the Roman Empire we can be fairly certain that many of the first people to become Christians were slave-owners. So, why didn’t Jesus ever say or his first followers ever write in the New Testament something like, “Hey, if you’re a slave-owner who is now following Christ, free your slaves”?

First Timothy 6:1-2 reads, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves, servants, “doulos”] 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.

We’ve already discussed 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and also how doulos has a wide range of meanings, so we can’t be certain Paul is addressing true slavery here and not something like a worker under contract or an indentured servant. But, for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume doulos means slave here — as in true owning-another-person-as-property slavery. If this is the case, then here in 1 Timothy 6, Paul confirms that there were Christian slave-owners.

So, why didn’t Jesus or the Apostles who wrote the New Testament simply tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

The short answer: They didn’t have to.

Think of it this way: In Ephesians 5:28-29, Paul clearly tells Christian husbands to love their wives. In fact, he says they should love their wives like Christ loves the church. Don’t forget, Christ died to create his church. Now, if Paul says this, does he also have to say, “Oh yeah, don’t beat your wives either”? In the same way, the Bible tells us we’re all made in God’s image and we have inherent eternal worth to God. In fact, God became a man and then died for us all – man, woman, Jew, gentile, slave, freeman – so we could spend eternity with him. Considering this, do the Bible’s writers really have to specifically tell us, “Oh yeah, don’t own someone else like a piece of property”?

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The longer Answer:

Both the New and Old Testaments are saturated with teachings that run counter to the mindset that would condone slavery (as we saw in earlier articles). If one is truly following Christ, they will reach the logical conclusion that the literal ownership of another image-bearer of God is against God’s design.

To hammer this home, there is actually one more section of the New Testament we haven’t looked at yet that has something else to teach us about slavery. It’s another letter by Paul, which we call the Book of Philemon.

Philemon is actually a very short letter written by the Apostle Paul to a Christian named Philemon. Based on the context of the letter, it appears that the letter was delivered from Paul to Philemon by Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. After running away, Onesimus had become a Christian, and one way or another, ended up meeting Paul. As we discussed before, the life of a runaway slave was bleak; the Roman Empire stretched far and wide, and runaway slaves were dealt with harshly.

Instead of telling Onesimus to continue to run, Paul sends him back to Philemon. Interestingly, in his letter, Paul points out that he’s one of Jesus’ apostles so he could easily use his place of authority to command Philemon, a Christian, to “do what is required” – to do the right thing – but he goes on to say “for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” to welcome back Onesimus not as a fugitive runaway slave and “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” Paul is saying: I’m not going to force you to do what is right because I know you’ll freely do the right thing, which is to treat Onesimus as your brother.

Now, someone may still gripe and say, Paul still didn’t tell him to free Onesimus! But let me ask the obvious question: If Paul tells Philemon to love Onesimus like a brother, does he really have to say that he should free him? I don’t think so.

Why didn’t the writers of the New Testament explicitly tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

They didn’t have to.

Benjamin Reaoch writes in Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate, “[Paul] does not attack the institution of slavery. But something even deeper and more radical is happening here. In Christ, slaves and masters become brothers.”

NEXTThe Christian Response to Slavery: Did it Work? What history tells us.

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

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Read Part 7: Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

Check out Who Jesus Ain’t and other books by GFTM here.

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Slavery & the Bible (Part 7) Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

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

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

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ANOTHER TYPE OF SLAVERY & FREEDOM IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

So, to quickly review our last two articles: Why didn’t the New Testament writers tell Christian slaves to revolt? Because rebellion against the Roman Empire meant one likely outcome: death. So, what could Christian slaves do? Well, they could conduct themselves as Christians, even when slaves, by living out these biblical principles:

  • The Christian Work Ethic: Honor Christ in All You Do
  • Be a Light to the World… Glorify God… Humble Your Enemies
  • Love Your Enemies
  • Personal Sacrifice for the Good of Others

Benjamin Reaoch in his book Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate points out, “The mere fact that slaves are addressed directly [in the New Testament] is significant. In this way Paul and Peter implicitly recognize the personhood of slaves and grant them the dignity of moral responsibility… The instructions to these individuals would have challenged the cultural norms of the day, and if heeded, would radically transform the master-slave relationship… we find that slavery is an assumed reality, and one that is being transformed by the power of the gospel.”

