When the apostle Paul was writing his letters to the Christian churches – half or more of the Believers were white slaves under Roman law. Though color or race was never relevant to Paul.
In today’s society, we would think of only freeing slaves. But in ancient society, if they had a master they would be provided with food and shelter, without a master meant starving or even death. Moreover, the word “slave” in the Bible, in Greek is “doulos”, it often means a voluntary slave or servant, what is referred to as a “bondservant”. This is a person who could go free but rather chooses to be a slave or servant to his master for life. In many ancient societies, especially with a kind master, this often would have been the very best of life. And with half the population being slaves, the apostle Paul gave instructions for how servants and masters should be honorable to each other (Ephesians 6:5-9).
But contrary to what some claim today – neither the Bible nor the apostle Paul ever promoted slavery.
Onesimus was a runaway slave who met the apostle Paul in Rome and was converted to Christ. Here is what Paul wrote back to his master, who according to Roman law could have put Onesimus to death:
“I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. Onesimus hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart. I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I wanted you to help because you were willing, not because you were forced. It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul! Yes, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ. I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more! Philippians 1:10-21
Listen to the apostle Paul writing to all the Christians in Corinth, where there were also many slaves:
“Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world.” 1 Corinthians 7:20-23
Paul certainly was not promoting slavery. Read what Paul writes to Timothy condemning slavery:
“We know that the law is good when used correctly. For the law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God. 1Timothy 2:8-11
The above words “slave traders”, in Greek is “andrapodistes”, which means more than just trading slaves of any race or color, it literally means any involuntarily keeping of any person against their will.
See what the Old Testament reveals:
God is the Deliverer of slaves: In Exodus in the Old Testament, God freed an entire nation of slaves through Moses – freeing 5 million Hebrews from their slavery under the Pharaoh of Egypt.
“If slaves should escape from their masters and take refuge with you, you must not hand them over to their masters. Let them live among you in any town they choose, and do not oppress them.” In context, these were slaves that escaped to Israel from enemy nations, where under God’s civil Law everyone had great personal freedom, but they did have to honor God and His Law“. Deuteronomy 23:15-16:
Slavery in lieu of Capital Punishment: The first civil law God established after the Flood was Capital Punishment for murder. “And I will require the blood of anyone who takes another person’s life. If a wild animal kills a person, it must die. And anyone who murders a fellow human must die. If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image. Now be fruitful and multiply, and repopulate the earth.” Genesis 9:5-7
This law applied to one murderer or any number of murderers, or even an invading army of murderers/terrorists. They too would all be worthy of capital punishment, to protect civilization, and to permanently stop their murdering and destroying a whole nation of people. In the case of an invading army of murderers, in the Old Testament under God’s Law, Israel was permitted to capture the invaders and instead of capital punishment they could rather give them a type of “life prison sentence”.
God’s civil Law form of a “life prison sentence”, is a person’s “life servant sentence”. Instead of the victims having to pay for the murderers’ life in prison, the murderers have to pay the innocent back by serving them for life. Such invading murderers of the nation, instead of a death sentence, can receive a life slavery sentence. This substitute for capital punishment was the only slavery allowance in the Bible. However, the original capital punishment law would be immediately applied if a “life slave” violated his sentence in any way.
Also, under God’s Law, there were Indentured Servants. These were individuals who had a debt that they had no way to pay it off, and therefore, were required to serve their creditor full-time until their debt was paid in full. However, if it was still not paid off after seven years, they were to be fully forgiven of their debt and released from being indentured (Deut. 31:10). Most don’t realize that the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and the vast majority of all the early white Europeans that came to America came as Indentured Servants.
Lastly, in God’s Law, there were Bondslaves or Bondservants: As reported above, these were individuals who chose to remain with their masters for life. They would put a spike through their earlobe to make a hole in their ear to identify they were a freewill bondservant. For many, being a bondslave under their master was the best life they could possibly ever have. Their masters were no doubt good to them and blessed them in many ways, and no doubt such servants were a blessing to their masters.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul refers to himself and other fellow leaders as bondservants of the Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wrote to the Roman Christians saying everyone is a slave, either to sin or to righteousness. We are all slaves whether we know it or not. We are either slaves under the rule of Satan and this world or slaves of the King of kings – the Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
This is what it means to be a bondslave of Jesus under His “yoke”:
“Then Jesus said, ‘Come to Me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you. Let Me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’” Matthew 11:28-29