Before we come to expound these verses, I think it is important to step back for a moment and to consider their overall import. In the KJV, it might be easy to miss the fact that Paul is addressing slaves and slave-owners in this text, where the terms are translated “servant” and “master.” However, the terms are the terms for “slave” and “lord,” and thus this brings us to the question of the NT attitude toward slavery, and the apostle’s in particular. The problem comes down to this: why didn’t the apostle command the slave-owners to free their slaves? The fact of the matter is that he doesn’t do this; instead, he tells them to treat their slaves with the same respect and dignity that they would want to be treated. To Philemon, he studiously keeps from pressuring him to free Onesimus, appealing to him instead. From these facts, it seems to me that it is an inescapable implication that the apostle clearly did not see the institution of slavery as it existed then as fundamentally immoral; otherwise, he would have demanded the masters to free their slaves. But this is a problem, and an embarrassment, to the modern evangelical sentiment, especially in the West. Even the famous evangelical pastor and commentator John Stott accuses the apostles with being “mealy-mouthed” in their treatment of the issue of slavery. What are we to say about this?
This is especially important because the issue of slavery in the NT is a reason that many people give for either (1) rejecting the authority of the Bible wholesale, or (2) refusing to admit its inerrancy in its totality. This is the primary reason I want to speak to this issue. I believe the Bible is the word of God and is worthy of your total confidence and trust. I want you to love it and to live it out in your lives. I don’t want you to be embarrassed about any of its contents. So for that reason I think it is important to speak to the issue of the apostle’s attitude towards slavery.
There is another reason, as well. Recently, there has been quite an uproar in the evangelical world over the issue of social justice and its relation to the gospel. I know there is some unease over the smuggling of unbiblical categories of thought into the church as it struggles with various social concerns. But the larger issue is how to think about the relative importance of these issues in light of the gospel. In what sense are social justice issues a gospel issue? How does believing and holding to the gospel affect the way we seek to solve social justice concerns? I think this passage indicates how the apostle would speak to these issues as well.
Why doesn’t the apostle condemn slavery and command masters to free their slaves? As we try to understand this, the first thing we need to do is to recognize that our own country’s history affects the way we think about this problem. In other words, when we think of slavery, we automatically think of slavery as it existed in the antebellum South. It is hard to imagine anyone today wanting to condone that institution. I certainly would not. But here’s the thing: I believe the apostle Paul would have condemned that institution as well. If that is true, then we have to separate in our minds the institution of slavery as it existed in first century Christian households and the institution of slavery as it existed, say, on an 1850 Mississippi plantation.
Why do I say that? I say it because Paul, being steeped in the Mosaic Law, would have known about Exodus 21:16, which reads, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (ESV). You can’t kidnap someone from their home and sell them into slavery; under OT law, that’s worthy of capital punishment. But the reality is that, whatever exceptions there might have been to this, the institution of slavery broadly speaking, as it existed in the Americas, was fundamentally based upon kidnapping people from their homes in Africa, putting them on slave-ships against their will, and selling them into slavery. Therefore, the institution was fundamentally immoral, and I think it is the responsibility of every Christian to condemn it as such.
Another reason I think the apostle would have condemned slavery, as it existed in our country before the Civil War, is that it was race-based. Slavery in the NT era was certainly not race-based; in fact, if you had walked down the streets of first century Ephesus or Rome, you would probably not have been able to tell the difference between a slave person and a free person. One of the reasons why race-based slavery is so insidious is that it inevitably ties the color of a person’s skin with their worth. Race-based slavery in the US led to white people looking at black people as less human than themselves, simply because their skin was darker than their own. This in turn led to all the awful by-products of such an attitude in the Jim Crow South that held on even a hundred years later (and in some places, even to the present day).
Let me underline again why it is so important to clarify this. When we are addressing Paul’s attitude towards slavery, we have to realize that NT household slavery was not the same thing as American slavery. You simply can’t read Ephesians 6:9 and conclude that the race-based, kidnapped-from-their-homes-based slavery in the pre-Civil War US was okay. Some Southern theologians tried to do just that, but they were not justified in their conclusions. This is simply because the apostle was not addressing the same thing they were trying to justify.
But be that as it may, it is still troubling to many that the apostle seems to justify slavery, even if it wasn’t the same thing as that dreadful institution that used to exist in our country. Slavery, after all, in whatever form, is still one person owning another person. How could the apostle be indifferent to that? What is behind his exhortations to slaves and masters in the text? I want to try to answer this question as best I can, and I will do so in stages, in a series of observations.
Here is the first: The apostle does not commend the institution of slavery in these verses. It is very important to note that just because the apostle does not overtly condemn slavery, neither does he indicate his approval of it. His instructions to masters are no endorsement of slavery as an institution; rather, it was his attempt to make an inherently dehumanizing institution as humane as possible by commanding the masters to treat their slaves just as they would want to be treated.
