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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Slavery in the New Testament, Part 3: Glimmers of Justice

Gold statue of Lady Justice holding scales in her hand

In Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, the protagonist, Cora, escapes from slavery in Georgia and rides the underground railroad. After passing through South Carolina, she arrives in a North Carolinian town, a hell-scape in which central park lynchings are a community ritual.

The railroad station agent hides Cora in his attic until one day she becomes ill. The agent's wife, Ethel, tends to Cora in her illness, and when she recovers somewhat, Ethel proposes to read to her from the Bible. Cora politely declines; she'd read the Bible while stuck in the attic.

"The contradictions vexed her, even half-understood ones. 'I don't get where it says, He that stealeth a man and sells him, shall be put to death,' Cora said. 'But then later it says, Slaves should be submissive to their masters in everything—and be well-pleasing.' Either it was a sin to keep another as property, or it had God's own blessing. But to be well-pleasing in addition? A slaver must have snuck into the printing office and put that in there." (p. 186)

In fact, it was the author of the New Testament letter to Titus—ostensibly, the Apostle Paul—who snuck into the printing office. My guess is Cora's verse from Titus (2:9), and at least four others like it enjoining the submission of slaves to their masters, have convinced many the Bible's ethical judgment is not to be trusted (not to mention logically questionable, as Cora's contradiction suggests).

In this third and final post in a series on slavery and the New Testament, I take up these five problem passages and what we should make of them. It will be important to read them in the context of Jesus's liberating ministry and several emancipatory passages in Paul's letters, which I wrote about in the first and second posts in the series.

1 Corinthians 7:20-24: "Were You a Slave When You Were Called?"

I'll address the problem passages indirectly, by way of 1 Corinthians 7:20-24. In the New International Version (NIV), verse 7:21 states, "Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so." On this translation, Paul gives advice Cora and we moderns could affirm: escape slavery if you can. Two verses later, in 7:23, he says something similar: "You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings." Here, Paul advises free people not become enslaved.

Taken at face value, this passage from 1 Corinthians exhibits an anti-slavery bent suggesting it belongs with Philemon and Galatians 3:26-28 among Paul's emancipatory passages (discussed in my last post). However, upon reflection, the 1 Corinthians verses actually don't fit so easily with those other two.

The translation of 1 Corinthians 7:20-24—especially the critical verse 21—is highly uncertain and controversial among scholars. The uncertainty is evident from the NRSVUE translation of the passage:

Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make the most of it. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave belonging to Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of humans. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.

In this translation, it seems Paul thinks slaves should not be concerned about getting free. Rather, they should stay put and "make the most of" their slavery.

Which translation should we believe? As Anthony C. Thiselton puts it in his excellent commentary, "The truth is that the Greek grammar and syntax allow for either possibility" (p. 112). Given the context of the entire passage (1 Corinthians 7:17-24), I think (sadly) the best reading of 7:21 is probably the second one, in which Paul directs slaves to stay put and make the most of their position, rather than trying to get free.

But, even if I'm wrong, and Paul really does counsel freedom, the passage doesn't offer deep theological grounds for rejecting slavery. In Philemon and Galatians, the equal status of all Christians as siblings and children of God provides such grounds. However, in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 Paul seems merely to be giving practical advice on how to navigate slavery. As a result, 1 Corinthians 7:21 has more in common with the problem passages than with Philemon and Galatians.

The Problem Passages

Consider the problem passage in the letter to the Colossians:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not with a slavery performed merely for looks, to please people, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever task you must do, work as if your soul depends on it, as for the Lord and not for humans, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:22-25, NRSVUE)

The context of these instructions to slaves is a broader section of "household rules" (Colossians 3:18-4:1) addressing wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and slaveholders—in short, all members of a Roman household.

While the instruction to " everything...wholeheartedly" is troubling and offensive, it's critical to notice what the passage doesn't do: it does not affirm the institution of slavery. Indeed, it says nothing at all about whether slavery is good, bad, or indifferent. Rather, it just assumes the institution and instructs how to navigate it.

This silence might itself seem bad: I'd like the Bible to condemn slavery. On the other hand, at least the problem passages don't affirm it, which means they're logically consistent with the ultimate judgement slavery is wrong. The passages could simply be advice for dealing with a bad institution.

Rules for Hard Hearts

In Matthew 19, some Pharisees ask Jesus whether it's "lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause." Jesus basically says, "no," and the Pharisees reply, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" In this reply, the Pharisees reference Deuteronomy 24:1, in which the writer assumes a man will give his former wife a kind of settlement if he divorces her.

In response, Jesus says Deuteronomy refers to "certificates of divorce" because people are hard-hearted and insist on divorce. The certificate was meant to limit damage to the economically vulnerable divorcée, and did not entail approval of divorce; as Jesus says in Matthew 19, "from the beginning it was not so." The certificate was merely a provision to soften the bad fact of divorce.

The house rules pertaining to slaves are something like the divorce settlement in Deuteronomy 24: they don't entail approval of slavery. Rather, they merely imply slavery was a fact of first-century Roman culture, and they told slaves how to deal with it. They imply nothing about whether slavery should exist in the first place.

Cultural Differences

But was obedience really the best policy? The life of Harriet Tubman, who famously escaped slavery and helped others do the same, was courageous and heroic. She did the right thing. But if we say that, shouldn't we also say the instructions in the problem passages get it wrong? Shouldn't the instructions be, "Get free if you can"? This isn't an academic question since roughly 40 million people remain enslaved today.

Cultural differences between the first-century Roman Empire and the contemporary west make the question at least debatable. Today, in many parts of the world, an enslaved person who escapes could find resources to make their freedom permanent. There would be risk, to be sure, but the chance of success (at least in many cases) seems substantial. Even in the antebellum U.S., there were free states and Canada to the north, to which enslaved people had a decent chance of escaping.