Or think of it this way: Christian slaves were already saved from eternal separation from God; they would spend eternity with Christ. Their non-Christian slave-masters could not say the same thing. Thus, in the New Testament worldview, that means the Christian slave is free and the non-Christian slave-owner is enslaved. In the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ, their statuses are inverted and there is a clear dichotomy: You’re either a slave to sin or freed by Christ.

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)

Only in Jesus Christ — the Son — is true freedom found.

But we also find the slave-to-sin vs. free-through-Christ dichotomy put another way in the New Testament: slave-to-sin vs. slave-to-Christ. No one can have two masters (Matt. 6:24); everyone worships something, and you’re either ruled by sin or ruled by Christ. It’s either one or the other. Paul even calls himself a slave (“doulos“/servant/bondservant) of Christ (Rom. 1:1), and he writes elsewhere:

For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [“doulos”/slave] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant [“doulos”/slave] of Christ. (1 Corinthians 7:22)

So, in Christ, the believing slave is made free (from the condemnation of sin) and the believing freeman is made a “slave” (through willing obedience to Christ). Here we see a deep truth in paradox: Christians are ruled by Christ as their master, but in doing so they experience true freedom. Everyone is ruled by something, and to be ruled by anything else other than our Creator leads to destruction. You can be a slave to a cruel master (sin) or you can humble yourself before a kind master (Christ), who rules with love and mercy. But, have no doubt about it, you will be ruled by something. Christians obey our master not because of fear of hell, as many who don’t understand true biblical Christianity accuse Christians of from time to time, but because we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

So, the literal Christian slaves of the Roman Empire were already free in the most important way possible: They were free to live in the reality of God’s eternal kingdom. And once a slave is free in this way, he’s free to willingly put himself second, to love his enemies, and to witness to the truth and freedom of Christ to those around him — even to his human slave-master.

After all, Christians’ ultimate example to follow is their Lord and Savior, the second person of the Trinitarian Godhead, who made himself a slave to all for the sake of all the world:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ 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 [“doulos,” slave], 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. (Philippians 2:3-8)

Now, what is more likely to lead the unbelieving slave-masters to salvation — Christian slaves following the Christian principles listed above or Christian slaves openly hating their masters? Christ wins people to him by changing their hearts. Christianity isn’t an outside to inside movement, but an inside to outside movement. Christ didn’t conquer with a sword, but by humbling himself by dying for the world. In the eyes of the Roman world, the slave should be pitied, but to the Christian slave, it’s the unsaved slave-owner that should be pitied — even loved — praying that these sinful people will find God’s mercy and enter into Christ’s eternal kingdom.

Once again, Paul lays out the comparison for us:

“… you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:16-23)

When Jesus chose a metaphor to describe the spreading of his kingdom, he didn’t use the metaphor of a conquering army, but of a mustard seed:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches”(Matthew 13:31-32).

Jesus conquers with love and changes society not by the swiftness of the sword, which is always short-lived, but by changing hearts, the only sure way to change something as deeply ingrained and evil in a culture as slavery was in Rome.

NEXT: The two BIG questions: Why didn’t Jesus tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?  and The Christian Response to Slavery: Did it Work?

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

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Available in paperback for $9.00 (or less) and Kindle version for $3.50 (or less) on Amazon. Or learn more here.

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Slavery & The Bible (Part 5) Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

 

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

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

rome-slavauction

INTRO

In this series, as we moved from American slavery to Roman slavery, we saw that the word often translated “slavery” in the New Testament from the ancient Greek word (doulos) actually covers a wide range of types of servanthood. Thus, every time doulos is used in the New Testament, we can’t be 100% certain it’s speaking of true slavery.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst: that all the times doulos is used in the New Testament, Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are addressing true slavery, true slave masters, and true slaves.

So, why didn’t the Apostles start a revolt — whether through armed revolution or civil disobedience? And why didn’t they tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves? We’ll be exploring these questions next in this series, and we’ll also look at the New Testament’s slavery “problem verses.”

Why No Christian Revolt?

So, why didn’t the Apostles tell Christian slaves to revolt?

