Slavery in the Bible: The New Testament

Posted on January 26, 2022


By David Ettinger

Note: My previous blog was on slavery in the Old Testament, which you can read here.

Not the Same Thing
I noted in the previous blog how to modern-day readers of the Bible, the Old and New Testament sections on slavery come across as archaic and barbaric.

What is important to remember, however, is that slavery in Bible times was in no way similar to the forced subjugation and racially-related bondage of Europe and America in past centuries.

With this in mind, let’s look at some facts and figures regarding slavery during the early days of the New Testament.

Slavery during the Roman Empire
As in ancient Israel, slavery in Paul’s day was more like indentured servanthood: it was temporary and not based on ethnicity.

Slavery was a basic and accepted element of 1st-century society, and was different from European/American slavery in four basic ways:

1. As mentioned above, it was not associated with ethnicity; slaves could come from any nation and be of any skin color or background.

2. Slavery was rarely permanent. Many slaves gained their freedom within a decade. Some were able to save enough money to purchase their freedom; others were set free by caring masters who appreciated and even loved them.

3. As in ancient Israel, slavery was a blessing for those who had compiled debt they had no hope of repaying. If unable to pay debts, selling oneself as a slave was akin to repaying the debt. Plus, the slave received a roof over his head, food to eat, and clothes to wear.

4. Many slaves, whether owned by the government or by the wealthy, live more comfortably than poor freeman.

More Facts

  • Slavery was so commonplace that its existence as an institution was never seriously questioned.
  • Slaves of all ages, genders, and ethnicities constituted an important socioeconomic class in ancient Rome.
  • Roughly one-fifth of the empire’s population was slaves – totaling as many as 12 million at the beginning of the 1st century A.D.
  • In the larger cities such as Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, and Antioch, as many as one-third of the population were legally slaves, and another one-third had been slaves earlier in life.
  • The entire Roman economy was highly dependent on this sizable pool of both skilled and unskilled labor.
  • Depending on their training and on their masters’ needs, slaves functioned in numerous capacities: teachers, cooks, shopkeepers, and doctors among them.
  • One’s experience as a slave ultimately depended on the demands and goodness of the master. The slaves of abusive and temperamental owners endured a life of misery. But for the slaves of reasonable and even gracious masters, the situation was far better.
  •  It is against this cultural backdrop that Jesus and the apostles spoke about slavery. 

Paul’s Writing
It is important to note that the Bible never mandates or supports slavery, but only seeks to regulate it among believers. The writers of the New Testament knew that an instantaneous ceasing of slavery would destroy Greco-Roman society and wreak havoc.

Despite this, slavery was not the way God wanted men and women to live. This is why Paul wrote: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21).

Paul is telling Christians that slavery reflects in no way on their salvation and relationship with Christ, however, if circumstances allowed them to become free, by all means do so. In the meantime, Paul commands Christian slaves to:

… consider their masters worthy of full respect … Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves (1 Timothy 6:1-3).

Again, this is NOT an endorsement of slavery, but a code of conduct so long as the institution of slavery existed. Today, this crucial teaching on Christian obedience applies to workers and their supervisors.

The Key Passage
Those who rail against the Bible’s seeming support of slavery fail to consider the timeframe in which the Bible was written. What the Bible writers wrote about then, was not what “modern” slavery was to become in Europe and America.

However, there was a particular aspect of “modern” slavery being practiced in Bible times, and Paul DOES address AND condemn it:

We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:9-10, emphasis added).

In other versions of the Bible, the term “slave traders” (NIV) reads as “manstealers” (King James), “kidnappers” (NASB), and “enslavers” (ESV). The specific meaning of these varying terms are the same, and refers to those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery.

This is precisely what occurred during “modern” slavery, and it also occurred in Bible days. Note, too, how kidnapping for the purpose of slavery was considered as equally heinous as murder. Slave traders were among the lowest of the low, and Paul pulls no punches in stating just that.

This one reference to slave trading, when placed in context of the rest of the passage, speaks volumes of the Bible’s – and therefore God’s – disdain for “modern” slavery.

True Slavery
It is clear that the Bible DOES NOT endorse slavery, but, recognizing its prevalence in society, aggressively seeks to control its practice among “believing” society. Spiritually, however, if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are indeed a slave – the best possible kind of slave. Paul writes:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart” (Ephesians 6:5-6, emphasis added). Let us as believers always remember that the only kind of slavery mandated in the Bible is that of slavery to the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us embrace our anointed slave status, always seeking to do the will of God from our hearts!