In fact, his attitude towards slavery comes out a little clearer in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he gives this advice to those believers who found themselves in servitude: “Art thou called being a servant [slave]? Care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants [slaves] of men” (1 Cor. 7:21-23). The last sentence in that text could mean nothing more than those who are slaves should not think of themselves ultimately as the slaves of men, when they are the slaves of Christ. However, I think what the apostle is really saying is that the position of slavery to men is fundamentally incompatible with our identity as servants of the Lord, and therefore they should avoid slavery at all costs. You might think, “Duh,” but the reality is that many people in the first century sold themselves into slavery to better their lives (another way that first century slavery was different from 19th century American slavery!). People would sometimes sell themselves to a wealthy family where they would be taken better care of, educated in some skill, and then emerge some years later as a free person in a better position. Sometimes slavery even led to a man gaining Roman citizenship. So there were all sorts of reasons why a person in Paul’s day might actually choose to become a slave. What Paul is saying to the Corinthians is, “Don’t do it! You are Christ’s servants, so don’t become the servants of men.”
This attitude is actually duplicated all over the Bible. Yes, it is true that in the OT there are all sorts of laws on slavery. But these laws weren’t implemented to encourage the practice of slavery, but rather to govern it and to curb its abuses. The same thing was true with respect to divorce. God tells us that he hates divorce, and our Lord tells the Pharisees that from the beginning it was not so, but then our Lord goes on to say that God gave Moses laws that governed the dissolution of marriage because of the hardness of men’s hearts, not because God approved of divorce. The same thing could be said with respect to polygamy. So it’s pretty clear that you can’t just look up the OT legislation on slavery and then say, “Aha! God likes slavery.” When you build a wall around a tiger so that he can’t get out, you are acknowledging the reality that there are dangerous and evil things that will happen if that tiger gets out. When God built walls of legislation around the institution of slavery, he was telling everyone that there are inherently dangerous and dehumanizing things about that institution.
The fact of the matter is that in the OT, the ultimate evidence of God’s blessing upon his people is that “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree” (Micah 4:4; cf. 1 Kings 4:25). This is not the picture of a man who is another man’s slave, but a freeman every one. Slavery is therefore something that is incompatible with the fullest expression of God’s blessing upon a people and a nation.
Nowhere in the Bible is slavery seen as an ideal institution. Nowhere are we justified in painting slavery as anything less than an institution whose tendency is toward dehumanizing other human beings. Nowhere are we justified in wanting to hold on to such an institution. It was a good thing that slavery eventually went away in the Roman Empire (well, sort of…it was eventually replaced with medieval serfdom, which was not all that different). It was a good thing that it was outlawed in our country at the end of the Civil War. Neither the apostle nor the Bible in general approves of slavery as an institution; neither should we.
One other observation on this point before we move on: there is a significant difference between the way the apostle speaks to slavery and the way he had spoken to marriage and parenting. Now it is not because the relationship between masters and slaves isn’t in the same category as 5:22-6:4. It does belong in this section because Paul is speaking to household slaves. There were other types of slaves in the Roman Empire, but the only type of slave to whom the apostle address himself is the household slave. It is therefore part of his instruction on the home; in the NT world, a house was often not only made up of moms and dads and kids, but also their slaves. So the apostle addresses himself to such.
But there is a difference. When he speaks to husbands and wives, he grounds their relationship in the relationship that Christ has with the church. And when he speaks to the parent-child relationship, he quotes the Fifth Commandment. He does no such thing here. He does not ground the institution of slavery in Scripture, nor in any other theological reality. Again, here is evidence that the apostle thought differently about slavery than he did about marriage and parenting. Clearly.
But here is the second observation: The apostle’s exhortation to the masters contained the seeds of slavery’s demise. So when people argue that the apostle should have exhorted slave-owners to free their slaves, they are missing the fact that ultimately that is what happened in the long run because of the principles set forward in these words, especially verse 9: “And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” Now I’m not aware of any law that was passed in Christian Rome that outlawed slavery; however, I don’t think it’s disputable that slavery did become more and more rare, and surely one reason for this is that Christianity teaches the equal dignity of every human being. In other words, the fact that the apostle speaks to slave and slave-owner on the same terms, as equally valuable in the sight of God, as having the same rights to justice, must be one reason why Christians have found it so difficult to enslave others. And that is not in spite of texts like Eph. 6:5-9, but because of texts like Eph. 6:5-9. Therefore it should not surprise us that the main proponents of abolition even in modern times were not unbelievers but Christians. The leader in Great Britain against the slave trade and slavery in the 19th century who almost single-handedly took it down was not just a Christian, but an evangelical Christian, William Wilberforce.
Now all this still doesn’t quite answer the question: Why didn’t Paul command the masters to free the slaves? So that leads me to the third and fourth observations.