The Quick Answer:

The quick answer is best addressed with another question: Where would rebellion get Roman slaves?

The answer: Dead.

The Long Answer:

Slavery was all-pervasive throughout the Roman Empire and the ancient world. An estimated 85-90% of the inhabitants of Rome and the Italian peninsula were slaves or of slave origin in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD[1]. By the time of Christ, slaves made up well over half of the Roman population.[2] The economy, culture, and the very structure of Roman society were built upon it.

Ancient Rome isn’t 21st Century America with a rich tradition of free speech and human rights (and, yes, I’m going to say it: thanks to the Christian worldview). Captured runaway Roman slaves would have a much harsher, miserable life than the one they lived prior to running away because they would now be criminals as well as slaves. Those sentenced to slavery due to crimes often did the worst sort of labor. Often the very nature of their forced labor was a death sentence, such as working in the gloom of dangerous, lung-destroying mines. Also, it was common for runaway slaves to have the first three letters of the Latin word for “fugitive” branded into their foreheads.

Furthermore, one way Romans prevented slaves from getting ideas about any sort of violent rebellion was simply this: If the slave master ended up murdered, all of his slaves would follow him to the grave. Yes, you read that right: if one person is murdered and that person was a slave-owner, all of his slaves would be put to death. There is historical evidence of one such case of 400 slaves being executed because their master had been murdered even though there was absolutely no evidence that the 400 slaves had anything to do with his death.

Roman_Sword

With such a large population as slaves, the Roman elite needed fear and brutality to keep the idea of rebellion far from their minds. As any Christian knows, those seen as a threat to Roman power – such as insurgents and those claiming to be rival kings (such as a Jewish messiah) – were crucified – a slow, torturous death on full display for all to see, just in case anyone had any of their own ideas about challenging Roman authority.

One of the best-known slave uprisings in ancient Rome lasted 3 years from 73-71 BC, the one partly led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator-slave. Spartacus with about 70 other slaves escaped from a gladiator training school and raised an army as large as 120,000 slaves at the rebellion’s pinnacle. The slave armies were able to give the Roman armies a run for their money for a short time before being defeated in 71 BC. Spartacus likely died in the battle, but the 6,000 captured slaves who survived didn’t live much longer after that as they were all crucified. Yes, the Roman legions crucified them – all 6,000 of them – lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.

If the Apostles Paul or Peter would’ve written that slaves should rebel (in a self-condemning letter in their own hand as irrefutable evidence, no less) both men would’ve been executed on a Roman cross like their Lord and Savior (before they actually were executed for being Christians, anyhow, as they were).

Perhaps some people mistakenly think of the power of the medieval European church and mistakenly project this image of influence back on Jesus’ original disciples. Let’s be clear, the Apostles had no political power or influence. They were a small, strange group of Jews, who – all with the exception of one – met grisly early deaths for proclaiming belief in a God-man who died on a Roman cross and rose from the dead.

Telling Christian slaves to rebel, I’m afraid, wouldn’t have done much good for anyone.

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What About Non-violent Protest & Civil Disobedience?

Certainly, non-violent protest and civil disobedience is a much more Christian way of fighting slavery than violent rebellion. But, again, we’re discussing the ancient Roman Empire, not the modern United States of the 2,000s or even the British Empire in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The reason the movements led by brave men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were successful is because they were doing non-violent protests and civil disobedience against a ruling class which, as unjust as they seem to us today, still had a morality that valued human life (and, yes, I’ll say it again: thanks to the influence of Christianity). The reason the movements of MLK and Gandhi (both inspired by Jesus, mind you) worked is because they actually used the sense of morality of their oppressors against them. Through non-violent resistance, they put the society’s hypocrisy on full display for the world to see, and, more importantly, for the society itself to see – as if holding up a mirror so the society could see itself as it truly was for the first time.

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But here’s the thing about non-violent protest/civil disobedience: it doesn’t work against Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Darth Vader or Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Un or ISIS. All it would produce against such leaders would be certain death (and likely not a quick or pretty one).

