Guest Post: Why doesn’t the Bible condemn slavery?

Guest Post: Why doesn’t the Bible condemn slavery? May 28, 2014

This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, “Straight to the Heart of Galatians to Colossians”, published this month by Monarch Books. You can visit Phil Moore Books or follow him on Twitter.


“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5)

William Knibb, a British missionary to colonial Jamaica, wrote home: “The cursed blast of slavery has, like a pestilence, withered almost every moral bloom. I know not how any person can feel a union with such a monster, such a child of hell. I feel a burning hatred against it and look upon it as one of the most odious monsters that ever disgraced the earth.”[1]

Most of us aren’t surprised that Christians led the fight against slavery in the early nineteenth century. We aren’t surprised that Christians still lead the fight against human trafficking today. What is surprising, however, is that Paul tells the slaves at Ephesus to submit to their masters instead of helping the slaves to throw off their chains.[2] We clearly need to dig a little deeper into what life was like at Ephesus.

Paul does not condemn slavery outright for historical reasons. It is almost impossible for us to utter the word ‘slavery’ without thinking of the appalling transfer of three million black Africans across the Atlantic between 1492 and 1807. Roman slavery was very different. Most slaves were prisoners of war and had they not been enslaved on the battlefield they would almost certainly have been slaughtered instead.[3] Whereas black slaves in the New World tended to be slaves for life, most Roman slaves could win their freedom within a decade. That doesn’t mean it was right, but it does mean it is wrong for us to read these verses without being aware of our own cultural baggage.

Paul does not condemn slavery outright for practical reasons. Historians cannot agree on the population of first-century Ephesus, but some estimate that its 250,000 free citizens were outnumbered by anything up to 400,000 slaves. Paul is smart enough to see that calling for their immediate emancipation would actually destroy them, since Roman slavery at least ensured that the very rich had a vested interest in providing for the very poor. The Roman orator Cicero lamented that conditions for most poor workers were worse than those of slaves, and that “the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.”[4] Friedrich Engels argued something similar during the Industrial Revolution: “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labour only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence … Thus, the slave can have a better existence than the proletarian.”[5] Paul was smart enough to see that legal freedom might not bring the Ephesian slaves true freedom at all.

Paul does not condemn slavery outright for theological reasons. He tells us throughout his letters that unbelievers are slaves to sin and that the Gospel frees a person from the inside out. He therefore helps the Ephesian slaves to see that they are freer than their masters if they work as willing slaves of Jesus Christ, and he helps the Ephesian masters to see that they will only know true freedom if they recognise that they have obligations towards their slaves because they are also slaves of Christ themselves. The nineteenth-century German thinker Goethe observed that “Nobody is more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe that they are free.”[6] Paul refuses to short-change the Ephesian slaves with superficial liberty. He teaches them how to be truly free on the inside.

That’s why Christians shouldn’t be embarrassed by these verses. We should see them as instructions which are just as relevant to employers and employees today as they were two thousand years ago. They teach us how the Gospel transforms the daily grind of our working hours, no matter how difficult they may be. They tell us that the way we work from Monday to Friday is as much an act of worship as the way we sing on Sundays.

My good friend Nathan discovered the transforming message of these verses a few years ago. He worked for a small business which was in serious trouble. His boss responded by cutting everybody’s wages while expecting them to work harder than ever. Nathan applied for other jobs but was unsuccessful in all his interviews, and he began to feel as much like a slave as any of the original recipients of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It was a real act of sacrifice to Jesus that he guarded his heart towards his boss (6:5) and kept working hard for him even when he was not looking over his shoulder (6:6).[7] It was an act of faith for him to work for Jesus as his true Employer (6:7), believing that Jesus would reward him fairly even if his boss didn’t (6:8).

Then one of Nathan’s work colleagues was diagnosed with cancer. Although he was not a Christian, he had been so impressed with Nathan’s attitude at work that he turned to him in his hour of crisis. Nathan was able to help him to prepare for death, first at the photocopying machine and then later at the hospital. When Nathan preached at his colleague’s funeral, he was able to tell the man’s widow and children how he led him to repentance and faith in Jesus before he died. Shortly afterwards, Nathan found a better job, but when he looks back on that year he says he would not have been freed early for any other job in the world. Because he learned to live as a free man, though chained to a desk he hated, he was able to lead a fellow slave to freedom through the Gospel.

Paul therefore taught slaves to experience true freedom whilst still slaves, but he also sowed the seeds for the eventual overthrow of slavery in years to come. When people saw the godly character of Christian slaves, they began to take Paul seriously when he argued that the slave trade was evil (1 Timothy 1:10), that slaves should gain their freedom if they could (1 Corinthians 7:21), that masters ought to view their slaves as equals (Ephesians 6:9 and Galatians 3:28), and that they ought to set them free at the proper time (Philemon 16). Although governments resisted his teaching for many years, the historian Rodney Stark argues that Paul’s teaching eventually won the day:

“Of all the world’s religions, including the three great monotheisms, only in Christianity did the idea develop that slavery was sinful and must be abolished. Although it has been fashionable to deny it, antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently ‘lost’ from history until recently. Finally, the abolition of New World slavery was initiated and achieved by Christian activists.”[8]

To read more free chapters from the “Straight to the Heart” series of commentaries, please go to


[1] Peter Masters “Missionary Triumph Over Slavery: William Knibb and Jamaican Emancipation” (2006).

[2] Before we rush to condemn Paul’s instructions to slaves, it is worth noting that he was in chains too (6:20).

