The New Testament mentions slavery. Critics of the Bible have sometimes latched onto these texts as alleged evidence of the inferiority of the Bible ethics. Why doesn’t the New Testament speak against slavery? It seems to endorse the status quo. So goes the challenge. What can be said in response to such challenges? Here a few items to consider…
1. We need to properly contextualize slavery in the New Testament. Simply mentioning a practice does not mean God condones or endorses the practice. Paul urges Christians to honor the government but this doesn’t mean he condones everything the government does (Romans 13.1-7).
2. The culture of the time did not allow for large-scale revolution on the issue of slavery. Christians had to navigate the times with wisdom and engage in a longer-term project of undercutting slavery. By some estimates 85-90% of the inhabitants of Rome and the Italian peninsula were slaves or of slave origins. During the first century Caesar Augustus passed laws governing the number and ages of slaves who legitimately be set free. It is helpful to remember also that in 73 BC Spartacus led a slaves revolt and this caused the general populace to look with fearful suspicion on any who would potentially foment opposition to slavery.
3. It needs to also be remembered that the Christian communities to which Peter wrote were being increasingly seen in a negative light. Their lifestyles and refusal to fully endorse the gods brought them into conflict with the dominant culture. This leads Dr. Steven Tracy to write:
What then could Christian slaves (who had no legal rights regarding their masters' abuse) and Christian citizens (who stood on the cusp of legal prosecution for their faith) do when experiencing abuse? Their best response was to let their godly behavior challenge unjust treatment and unjust slander, which is precisely what Peter repeatedly prescribes (2:12,1&-20; 3:16).
4. There are ways that the New Testament expresses both direct and subtle opposition to slavery. In 1 Timothy 1.9-10 and Revelation 18.11-13 kidnapping for the purpose of slavery is spoken against and presented in a negative light and worthy of judgment. In 1 Corinthians 7.20-22 the apostle Paul encourages slaves to acquire freedom if possible. In Ephesians chapter six when Paul mentions slaves and masters he does not quote Scripture as he does when discussing the other aspects of the household such as husbands/wives and fathers/children. The marital and family bonds between men/women and parents/children were created by God so Paul can quote Scriptures about those relationships. Slavery is an institution not created by God so the lack of a Scriptural citation is subtle but significant.
5. The equality within the church tended to undercut the nature of slavery. What is noteworthy is that slaves are addressed by Paul and Peter in their letters. This dignified them as part of the church of Christ. This was also different from the moral codes of the time outside the church. As one biblical scholar writes:
The reason for this difference between 1 Peter and other moral codes of his time is simple. For society at large slaves were not full persons and thus did not have moral responsibility. For the church slaves were full and equal persons, and thus quite appropriately addressed as such.
There are seemingly even slave names mentioned by Paul in his conclusion to the book of Romans when he is thanking and commending those who are worthy of mention in the church. “The names of those mentioned in Romans 16 suggest that many had been slaves. Andronicus [v. 7] and Urbanus [v.9] were exclusively slave names in the literature and inscriptions of Paul’s day.”
6. It should also be noted that the symbolic actions of the early church tended to undermine the dominant culture’s ideas of slavery. The holy kiss and the language of “brothers” and “sisters” reinforced the larger family dynamic of the church. Masters addressing slaves as “brother” would begin to subtly overturn the overt power structures of the relationship. The words of biblical scholar F. F. Bruce regarding the letter of Philemon seem to apply more broadly to these kind of relational dynamics as well:
What this letter does [and I would argue these practices—RJK] is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution [of slavery] could only wilt and die.
Yes, the New Testament mentions slavery but within the message and actions of the church are the seeds of slavery’s destruction.
Resources for further study:
1. “Slavery in the Bible: Some Perspectives on a Difficult Topic.” This is a Bible study I did last year on the topic of slavery. It covers details of OT and NT slavery. It also has some more resources listed in the bibliography. Online: http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2015/11/slavery-in-bible-some-perspectives-on.html
2. The Humanization of Slavery in the Old Testament, edited by Thomas Schirrmacher. This is a collection of three essays that give perspective on slavery in the Bible, history and today. Very good research and reasoning. Online: http://www.bucer.de/fileadmin/dateien/Dokumente/Buecher/WoT_8_-_Thomas_Schirrmacher__ed.__-_The_Humanization_of_Slavery_in_the_OT.pdf
 Steven Tracy, “Domestic Violence in the Church and Redemptive Suffering” Calvin Theological Journal 41 (2006), 290. Available online: http://mendingthesoul.org/wp-content/uploads/DV-in-Church-1-Peter.pdf