Slaves and Masters

16 07 2011

‘Slaves submit to your masters…’ (Ephesians 6:5)

This verse is a challenging one to preach on. The temptation is to just focus on the subject of work and the relationship between a worker and his boss (which really is what it’s about!) But in so doing, we can end up ignoring the elephant in the room, the big question: “So… does the Bible endorse slavery?”

In the West Wing episode In God We Trust, President Bartlett and Senator Vinick discuss issues of faith, and this very question comes up:

Bartlett tries to dodge the question through some questionable theology (and bad hygiene… using the same spoon on multiple tubs of ice cream!?) but it has some force. Does the Bible condone slavery?

Consider these statistics:

  • There are currently around 27,000,000 slaves in the world today
  • Many of them have been kidnapped, sold by family members, or tricked into slavery against their will
  • They are threatened with violence, and often forced into drug dependence
  • A huge number of those slaves are sold to brothels and used for sex
  • The average price of a slave is around £55
  • The BBC reported just a couple of weeks ago that children are being trafficked and sold on the streets of London for £16,000.

I can fully understand why Ephesians 6:5 might cause such a problem for Arnold Vinick, and for many modern readers of the Bible. Surely God cannot endorse that!

The Bible speaks a good deal about slavery. The New Testament uses the Greek word doulos 124 times. It means slave or servant, and in most English translations is rendered ‘servant’ with a footnote saying ‘or bond servant, or slave’ presumably to avoid the negative connotations ‘slave’ conjurs uo.

Although the Bible never condemns nor condones slavery outright, it has plenty to say on the way in which slaves are to be treated. And if we are to understand Paul’s commands, here as well as in his other letters (most notably 1 Corinthians 7; Colossians 3 and Philemon), we need to appreciate the differences between slavery in the First Century and that of the modern world.

Here are just four of the many points of difference, followed by a number of recommended resources for further reading and reflection:

  1. Race

    Modern slavery is typically racist; strong or economically wealthy nations subject those of others nations to slavery. The American Founding Fathers, for example, believed that the black people they imported were only 60% human, and thus only deserved 60% of normal human rights.This is not a typical feature of first century slavery. Romans owned Jewish slaves, and Greek slaves. Jews owned Greek slaves and Jewish slaves. It was not a case of one powerful nation subjecting a weaker nation (or people of a particular pigmentation) to slavery.We cannot, therefore, read ‘slaves obey your masters’ as an indication of God endorsing racism. Genesis 1 and 2 tell us that God made one man and woman in His image, and out of them came every nation. Every human; black or white, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile is made in the image of God and all have dignity as a result.

  2. Status

    First century slavery was not based on social status. Slavery was a widespread practice, and it is estimated that around one third of the population of Greece and Italy was enslaved. Slaves were sometimes more educated than free people, and they very often had greater levels of responsibility, including managing people and resources.Additionally, slaves could also take other employment as time would allow. They could also own other slaves. So it is not the case that in the food-chain of society, slaves were the lowest of the low. They could be reputable, of high standing, with a good education and leadership responsibilities.Just imagine the challenges this would have presented for the church where both a slave and his master would worship side by side as believers, since ‘In Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free’ (Galatians 3:26; 28). Imagine a slave having a position of leadership within the church, which his master attended! These were all likely problems that the early church faced, and which are unthinkable under modern forms of slavery which are entirely demeaning, reducing slaves to the lowest positions of society, and removing from them all sense of human dignity.

  3. Finance

    In modern slavery, people are often tricked or coerced into slavery in order to pay a debt, and then they are kept in a state of poverty, never able to pay their way out. Additionally, they are never able to make money to sustain life beyond slavery, so there is no hope of a better future, since they would be unable to support themselves.In the first century, whilst some people may have got into slavery in order to pay off debts, others saw it as a good way of making money, a genuine source of income like any other job.The table below compares the financial situations of slaves and free workers. Whilst a slave would be paid considerably less than a Roman free worker, all of his accommodation, food and clothing would be paid for by his master. So at the end of a year, a slave would end up with 60 denarii in savings, whereas a Roman free worker would only have 33 denarii.