Paul almost certainly didn’t command the masters to free the slaves because he cared for the slaves. This may seem counterintuitive to modern sensibilities. But we must realize certain things about slavery in the ancient world. The slaves in a Christian household would have been treated well; they would have enjoyed a certain amount of freedom even (in the first century world, it was even possible for slaves to own slaves!). In Roman society, slaves could aspire to professions such as law and medicine; whereas as freemen they would have remained uneducated and unskilled. In other words, you shouldn’t think of the household slave as a field-hand who worked from sunup to sundown and then went to bed in a ramshackle hovel. Rather, the household slave would have worked side-by-side with his master, and would have enjoyed similar accommodations as the rest of the family. On the other hand, to tell a man to set his slaves free would be to enslave them in hopeless poverty. The modern man, from his comfortable couch, might loudly proclaim his preference for poverty to slavery; I doubt many first century household slaves would have echoed this sentiment.
Again, this doesn’t mean that slavery is an inherently desirable institution, nor that we shouldn’t be glad it doesn’t exist (in the West, at least). Nor do I mean to paint slavery as less severe than it was. What I said about household slavery above does not describe what happened in general. Slaves were often abused, branded, mistreated, and robbed of justice; that was the reality of their condition. However, it is also important to recognize what the apostle surely saw; that at the time, for many slaves, their condition was an economic necessity, and that to demand their freedom would have been a crushing blow to many people, to the slaves as well as to their masters.
Now my fourth observation is this: Paul wasn’t as concerned with changing existing societal structures as he was with preparing people for heaven. I think this is ultimately the reason Paul didn’t get on the abolitionist bandwagon. There were so many things wrong with the Roman Empire of Paul’s day. At the very top sat the infamous and immoral Nero. When we look at how Paul was treated during his imprisonment, we see how inadequate the judicial system was in his day. But Paul does not spend his time wringing his hand over how to correct the abuses of society at the political level. Rather, he spent his time seeking to make men and women disciples of Christ so that they would know God and go on to enjoy his fellowship forever in the New Heavens and New Earth. Of course, as people change and become salt and light, society will reflect their influence. But that was not Paul’s immediate or primary aim; his aim was to introduce men and women to God through his Son.
There is a crucial distinction here that I think is often missed. It is not the job of the Church qua Church to restructure the political and economic life of societies. The job of the Church is to make disciples of all the nations. It is to bring men and women into a relationship with God and to encourage that relationship through discipleship. The Church is to remind men and women that we are on a journey, that we are just passing through this world and we are being ushered into the world to come. With the Lord, the Church reminds people that they are on a road. It is either the broad road or it is the narrow road. Right now, the broad road is easy and the narrow road is hard. Each road ends, but what they end in does not end. The life that is at the end of the narrow way is a never-ending life, and the destruction that is at the end of the broad way is “everlasting punishment” (Mt. 25:46). People need to hear that, and it is the job of the Church to say clearly and consistently.
However, that does not mean that individual Christians should not apply their Christian consciousness in this world and seek to affect it in positive ways. John Newton was right to discourage Wilberforce from entering the ministry and instead to seek to use his influence in Parliament to end the slave trade. Of course we try to exert our influence in this world and to change the way things are if the way things are is wrong. Moreover, the Church must speak out against the wrongs of society and its injustices. In our day, this would include abortion and racism and homosexuality and all the unbiblical categories with which people want to redefine who we are as male and female.
But again, the reason behind this is not so that we will have a better world in the here and now. The reason is because people can’t come to Christ unless they repent of their sin. And it is the job of the Church to clearly enunciate what the Bible says about sin, in order that people repent, in order that they might get right with God. My concern with all the social justice rhetoric is that the Church is in danger of losing its focus upon the eternal, which is infinitely more important than all the temporal inequities.
The bottom line is this: the Church should so preach the gospel so that the focus is upon the eternal, and upon man’s broken relationship with God, and the need to be restored to that fellowship through the redemptive blood of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean we retreat from society. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to be salt and light in our world. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to change things that are wrong. But it does mean that we remember that this world is not our home. It is far more important to be right with God than anything else. Nothing else must ever eclipse our greatest need.
It’s really a question of emphasis. When we communicate the gospel to the world, what comes through most clearly? That abortion is wrong? That gay marriage is wrong? That racism is wrong? This is all very true, but if that’s primarily or all the world hears, then we are sending the wrong message of what the gospel is. What the world primarily needs to hear from the Church is that men and women are sinners in the sight of God and are in danger of justly suffering his wrath forever, but that God offers his mercy now through Jesus Christ to all who repent and turn to Christ in faith.
So when Paul looked at the institution of slavery, it’s clear to me that he didn’t like what he saw. But he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life trying to undo a less-than-perfect institution when the main thing to do was to build the church and preach the gospel. He only had so much time. His perspective was eternal not temporal. And he knew that the gospel sweetens every heart and home to which it comes and would go very far in ameliorating the more painful aspects of servitude. That should also be our focus, both as individuals and as a church. Believe the gospel. And then live out the gospel in ways that are appropriate to every relationship in which you find yourself.