Thousands of years prior to the establishment of the Lord’s Church, and long before Paul addressed the conduct of Christian slaves in the first century, various forms of slavery were commonplace. In fact, virtually every ancient civilization used slaves.1 Slavery was prevalent enough in Babylon in the 18th century B.C. to be mentioned numerous times in the Code of Hammurabi.2 The Egyptians enslaved hundreds of thousands of Israelites in the 16th century B.C. (Exodus 1; cf. Numbers 1:46). Historians estimate that, by the time Paul wrote his New Testament epistles in the first century A.D., five to eight million slaves resided within the Roman Empire,3 including 15-25% of the total population of Italy.4
“Slavery”—A Broad Term in the First Century
The English term “slave” is translated from the Greek word doulos. Some translations use the term “servant” (or “bondservant”), but doulos is best translated “slave” (especially since “in normal usage at the present time the two words [“slave” and “servant”—EL] are carefully distinguished”).5
So what is meant by “slave” or “slavery”? Americans often envision ancient slavery as the kind of oppressive bondage that was popular among many slave owners in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, when millions of Africans were stolen from their homelands and shipped across the Atlantic. Certainly, some first-century slavery was similar, but often it was quite different. For example, slavery in New Testament times was not based on race. Many foreign soldiers and their families became slaves after being captured during times of war.6 What’s more, “[s]ome became slaves because they could not pay back the money they had borrowed. The government would also take people into slavery if they could not pay their taxes. There were also many cases of poor people selling their children as slaves to richer neighbours.”7
Consider the fact that the ancients would likely interpret certain modern American practices as forms of “slavery.” For example, hundreds of thousands of Americans who work, labor nearly one-third of every year for the government. That is, Americans are forced by the government with the threat of fines and imprisonment to pay over 100 days wages to local, state, and federal governments every year in the form of taxes. Many Americans hand over more money to the government each year than they spend on food, clothing, and shelter combined.8 According to irs.gov, U.S. citizens who fail to pay government-mandated taxes can be prosecuted and imprisoned for up to five years. And what about the military draft—“the practice of ordering people by law to serve in the armed forces”?9 To this day, all 18-25-year-old males in the U.S. are required to register with the Selective Service System in case of “a crisis requiring a draft”10—a draft in which thousands or millions of men would be forced to go to war, and possibly die for their country, whether they wanted to or not.
Please understand, I am not suggesting that we should defraud the government, or that we should refuse to submit to its authority if the draft is reinstated. I am simply suggesting that “slavery” was broadly defined in the first century. When people ask questions such as “Did Paul endorse slavery?” we must understand that there were various kinds of slavery in the first century, including some forms that resemble certain practices today which may be generally accepted and morally justified.
Did Paul “endorse” slavery? The word “endorse” means “to publicly or officially say that you support or approve of (someone or something).”11 To endorse is to advocate or champion an idea, a thing, or a person. Did Paul “endorse” slavery? Did he champion it or publicly promote it as one advocates a particular product or political candidate? No, at least not the kind of slavery most people think of when they hear the term.
In truth, Paul specifically condemned “kidnappers” (andrapodistais) or “menstealers” (KJV) as lawless and insubordinate individuals who practice that which is “contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10). Danker, et al. defines this kidnapper as a “slave-dealer.”12 Far from endorsing such activity, Paul groups these men-stealing, slave traders with murderers, liars, and other ungodly sinners (1 Timothy 1:9-10).
Yet, five chapters later Paul wrote: “Let as many bondservants [doulos, slaves] as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed. And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things” (1 Timothy 6:1-2). What did Paul instruct Timothy to teach the various Christian slaves in the first century? To respect, honor, and even serve their masters (i.e., to set a good example of Christianity before them).
Paul Endorsed Godly Submission, Not Sinful Forms of Slavery
Paul’s instruction for slaves to honor their masters is perfectly consistent with the rest of God’s Word regarding all Christians submitting to those in positions of authority. To the Christians living in the heart of the Roman Empire, Paul taught: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities…. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:1,7; cf. Matthew 22:21).13 Similarly, Peter wrote: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors…. For this is the will of God…. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:13-17). Was the Roman Empire corrupt in many ways? Certainly. Was a Christian’s submission to Rome a blanket endorsement of the Empire? Not at all. But Christians were (and are) to be humbly compliant.