I’m not saying ancient Rome was the exact equivalent of these evil reigns of power, but it wasn’t the modern United States either – by far. Protests by slaves would still be seen as a threat to the rule of the Roman Empire, and if punishment were not death, the punishment would be swift and brutal, especially for a slave. Roman society had a strict social hierarchy, and those with power were fervent in keeping everyone in their place.

MLK

Once again, we’re not talking about a country with a long tradition of free speech. This is the Roman Empire. The significance of civil disobedience – like, say, a work slow-down – would be lost on the Romans and would likely end up with at least a severe flogging.

All we have to do is look at the two earliest known records by Romans about Christians to see this. The earliest was written in about 111 AD by Pliny, a Roman senator:

 

“I have asked them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not go unpunished… They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery… This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

 

Notice, Pliny plainly states that the “guilt or error” of these Christians was not criminal, yet he still matter-of-factly states that they were tortured and led off to execution. (Also notice the early Christian church allowed women slaves to hold positions of prominence!) Human rights is not a Roman or pagan value. It’s a Christian value – all people, men and women, are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

The second earliest known record written by a Roman about Christians is by Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman proconsul and historian, written in 115 AD:

 

“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that the burning of Rome in 64 AD had taken place by his order], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Christ], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty: then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

 

If you were a Roman Christian or Roman slave (or both) would you feel up for some civil disobedience after hearing of this? Probably not.

Non-violent protest and civil disobedience are great options for modern Americans because the United States is built upon principles that give citizens those options. Free speech is a part of the very DNA of the United States. Human life is valued. During the Roman Empire, free speech was the privilege of few, and even if your actions were non-violent, it didn’t mean violence wouldn’t be used against you – especially if you were a slave.

So, we’re back to where we started: What would rebellion – whether violent or otherwise – get Christian slaves? Nowhere good.

So, what could they do? What other options did they have?

NEXT: The New Testament Approach to Slavery & the “Problem Verses”

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

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

CHECK OUT OUR NEW BOOK HERE

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Works Cited

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

[2] Seven Truths That Changed the World by Kenneth Richard Samples.

Slavery & The Bible (Part 4) Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

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Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

INTRO

So far in this series we’ve addressed 1 criticism of 3 often-voiced criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery: Criticism #1 – In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery. And we’ve found that both American slavery and racism are unbiblical. In fact, they’re anti-biblical.

In this article, we’ll start addressing criticism #2:

In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, the Apostles even told slaves to be obedient.

(In future articles, we’ll address criticism #3: In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.)

Thus, in this article (and a few that follow), we’ll address: What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.

 

THE QUICK ANSWER

1 – Paul, an apostle of Jesus, clearly condemns as sinners “enslavers” by including them in a long list of other sinners (1 Timothy 1:10). The original Greek word used here means those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery. Thus, Christians are forbidden from human trafficking.

2 – The Apostle Paul tells slaves if they have an opportunity to gain their freedom to take it (1 Corinthians 7:21), and he says to not sell yourself into slavery (1 Corinthians 7:23), which was a normal practice in ancient Rome for the impoverished or those in debt.

3 – Masters are told to treat their slaves/bondservants justly and fairly, knowing they will answer to God: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1)

4 – Not only that, but slaves and masters are put on equal ground: “…[masters,] stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their [the slaves’] Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (Ephesians 6:9)

5 – Christian slaves and Christian masters are “brothers” (1 Timothy 6:2). Furthermore, Colossians 3:11 reads: “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 & 1 Corinthians 12:13.)

Seems pretty straight-forward but what about quotes from the New Testament, such as:

slaverymeme3NT

 

Our “Quick Answer” above may addresses many of our concerns about the New Testament and slavery (the Old Testament will be addressed in the next part of this series), but what are we to make of New Testament quotes like this? And why don’t we ever read Jesus or his apostles simply saying, “Hey, slave-owners, set your slaves free!”

To answer that, we’ll have to get into a longer answer, one which we’ll spend this article and the next few articles exploring…

 

“SLAVERY” AIN’T ALWAYS SLAVERY

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Pop Quiz: What’s wrong with this picture?

Now, if you’ve been reading this series and paying attention, you should notice an immediate problem with the above billboard.

