The issue of slavery is important to address because we do read about it in the Bible… however it is essential that we first understand that the Bible does not condone slavery as we know it from an American context.
We need to understand what slavery looked like in the first century, otherwise we will read the passages with an image of American/European slavery–which was brutal and evil.
And the truth is that slave owners did use passages from the Bible to subdue and oppress people groups – be they were misusing scripture as what they were doing is never what it said or meant. Furthermore, though many of the strongest and fiercest abolitionists in history were followers of Jesus – we have to admit to the shameful history in the church that preached passages such as these to justify something that was immoral and unjustifiable.
See many of the churches in America flipped passages on slavery entirely upside down in order to treat people unlovingly. But Paul’s intent was that we be the kind of people who lifted our view of humanity and who treated people with love and respect.
Paul writes in Colossians 3:22-25
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. But if you do what is wrong, you will be paid back for the wrong you have done. For God has no favorites.
Now we must think of the context that Paul was writing–slavery in the first century was nothing like American slavery. If we were to time travel back to the first century you would not be able to tell who was a slave and who was free. Because slavery was not a racial thing, nor was it an economical thing. There were rich and poor freemen and rich and poor slaves.
There were doctors, educators and people of every occupation and walk of life who were slaves.
They could buy and sell property, and many times they used their money to buy their freedom. Many times people sold themselves into slavery – that’s called becoming a bond-servant. Roman records indicate that most people were freed from slavery by the time they turned thirty.
Now please don’t hear me saying that slavery was a great deal! It certainly wasn’t. It was demeaning and masters could be abusive – certainly not a pretty picture anyway we slice it. But it was an economic reality of the day.
And what does the Bible say about slavery? It says that you ought not sell yourself into slavery (1 Cor 7:23), and it says that you should try to get out of slavery as soon as you can (1 Cor 7:21).
The Bible also spends considerable time addressing those who owned slaves, imploring them to treat their slaves respectfully – as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
The New Testament Letter, Philemon, written by Paul to a slave owner named Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus, who had come to faith – and Paul writes to put considerable apostolic pressure on Philemon to receive Onesimus back not as a slave… but as a brother.
And in deed many churches were filled with both slaves and slave owners – but as Paul wrote earlier in Colossians – In Christ there is no slave or free. Christ is all.
But it also says that if you are in a place where you are indebted to a master – you should work hard and be respectful and honest. In other words, be a person of integrity. Work hard, trusting that even in the situation you find yourself in, as undesirable as it might have been, even there, trust that you are safe in the Kingdom of God and that He is governing your life with wisdom.
Now we wish, don’t we, that the Bible came out guns ablazing against institutional slavery. But it wasn’t an abolitionist movement. And it would be wrong for us to apply today’s standards about what is right and wrong to a two thousand year old Greek and Roman system.
Jesus didn’t come to overthrow slavery in the Greek and Roman world. That just wasn’t priority number one. The first priority was freeing people from the kingdom of darkness and into a Kingdom supervised by Jesus, himself. What good would it be to gain the whole world and lose your soul?
Instead Jesus came to rescue and redeem us, and to create within us a new type of person – one whose primary characteristic is being the kind of person who treat all people with love.