Paul's Teaching on Slavery

Mike reviews the issue of slavery in the ancient times in order to give context to Paul's teaching regarding slaves in his letter to Timothy.
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We are in the last chapter of Paul's first letter to Timothy containing teaching and specific instructions covering a wide range of topics:

  • Initial instruction to guard good doctrine and maintain his ministry
  • Teaching on the roles of men and women in public worship assemblies
  • Profiles of the type of men to serve as elders and deacons and the qualities that the wives of these men should possess
  • Warning about apostasy
  • Guidelines for a minister's work and conduct
  • Instructions on how to conduct a benevolence program for widows in the church
  • Teaching on the church's proper attitude towards elders and the manner of correcting them when necessary

The final chapter will continue to deal with various church issues that may have previously been raised by Timothy or that Paul was in some way aware of, having spent several years (54-57 AD) in that church himself.

Master and Slave Relationships

1All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. 2Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.
- I Timothy 6:1-2

There are many who accuse Christianity of promoting slavery because, as we see here, Paul does not denounce the evil of slavery that existed at that time. How can we answer such accusations?

Let us review some information about slavery in the ancient world as well as how it was practiced in both Old and New Testament times among the Jews.

Slavery in Old Testament Period

In Old Testament times among pagan nations as well as among the Jews, there were many ways that a person became a slave:

  1. The most common were those people enslaved as the result of war. The losers often ended up as slaves of the winners (Genesis 14:21).
  2. Some were sold into slavery by their family or nation (Genesis 17:12).
  3. Many were born into slavery (Genesis 15:3).
  4. At times, a person became a slave in order to make restitution for a crime. There were no formal prisons so slavery was a form of punishment often used (Exodus 22:3).
  5. Slavery was also the result when someone defaulted on debts (II Kings 4:1).
  6. There was also self-sale into slavery in order to escape poverty and destitution (Exodus 21:2-6).
  7. Kidnapping and piracy were criminal forms of slavery but not permitted among Jews (Exodus 21:16).

When discussing slavery in the Old Testament, therefore, one must differentiate between how it was practiced among pagans and Jews. Among pagans, like the Greeks or the Romans, slavery was commerce. Slaves in ancient times were not considered human, being property to be bought and sold.

Slavery existed among the Jews but was tempered and regulated by law. For example:

A. A Jew could not hold another Jew in permanent slavery because of debt or self-sale. A Jewish slave had to be released at the year of Jubilee and have his property restored to him. Every six years, there was what was called a sabbatical year (the seventh year) where the Jews gave their land rest, no farming was permitted (Leviticus 25:2).

After seven cycles of sabbatical years (7x7=49), on the 50th year, they celebrated what was called the year of Jubilee (from the Hebrew word "horn," referring to a ram's horn or trumpet). On this year, all debts were forgiven, Jewish slaves were freed and land that had been sold reverted back to the original owner. How close or how far the contract was made to the year of Jubilee determined the value of land and debts.

The point of this Law was to remind people that they did not own the land (nor the slaves), all belonged to God. It also guaranteed that the original borders for each tribe would remain the same and no tribe would increase by commercial trade over the other.

B. Among the Jews there were also other laws which protected female slaves and families from abuse. For example, if a female slave married her master or her master's son, she would be freed. If her master did not provide for her or divorced her, she would be freed (Exodus 21:7-11).

Even foreign slaves purchased or captured in war were included in the covenant through circumcision and participation in the festivals and feast days (Exodus 12:44).

C. Slavery did exist among the Jews of the Old Testament but it was not the basis of their economy or military. It was practiced in a more humane way among God's people where there were laws protecting the treatment of slaves (i.e. it was against the law to kill a slave, but legal in the pagan world).

We have to judge them in light of the degree of enlightenment that they had at that time. What they did (slavery) was morally wrong according to the knowledge and revelation we have today in the teachings of Christ, but for that period and according to their understanding, they were not sinning.

Slavery in the New Testament

By New Testament times, attitudes about slavery were changing drastically but there were still differences between Jewish and Gentile practices. Estimates of the total number of slaves in the Roman Empire show that as many as one third of the population were slaves.

We have to be careful, however, in the way we see the slavery of that time.