    Roman Free Worker

    Slave

    Income

    313 denarii

    60 denarii

    Expenditure

    280

    0

    Difference

    33

    60

    These savings gave first century slaves the option to buy their way out of slavery early, or to have a means of sustaining life once they were released.

  4. Length

    Modern slavery is often lifelong; people are promised a release that never comes, because they are unable to pay back the spiralling debts (often exacerbated by forced drug addiction) or they die in the jobs as a result of violence, infection, or crushing workloads.By contrast, in the first century you could earn enough in a few years to buy your freedom, or you could earn favour with your master and be set free. Most slaves were released within 10-15 years, and the majority were free by age 30.In fact, it was often in the master’s interest to release slaves, because it was cheaper to hire them back as free workers!

Summary

Of course, there were always exceptions, and particular people who abused the system. Slavery was certainly not a pleasant thing; there was still a sense of indignity about it, and certain writers were particularly demeaning towards slaves. Aristotle, for example, wrote ‘A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave’ and he argued that it was wrong to talk of friendship or injustice between a master and his slave, since ‘there is no friendship nor justice towards lifeless things.’

Whilst the Bible never condemns slavery outright, neither does it condone it. In fact, I would say that the Biblical principles of being made in the image of God and granted liberty through the gospel hint that God disapproves of slavery, even in its first century form… perhaps a topic for another day.

On the whole, however, many of the elements we think of when we hear the word ‘slave’ are simply not part of Paul’s original meaning. Modern slavery is highly racist. It is thoroughly demeaning. Most of it is driven by kidnapping, or deception. It is often linked to sex and abuse. It is life-long, with no hope of freedom, and may in fact cost people their lives. It is lucrative, feeding the rich, and abusing the poor. It keeps the poor poor, with no hope of restoration. What is fascinating is that when the Bible does restrict or critique particular practices related to slavery, many of the things it condemns are practices which characterise modern slavery.

Just one example: Exodus 21:26-27 lays out principles for masters treating their slaves well, and just a few verses before it says ‘Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death’ (v16). The Bible has an enormous problem with the practices of the modern slave trade, speaking in strong terms and threatening death for those who would dare to kidnap, buy and sell human life.

Christians have historically been on the forefront of fighting slavery, and still must today. But it would be a mistake to read Ephesians 6:5 and other passages, and think that God somehow condones the barbaric practices of the modern slave trade.

Resources

The resources that have helped me most as I have thought about the subject of slavery (ancient and modern) include the following:

Slaves of Christ – Murray J. Harris.
This is a brilliant book, looking at the theme of slavery in the Bible and the surrounding world. It draws from a wide range of sources, and is incredibly helpful. It looks not only at the Biblical view of literal slavery, but also at the metaphorical use of slavery in scripture, the way the language is used to describe Jesus’ own descent into human existence (Philippians 2), how he has rescued us through the gospel, and what it now means to be a slave of Christ.

William Wilberforce – William Hague
Hague’s biography of Wilberforce is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Brilliantly written and easy to read, focussing on the facts that matter rather than just trying to cram in every stat and figure imaginable. It is an amazing story of an amazing man.

From Every People and Nation – J. Daniel Hays
A slightly broader book, looking at the subject of race in Scripture. I’ve reviewed this in more detail here but it’s well worth a read on this related themes of race and racism.

Free The Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net)
This has been a great source of information, though I have to say, I’ve not looked much into their work beyond the information they provide.

Stop the Traffik (www.stopthetraffik.org)
Stop the Traffik is an international movement who aim to raise the awareness of human trafficking as well as campaigning for an end to trafficking and sexual exploitation.

International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org)
IJM is a human rights agency working to rescue people from sexual oppression and slavery. They work all round the world, but are based in Washington D.C. and do an amazing job!

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One response

18 07 2011
newsong40

Really helpful post (ditto your sermon yesterday), thanks Liam.

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