The picture on the billboard portrays an image depicting race-based American slavery. But the Bible quote, which is from the New Testament, would be addressing not American slavery, but Roman slavery, which was a type of slavery long extinct by the time the Americas were “discovered” by Europeans. In a pervious article, we discussed the important differences between American slavery, Roman slavery, and Israelite slavery.

So, that’s the first point I want you to keep in mind as we look at these New Testament verses addressing slavery: Roman slavery is not American slavery.

As we looked at in our last article, racism and American slavery have no grounding in the Bible; in fact, they are anti-biblical.

(Also, let me point out that the atheists who made the above billboard have to work on their knowledge of history for another reason: the New Testament was not written in the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age was long over for about a thousand years before the New Testament was written.)

(Also, let me ask: Where do atheists find any grounding for morality and human value to condemn slavery? They have none. Read more here.)

I’m not going to restate everything written in past articles (Perhaps take a moment and read more here), but to sum up: In ancient Rome, there was a wide spectrum of types of master/servant relationships that fell under the word often translated “slavery.” So when we modern people see the word translated “slave” or “slavery” in our English Bibles, it may mean something that doesn’t align with what’s in our heads at all.

“Slavery” in ancient Rome often means what we’d call indentured servanthood, or it may mean something closer to how a soldier in the modern military gives over a certain amount of years from his life to service for his country, or it could even mean something close to an apprenticeship.

Yes, in the ancient Roman Empire there was certainly what I’d call slavery-proper – meaning the slavery modern Americans think of when we hear the word “slavery” – literal ownership of another human being as property (though Roman slavery was not race-based). And this type of Roman slavery was just as repulsive and evil in God’s eyes as American slavery.

rome-slavauction

My point here is, there’s no reason to assume whenever you see the word “slavery” in the New Testament it means slavery as modern Americans define it because Roman “slavery,” the type of slavery/servanthood the writers of the New Testament lived among, was extremely different and diverse.

THE DIFFICULTY OF TRANSLATING “DOULOS

You can see this concept of diverse Roman “slavery” in the different English Bible translations we have available to us today. As I stated in an earlier article, the ancient Koine Greek word doulos that is often translated “slave” from the original New Testament manuscripts into English can also be translate “servant.” If the translators had simply chosen to use “servant” instead of “slave,” much of the hubbub about these passages may not exist.

Interestingly, I was watching an interview with Dr. Wayne Grudem, probably best known for his highly used Systematic Theology, who was also one of the scholars that worked on the ESV translation of the Bible, and when asked what was the hardest part of the translation process, he replied that it was translating the word doulos.

Translating can be challenging because there is not always an exactly matching word from one language to the next. And since the modern American concept of slavery is much different than Roman doulos, an interpretative decision had to be made. Translating doulos as “slave” would have been too harsh, but translating it “servant” was not entirely accurate either. Grudem pushed for translating it “bondservant,” which he believed represented doulos more accurately (and I agree). (Watch the interview with Dr. Grudem here. The section about translating doulos starts at 9:10 minutes. Also, there is a short video filmed by the BBC actually showing the translators of the ESV discussing/debating this exact challenge. Click here.)

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THE PROBLEM VERSES

There are 6 “problem” passages throughout the New Testament that address slavery in some way (1 Cor. 7:21, Eph. 6:5-8, Col. 3:22-25, 1 Tim. 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-25). Of these 6 passages, many English translations do translate all of them with the words “slave(s)” or “slavery.”

But I looked at 6 different translations, some of the most popular and reliable translations (ESV, NASB, KJV, RSV, NIV, NLT), and of those 6, only 2 translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” – the NIV and NLT, which are the two less literal translations out of the six.

The RSV translated every instance as “slave(s)” or “slavery” except for one passage (1 Peter 2:18-25), which was translated “servants.”

The King James (KJV) translated all of the instances as “servant(s).”

The NASB translated 4 of 6 instances as “slave(s),” one instance as “servant,” and one as “bondslaves.”

The ESV translates all of them as “bondservant(s),” except for one translated simply “servants.”

In the world of Bible translations, there are two kinds of translations. There are word-for-word translations, which try to match the original words as exactly as possible to, say, English words. Then there are idea-by-idea translations, which are more concerned with communicating the ideas the authors are trying to get across than the exact wording.

