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Slavery in the New Testament Period

Also known as: How can the New Testament seem to be in favor of slavery?

The Bible includes one idea that all Christians reject. It doesn’t matter that this idea is mentioned in three verses in one New Testament book, in five verses in two NT books, and one NT book is entirely devoted to it. I guarantee that you think it is a horrible idea and reject it no matter how many times it is mentioned in the Bible. The idea? Slavery

Yes, the New Testament does allow for slavery. It is described in Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:22-4:1, I Timothy 6:1&2, and Philemon. For example, the entire letter of Philemon (one chapter) focuses on a slave named Onesimus and his slave owner, Philemon. Onesimus ran away and went to Rome. He apparently was arrested for some reason, and met the Apostle Paul, who was also in prison. Onesimus became a Christian and Paul encouraged him to return to Philemon (who is a friend of Paul’s). Yet in those days a runaway slave could be severely punished or even sold to the gladiators (meaning death). Therefore, Paul wrote his friend Philemon and asked him to forgive Onesimus.

So, the New Testament contains pro-slavery ideas. But why don’t Christians practice slavery today? The way to best understand this dilemma is to understand what slavery was like in the days of the New Testament.

Jo-Ann Shelton, in her book As the Romans Did, states that "the sources of slave supply were inhabitants of towns or countries captured in war, rebellious provincials, people seized by pirates or kidnappers, people enslaved for debt, people convicted of capital crimes, children exposed by their families [left outside because the family could not care for them], children sold by families who were no longer able to feed them, and the offspring of slaves." The majority of slaves came from prisoners of war (or criminals) or poor people. The prisoners and criminals are easy to understand. But why would people voluntarily become a slave?

Think about it this way. If you lost everything, and your family and friends rejected you, you do have a last resort: the government. Through the government you could receive assistance (food, help with training, etc.) which could help you back on your feet.

But the Roman government provided no assistance, but they did allow for an institution to develop that provided a way of financial escape: slavery. If you lived in the New Testament time, and found yourself destitute and in debt, you could sell yourself and your family to a wealthy individual as slaves.

Many people became slaves as a result of trying to escape poverty. In that sense, therefore, slavery could be seen as a good thing. You are poor and cannot provide for your family so you find a kindly wealthy family to pay off your debts and you and your family would become their slaves. It was really a safety parachute to keep from being homeless.

That is why Paul wrote on behalf of slavery. At that time it was a good option in order to escape poverty. So he encouraged the slaves to work diligently and the masters to treat them well.

Therefore, the slavery the New Testament promotes is not the same type of slavery practiced in the South prior to the Civil War. The slavery in the New Testament was almost always because of prisoners, convicts, or those escaping poverty. The slavery in the South was racially motivated.

And that is why the New Testament can promote slavery and yet we do not practice it today, because we have a government and caring citizens which (ideally although not always) takes care of prisoners of war, criminals, and the poor and so slavery is not necessary.

©2006 Mark Nickens