In Washington, D.C. the Museum of the Bible has an exhibit tracing the impact of the Bible on slavery, and the impact of slavery on the Bible. Tragically, as the artifact above reveals, slave holders invited God’s judgment on themselves (see Revelation 22:19), in order to control their slaves and defend their institution of slavery.
In another exhibit, Ephesians 6:5 (“Slaves/Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ”) is cited as one verse among many that were used out of context to control God-fearing slaves. In reading this verse by itself, you can see how it could be misused to do horrendous damage. But how should we understand this verse? Did Paul condone slavery? Are his words to be ignored, rejected, or attributed to some cultural blindness of his day? Why didn’t he speak against slavery?
To be sure, questions like these need answering. But denying the veracity of God’s Word, as some like to do, is not the answer. Rather, we need to understand Paul’s words in their historical context and how his commitment to the gospel both liberated individuals from slavery to sin/death/hell and, in time, led to emancipation for slaves across the Mediterranean.
To get at his historical context, lets consider two questions:
- What did slavery look like in first century Ephesus?
- What did Paul think of slavery?
By getting a handle on these two questions, it will help us understand Paul’s words and how his witness shows how far pro-slavery Christians deviated from God and his Word. At the same time, by considering Paul’s unswerving commitment to the gospel, we will see how that message (alone) forms a foundation for all genuine pursuits of love and injustice, liberty and emancipation. Indeed, by understanding more clearly the way the gospel works, we can see more clearly the wisdom of God, the goodness of Paul’s words, and the reason why he, as God’s chosen apostle, addressed slaves and their masters as members of Christ’ church, rather than a class of people suffering under an unjust system.
What Did Slavery Look Like in First Century Ephesus?
This historical question is vitally important for understanding what Paul is and is not addressing in passages like Ephesians 6. To begin with, we should remember slavery is slavery, and by its very nature, it strips men and women freedom and endangers their lives. That said, there are differences between first-century slavery in the Mediterranean and the slavery that plagued America.
Balancing these two aspects of slavery in the Greco-Roman world , Clinton Arnold writes,
The widespread practice of slavery does not give moral justification for its existence. Slavery always involves the ownership of one or more persons by another that constitutes the deprivation of their freedom. When we read Paul’s letters (including Ephesians), we find that he never gives a theological basis for slavery; he assumes its presence in society and helps believers understand what it means to live as a Christian within this socioeconomic institution. (Ephesians, 419)
In this setting, Paul is not condoning slavery or defending it like some white Americans did in the 19th Century. Rather, Paul is speaking to slaves who were received into the church—a counter-cultural move in itself—and counted as valuable members of Christ’s people. To these men and women, he is explaining how they can glorify God as slaves. But what did that slavery look like?
Again Clinton Arnold is helpful. He lists five differences between slavery in the ancient and modern world (419–20):
1. Racial factors played no role [in the slavery of Paul’s day].
2. Many slaves could reasonably expect to be emancipated during their lifetime [cf. 1 Corinthians 7:21] . . . By contrast, slaves in the New World had no hope for manumission and freedom.
3. Many slaves worked in a variety of specialized and responsible positions. . . . African slaves, by contrast, were seldom entrusted with responsible positions nor did they have the training for any skilled jobs.
4. Many slaves received education and training in specialist skills. Few opportunities were provided to slaves in the New World to receive general education or skill development training, yet this was a common practice of slave owners in the Roman world.
5. Freed slaves often became Roman citizens and developed a client relationship to their former masters.
In these five ways we see important historical differences. And in highlighting the differences, we see in starker colors the wickedness of race-based slavery in America’s history. Likewise, the historical context increases the flagrant misreading of Ephesians 6:5. Tragically, Paul’s inspired words were used to defend slavery, when Paul wrote with a different intention. (More on that below).
Still, for all the differences that may be made between different cultures,, we must remember the barbarity of the Roman slave trade and the systemic evil of any type of slavery. As Keith Bradley observes,
The bare record of fact shows that Roman slaves, like those in the Americas, were bought and sold like animals, were punished indiscriminately and violated sexually; they were compelled to labour as their masters dictated, they were allowed no legal existence, and they were goaded into compliance through cajolery and intimidation. They were the ultimate victims of exploitation. (Slavery and Society at Rome, 178–79)
Indeed, for all the differences between cultures and expressions of slavery, buying and selling of persons is always against God’s design. In fact, Exodus 21:16 says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” Likewise, Paul opposes slavery in 1 Timothy 1:10, when he says that the law condemns “enslavers.” Apparently, the slavery Paul saw in Ephesus was of a nature that slaves could glorify God through their obedience. Paul is not addresssing the institution here, rather he is helping disciples honor Christ in whatever station of life they are in (Ephesians 5:22–6:9).
