Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Slavery?

Check out today's episode

I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. As this is the first post, I obviously can't link to any other posts in this series, unless of course you are reading this in the future and I have come back and edited things. I figured, why not start off with a bang and look at what the New Testament says about Slavery?

When looking back on the noteworthy verses in the New Testament which mention slavery, the first question I wanted to answer is how many of them seem to cast slavery into a bad light. I have heard the statement from atheists a number of times that there is not a single verse admonishing slavery, and given that I have never seen a Christian counter that statement with an example, it seems pretty credible. Nevertheless, I looked for such verses and found a few potential candidates. These verses aren't particularly strong, I'm not surprised Christians don't try to use them as a defense, but they deserve to be looked at nonetheless.

The first is 1 Timothy 1:9-10 which puts "enslavers" in a list of various kinds of evil people along side the unlawful, ungodly, murderers and homosexuals as well as a few other groups. This passage casts these people in a bad light and seems to say that those who engage in these activities are generally bad people. However, given that it is thrown in a big list of bad things, and it doesn't go so far as to explicitly say to stop enslaving people, this verse isn't very effective on it's own to argue that the bible is against slavery. 

There is one other incident in Philemon where Paul tries to argue that Onesimus should be released from slavery. I could imagine someone advancing the idea that this is an argument against slavery in general, but this would be a fairly dishonest interpretation of the scripture in my opinion. I think it is pretty clear that the plea from Paul was about a single slave who he cared for on a personal level, rather than a broader statement on slavery in general.

As far as I noticed, that is the extent of the verses in the new testament that can even be manipulated to have an anti-slavery message to them. It's possible that there are other verses like the 1 Timothy verse that slid under my radar, but it is hard to imagine any bigger statements that passed me by. 

What about the other side of the coin? Are there any clear messages that the New Testament says about slavery? The strongest message seems to be a message to the slaves themselves that they should be obedient to their masters. Ephesians 6:5Colossians 3:221 Timothy 6:1, and Titus 2:9 all give this exact message, 1 Peter 2:18 takes it a step farther and tells slaves that they should treat their masters with respect even if the master is unjust. This verse speaks volumes, it doesn't give an example of behavior that the slave should put up with that I have come along 2000 years later and decided was unjust. It says that unjust treatment (according to their metrics of that time) should be considered acceptable when a slave is the recipient.

Everything isn't directed at the slaves though, the slave masters have some instructions as well. Ephesians 6:9 tells the master that he should stop threatening his slaves, the reason behind this instruction seems to be that he should know his place, and his relationship with God should be the same as his slaves relationship with him. A similar message is seen in Colossians 4:1. There you have it, this religion explicitly says it wants to make slaves out of it's members.

One final example, there is a story in Galatians 4:21-31 which involves Abraham and his two sons, one from a slave and one from a free woman. In the story the slave woman and her child were cast out in order that her son would not take any of the inheritance, this action is applauded as "we are not children of the slave". Abraham is a monster in this story, he throws a woman and her child (his child!) out on the street. He should be railed against, not applauded. It would seem that these people thought of as slaves merely property to be discarded when it is convenient. Slaves are so low, that it is appropriate to abandon them even when they are your own children.

Christians will often try to claim that the New Testament did not endorse slavery, or that slavery in the bible was a very different thing from what we think of today. I think the verses I provided today demonstrate pretty well that such claims are woefully misinformed in the best case, and downright dishonest in the worst.


  1. Another excellent commentary Hausdorff.

    "Abraham is a monster in this story, he throws a woman and her child (his child!) out on the street. He should be railed against, not applauded."

    After I began my research on religion and read the entire story of Abraham, I reached this same conclusion...especially after I found out he allowed his beautiful wife (in secret) to be wed to an Egyptian king just so he would prosper.

    That's when I decided the Jews and Christians and Muslim's allowing for this sort of behavior and enforcing it as the "Word of God" who would approve it is the biggest problem we have on earth today. I don't think most folks really read the Bible and draw their own conclusions. They just take the devils and demons for granted depending on how the "for profit" preachers preach it.

    1. Thanks Anna Maria,

      I think you are right that most religious people don't read their holy books, I certainly didn't when I was a Christian. I think it's funny that if most people heard the stories from the bible and didn't know the source they would think they were terrible. Yet if a preacher tells them about it they try really hard to find it inspiring instead.

  2. Great summary, Hausdorff. I think you handled the objections/exceptions well.

    Below the surface of the slavery position is the now-mostly-antiquated belief that all authority comes from God. That goes from the ruler of a nation down to the lowliest salve owner. So, in effect, obedience was expected because it was an acknowledgement that God ultimately had everything under His control, and was working it for His purpose. So to rebel against a slave owner or a ruler was to rebel against the person God had set in charge, which, in turn, was a form of rebellion against God Himself. (Of course, that didn't stop people from rebelling when they thought that "righteousness" was on the line.)

    So while I'm a little wishy-washy on saying Christianity actively "endorsing" slavery, I can't deny that it unflinchingly "accepts" slavery, because ultimately (as you've pointed out) God does want you to obey completely as though you were a slave to Him.

    FYI, Abraham sending Hagar (the maid servant) and his son with her (Ishmael) away has its roots in trying to establish marital harmony. In Genesis 16, Abraham's wife, Sarah, was barren, so she offered her servant, Hagar, to Abraham. But once she was pregnant (with Ishmael), Sarah got extremely jealous, such that Hagar left on her own, but then returned after God prompted her to do so. In Genesis 21 is where Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, with food and water, because his wife Sarah could not stand Hagar anymore. Abraham did so after God had assured him that everything would be OK for Ishmael.

    1. That's an interesting way to put it, not obeying your slave master is effectively breaking the chain of command that God put in place. So rebelling against him is rebelling against God. It seems that this type of logic could be used to keep people from changing anything. Even keeping a herd of livestock would seem to go against God's plan of having said livestock roam free.

      The story about Abraham doesn't sound nearly so bad with those extra details in it. It's still bizarre, impregnating your servant because your wife is barren and all, but at least he got assurance from God that they would be okay.

    2. "assurance from God" :) Every time I see or hear someone claiming they get that from the Bible I have to wonder..."Why isn't God "assuring" or speaking to anyone anymore? Did he just give up and quit talking to humanity after scripture was edited a jillon times over 2000 years?

      I have a collection of different editions of Bibles and none of them have the same passages in them.I read eight versions of the Koran deciphered by eight Muslim clerics from ancient Arabic to English and not a one of them worded their interpretations the same...and most all of what they contain can be traced to the Bible. Ancient religion boggles my mind!

    3. It is interesting to see how different translations compare isn't it. And I love how easy it is to do that with the internet. Last night I was curious about different translations of 1 Peter 2:18 and I was able to just take a look at a bunch of different versions side by side. The information age is awesome!

      And it is a good question as to why God isn't speaking to anyone anymore, although I suppose there are plenty of people out there (who I would call insane) who claim God is talking to them.

  3. May I suggest SLAVERY IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY by Jennifer A. Glancy? It's a fascinating (and at times disturbing) read that could give you some ideas to work with.

  4. First, we must recognize that the Bible does not say God supports slavery. In fact, the slavery described in the Old Testament was quite different from the kind of slavery we think of today - in which people are captured and sold as slaves. According to Old Testament law, anyone caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed:

    "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16)

    So, obviously, slavery during Old Testament times was not what we commonly recognize as slavery, such as that practiced in the 17th century Americas, when Africans were captured and forcibly brought to work on plantations. Unlike our modern government welfare programs, there was no safety-net for ancient Middle Easterners who could not provide a living for themselves. In ancient Israel, people who could not provide for themselves or their families sold them into slavery so they would not die of starvation or exposure. In this way, a person would receive food and housing in exchange for labor.

    The Irrational Atheist by Vox DaySo, although there are rules about slavery in the Bible, those rules exist to protect the slave. Injuring or killing slaves was punishable - up to death of the offending party.1 Hebrews were commanded not to make their slave work on the Sabbath,2 slander a slave,3 have sex with another man's slave,4 or return an escaped slave.5 A Hebrew was not to enslave his fellow countryman, even if he owed him money, but was to have him work as a hired worker, and he was to be released in 7 years or in the year of jubilee (which occurred every 50 years), whichever came first.6 In fact, the slave owner was encouraged to "pamper his slave".7

    What the New Testament says about slavery
    Since many of the early Christians were slaves to Romans,8 they were encouraged to become free if possible, but not worry about it if not possible.9 The Roman empire practiced involuntary slavery, so rules were established for Christians who were subject to this slavery or held slaves prior to becoming Christians. The rules established for slaves were similar to those established for other Christians with regard to being subject to governing authorities.10 Slaves were told to be obedient to their master and serve them sincerely, as if serving the Lord Himself.11 Paul instructed slaves to serve with honor, so that Christianity would not be looked down upon.12

    As with slaves, instructions were given to their masters as to how they were to treat their slaves. For example, they were not to be threatened,13 but treated with justice and fairness.14 The text goes on to explain that this was to be done because God is the Master of all people, and does not show partiality on the basis of social status or position.13, 14

    There is an interesting letter in the New Testament (Philemon15-21) that gives some insight into the problems encountered in the early Christian church regarding the issue of slavery. Paul, the author of the letter, is writing from a Roman prison awaiting trial.15 He is writing to Philemon, who runs a local Christian church out of his house16 (since Christianity was highly persecuted at this point in time). Philemon, we find out, is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has escaped but has been converted to Christianity by Paul.18 In the letter, Paul indicates that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.19 However, Paul says that he has confidence that Philemon will "do what is proper"17 although Paul wants him to do it by his "own free will".20 Even so, Paul indicates that Onesimus would be a great aid in helping him spread the gospel.19 Paul ends the letter by saying that he has "confidence in your obedience" and indicates that he knows Philemon "will do even more than what I say."21 Although Paul did not directly order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery, it would have been difficult to come away with any other conclusion from his letter.


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