Does the Bible Condone Slavery?
A college professor who attends our church approached me recently with this challenge: "One of my students told me that the Bible endorses slavery. I didn't think that was possible until I read Ephesians 6:5." She didn't know what to say to her student, and other African Americans who believe the same way. Whether racism exists in America is not an issue. We know it does. There's anti-Semitism, and all the other blatant and subtle prejudices against people of all colors. Slavery was the ultimate, graphic expression of racism, and though it is no longer practiced here, its legacy is fear and bitterness.
I read Ephesians 6:5 through new eyes after this encounter: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ" (NLT). Different translations use the word "servant" or "bondservant," but enough of the newer translations use "slave" to where there's little doubt about whom the apostle Paul was speaking--the slaves in the Roman Empire.
So does this make Paul a racist? Does it make the church an advocate of slavery? I understand the distress of this professor, a fairly new believer herself, who wanted to reassure her students that it's not possible. And it's no secret that slave traders and slave owners used the Bible to justify this evil practice.
In fact, in doing research, I found numerous accusations in philosophical and historical debates thrown at the church for its role (or lack of) in dealing with slavery. A quick internet search finds rebukes such as: "In spite of all the Christian churches in the American South I don't recall reading of any outcry against slavery before the civil war. Where were the churches and God-fearing Christians during segregation in the South in the earlier part of the last century?...The truth is your Christian churches upheld a lot of racism."1
Sadly, there is some truth to that. It's a grievous period of church history, but it's only a small portion of church history, because there were in fact many who stood up to slavery, many who risked lives and reputations to fight slavery. The whole truth of the Gospel and the Christian faith is about freedom.
I know that there were many political and economic forces that drove the Civil War, but for many, it was about freedom and against slavery.
One of the strongest expressions of anti-slavery sentiment came from Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), who wrote her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) from a strong Christian perspective. Talk about the power of the written word! Her book is widely recognized as a major influence in causing the people of the North to turn against slavery. Abraham Lincoln called her, "The little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." She came from a prominent family of theologians, married a theologian, and helped raise the consciousness of the Church to fight slavery.
Anti-slavery activists in the United States were heavily influenced by William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who fought for 50 years against slavery in Britain, basing his opposition on Biblical morality. Wilberforce realized that 1 Timothy 1:10 lists slave traders with murders, adulterers, perverts, liars and other evil people.
Wilberforce in turn had been influenced by the preaching of John Newton (1725-1807), who wrote the famous hymn Amazing Grace. Newton had been a slave trader before his conversion to Christianity. He eventually left the trade, and joined forces with the great evangelists George Whitfield, John Wesley, and Frederick Douglas to preach the Gospel and stand against slavery. Newton also became a minister, and testified to King George III about the atrocities of the slave trade.2
Everything about the Gospel of Christ proclaims freedom! Jesus came to se us free-free from the oppression of sin, free from bondage. "Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed," he proclaimed (John 8:36).
How Does God Feel About Slavery?
How does God feel about slavery? The story of Moses is the great story of redemption and freedom in the Old Testament, where God moves with passionate fervor, causing miraculous signs, wonders, and plagues,even inflicting death upon the firstborn children of Egypt to free the Israelites. Freedom came at a great cost - as it always does. The story of Moses, who was a foreshadowing of Christ, is the story of God setting His people free. God believes in freedom!
A spiritual bond between the children of Israel and the slaves was forged across the centuries, described by Harriet Beecher Stowe as she wrote, in a different book: "Nations struggling for liberty against powerful oppressors flee as instinctively to the Old Testament as they do to mountain ranges. The American slave universally called his bondage Egypt, and read the history of the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea as parts of his own experience. In the dark days of slavery, the history of Moses was sung at night, and by stealth, on plantations, with solemn rhythmic movements, reminding one of Egyptian times" (Woman in Sacred History). 3
The great story in the New Testament is summed up in the book of Luke where Jesus the Messiah quotes Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18, NIV).
God cares so deeply for those in captivity--of any kind- -that He sent His only Son to suffer and die for our freedom.
What did Paul mean by Ephesians 6:5? Paul was giving instructions for helping slaves and masters to live together in peace while the church was being forged, because virtually every household in the Roman Empire was affected by a slave/master relationship. It is estimated that there were some 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire and that as many as one-third of the population of large cities such as Rome, Corinth and Ephesus were slaves. Many within the Church were either slave or master - and everyone was still sorting out how to navigate these relationships in view of the newfound faith.
Paul was trying to lift the mentality of these new believers from a slave/ master relationship to one of brotherhood, humility, servanthood, and love on all sides; doing good in service to the Lord, no matter what our lot in life. Just a few verses later he said, "And masters, treat them [slaves/servants] the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their and your Master is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him" (Ephesians 6:9).
Paul could not change the political landscape immediately, but he could preach the truth that God has no partiality and does not regard one race above another; thus would begin the change in men's hearts that would eventually change their practices. Later, in the book of Philemon we read where Paul exhorted his friend to free his escaped slave Onesimus, "that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more…as a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord" (Philemon 15-17).
Where Christ's love is lived by the power of the Spirit, unjust relationships and barriers are broken down. The Roman Empire ultimately disintegrated and collapsed under the weight of its depravity and sin, and the brutal and exploitive system of slavery collapsed with it--due to the power and influence of Christianity. I also believe that the prayers and influence of those who obeyed God helped awaken our nation to the utter sinfulness and shame of having tolerated slavery.
In a nation where prejudice still lingers, and where we see thousands of immigrants, both legal and illegal, pouring into our country, working in our businesses, schools, hospitals, fields, yards, and homes, we would do well to pay attention to what Paul says to all of us, employers and employees. Aren't we all called to treat one another with respect, humility and honesty? Did not Jesus say, "Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant" (Mark 10:43)? And, aren't we all ultimately working for the Lord, in whatever capacity we fall into in life?
If someone ever tells you that the Bible condones slavery, it does not! The Word of God, wherever it is shared truthfully, by the power of God's Holy Spirit, sows the seeds of a beautiful community "where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all" (Colossians 3:11).
3. Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Woman in Sacred History; a series of sketches drawn from scriptural, historical and legendary sources; 1873, p. 79.