God expects all Christians to have a spirit of submission. Children are to submit to their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3). Young people are to be submissive to older people (1 Peter 5:5). Wives are to submit to their husbands (1 Peter 3:1-2). Members of local churches are to submit to their overseeing elders who rule over them (Hebrews 13:17; Acts 20:28). Local shepherds are to submit fully to the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). In short, all Christians, including those in leadership positions, are to “be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5). And, yes, God expects His people to humbly “submit…to every authority instituted among men,” whether to kings or to slave masters (1 Peter 2:13,18, NIV).
Submission for a Higher Purpose
God did not create the practice of slavery. Furthermore, Paul’s inspired instructions regarding a slave’s submission to his master were not given because God favors a master over his slave (Galatians 3:28), or because He simply wants some people to have harder lives than others. The specific purpose that Paul gave for Christian slaves submitting to their pagan masters was “so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed” (1 Timothy 6:1).
Imagine if Christian slave after slave in the first century became less submissive to their masters as they learned more about the equality of all mankind (Genesis 1:26-27). Consider how the reputation of Christianity would have been greatly tarnished in the eyes of the unbelieving world if Paul explicitly taught that all slaves should be set free. As William Barclay noted: “For the Church to have encouraged slaves to revolt and rebel and rise against their masters would have been fatal. It would simply have caused civil war, mass murder, and the complete discredit of the Church.”14
God, in His infinite wisdom, commands all men to do their best to make the most for the cause of Christ in whatever situation they find themselves. “Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). Whether a person becomes a Christian while in slavery or in a terrible marriage, God wants His people to change from the inside out and have a positive spiritual impact on others. Be obedient to parents, husbands, governing officials, and yes, even slave owners. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Rather than giving people reasons to curse Christ and His doctrine, be obedient to all those in positions of authority “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). Be honorable at all times so that you may “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” and “by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:15,12; cf. 3:1-2). In short, “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 2:6).
Taking Paul’s Teaching to Its Logical Conclusion
Over time, with the spread of Christianity (cf. Acts 19:10,26; 21:20) and with increasing numbers of slave masters becoming Christians, the physical lives of many slaves would have improved dramatically. As slave owners with honest and good hearts learned (1) to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and (2) to love their neighbors (including their slaves) as themselves (Matthew 22:36-40), they would give up “threatening” (Ephesians 6:9). As Christian slave owners contemplated treating others how they want to be treated (Matthew 7:12), they would give their slaves “what is just and fair,” knowing that they, too, had a Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1). As slave owners submitted to Christ, they would be transformed by the Gospel, learning to be “kindly affectionate” to everyone (Romans 12:2,10), including all those who served them. In short, far from endorsing sinful slavery, Paul’s teachings, taken to their logical conclusion, would eventually lead truth-seeking masters and government officials to help bring an end to any kind of cruel, sinful captivity.15
1 “History of Slavery” (no date), History World, www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac41.
2 “Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon” (no date), https://archive.org/stream/cu31924060109703/cu31924060109703_djvu.txt.
3 Walter Scheidel (2007), “The Roman Slave Supply,” p. 6, https://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/050704.pdf.
4 Scheidel, pp. 3-6.
5 Frederick William Danker, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago), p. 260.
6 John Simkin (2014), “Slavery in the Roman Empire,” Spartacus Educational, http://spartacus-educational.com/ROMslaves.htm.
8 Scott Greenberg (no date), Tax Foundation, https://taxfoundation.org/tax-freedom-day-2016-april-24/.
9 “Conscription,” Merriam-Webster.com, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conscription, emp. added.
10 “Who Must Register” (2008), Selective Service System, https://web.archive.org/web/20090507213840/http://www.sss.gov/FSwho.htm.
11 “Endorse,” Merriam-Webster.com, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/endorse.
12 Danker, et al., p. 76.
13 All bold text in Scripture quotations has been added for emphasis.
14 William Barclay (1956), The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Philadelphia: Westminster), p. 141.
15 For a more extensive response to questions regarding slavery, and especially slavery in the Old Testament, see Kyle Butt (2005), “Defending the Bible’s Position on Slavery,” Reason & Revelation, 25:41-47, June, https://www.apologeticspress.org/pub_rar/25_6/0506.pdf.