Unfortunately, later interpreters misused Paul’s words and the silence he has about the wicked institution in passages like Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3. Yet, his personal address to followers of Christ is not all there is to say about Paul and his views of slavery. And this leads us to a second question.
What Did Paul Think of Slavery?
It is difficult to answer this question because Paul did not speak about slavery as an institution (but see 1 Timothy 1:10); he spoke to slaves. Commissioned to proclaim the gospel and see Christ formed in the lives of men and women, whatever their position in life, his mission was not to change fallen society. He was called to preach a gospel that created a new society, a multi-ethnic society made of redeemed and resurrected saints. Hence, we can only derive what Paul might have said about slavery, because we have few statements from him urging changes in social and political structures.
With that in mind, lets consider how Paul’s commitment to the gospel stands against slavery, such that later generations of Christians might stand on Paul’s words to end slavery. Consider first the observations of Clinton Arnold.
Because Paul gives instructions to believers on how to live within an unjust social structure does not imply an advocacy of that institution. The way that Paul addresses slavery in 6:5–9 is vastly different from the way that he addresses husband-wife role relations in 5:21–33. Paul never provides a theological rationale for the institution of slavery; yet he does establish a theological basis for male headship and female submission in 5:21–33. His only concern is to provide perspective on how to live as Christians within this empire-wide socioeconomic structure. Just as he never tries to subvert the Roman political structure (in spite of its deficiencies and the perversities of its rulers), so he does not engage in social protest and lead a revolt against the evils of the institution of slavery. (Ephesians,, 430–31)
For reasons understandable and otherwise, this lack of protest may not go far enough in the eyes of modern readers. Surely, there is a place for vocally opposing injustice, and history has revealed the wickedness of using Scripture to defend slavery. But Paul’s insistence on elevating Christ, and not tacking social concerns, reminds us of his first allegiance—the proclamation of a gospel that saves sinners from the wrath of God to come.
With that eschatological and eternal context in mind, it becomes clearer why Paul does not address every social injustice. Scripture does speak to culture and confronts systemic injustice, but the primary focus of the Bible is the formation of a new culture separated from the world, not the baptism of fallen societies. In other words, when the gospel creates a community of justified saints, it will have impact on the surrounding culture—consider the burning of magic books in Ephesus. However, Paul’s commitment to reconciling men to God and one another is first and foremost an other-worldly commitment. But after that it “lay[s] a foundation affirming human dignity and the value of freedom, and he makes a handful of comments encouraging the freedom of slaves” (Arnold, Ephesians, 430–31).
Considering this same issue, Thomas Schreiner answers two questions that help discern Paul’s teaching. First, he explains why Paul doesn’t renounce slavery directly in Philemon; second, he takes the context of Ephesians 5:22–6:9 to explain why it is best to read Paul as opposed to the institution of slavery.
Considering the historical context of the church, Schreiner writes,
Any public campaign by the fledgling Christian movement to eradicate slavery would have been superfluous [i.e., beyond its scope of making disciples of Christ’s kingdom]. The political wherewithal to accomplish such an aim was totally lacking. Neither did Paul advise Christian masters to free their Christian slaves. He exhorts masters and slaves to comport themselves well as Christians in their respective stations of life. We must recognize that Paul was not nurtured in the political traditions of the Western world. Ending an institution like slavery, even in the Christian community, probably never entered Paul’s mind, for evidence is lacking that people in Paul’s day considered ending slavery. (Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 435–36)
That said, Schreiner goes on to explain was not an instrinsic “good” for Paul.
He never addresses this question [of slavery] directly in his letters. We have a hint in I Corinthians 7:21, for he exhorts slaves to obtain their freedom if possible. The Old Testament frowns on enslaving a fellow Hebrew (Ex 21:2–11; Neh 5:5), and Paul would naturally conclude from this that the state of slavery was not ideal for any brother or sister in Christ. (Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 435–36)
This language is not strong enough in its denunciation of slavery, but it reminds us—perhaps painfully—that the greatest social injustice is not slavery but humanity’s rebellion against God. The former is a product of the latter, and the gospel is aimed first and foremost at resolving the former, with its eternal and universal problem of sin. Thus, when we read Paul, we are reading someone who is consumed with Christ and his eternal purposes. He is not ignorant or unconcerned about socio-economic justice, rather he addresses it with a wisdom that cuts against all identity politics, to use a term anachronistically.
Explaining this approach, Schreiner explains how Paul’s new creation theology informs his ethics.