For example, if we were translating the opposite way (from modern English to ancient Greek) and we wanted to translate “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” we could translate that word-for-word, but an ancient Greek-speaker is going to be confused by this odd American folk-saying. So, instead, we may translate the idea; perhaps we translate it to this instead: Be grateful for gifts you receive and accept them without question. Obviously, an idea-by-idea translation requires a lot more interpretation on the part of the translators. (To learn more, read the GFTM article: Has the Bible Been Lost in the Translation? How Do We Know the Words in Our Bibles Today are the Original Words?)

Now, notice below, the ESV, NASB, KJV, and RSV, which are all considered solid literal, word-for-word translations differ and don’t always favor the translation “slave(s)” or “slavery,” recognizing the nuances of the original Greek. These are the most faithful translations to the original Greek, yet they differ.

My point is not that these are bad translations (because they’re not), but there’s no reason to assume the worst when you see “slave” if you understand the range and nuance of the original Greek word and the difficultly of translating to English such a word.

ESV NASB KJV RSV NLT NIV
1 Cor 7:21 Bondservant Slave Servant Slave Slave Slave
Eph 6:5-8 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
Col 3:22-25 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
1 Tim. 6:1-2 Bondservants Slaves Servants Slavery Slaves Slavery
Titus 2:9-10 Bondservants Bondslaves Servants Slaves Slaves Slaves
1 Peter 2:18-25 Servants Servants Servants Servants Slaves Slaves

Does this mean the translators had no idea what they were doing? No, it simply means the original Greek word has a range of meaning, which no one English word can communicate, and the context of the passages didn’t allow the translators to make a decisive decision on how it should be translated into English.

But, as I pointed out in an earlier article, many of these translations have footnotes at the bottom of the page explaining that “slave” can also be interpreted at “servant” or even a section in the preface of the Bible explaining that the word doulos covers a range of types of servanthood. In the preface to my ESV translation, a paragraph taking up about 1/3 of the page explains much of what I’ve explained in this article about doulos and Roman slavery/servanthood/bondservanthood.

So, maybe when Paul wrote in Colossians 3:22,

“Bondservants [slaves, servants, doulos], 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,”

he meant the indentured servanthood type of “slavery.” Or maybe he was referring to a situation where the “slave” actually chose to stay in his master’s household as a servant even after earning his release, which was not uncommon in ancient Rome. It’s quite likely Paul was simply saying: You’re in a contractual obligation, so honor it by listening to your boss and doing a good job because you’re representing the Lord.

All that being said, let’s assume the worse: Let’s assume Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are addressing true slave masters and true slaves. Next, we’ll be looking more closely at these “problem verses.”

Read Part 1: Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: Slavery & the Bible (Part 3) American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

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Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

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When it comes to slavery and Christianity, three major criticisms are often brought up:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

This breakdown into three major criticisms is helpful, because we actually are talking about three distinct types of slavery in three distinct eras of human history. In other words, recognizing that “slavery” is not identical in these three eras is important.

So, let’s start with the most recent and work back in time:

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American Slavery

Many know the deplorable history of this stain on the United States, a country built upon the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Slavery is the sad, sad irony of the Land of the Free. American slavery was a system based on the forceful kidnapping and enslavement of African people. It was race-based, where an entire race was demeaned to subhuman status to justify their treatment as literal objects of property.

American slaves had no rights as human beings and were at the sole mercy of their owners, no different than had they been pigs or cattle. Therefore, they could be worked ruthlessly, often within striking distance of a whip. Few slaves could read or write or were allowed any sort of an education. Families could be ripped apart as parents and children where bought and sold at the whim of their masters. Slave masters also were free to starve, beat, and even rape their slaves without facing any legal consequences. Further, these slaves had no hope of freedom.

It’s a dark stain on the history of the United States indeed, one that still haunts us to this day.

Roman

Roman Slavery (New Testament Era)

The slavery we find in the New Testament is specifically the slavery of the ancient Roman Empire, which is different from both American slavery and the slavery we find in the Old Testament, yet it shares some similarities with both.

Almost everything said about American slavery above can be said about Roman slavery, except Roman slavery was not race-based. Race was not a factor; one could become a slave by being born into it, by committing a grievous crime, by going into debt, by being a prisoner of war, by being sold by his or her parents, and even by voluntarily selling oneself into slavery. But Roman slavery was also a much more diverse, complicated social and economic system than American slavery.