In first-century Rome, the situation was different. Slavery was ubiquitous. There were no free states to which slaves could flee. The only real option was to blend in somewhere new and hope your enslavers gave up the chase, all the while risking the official Roman penalty for escape—crucifixion. Given this cultural difference, it's at least arguable obedience was best policy for its time. Writers of the problem passages might have thought anything else was too risky.

Should early Christians have tried to abolish Roman slavery instead of teaching obedience? Maybe, but I'm inclined to think probably not. The first-century church had virtually no political power. Unlike the church in the antebellum U.S., they had no rights to vote, speak out, or organize. The only avenue for such social change was armed insurrection, which would cross other Christian ethical boundaries.

And, as the Third Servile War demonstrated, the chance of success was low—even for a well-organized, well-equipped insurrection, such as the one famously led by Spartacus. Six-thousand captured survivors of that revolt were crucified along the Appian Way. Armed resistance to slavery could have destroyed the church altogether.

Not Timeless Rules

These cultural differences between first-century Rome and the contemporary west mean we cannot simply accept the problem passages as guidance for today. If we're to accept ethical guidance from an ancient document like the New Testament, the situation it guides must be relevantly similar to our situation. And, as I've suggested, in the case of rules for enslaved people, the situations are not relevantly similar. Therefore, in this case, the New Testament just isn't speaking to our situation, and we can disregard its guidance.

In rejecting the guidance of these passages, have I rejected the authority of scripture? I don't think so. It helps to see we disregard passages of the Bible for cultural reasons all the time and without problem.

Consider the four passages in which Paul tells his readers to greet each other with a "holy kiss" (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). Contemporary Americans generally don't do this: too creepy for church. But disregarding Paul's guidance doesn't mean we reject the authority of scripture. It just means the situation Paul speaks to—the first-century greeting of a sibling in Christ—is different from ours today.

We can happily say the same thing about the problem passages on slavery: accepting their literal guidance would not be appropriate given our culture and its differences from the ancient culture of the letter. The problem passages do not offer timeless rules.

Glimmers of Justice

Though we can't accept their literal guidance, the passages still have something to teach us. First, the non-Christian literature of the time typically instructed slaveholders how to manage their slaves; it never addressed slaves directly (Dunn 252).

In contrast, all five problem passages (1 Peter 2:18, Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1, and Titus 2:9) address slaves directly (or imply direct address). This difference suggests the first-century church welcomed slaves as full members and understood them as people with ethical responsibility, both of which imply an elevated status relative to slaves in the surrounding Roman culture.

Second, the problem passage in Colossians promises slaves an "inheritance" from Christ (Colossians 3:24). This line also implies an elevated status for slaves within the church: slaves in the wider Roman culture couldn't legally inherit anything.

Third, several problem passages tell slaveholders to treat slaves better than was normal in Roman culture. Ephesians 6:9 tells them to treat their slaves well and to stop threatening them. Colossians 4:1 tells them to treat their slaves "justly and fairly." These instructions contrast sharply with the surrounding Roman culture, in which the male head-of-household (the "paterfamilias") had the right of life and death over his slaves and could treat them however he wished.

Taken together, these three aspects of the problem passages indicate first-century Christians were reforming slavery within the church toward justice in subtle but important ways. While these glimmers of justice don't go far enough, some scholars see in them modest first steps on a trajectory toward abolition. After all, the most just and fair treatment of slaves would be to abolish their bondage altogether.


What should we conclude about the New Testament's teaching on slavery? Despite the problem passages, which often steal the limelight in circles critical of Christianity, the New Testament takes a surprisingly liberating approach to slavery.

As outlined in my first post on the topic, Jesus's ministry is directed toward "release of captives," "freedom for the oppressed," and a new Exodus, the great liberating event of the Bible.

As outlined in my second post on the topic, Paul's letters to the Galatians and Philemon suggest theological grounds for rejecting the institution of slavery: the sibling relationship to which Paul calls Christians includes an equality of status incompatible with the hierarchy of slavery.

While the New Testament never endorses slavery, my main complaint is that its writers didn't go as far as they could in rejecting it. With the egalitarian idea of Christian sibling-hood at their disposal, why didn't its writers at least instruct Christian slaveholders to do away with slavery within their households?

Perhaps they were fearful of backlash and violence from the culture around them. Or maybe they thought Jesus's return was imminent, and thus that thoroughgoing social reform wasn't important. Whatever the case, they left it to future generations to draw out the logical conclusion of their teachings: good Christian theology, not to mention practice, entails a rejection of slavery.

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Добавяне на отзив
09.02.2023 г.

My understanding of the teachings of Jesus is that Love is paramount to all interpretations of the personal and cultural human condition. So much else of our behaviour as individuals and cultures is predicated upon Fear rather than the liberating message of Love. Interesting to read what you have researched, Aaron. In the U K there has been a recent decision of the High Anglican Church of England that same sex marriages cannot be taken in an Anglican church , but that "Blessings" may be allowed, all based upon translations of the Scriptures. More dancing on the head of a pin. Love is the highest Authority in my reading of the Gospels.

Aaron Mead
Aaron Mead
16.02.2023 г.
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Thanks for reading, and yes, I couldn't agree more. Love for God and neighbor is the lens through which we should interpret scripture (as St. Augustine taught us in book 1 of "De Doctrina Christiana" (On Christian Doctrine)), and love for God and neighbor is the principle by which we should live all of life. Though, I think it's also interesting to notice that fear could be one of the emotions that love gives rise to, in some cases. For example, we might fear for someone's safety if we love them and they are in a risky situation. So, love and fear might actually go together sometimes.

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