  • Although morally wrong, the slavery of the Roman Empire was not the same as the slavery of the 18th-19th century slave trade that took place in the U.S.
  • In the U.S., slavery was a strong economic factor for the Southern states at that time. Slaves were not considered fully human, and were bought and sold as property with no rights or chance for freedom.
  • In the first century, there was relative peace and so there were few slaves from war or kidnapping.
  • Most were domestic slaves or those who had become slaves through indebtedness.
  • Slaves were not the basis of the economy but were contributors to it.
  • At that time, owning slaves was a mark of prestige and wealth.
  • Slaves learned trades (usually the same as their masters') and worked side by side with them sharing in the prosperity.
  • There was a hierarchy of slaves according to experience, training, etc. and some were responsible for managing others, even running their own businesses under their master's patronage.

In the Roman Empire, there was a movement towards granting more slaves their freedom (called "manumission"). Paul the Apostle said he was born a "free man." This was a gift that Rome had bestowed on the province of Cilicia and the major city of Tarsus by Pompeii in 64 BC, probably for the cooperation of the people with the government.

Records of the time show that society was slowly recognizing that slavery was not a good economic and social model and this pushed a trend to allow freedom to more slaves. As a matter of fact, the Roman government had to put limits on how rapidly foreign slaves were freed into Roman society for fear of diluting the citizenry class of Rome.

Slavery in the First Century Church

None of the Apostles were slaves or had slaves.

The most common form of slavery in Judah at the time were "household" slaves. Note that Jesus acknowledges but does not condemn the existence of this system in many of His teachings and parables (Matthew 10:24; John 13:16).

It was a social reality in that time but did not cause social unrest. It was part of the system that no one questioned because the people did not have the "Western" mindset that we have inherited over two millennia of social change and progress.

Once the gospel was preached to the Gentiles, however, there were established, at first, mixed churches with Jews and Gentiles, and with time churches made up of both slave and free, even with masters and slaves within the same "household" congregations (e.g. the "jailer's" household, Lydia's household - in Acts).

The question often asked is, "Once the gospel was brought to the Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, why was slavery not expressly denounced by the Apostles?" Three reasons:

1. As a social system, slavery was already passing away

Paul teaches from a positive perspective, encouraging how slaves and masters should relate to one another to promote peace and harmony (I Corinthians 7:21-22; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:22; 4:1).

The Apostles were sent to preach the gospel of salvation to all (slave and free), not to promote social reform for an evil system that was already in decline.

2. There was nothing to replace it

At the time, there was no great middle class to absorb newly freed slaves with jobs, money, land and opportunity. This system, although not morally ideal, did provide stability for the poor, as well as social peace.

In Philemon 16, Paul sends a runaway slave that he had converted back to his master and suggests, but does not demand, that he be set free. Without money or family he would have to enslave himself to someone else to survive. There was no unemployment insurance then and no job training or welfare. As a matter of fact, domestic slavery was a kind of welfare for that time.

3. Slavery was only temporary

Christians were changed by their conversion, not by their social status.

  • Masters became slaves to God
  • Slaves became free in Christ
  • All were equal in Christ (Galatians 3:26-28)

Life on earth is temporary, so whatever position you hold on earth will end in death. According to I Corinthians 7:21-22, freedom in Christ does not change your social status. If you are able to change your status, go ahead, it is temporary anyways. What is important is your station or position with God. With conversion comes many new positions and titles:

The point is that as Christians we all take on a new identity and position before God in eternity, so whoever and whatever we are here (male, female, slave, free, rich, poor) has little bearing on the final outcome of who we are in Christ. These terms no longer define us, they only describe our earthly status for a time.

Paul and the other Apostles knew this and also understood that the social order of the day was passing away to be replaced by something else. They did not denounce it, they simply guided masters and slaves on how to live in peace and love with one another in the existing world they found themselves a part of.

The role of Apostles, preachers and the church is not to dismantle the existing world order, whatever it is.

  • Totalitarianism
  • Communism
  • Capitalism
  • Multiculturalism

Our task is to build the kingdom of God within whatever world order we find ourselves in. We witness to the existing world that there is an unseen world that exists and will one day overtake the present order, and everyone needs to enter into it in order to survive the change when it comes. In the end the heavens and the earth and all that is in them will be destroyed (II Peter 3:10).

The only thing to survive will be the kingdom, that is the church, where all are free, equal and will inherit eternal life in Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the relevancy of Paul's teachings today concerning masters and slaves?
  2. How does the slavery/master issue (I Timothy 6:1-2) relate to Christians' attitude towards rulers?
  3. Describe slavery in the Old Testament period.
  4. Describe slavery in the New Testament period.
  5. Describe slavery in the first century church.
  6. What is our task as citizens in God's Kingdom?
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