To put it simply, Roman slavery included a wide, wide spectrum of types of servanthood within that system. So, many slaves were treated similar to American slaves, but many were also treated quite well and benefited from the arrangement. Many slaves actually chose to be slaves; some actually preferred to be slaves due to their low economic status and the benefits of being a “slave” under an affluent person. Slavery guaranteed a roof and food in an unstable world. Many Roman slaves were highly educated, even highly successful and wealthy. Like American slaves, Roman slaves were at the mercy of their masters and were property, but unlike American slaves, Roman slaves had many of the same opportunities given to free men, and it was likely they could even become free themselves.

Often modern people look at the word “slave” in the Bible and immediately connect that word with American slavery, but it’s a mistake to assume all “slavery” during the Roman Empire is the same as American slavery. Often it was much more similar to what we would call indentured servanthood, where one would be under contract to another person for a limited time until they fulfilled their contract or bought their own freedom.

Please don’t misunderstand me; much of the slavery of Rome was just as dehumanizing as what happened in American’s past. Gladiators were slaves, forced to battle, even die, for entertainment (though even gladiators could be wealthy celebrities as slaves). Some slaves were kept strictly for sex. Some slaves, usually criminals, were essentially issued death sentences to work in the darkness of underground mines until their lungs gave out. Runaway slaves were branded on their foreheads. If a slave master were murdered, all of his slaves would also be killed. This was a way of quelling thoughts of rebellion, as a huge part of Rome’s population were slaves. There is a record of one incident where 400 slaves were killed because their master had been murdered though there was no evidence the slaves had anything to do with it.

But there was also the indentured servant or contracted worker side of the Roman “slavery” spectrum, where many slaves/servants benefited under the care of someone better off economically than they were, and where they even had an opportunity to make an independent living, or where they may even choose to stay as a part of their master’s household once they earned their freedom. This sort of contract “slavery” could even be compared to an apprenticeship or the sort of service contract one makes when he joins the modern military. The Greek word often translated “Slave” in the New Testament can also be simply translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles will state this in the footnotes.

The important thing to remember concerning Roman Slavery is that it was deeply ingrained in the culture and economy, and there was a wide spectrum of variety within that slavery/servant system.

Egypt

Israelite Slavery (Old Testament Era)

In the Old Testament era, the cultures surrounding Israel had slavery, and the Israelites themselves were slaves in Egypt for 400 years before being freed. The type of slavery that surrounded Israel was the type most of us think about when we hear “slavery.” Like American slavery, the slavery of much of the ancient Near Middle East was harsh and dehumanizing. But not so with Israelite “slavery.”

Later in this series, we’ll be specifically looking at Israelite “slavery” in the Old Testament, because it – unlike American and Roman slavery – is part of God’s Word. In a way, those hostile to Christianity are right: God does endorse this type of “slavery” (and this type only). But the slavery of ancient Israel is nothing like American slavery, nor other Near Middle East slavery. It’s a truly unique biblical, Israelite “slavery.” Just like the ancient Greek word, the Hebrew word often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles tell you this in the footnotes.

As I said, we’ll explore this idea much more in depth in later articles, but for now know that Israelite slavery is more comparable to indentured servanthood or working under contract than slavery proper. So, where we find Roman slavery is a spectrum that goes from American-type slavery (minus the racism) to indentured servanthood and contract workers, Israelite “slavery” is simply a type of indentured servanthood or contract work.

In later articles, you’ll see just how radically different biblical, Old Testament “slavery” is from American slavery and the slavery of the nations surrounding Israel. (If you’d like a preview, I addressed some of this already in Part One of this series)

 

In this series, we’ll be addressing the 3 criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

Thus, we will be exploring:

  1. What the Bible says about American slavery.
  2. What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.
  3. What the Old Testament says about Israelite slavery.

As I said above, the Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible that are often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant.” This shows the wide range of meaning those words can have. Perhaps if the translators of the Bible simply used “servant” instead of “slave,” Christians would have to address this issue much less!

NEXT: The Bible VS. Race-Based American Slavery
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