This last Sunday we were looking at Ephesians 6v5-9 which contains Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters. One question that is often asked is, “Does the Bible condone slavery?” Many skeptics certainly think so. But is this true?
In reply I think we can make the following points:
- Slavery in the Bible was not the same as it was practiced in Europe and America in the eighteenth century. Rather slavery in ancient times was very varied. There were many reasons why people became slaves including paying off debts, being captured in war, or being sold into slavery by their families. Although conditions varied enormously, and there were some harsh masters, many slaves could expect to be freed after a period of time.
- Slavery in the ancient world was regarded as a fact of life. As a result no one really questioned it, and so it probably never occured to Paul or anyone else to call for its abolition. Conditions were also improving in the period in which Paul wrote.
- Nowhere does the Bible condone slavery. The Bible never says that slavery was a good thing. On the contrary it says that slave trading is a sin (1 Timothy 1v10), slaves should take their freedom if possible (1 Corinthians 7v21) and slave masters are to regard their slaves as “men and brothers in the Lord” (Philemon 16).
- The gospel undercuts slavery. One of the radical things about early Christianity is that it taught that slaves and masters were equal. Ephesians 6v5-9 is an example of this. Paul says that both slaves and masters have a common master in heaven and therefore masters are to treat their slaves with respect – as they would want to be treated themselves. Elsewhere Paul writes that now in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3v28). In Christ, all are equal in worth and value.
This last point led John Stott to comment about slavery, “The gospel lit a fuse which at long last led to the explosion that destroyed it.”
It is right for Christians to continue to fight against slavery wherever it is found today. It is also a reminder that Christ has redeemed us from the greatest slavery of all – slavery to sin and death – and made us all one in him.