Revisiting the New Testament and slavery

In a previous article, I condemned attempts by some American Christians to justify or excuse the hideous sin of American slavery. I focused most my attention, however, on the single passage of 1 Timothy 1:10.

Given space limitations, I was unable to treat the broader question of slavery in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Here, I want to build on my previous article, discussing how the New Testament approaches slavery and its implications for modern Christians.

I will focus on the New Testament, not because I regard the Old Testament as uninspired or unimportant, but because I believe there are interpretive difficulties at work in Christian readings of the Old Testament that I cannot address adequately in this article.

The bottom line

While I wish to be sensitive in my treatment of the biblical text, I also must be honest. The bottom line is the New Testament does not directly condemn slavery. The New Testament presupposes the existence of slavery—humans legally owning other humans as property—and never challenges this institution head-on.

If one adopts certain approaches to biblical interpretation, it is easy to justify slavery even today by appealing to various biblical texts like Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1. Christians at many points in history have done exactly this, and we must be honest about that fact.

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But for those of us who believe God has spoken and continues to speak through Scripture, the New Testament seemingly condoning slavery gives us much pause. We rightly reject slavery as immoral, yet our Bible seems not to do so. How can we make sense of this inconsistency? Must we embrace slavery, or reject biblical authority?

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I think neither. I believe Christians can and should believe in biblical authority and reject slavery. We can do this by paying close attention both to the biblical texts and to their ancient contexts.

Equality in Christ

One reason the New Testament’s apparent support for slavery strikes us as so problematic is because it appears quite inconsistent with other parts of the Bible. For example, Paul famously states in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NASB).

In Galatians, Paul is challenging segregation and preferential treatment within the Galatian churches based on one’s Jewish identity or lack thereof. Paul regards segregated fellowship as a functional denial of the gospel itself (Galatians 2:11-14). James echoes this point, lambasting churches who would show preferential treatment to wealthy members and visitors (2:1-7).

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Passages like those I mention above have been key pillars in many Christians’ historic battles for justice and liberation of the underprivileged. So, how do they fit with passages like Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1?

The Ephesians text holds a vital portion of the answer. After spending verses 5-8 giving instructions to enslaved people regarding how best to serve their masters, Paul concludes in verse 9 by saying: “And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.”

Paul is also quite direct in his letter to Philemon, where he encourages the slave owner Philemon to receive back Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (1:16).

The New Testament presents a vision of the church in which enslaved people and their masters are equals in Christ. Segregation and preferential treatment in the church are forbidden. While Paul and the other apostles do not tear down the master/slave hierarchy directly, they do undermine it. The early church even had leaders who themselves were enslaved.

Context, context, context

While this may be encouraging to modern Christians uncomfortable with the New Testament witness on slavery, my answer thus far does not resolve the issue fully. How could abolitionists who outright have attacked slavery claim the Bible for support?

The key here is the gap between the ancient world of the Bible and our modern world. When the New Testament was written, Christianity was a tiny and obscure sect. The church had virtually no social, economic or political power. It was a decentralized ragtag band of religious weirdos.

If the early Christians had sought to wage a full-scale societal “war” on slavery, they would not have won. They simply did not have the means or the clout. Rather, the New Testament church sought to embody an alternative community, a “new society” in miniature that upheld different values and operated by different rules. In so doing, the New Testament church bore witness to God’s redemptive and liberating work.

This has profound ramifications for the modern church. Unlike the New Testament church, the Western church in most times and places throughout our history has been a dominant—often the dominant—social, political and cultural force. To take the New Testament’s instructions regarding slavery and apply them literally today is to ignore the massive gap between the New Testament’s context and our own.

The New Testament church planted the seeds of slavery’s end, but many Christians have failed to tend and water those seeds properly. We still are called to be an alternative community, to bear witness to God’s redemptive and liberating work. One way we do that today is pursuing justice for others, which includes breaking the chains of slavery.

Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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