I have been told that the Bible endorses slavery and that it allows a master to beat a slave nearly to death. This statement did not come from someone who actually reads the Bible beyond a verse out of context from time to time. So I wanted to take a look.
I started with the Christian Scriptures (the teachings of Jesus and letters of the Apostles). There are at least five passages that came to light.
- 1 Corinthians 7:20-24
- Ephesians 6:5-9
- Colossians 3:22-4:1
- Philemon 8-21
- 1 Peter 2:18-21
These passages are directed toward anyone that is already a slave (doulos)[a]δου̂λος when they began to follow Christ. There is no passage that suggests a Christian should own a slave.
These Bible passages do indicate that a slave should be sincerely submissive to their master (kurios)[b]κύριος working as unto the Lord, whether a master is gentle or unreasonable [c]σκολιός – skolios.
It is important to note that slaves are encouraged to obtain their freedom if possible. Furthermore, the Scriptures instruct followers of Christ to live as slaves to Christ only and not to become a slave to men. This reveals that Paul and Peter were writing about those that enter servitude voluntarily.
Sometimes a noun can have a broad spectrum of meaning or interpretation. If you send me to the garage to bring you a “tool,” I will look to see if you are driving a nail or removing a bolt, since “tool” can mean hammer or screwdriver or wrench and so on.
Most Christians are familiar with the Greek word doulos[d]δου̂λος that can indicate many things on the spectrum including slavery, servanthood, debtor and so on.
It is unfair to read the New Testament only through the lens of the American Civil War and our struggle to abolish slavery and emancipate slaves. Paul was writing about First Century citizens who owed a debt and were voluntarily committed to repay that debt as a doulos/servant/slave.
Since I accept the Christian Scriptures as the most important commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, I reject the proposition that the Bible teaches the acceptance of slavery as it was practiced by Americans. When someone makes the blanket statement that the Bible endorses slavery and allows slaves to be beaten nearly to death by their masters, I must conclude that the statement is made from an uninformed position.
I plan to address statements on slavery from the Hebrew Scriptures in another article.