Why Doesn’t the Bible Condemn Slavery?

shutterstock_141757486 Freedom is an important concept in Christianity. Jesus told his disciples, “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Paul continued this thread when he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Why then, in light of all this freedom talk, would Paul advise slaves to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22)? American slave owners in the nineteenth century actually used the Bible to justify ownership of slaves, interpreting those verses as not just permission but an actual commendation.

Does God condone slavery? Is the Bible contradicting itself?

An important key to understanding the Bible is in using its broad, defining principles to understand the more specific instruction. Frankly, you can make the Bible say pretty much what you want it to say, if you are willing to pull verses from their context. The big picture keeps us from a bad interpretation.

The broad stroke of freedom in Christ prevails throughout the New Testament. It is a prevailing concept through which the smaller, specific instructions must be viewed.

Another important step to valid interpretation is in understanding what a passage would have meant to its first readers. The New Testament is 2,000 years old. We have to make every effort to get inside the heads of first century citizens, because it was originally written for them. Our 21st century perspective is a far cry from that of the original audience.

In the first century Greco-Roman world, slavery was an integral part of the social and economic structure. In fact, as much as 1/3 of those living in ancient cities were slaves. They served in all kinds of capacities, from brutal mine labor to trusted household slaves who helped run businesses and raise children. People’s lifestyle and livelihoods would have been deeply impacted should they be required to release their slaves.

Paul’s mission, assigned to him by Jesus Himself, was to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. It was a simple message: by believing Jesus was the Son of God and trusting in His sacrifice to pay for your sin, you will be saved. As you can imagine, thousands accepted the good news with gladness in those first few decades. Christianity grew like wildfire.

Can you imagine how that response would have been different if Paul had added a demand for social reform as a part of his gospel message?

Years ago we had a guy begin attending our church. Within a few weeks, my friend Bill had the man and his live-in girlfriend over for dinner. Bill very simply laid out God’s plan for salvation during the visit. But the man was unsure he could make such a commitment. “It’s all a beautiful offer,” he told Bill. “But I can’t accept. Too much of my life would have to change.”

Bill shook his head. “You come as you are,” he correctly assured him. “Let God worry about the rest.”

Weeks after committing his life to Christ, I had an interesting conversation with this new brother. “I did not want my life to change,” he admitted. “I just wanted salvation. Who wouldn’t? But since that night, a funny thing happened: the more I learn about God and love Him, the more I want what He wants. My life is changing anyway!”

Had Bill loaded down our new friend with all of the ways we should honor God in our lives, talked about the vices he would need to leave behind, or preached at him about living with someone outside of marriage, I do think the man would have walked away. But when presented with the pure gospel, of God’s unconditional love and offer of salvation, he could not resist. I’m so glad Bill kept that message clear and focused and chose to trust God to take care of the rest as he grew to know and love God more.

We only contaminate the message when we bring secondary issues into the mix.

Pushing for social reform in the first century would have muddied the waters and even have presented a stumbling block to those who might consider believing. The Church needed to prioritize by preaching a clear, unimpeded gospel. And let the secondary issues be secondary.

That’s not to say God does not love justice or that we shouldn’t love it too. But we can be assured that social change will come through transformed hearts and lives that have responded to God’s gospel. We have to keep first things first.

“The strategy of the New Testament church was to tolerate the social subordination of slaves and women so as not to risk alienating non-Christians from the gospel, and yet to modulate and moderate these customs, and ultimately to point them to God’s original intention for human relations…God’s plan for establishing a new order through Christ did not point toward a sudden cultural revolution, but toward a gradual outworking of the principles of life and liberty through all those who are heirs of God.” (Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News for Women, page 25)

“Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that…they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:12

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About juliecoleman

Julie Coleman is an author, teacher, and speaker, focusing on Biblical study and women's ministries. Besides speaking at women's retreats and conferences, Julie has written two books - Unexpected Love and 15 Minutes a Day in Colossians.

  1. We have experienced a similar circumstance as my son shared Christ but let Christ do the changing work in his friend who is now a sold out Messianic Jew living for Christ and teaching His Word.

    In teaching 1Peter I see that Peter told the slaves to submit so you can add that scripture to your list as well. It is all about obedience even when we do not understand it.

    If Peter or Paul were here now what would they tell us? Any different? Most likely not. It is Christ alone and that is all that is needed.

  2. So true! Think of all the positive influences the early Christians had on Roman society AFTER choosing to follow Christ, and the price they were willing to pay to take a stand. Praise God!

  3. I like this. I’ve never quite thought about it in this light. Thanks.

  4. thanks, Jennifer!

  5. Some important issues to think about. Thank you.

  6. I like how you provided the historical AND biblical context to those verses. It’s a critical balance and very necessary, especially to new believers.

  7. Thank you for an insightful post! Sharing the Gospel and knowing God will move in His way and in His time gives a lot of comfort and confidence.

  8. Interesting perspective that makes better sense than what I’ve heard. Thanks!

  9. I really like this blog! You keep the gospel pure, giving God time to sanctify His saints. Loving unbelievers into truth and then allowing God to make the changes in their life is truly beautiful. Certainly, it was love that brought me to Him, not someone’s haste in making me righteous according to their timetable. Thank you for writing and being who you are in God’s kingdom.

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