Paul nowhere locates the institution of slavery in the created order. Nothing in Genesis 1–2 suggests that slavery is God’s intention for some human beings. Indeed, if one were to argue from Genesis 1–2, the contrary conclusion should be drawn. Paul never criticizes slavery directly, but neither does he ground it in creation as he does the relationship between men and women and the institutions of marriage and the family. He does not recommend the elimination of slavery, but neither does he endorse it. (Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 435–36)
Again, it may seem that “not endorsing” slavery is not enough. And to be honest, it’s not. In application of faith and love, the redeemed of the Lord must stand against injustice in all forms—slavery being an obvious example. But such justice-seeking, peace-making, and love of neighbor is empowered and directed by the gospel Paul proclaimed.
In other words, Paul’s commitment to the gospel message does not fall short of opposing slavery; it gives Holy Spirit power and theological rationale to oppose slavery. Yes, in his ministry he does not take a stand against slavery as an institution, but in the providence of God his inspired words are given to equip future generations of Christians to see and understand the evils of slavery and to oppose it with the greatest force.
Some may continue to say Paul should have said more, or that because he didn’t condemn slavery outright his views are questionable. But this misses the intrinsic power of the gospel to create a new humanity that will walk in righteousness and justice. In fact, as the artifact above shows, Scripture must be truncated and twisted to support slavery. When read rightly, neither the Scriptures as a whole or Paul as one apostle can be used to enslave or endorse slavery.
And how do we know? Partly, we know because of the impact of Paul’s gospel in the coming generations.
We read in the literature of the second century and later of many masters who upon their conversion freed slaves. The reality stands that it is difficult to call a person a slave during the week and treat them like a brother or sister in the church. Sooner or later the implications of the kingdom they experienced in church seeped into the behavior of the masters during the week. Paul did in the end create a revolution, not one from without, but one from within, in which a changed heart produced changed behavior and through that in the end brought about social change. This change happened wherever the kingdom of God was expressed through the church, so the world could see that faith in Christ really was a transformation of the whole person. (F.F. Bruce, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 644)
Just as there are different parts in the body of Christ, there are also different voices. And it seems God saw fit to make Paul singularly committed to preaching the gospel. In this way, Paul was constantly telling sinners how they could be justified by faith in Christ and how their new life in Christ impacted every area of life. This is what we find in Ephesians 5:22–6:9. But this personal application, which led to community formation, would have a larger impact.
In short time, applying the Word of God to the church—not just personal piety—God’s multi-ethnic, economically-diverse people tore down barriers. This, as Bruce notes, is what happened across the Mediterranean, as Christian masters emancipated slaves.
Of course, at other times the people of God would erect barriers. America’s history tells this sad tale. But as we learn more of this history, we discover how God’s Word had to be twisted and truncated to permit slavery to continue. By contrast, when we are transformed by Christ and read the whole counsel of Scripture, we soon learn how slaves of Christ can no longer enslave others. This is the only the workable conclusion to reading Paul, and again it flows from the power of the gospel to redeem sinners, even those who once traded slaves.
How the Gospel Redeems Sinners and Produces Lasting Change
John Newton, English pastor and author of Amazing Grace, was one of those slave traders whom the Lord set free. His testimony reminds us why God’s people must keep the gospel, not just social justice, central to this conversation. Only the gospel has the power to liberate slaves and their masters.; only the resurrected Christ can form a new society of men and women who once were enslaved to one another.
Lose this gospel and we lose the power of enduring change for all people. For a generation or so, we might see legal changes that improve social justice or bring about political reform. But ultimately all such gains will spoil and sour; new forms of injustice and slavery will occur; and Christ will be lost. For the Christian, this is the greatest concern and why Paul as a founding apostle of the church focuses on the gospel and not social change.
Thankfully, Paul’s radical insistence on the gospel gives us the message of grace and truth that calls individuals to be reconciled to God and one another. This is the good news of Christ crucified, and it is not at odds with social justice. It is the very source from which justice can come. For, those redeemed from slavery to sin are also empowered to liberate others.
This is what so-called Christians missed when they enslaved others in the past. And it is what we must not repeat in the present. But again, such steps towards public justice will only be sustainable and truly just, as we keep our eyes fixed on Christ and our hands clinging to his gospel.
To that end, may we abide in his Word and in prayer. May we cling to the gospel and liberally proclaim it to all people, such that God would create a people passionate for love and justice. This is how the church impacts and transforms culture, and ultimately how lasting change can be had in any culture. Paul, I think, knew this, and why he wrote his letters as he did.
May we learn from him the power of his gospel, God’s gospel, and the way it works in us for the sake of the world.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds