The Apostle Paul authored almost half of the New Testament, and spoke authoritatively about the Christian perspective on countless subjects from the meaning of love, to the roles and duties of church officials. Much of Christian doctrine is based on the writings of Paul, but one particular issue appears to fall between the cracks in his writing: the question of slavery, its lawfulness, and its role in the Christian life. The crack into which it fell was large enough to fuel the American Civil War. Many Christians saw Paul’s writings as “pro-slavery” and were therefore willing to fight and die for their right to own other human beings. The purpose of this paper is to argue Paul’s view of slavery throughout the Bible as clearly as possible, and to pay particular attention to his view as expressed in Philemon.
As far as I can see, in the base question of whether or not Paul agreed with the system of slavery as a whole, I must conclude that he was against the idea. In the very least, he was against slavery the way we think of it today where one human being is dominated and suppressed by another in a complete and tyrannical way. In reference to slavery in terms of servant-hood where one man surrenders his will to the will of another, whether by choice or necessity, I think Paul’s view is slightly more intricate. I believe that Paul understood servant-hood to be an unmistakable reality, and in response to its reality, gave Godly principles to follow for both servants and masters of those servants.
The First Kind of Slavery
In regards to the first form of slavery, the slavery we associate with the American Civil War, in which human beings were bought and sold against their will, and then physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually oppressed for financial purposes, the Apostle Paul was, without question, against it. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul wrote that the law is useful only for unrighteous men, and he mentions “kidnappers” in the list of deeds that make men unrighteous. This word in the Greek is andrapodisthw or andrapodostēs. Translated, this word carries the connotation of a slave trader, or a man who engages in illegal slavery, in which the same sort of oppression as the American slave trade takes place. The English Standard Version translates this word as “enslaver.” This coupled with Paul’s constant references to grace found in the Gospel and the value of human life make it fairly clear that the type of slavery we associate with the American Civil War would definitely be contemptuous to him. But, what of the other kind? What about the kind of slavery that we would more closely associate with a live-in butler or full-time maid in today’s standards? One who submits to the authority of a master, but is not treated as sub-human because he does so?
The Second Kind of Slavery
This second kind of slavery, hereafter also called servant-hood, is referenced much more frequently in the New Testament writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul understood this type of servant-hood to be an unavoidable reality in the times in which he lived, and also in the heavenly order of God to man. With that said, Paul did “condone slavery” to a certain extent, mostly to the extent that we as Christians are slaves to Christ. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says that we Christians are not our own and that we were bought with a price. Here, Paul is hinting at the fact that we are slaves. We belong to God and our bodies and actions are not really our own. He makes this point more clearly in Romans 6:22 when he says that Christians have been freed from sin, and in so doing enslaved to God. Taking this idea one step further, he had actually just finished making the point in verses 15-20 that every human, believer and non-believer alike, are slaves to something: either to God or to sin. He equates perpetual servant-hood, to either sin or God, with life itself. Thus, slavery to Paul is an unavoidable reality in the human condition, spiritually at least.
On the physical level, Paul speaks about servant-hood quite often and gives Godly principles by which to live for both the servant and the master. Before enumerating these examples, it’s important to note a specific aspect of the culture in which Paul lived. Servant-hood was so extremely common that questioning its appropriateness simply didn’t happen. It was merely an understood fact that some people belonged to other people and that was just the way it was.
To a certain extent, I believe this is a truth that we are trying to eradicate from our society. I don’t mean this to say that people should be bought and sold against their will, this is obviously a great travesty, but I do believe that some people do belong to other people in certain ways. A wife belongs to her husband, a daughter belongs to her father, and a Christian belongs to Jesus Christ. Ownership does not have to mean superiority, and submission does not mean inferiority, which is very important to remember when looking at Paul’s view of slavery and servant-hood. Unfortunately, the subject of equality between a leader and a follower is not the subject of this paper.
On multiple occasions, Paul gave Godly principles for Christian servants to follow while in their position. Ephesians 6:5 says, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ.” This is a clear example of Paul telling a Christian who’s position was a life of servant-hood to stay obedient to those in earthly authority over him just a he would stay obedient to Christ. He even goes on to say in verse six to do this wholeheartedly, “as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” This obviously shows that while Paul might not have agreed wholeheartedly with the system of servant-hood, he also was not in vocal opposition to it. If he had been, this would have been a prime opportunity to mention such opposition.
Another passage that shows Paul instructing men caught in the bonds of servant-hood how to act is 1 Timothy 6:1-2. This is the same letter that Paul began by condemning slave traders as unrighteous. That means there must be a distinction between the kind of slavery mentioned in chapter one verse ten, and the type of slavery mentioned here in chapter six. This passage says much the same as the Ephesians passage, by starting out with a command that servants should honor their masters, because the way they treat their earthly masters is by extension the way that they treat God. He also attaches a more practical reason to their obedience. He says that servants should honor their masters as a means of protecting the reputation of Christian doctrine.
This principle has not been followed today. Evangelism is so difficult in today’s world because most non-believers have seen the hypocrisy of believers and use it as an excuse to ignore the gospel message. In 1 Timothy 6, we see Paul telling servants, men who have far more reason to be upset with their lives and potential to act irresponsibly, to honor their masters so that the Christian nametag will be one worth wearing. He then goes on to say, that even if your master is a Christian, you still have no excuse for dishonoring or disobeying them, because you are both brothers in Christ and you are both working towards the same heavenly goal of advancing the kingdom. Paul covers all of his bases and tells slaves that even when your situation is not the greatest, it is not an excuse to break the rules God has set before you. Those in authority are supposed to be in authority, and so, we are meant to submit to their authority, even if we don’t like it at times.
Two final passages in which Paul repeats almost these exact same instructions are Titus 2:9-10 and Colossians 3:22-25. In Colossians, he repeats almost word for word, his position that slaves should obey their masters because it is really for Christ that all their work is done. In Titus, he sticks firmly to his position of slaves obeying their masters all for the ultimate glory of God, and the adorning of the doctrine of God in every respect. All of this together shows one particular aspect of his view on slavery. Whatever his opinion about the institution as a whole, he was adamant, over and over again, that servants should stay faithful and obey their earthly masters for the ultimate glory of God.
As for the masters in these situations, similar instructions were given to them, and were done so almost every time instructions were given to the slave. In Ephesians 6, for example, just after he finishes telling servants to be obedient in verse five, he moves on to instruct masters in verse nine to “do the same things to [their servants], and give up threatening, knowing that both [their servant’s] Master and [their] master is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” This makes it pretty clear that Paul thinks of slavery purely as a secondary institution, second to the Church, to Christianity, and to God’s ultimate eternity. He basically tells the masters to treat their servants as brothers in Christ, and not as servants at all.
The same thing happens in Colossians. Just after Paul finishes giving the servants instructions to obey their masters in 3:22, he goes on to tell the masters how to behave in 4:1. He tells masters to treat their slaves fairly and justly, and reminds them that they all have one true master in heaven. Both of these instances would seem to indicate that Paul had a fairly disinterested view of slavery as an institutional whole, because he knew that it would pass away with this world just like everything else.
The Book of Philemon
All of this together gives us a fairly good indication as to what Paul really thought of slavery, but there are two more examples in the Bible that really drive home his viewpoint. The first example is the entire book of Philemon. This is a letter that was written to a slave owner, on behalf of his runaway slave, Onesimus. In the letter Paul explains that Onesimus has become a believer, just like Philemon. Paul hints at the fact that Onesimus’ conversion is something that should cause Philemon to treat him differently, and even goes so far as to suggest letting Philemon go as a free man instead of keeping him as his slave. The most powerful part of this letter, is when Paul asserts to Philemon that Onesimus was formerly useless, but now that he is a believer he can be useful for something real. In essence, Paul is telling Philemon to allow Onesimus to do the work of the Lord and to forgive him, instead of punishing him for running away. Paul tells Philemon to, “accept him as you would me,” which was quite a proposal coming from arguably the most influential Christian of all time.
This book shows us again that Paul regarded the institution of slavery as secondary, or unimportant. He knew that it existed, and for those knit to the world, he gave principles to follow. However, since he truly understood the scope of Christ’s reign, he didn’t worry too much about it.
This truth about Paul’s view of slavery is most evident in a final passage. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Even though Paul wasn’t talking directly about slavery, he makes one of the strongest statements regarding his viewpoint of it in this one verse. He basically says that slavery doesn’t exist for Christians, at least, not in the spiritual sense. He says that slavery is something earthy and menial, it isn’t important when compared with the eternity we will have together as believers. Yes, he gave principles and precepts to follow for the time being, because he recognized that we are on planet earth and slavery does exist, but that was not the focus of his view on the matter. In essence, Paul’s view of slavery was from above, far away, in the presence of God and eternity. When viewed from that distance and perspective, slavery is largely unimportant.