Ephesians 6:5: Slavery and Christianity: Part One

The Western world has fallen out of love with Christianity all the way into being an aggressive prosecutor of it. Today people are not talking about reasons why they don’t believe Christianity as one of many possible truths, it is a case of Christianity being one of the things that is clearly wrong. Many of today’s social evils are laid at the squarely at the foot of Christianity. The suicide of teenagers struggling their sexual identity, lets blame the church who tells them that they are sinning. The abuse of woman by controlling men, lets blame the biblical teaching of male headship. Every instance of parental violence against a child, that is all because the Bible is barbaric and encourages us to apply discipline. War, well all wars have been started by religious people, and let’s point to the wars of the OT and speak about Christianity as a genocidal and bloodthirsty religion. The Colonial impact of the West destroying native cultures, well Christianity is the worst because it comes among other cultures and destroys their religion and cultural norms and forces Western norms on other cultures. Slavery, slavery was enabled by the Bible which encourages slaves to submit to their masters; slavery is not clearly forbidden by the Bible; some of the OT laws even regulated and appear to encourage it; and many Christians owned slaves and fought to maintain the institution of slavery in the American Civil War. Sam Harris, one of the aggressive New Atheists in his Letter to a Christian Nation writes, ‘Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the Creator of the universe clearly expects us to own slaves.’ These are just a sampling of the many assaults against Christianity, and in light of the recent blow ups around race the accusations against Christianity and its guilt around racism has resurfaced with a vengeance. So as we enter a new section looking at Paul’s teachings on slaves and masters we will have to address the elephant in the room and make a defence on the Bible’s teaching on slavery.

Ephesians 6:5-9, ‘Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 9 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.’ The word ‘bondservant’ in our modern translations is the word ‘doulos’ which is traditionally translated as slave. The word slave however is in many ways a poisoned word. When we say the word slavery today most people think of sex trafficking and the slave trade across the Atlantic to the Americas, though the word would have some of these aspects in its meaning back then it also would have held very different connotations in the ancient world. Many modern translations have chosen to avoid the term for these reasons.

So when the modern day person picks up the Bible and reads it, and hears Paul telling slaves to submit it sounds like he is saying to kidnapped people who have been sold into sexual slavery that they should submit to their oppression to the glory of God. It sounds like Paul is ok with human beings stealing and owning each other, that he puts the practice of slavery on a par with marriage and male headship, and sees the duty of slaves obeying their masters in the same light as children obeying their parents and wives submitting to their husbands. When Christians in the American South quoted the Bible to sustain the institution of slavery wasn’t the Bible on their side? What is going on here? Is this an obvious case of having a cultural blind spot so that certain evils were not seen as evil? Is this proof of the Bible’s primitiveness and inadequacy to regulate our lives today when it comes to ethics? Is this an example of a blatant contradiction between the Bible’s teaching human dignity and what it commands? Is this to be taken along with all the other so called ‘barbaric’ aspects like the call to wipe out Canaanite tribes as proof of the Bible’s lack of divine inspiration, and proof of atheism, as people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins think? The question is an important and pressing one, and in light of the connection between slavery and racism in the modern mind one that is full of emotion.

Today we want to bring some perspective to the matter, firstly, we need to get a clear picture of the different types of slavery in the Bible and its surrounding cultures, then we want to recognize the powerful truths that are planted by the Bible which became the seeds of the institution of slavery’s destruction by Christianity in the Western world.