Among the many unfounded attacks directed towards Biblical morality includes the accusation that the Bible and Jesus endorse slavery. Some will also point to the historical practice of the church and/or Bible passages which are said to implicitly approve of this practice. Surely, there would be a clear prohibition against slavery if this was a feature of living out the Christian faith?
Firstly, it’s important to define what we mean by the word ‘slave’ as it is confused with the term ‘servant’ – both words come from the Greek word doulos and describe an accepted feature of society at the time. We should also recognise that we operate in a completely different culture to the Biblical times and the meaning of these times can change. When we use the word ‘slave’, we mean being complicit in the forced or coerced servitude of another human being without proper remuneration or appreciation – in essence, someone who is entirely at the disposal of someone else. This includes any form of human trafficking or forced labour which has unfortunately always been a worldwide problem. This, however, was rarely what is mean’t by the same term in Scripture.
In this article – How and Why Did Some Christians Defend Slavery? – the writer explains that any confusion over this issue when citing certain Bible texts often boils down to a failure to distinguish between the regulation and the approval of a form of behaviour in Scripture. (Incidentally, the same is true with polygamy which is a sinful practice that was regulated in the OT, never endorsed).
There is not a single verse of Scripture commanding or even commending slavery. Any failure to condemn the reprehensible practice of modern-day slavery in Christian circles results from a failure to recognise all humanity as bearing the ‘image of God’ – a failure which also applies to many other moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Although there is equally not a verse condemning slavery, an honest read of the Bible (and particularly the New Testament) would reveal that this practice is undoubtedly immoral due to the universal command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19:19).
Furthermore, there are other passages which, although accept the reality of slavery in the culture of the day, seek to regulate it within the context of the early church. It is also worth pointing out that passages like the ones below could very well apply to the modern workplace environment and if you were to replace the word ‘master’ with ’employer’ and ‘slave’ with ’employee’, would urge a healthy relationship between the two:
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1 NIV)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9 NIV)
So, although there is no justification for ‘slavery’ using the crude description at the top of this blog, there are numerous examples within the structure of society where people voluntarily ‘serve’ one another for employment, charity, family commitments or other reasons.
However, there is another fascinating dynamic to this discussion. Jesus often drew a parallel between the relationship of a master to a slave and the relationship between God and humankind. Furthermore, Jesus explained to his disciples that there was a heightened level of intimacy between Jesus and the believer, that they become ‘friends’:
You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15 NIV)
As we can see from the passage above, there is a condition on this ‘friendship’ – we must follow Jesus’ commands.
Therefore, the best way to deal with this issue is to condemn the forced slavery that plaques many parts of the world today and urge the Biblical command to ‘love our neighbours’ as a universal barometer of our treatment of each other. However, we should stress the notion of servant-hood exists in many situations today and is profitable for both parties – this is not slavery. The most important point is to recognise the Scriptural picture that describes our relationship with Jesus. We are servants of our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ – our Saviour who paid such a heavy price to redeem us out of a slavery we could not rescue ourselves from…
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. (Romans 6:22 NIV)