Part I: Paul and Slavery: Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?

One of the central issues of the early church was whether or not Gentiles qua Gentiles-that is, uncircumcised Gentiles who did not adhere to typical Jewish ceremonial, liturgical, and dietary practices-should be full participants in the Christian community (cf. Acts 10, 11, and 15, Galatians).  As Raymond Brown observes, “[t]his was not detectably an issue solved by Jesus in his lifetime since he showed little interest in Gentiles.”[1] Should we therefore interpret Jesus’ primary focus on the Jews during his earthly ministry and his apparent disinterest in the Gentiles, as a moral failing on Jesus’ part or perhaps evidence of an overall lack of love and concern for Gentiles?  Neither the Gospel writers nor the Apostle Paul make such an inference, as they agree unanimously that Jesus’ self-sacrificial death on the cross was an expression of his love for all humankind, Jews and Gentiles alike.  Brown goes on to say, “[i]f Jesus did not solve the most fundamental question of the Christian mission, we may well doubt that his recorded words solve most subsequent debated problems in the church.”[2]

Could not a Christian[3] claim, mutatis mutandis, neither do the recorded words of Paul nor the other authors of the New Testament have the final or definitive word on a number of important socio-political and ethical issues-issues that moderns and postmoderns, believers and atheists consider central concerns relevant to all human beings?  Slavery, it seems, is one such issue.  Questions such as whether or not the institution of slavery is inherently evil and whether or not Christians in the early church and in subsequent eras should join in efforts seeking to abolish slavery are questions, which the Bible[4] does not directly address.  Nonetheless, if one believes that Scripture still speaks to us today, then perhaps Scripture is not entirely silent on these issues.  Although there is strong evidence in the Bible itself that Jews[5] and Christians accepted the institution of slavery as a given state of affairs and did not directly call for its abolition in any of the texts of Scripture, it does not follow (1) that slavery with all of its concomitant assumptions and assertions is morally acceptable to God,[6] (2) is a “natural” state of human beings, (3) is compatible with natural law, (4) that the Gospel message and Paul’s exhortations to masters and slaves did relatively little to challenge the socio-political structures in place then but instead were primarily “spiritual” in nature, and (5) that Christians today should not actively seek to eradicate slavery in its various manifestations.   To sufficiently engage and defend (1)-(5) is beyond the scope of my present purposes.  However, in the concluding section, in footnotes and as specific issues arise over the course of the essay, I shall point to Scriptural principles, possible hermeneutical trajectories and later developments in the tradition that support my claims in (1)-(3) and (5).   My principal focus, however, is (4), that is, to answer whether or not the proclamation of the Gospel, and specifically, Paul’s application of the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection challenges the master/slave relationship.  And if so, is the institution of slavery at least indirectly subverted in the process?

Slaves and the slave/master relationship are mentioned in numerous books throughout the Old and New Testaments.[7] I shall enter into a very limited discussion of slavery, focusing primarily on 1 Cor 7:20-24.  After contextualizing and interpreting the passage, I shall discuss other related passages, principally, Philemon.  In the final section of the paper, I (briefly) consider by way of Duns Scotus some of the moral difficulties of slavery from an overtly philosophico-theological perspective.  It is my contention that biblical theology (that which focuses chiefly on exegesis and historia salutis) and systematic theology, as well as philosophical theology, can mutually benefit and complement one another, and in fact, need one another. Thus, in the concluding section, I shall attempt to set forth a trajectory of sorts, which takes into account further Christian reflection on the subject to which Christians might appeal and develop in discussions of the ethics of slavery.   With this overview in mind, let us turn to a general outline of 1 Corinthians, followed by a more detailed analysis of 1 Cor 7:20-24.


[1] Brown,  An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 330.

[2] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 331.

[3] By the term “Christian,” I have in mind a person who affirms what is set forth Niceo-Constantinoplian Creed and who views Scripture as authoritative.

[4] I am using the term “Bible” to denote the books contained within the Old and the New Testaments.

[5] Perhaps a partial explanation as to why we do not see whole scale condemnations of slavery in the Old Testament is because, God, who knowingly spoke into history at a particular time and to a particular culture, was acutely aware of the shortcomings of the cultural consciousness with regard to slavery (as well as polygamy) in those particular phases of human development and accommodated to their situated-ness and limitations in a way analogous to his speaking in ANE mythic language in the book of Genesis (the raqia).

[6] For instance, the assumption or claim that certain human beings may justly be treated as “things” and hence bought, sold, and dispensed with in the same manner that that one might treat without any moral misgivings inanimate tools.

[7] Cf. Gen 15:13, 16:1, 6, Exodus 6:5, 21:1-32, Lev 25:39-55, 1 Cor 7:21-24, Gal 3:28, Eph 6:5, Col 3:22, 1 Tim 6:1, Titus 2:9, 1 Pet 2:18 (This list is by no means exhaustive).

8 thoughts on “Part I: Paul and Slavery: Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?”

  1. I was having a discussion with a medieval historian friend of mine not too long about the question of slavery and the church. She shared that the medieval Roman Catholic church’s attitude toward slavery functioned on two levels: (1) the slave of Christ level, and (2) the slave of another person level. Apparently the view was that all Christians are first and foremost responsible to Christ as his servants, but consequently that slaves and slave owners must occupy their roles in manners that honor Christ’s expectations of his servants to one another. As a model, it strikes me as profoundly Pauline and, for that matter, Kuyperian. For whatever that’s worth.

  2. Hi CJ,



    I agree that Paul frequently employs the metaphorical use of all Christians are “slaves of Christ.” However, you’ll have to stay tuned to see whether we agree on the other part of your comment. I’ll leave my comment ambiguous for now : )


  3. Cynthia this looks to be a great series. I read all three parts tonight thanks for the link to it :)

    I especially appreciated how you pointed out that Christian commentators have unfortunately argued for the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world on socio-economic grounds instead of confronting it head on. Interested to see where you take this series…

    If our worldly goods weren’t packed away in a storage facility I’d walk through the passage in Fee, Barrett, Bruce, Thiselton, Morris, and more to see how they addressed it. Blessings, Tony

    PS This was a very provocative rhetorical question, “Should we therefore interpret Jesus’s primary focus on the Jews during his earthly ministry and his apparent disinterest in the Gentiles, as a moral failing on Jesus’s part or perhaps evidence of an overall lack of love and concern for Gentiles?”

Comments are closed.