In the previous two editions on slavery, we observed that slavery is not in fact contrary to what God has revealed in either the Old Testament or the New Testament Gospels. This edition will focus on the New Testament epistles as they relate to servitude. As we might expect, the epistles pick up where the Old Testament and the Gospels leave off. Many Christians are unaware that the Bible presents a consistent message on slavery that runs contrary to egalitarian presuppositions accepted a priori by our society today.
The reason that it is so important to address the slavery question honestly is because the approach used by abolitionists in the nineteenth century was later parroted by feminists and other liberals to advance their radical egalitarian agenda. Many people suggest that slavery was not condemned by the Apostles because they were more concerned with spreading the Gospel than with political or social issues. But the errors with this perspective are serious and have severe implications, as we shall see in our analysis of abolitionist rhetoric.
How Do the Apostles Deal with Servitude?
The Apostles never call slavery or the servant/master relationship evil. The Apostle Paul does encourage those who can gain their freedom to do so and use this freedom for the sake of Christ’s kingdom (1 Cor. 7:21-22). Paul notes that Christian servants are freemen in Christ and that all Christians are servants to the Lord. Paul even calls himself a servant of Christ (Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1), also giving the same title to Epaphras (Col. 4:12). He extols the work of Phoebe, whom he calls a servant of the Church (Rom. 16:1). Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), James (Jas. 1:1), and Jude (Jude 1:1) also call themselves servants. Paul maintains that he has traded his freedom to become a servant so that he might make gains for the kingdom of Christ (1 Cor. 9:19). Paul calls clergymen servants of the Lord (2 Cor. 4:5; 2 Tim. 2:24). Paul states that even Christ himself took on the form of a servant in His incarnation (Phil. 2:7).
All of these usages demonstrate that the Apostles did not consider the concept of servitude to be something that is intrinsically wrong or evil. Certainly it would be impossible to conclude that the Apostles considered slavery the worst of all evils, especially considering the way that servitude is handled in passages that directly bear on the master/servant relationship. The Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that servants should obey their masters, because obedience to masters or other superiors is a corollary to obedience to Christ (Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1; Tit. 2:9). Paul reiterates many times that a healthy relationship between servants and masters will reaffirm the Gospel and demonstrate to an unbelieving world that Christianity does not upset the natural order between social classes. Rather, Christianity serves to reconcile social classes to each other. If Christian servants acted rebelliously, the Apostle Paul correctly points out that the Christian faith would be blasphemed.
The Apostle Peter also commands servants to be obedient to masters, not only to those who are kind, but also to those who are hot-headed or ill-tempered (2 Pet. 2:18-19). These passages clearly establish the fact that the Apostles did not consider social inequality to be intrinsically evil. Peter and Paul both consider marriage to be a sort of master/servant relationship. Peter tells Christian women to emulate the example of Sarah, who called her husband Abraham her “lord” (1 Pet. 3:1-6). Paul states that the relationship between Christ and the Church represents a type of marriage and that wives should submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ (Eph. 5:22-27; Col. 3:18). This is not to say that the Apostles view the obligations of the master/servant relationship to be entirely on the side of servants. Masters are to treat their servants with Christian charity (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1), and husbands are to love their wives just as Christ loves the Church (Eph. 5:25, 28-29; Col. 3:19; 1 Pet. 3:7).
Paul’s letter to Philemon concerning Philemon’s runaway slave is an excellent summary of the apostolic attitude regarding slavery. Paul’s preaching during his imprisonment had led to the conversion of a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus’s master was a Christian man that Paul knew named Philemon. Instead of writing a letter to Philemon shaming him for participating in what was to be considered the worst evil by the nineteenth century abolitionists, Paul writes to Philemon and encourages him to receive Onesimus back into his household as a new brother in the faith. Paul even encourages Philemon to look upon Onesimus with special favor because they were ethnic brothers as well as spiritual brothers (v. 16). This demonstrates that Paul considered this relationship to be meaningful and important. The epistle of Philemon was Paul’s best opportunity to denounce slavery as contrary to Christian charity, but he did not do so. Instead, he encouraged them to reconcile while maintaining the social inequality that was natural to their relationship. To the Apostle Paul, inequality clearly was not a barrier to be overcome by Christian fellowship. Only the worst of mental gymnastics could allow for the interpretation that the Apostles denounced slavery as a sin. Nevertheless, this is exactly what many Christian feel-good preachers try to accomplish.
The Apostles followed the precedents set by the Mosaic Law and Christ when dealing with the issue of slavery. There was no attempt to end the institution of servitude or to eliminate all social inequality. Instead, the Apostles focused on reconciliation without egalitarian leveling. Paul encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus as “more than a servant,” his request fueled by both spiritual and hereditary brotherhood. This reception of Onesimus meant that Philemon would have treated him not as a social equal, but as a fellow servant of their master in heaven. In the next edition, we will look at a common objection raised by the abolitionists. Many in the nineteenth century claimed that the Apostles “girdled slavery and left it to die.” We will see how this claim insults the moral courage of the Apostles, avoiding the obvious conclusions of the apostolic witness.
Read Part 4