“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Passages like this one often get the Bible criticized for being pro-slavery, or at least not sufficiently condemnatory of it. Why wouldn’t Paul just come out here and declare it to be the evil it obviously is? There are two reasons, I think. One helps us understand the culture into which Paul was writing better, the other points to how God has nearly always moved people forward toward the ethic of His kingdom.
The first reason is this: In Paul’s day slavery was normal. The idea of owning another person didn’t cause anyone any amount of internal, moral turmoil. For Paul to have announced that slavery was a moral wrong would have had people looking at him like he had an extra ear growing out of his forehead. It wouldn’t have registered at all. There wasn’t any moral language by which people would have understood that kind of an idea. They didn’t have any kind of an ethical foundation on which to start building that structure.
Now, slavery then didn’t look like our culture’s experience with it. Oh, life for a slave wasn’t all that much better under most circumstances, but race didn’t factor into the equation at all. Slaves were the fruits of military conquest. It was the result of indebtedness to the wrong person. It was also a class issue. Philosophers of the day suggested that some people were simply born to be slaves. How did you know who these people were? Most often they were the children of slaves. But, no one was held as a slave or forced into slavery because of the color of their skin.
The impact of all of this leads us to the second reason Paul didn’t just come out and announce slavery to be evil and call for an end to the practice. Sometimes, the best way to confront a problem when your audience doesn’t have a mental category for even thinking about it as a problem, is not to stand up and announce, “This is a problem.” It is instead to take things as they are and start to slowly, inch-by-inch, draw lines around the issue that move its practice subtly in the direction you want it to go.
This is how God has always operated with us. Consider the clear upward moral trajectory that extends from the Old Testament into the New Testament. The reason for this is not that Jesus came and suddenly changed everything, but rather that God had long been slowly, steadily, step-by-step moving the people forward in the direction He wanted for them to go. He didn’t tell the Israelites that slavery was wrong because they wouldn’t have understood Him at all. Instead, He put lines around their practice that pointed to the enduring value of every person regardless of their physical circumstances, and there were to be consequences for violating that value no matter who the person was.
Paul does the same thing here. He doesn’t say, “Slavery is wrong and slaves should rebel!” He calls Christian slaves to behave toward their owners in ways that deeply undermined the belief that their value was inherently less than that of their owners. They were to behave as people with a deep self-respect and to serve as if they really worked for someone else who had called them to go above and beyond all normal expectations. It’s hard to maintain the belief in someone else’s inferiority when they humbly, gently, and lovingly refuse to accept the premise themselves.
Instead of announcing to slave owners (even Christian ones) that what they were doing was evil and should be immediately stopped, he called them to treat their slaves as if they were the cherished children of a heavenly Father who was absolutely committed to their good. They were not to behave toward their slaves in ways that communicated they had less value, but were to lift them up to share the same moral footing as themselves because their heavenly Father did the same.
The result of this was not an immediate end to the practice of slavery. Our critics are right in that much. But what it did do was to lay a moral foundation that pointed clearly forward toward a place where slavery was no longer practiced because it was morally impermissible. And indeed, in the very early centuries of the church we have the letters from church leaders making just this case literally hundreds of years before anybody else in the world was even thinking about doing so. And they did it because they studied the Scriptures, saw the clear trajectory they had on this issue, and concluded accordingly.
The truth is that even through to today, slavery has never not been practiced in the world. In fact, by some estimates, there are more people owned as slaves today (primarily in the Muslim world and in the sex-trafficking industry) than there have ever been at any other point in history. But, where there have ever been movements aimed at limiting or even outright eliminating the practice in whatever form it has happened to take, Christians have always been at the forefront. This is because ours is the only worldview to ever create a moral and intellectual foundation that believed it to be wrong. Where that idea exists anywhere else in the world it has been borrowed from us.
Paul may not have said what we wanted him to say in the way we wanted him to say it, but he did lay a foundation for it happening in a way that has proved much more enduring than it would have otherwise been. Even though it never comes right out and declares the immorality of slavery, the Bible is the most thoroughly anti-slavery book that has ever been written. That’s a good thing to have in our history.