[3] The Roman jurist Gaius tells us this in his “Institutes”, written in 161AD.

[4] Marcus Tullius Cicero writing in 44BC in his essay “De Officiis” or “On Duties” (1.42).

[5] Friedrich Engels wrote this in “The Principles of Communism” (1847), which was adapted the following year by Karl Marx into “The Communist Manifesto” (1848).

[6] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his novel “Elective Affinities” (1809).

[7] Paul uses the same Greek word for obeying in 6:5 as he used in 6:1. He tells slaves literally in 6:6 not to offer “eye-slavery as man-pleasers,” because Jesus is their true Master and he is watching them all the time.

[8] Rodney Stark in “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery” (2003).

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Because having someone supply your food and shelter is the best thing. In that lies your answer.

  • Btw, I listened to the podcast of you and rob bell. Only a politician could have been slipperier!

  • Emily

    “Paul was smart enough to see that legal freedom might not bring the Ephesian slaves true freedom at all.” –Jesus allegedly fed 5,000 people using one lunch. The “Paul didn’t condemn slavery for practical reasons” excuse is absurd.

  • Emily

    “Paul refuses to short-change the Ephesian slaves with superficial liberty.” And how does that prevent him from condemning slavery in principle? Just because some sort of good might be derived by some individuals in some circumstances, that’s a good excuse for withholding the kind of denunciation that would make it impossible for future slave owners to justify their position on the grounds that the Bible never condemns slavery outright? God destroyed the Egyptians so that the Hebrews could have the “superficial” liberty you deride. (Then again, God seems to only care that the Hebrews themselves are not slaves–he’s perfectly okay with them owning slaves themselves)

  • mirele

    Adrian, I’d just point out that there’s absolutely no comparison between what happened to your friend Nathan and chattel slavery. Your friend Nathan was free to apply for other jobs. No slave was free to apply to get a better owner. That was completely and totally out of his hands. Your friend Nathan can buy his own food, his own clothes–for a slave, these were “provided” (such as it was) by the slaveowner. I doubt your friend Nathan ever worried about his employer selling his family and thus splitting it up but that was a regular fear for slaves. I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.

    The issue of slavery in the New Testament writings just goes to show how culturally bound those documents are. And that is something evangelicals simply will not tackle. Instead of being valid for all circumstances and all time, maybe the Epistles were written specifically for one group of people at a particular point in time. But that’s a radical proposition to people who believe that every word is God-breathed. Which then leads to contortions like this article from Adrian Warnock.

    • To be clear this is a guest post from my friend Phil Moore…Nathan is not my friend!

  • Brian P.

    Would just like to point out without any ambiguity that Adrian isn’t my friend. (Exclamation mark.)

  • We still have a lot of slavery in the world and I don’t believe slavery will be totally abolished till Jesus comes back. Think of children in mining industry in India, or slaves in different Asian factories. Yes, Christians must be anti-slavery!

  • John Haggerty

    I got a lot out of this blog. Thanks. Bedouin tribesmen abduct children from African villages. A liberal peer in Britain’s House of Lords has raised funds to purchase the children back in some cases, but she has faced criticism for her actions. Critics say the Arab abducters, who sell the children into slavery, will just do it again if they know rich countries are going to give them money. I watched a TV documentary about it some years ago. The mothers in the village were weeping as they were reunited with their children from four or five years before. But the poor women lived in fear of the Arabs returning. They slept uneasily in their beds with their returned children beside them. Now in Europe we have human trafficking on a huge scale. Young men and women are held like prisoners in illegal brothels. This is not the future I dreamt about 40 years ago. Jesus came to save the world but he will return to judge it. Can we not preach this gospel to America, Europe and the whole world?

    • Kumquat

      Leviticus 25:44,
      “Both your male and female slaves, whom you shall have, shall be of the nations that are round about you; of them shall you buy male and female slaves.”

      Ephesians 6:5
      “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ”

      Exodus 21:20-21
      “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”

      Waterboarding and other forms of torture are sanctioned means of punishment for uppity slaves.

      Remember, the Bible is the inerrant word of God. If you disagree with any of the above verses, you are a heathen and thus are fit to be owned as human chattel. Be sure to tremble in fear before your master as you would before The Jesus, lol!

  • Only religious apologists try to downplay the abusive nature of 1st century slavery – and only to get Paul off the hook. The dehumanizing reality of slavery in the 1st century was little different than that of slavery in any century. I would suggest that readers get their history from sources other than your blog:

  • DollarFray

    Humans/People created slavery then as they do now. Like the abolitionists who followed him, Paul worked to address slavery in the context of his (1st century) culture – amidst government sanctioned pro-slavery sentiments. Paul had a radical message in the 1st Century and he was beaten and jailed for it and ultimately executed by Rome.

  • Kumquat

    So the Bible, the inerrant word of God, side steps a moral condemnation of slavery for “historical” and “practical” reasons? It’s interesting to consider that if God had chosen to speak in the Bible morally instead of practically, the Americas may never have experienced centuries of dehumanizing slavery.

    If you make any further attempts at rationalizing the Bible’s support for slavery, I suggest you address ALL of the mentions of slavery in the bible. Clear instructions are given regarding which people may be owned as slaves (heathens from neighboring nations) and how a slave master may beat his slaves (brutally). One could almost make the mistake of thinking the Bible was a Slavery Handbook.

    Here are a few links easily found by Google which detail God’s will regarding slavery:

    Make no mistake, your Christianist God didn’t condemn slavery because He regards it as just and moral. It is His will that good God-fearing Christianists hold slaves.