Claim: The New Testament including the Gospels promote not just obedience but further condone violence against slaves.
Response: ebed (also transliterated as ‘eved). It is commonly translated 'slave'. Servant' and 'slave' used to overlap much more in meaning, but now have different meanings. Servants are no longer seen as slaves.
The meaning of the word ‘ebed is not inherently negative, but relates to work. The word identifies someone as dependent on someone else with whom they stand in some sort of relation. 2
Most slaves were foreigners defeated in war. Enslaving them was an alternative to killing them outright or letting them go free to cause problems later. 4
Slavery in New Testament times could involve anything from manual labor under harsh conditions to a nine-to-five job with little oversight. Many slaves were abused, but others were treated almost like family.
Christians could not change the legal system. A slave rebellion would have led to the execution of the rebels. Commanding Christians to free their slaves would not therefore have been legal, nor would it have worked as, by state law, some of those slaves would still not have been free. But Christians were commanded to love others as Christ loved us. That meant that people could no longer be treated as slaves, but Christians would then become the servants of all, as Christ was (Philippians 2:7).
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. 3
The most famous slave in the New Testament epistles is Onesimus, the slave of Philemon. In a short letter, Paul implores Philemon to receive Onesimus as “a beloved brother” (Phlm 16). Whether Paul intended freedom for Onesimus is a matter of debate because Paul never explicitly requests his freedom. Other New Testament letters forcefully instruct slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5-8, Col 3:22-24, 1Tim 6:1-2, 1Pet 2:18, Titus 2:9-10). Some passages tell masters to treat slaves better—an indication that some Christians treated their slaves poorly (Eph 6:9, Col 4:1).
The New Testament does contain several passages that demonstrate resistance to slavery. Slave traders are included in a list of those who are lawless, probably because many acquired slaves illegally (1Tim 1:10). Another passage condemns the immoral trade of luxury goods in the Roman Empire, concluding with “bodies,” a common euphemism for slaves (Rev 18:13). 1
What does the Bible say about slavery in the New Testament?
The Bible does not categorically condemn debt bondage. In fact, in the Old Testament it was regulated as a type of welfare. The New Testament speaks more about exhibiting Christian character within the context of slavery.
- Slaves are not supposed to stay in the master's house forever (John 8:35)
- Slavery is not ideal, and "if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity" (1 Corinthians 7:21-24)
- Being a slave has no bearing on salvation or the spiritual state of a person before God (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28)
- Slaves are to respect the world's system of authority while knowing that God is the only true authority (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-24)
- Masters are also to keep in mind that their position in Christ is no different from that of their slaves; they themselves are slaves to God (Ephesians 6:9)
- Christian slaves are authorized to act on conscience if their master commands them to do something wrong, but they need to humbly accept the punishment for their justified rebellion, just as Jesus did (1 Peter 2:19-20)
Indirectly, the New Testament has even more to say about slavery:
- Kidnapping is a serious offense (1 Timothy 1:8-10)
- Giving to the poor (which would prevent debt-bondage) is promoted (Matthew 6:2-3; 19:21; 26:11; Luke 14:13)
- The church is responsible for giving to the poor (Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10)