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Paul and Slavery | Practical Theology

  • August 2023 Issue
Practical Theology

“Throughout the Bible, slavery is primarily viewed as a mode of forced servitude. Slavery is never portrayed as an ideal state except when Christ is our master.”

Readers of Paul’s prison letters may be troubled by the lack of explicit condemnation of slavery. Some may worry that his call to enslaved Christians to obey their masters endorses the practice (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22). However, Paul makes his view of slavery clear in 1 Corinthians 7:23: “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.”

There is a theological reason behind his command. Christians should not become enslaved (or enslave others) because Christ has already purchased them by His blood. They now belong to God. Paul asserted that the cultural distinction between the enslaved and the free does not extend to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:11). These teachings sowed seeds that would eventually unravel slavery’s widespread acceptance, although it would not eradicate it.

In the New Testament era, enslaved people were usually prisoners of war, those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay their debt, or forcibly trafficked. Slavery was used to punish those who could not pay their debts. Jesus alludes to this practice in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23–34). The parable turns on the irony of one person, whose unpayable debt was forgiven, demanding payment from someone else for a much smaller debt. Since God has forgiven us the debt we can’t repay, through Christ we must forgive one another.

Some forms of slavery did serve as a kind of economic safety net (see Exodus 21). People would sell themselves into slavery to improve their social and financial status. In the Old Testament, slavery was regulated as an existing cultural practice (Ex. 12:44; 21:20). Yet it is also clear that enslaved people were often mistreated (1 Peter 2:18–21). Throughout the Bible, slavery is primarily viewed as a mode of forced servitude. It is a condition from which the enslaved person needs to be rescued and released. Slavery is never portrayed as an ideal state except when Christ is our master (Rom. 1:1; 14:4; Gal. 1:10; Col. 1:7).

For Further Study

To learn more, read The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era by James S. Jeffers (InterVarsity).

BY Dr. John Koessler

John Koessler is Professor Emeritus of Applied Theology and Church Ministries at Moody Bible Institute. John authors the “Practical Theology” column for Today in the Word of which he is also a contributing writer and theological editor. An award-winning author, John’s newest title is When God is Silent: Let the Bible Teach You to Pray (Kirkdale). Prior to joining the Moody faculty, he served as a pastor of Valley Chapel in Green Valley, Illinois, for nine years. He and his wife, Jane, now enjoy living in a lakeside town in Michigan.

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