Why Is the New Testament Silent on Slavery - or Is It?

by Paul Copan

In my previous two essays (Enrichment journal spring 2011 and summer 2011), I focused on Old Testament debt-servitude. This article focuses on slavery in the New Testament — a much different world of institutionalized chattel (property) slavery. I discuss this in more detail in Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker, 2011).

During the first century, 85 to 90 percent of Rome’s population consisted of slaves in both lowly and prestigious positions. This was a step backward from the Old Testament, but this was Rome’s fault.

Slaves as Persons

The New Testament presupposes a fundamental equality because all humans are created in God’s image (James 3:9). Yet, an even deeper unity in Christ transcends human boundaries and social structures: no Jew or Greek, slave or free, no male and female, as all believers are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28; cp. Colossians 3:11).

Some critics claim, “Jesus never said anything about the wrongness of slavery.” Not so. He explicitly opposedevery form of oppression in His mission “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 NASB1; cp. Isaiah 61:1). While Jesus did not press for some economic reform plan in Israel, He did address attitudes such as greed, materialism, contentment, and generosity.

New Testament writers addressed underlying attitudes regarding slavery: Christian masters called Christian slaves “brothers” or “sisters.” The New Testament commanded masters to show compassion, justice, and patience. Their position as master meant responsibility and service, not oppression and privilege. Thus, the worm was already in the wood for altering social structures.

New Testament writers, like Jesus their Master, opposed the dehumanization and oppression of others. In fact, Paul gave household rules in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 4 not only for Christian slaves but for Christian masters as well. Slaves are ultimately responsible to God, their heavenly Master. But masters are to “treat your slaves in the same way” — namely, as persons governed by a heavenly Master (Ephesians 6:9). Commentator P.T. O’Brien points out that “Paul’s cryptic exhortation is outrageous” for his day.2

Given the spiritual equality of slave and free, slaves even took on leadership positions in churches. Paul’s ministry illustrates how in Christ there is neither slave nor free, when he greeted people by name in his epistles. Some of these people had commonly used slave and freedman names. For example, in Romans 16:7,9, he refers to slaves such as Andronicus and Urbanus (common slave names) as “kinsman,” “fellow prisoner,” and “fellow worker” (NASB). The New Testament’s approach to slavery is contrary to aristocrats and philosophers such as Aristotle, who held that certain humans were slaves by nature (Politics I.13).

Paul reminded Christian masters that they, with their slaves, were fellow-slaves of the same impartial Master. Thus, they were not to mistreat them but rather deal with them as brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul called on human masters to grant “justice and fairness” to their slaves (Colossians 4:1, NASB). In unprecedented fashion, Paul treated slaves as morally responsible persons (Colossians 3:22–25) who, like their Christian masters, are “brothers” and part of Christ’s body (1 Timothy 6:2).3 Christians — slave and master alike — belong to Christ (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). Spiritual status is more fundamental and freeing than social status.

The Silence of the New Testament Writers on Slavery

Though critics claim New Testament writers keep quiet about slavery, we see a subtle opposition to it in various ways. We can confidently say that Paul would have considered antebellum slavery with its slave trade to be an abomination — an utter violation of human dignity and an act of human theft. In Paul’s vice list in 1 Timothy 1:9,10, he expounds on the fifth through the ninth commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). There Paul condemns “slave traders” who steal what is not rightfully theirs.4

Critics wonder why Paul or New Testament writers (cp. 1 Peter 2:18–20) did not condemn slavery and tell masters to release their slaves. We need to first separate this question from other considerations. New Testament writers’ position on the negative status of slavery was clear on various points: (a) they repudiated slave trading; (b) they affirmed the full human dignity and equal spiritual status of slaves; (c) they encouraged slaves to acquire their freedom whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:20–22); (d) their revolutionary Christian affirmations, if taken seriously, would help tear apart the fabric of the institution of slavery, which is what took full effect several centuries later — in the eventual eradication of slavery in Europe; and (e) in Revelation 18:11–13, doomed Babylon (the world of God-opposers) stands condemned because she had treated humans as “cargo,” having trafficked in “slaves [literally ‘bodies’] and human lives” (verse 13, NASB). This repudiation of treating humans as cargo assumes the doctrine of the image of God in all human beings.

Paul, along with Peter, did not call for an uprising to overthrow slavery in Rome. On the one hand, they did not want people to perceive the Christian faith as opposed to social order and harmony. Hence, New Testament writers told Christian slaves to do what is right. Even if they were mistreated, their conscience would be clear (1 Peter 2:18–20). Yes, obligations fell to these slaves without their prior agreement. So the path for early Christians to take was tricky — very much unlike the situation of voluntary servitude in Mosaic Law.

A slave uprising would do the gospel a disservice — and prove a direct threat to an oppressive Roman establishment (e.g., “Masters, release your slaves”; or, “Slaves, throw off your chains.”). Rome would quash flagrant opposition with speedy, lethal force. So Peter’s admonition to unjustly treated slaves implies a suffering endured without retaliation. Suffering in itself is not good; but the right response in the midst of suffering is commendable.

Early Christians undermined slavery indirectly, rejecting many common Greco-Roman assumptions about it (e.g., Aristotle’s) and acknowledging the intrinsic, equal worth of slaves. Since the New Testament leveled all distinctions at the foot of the cross, the Christian faith — being countercultural, revolutionary, and anti-status quo — was particularly attractive to slaves and lower classes. Thus, like yeast, Christlike living can have a gradual leavening effect on society so oppressive institutions such as slavery could finally fall away. This is, in fact, what took place throughout Europe: Slavery fizzled since “Christianized” Europeans clearly saw that owning another human being was contrary to creation and the new creation in Christ.5

President Abraham Lincoln, who despised slavery but approached it shrewdly, took this incremental strategy. Being an exceptional student of human nature, he recognized that political realities and predictable reactions to abolition required an incremental approach. The radical abolitionist route of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison would (and did) simply create a social backlash against hard-core abolitionists and make emancipation more difficult.6

Returning Onesimus: A Throwback to Hammurabi?

Was Paul’s sending Onesimus back to his alleged owner Philemon a moral step backward? Was it more like the oppressive Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which insisted on returning fugitive slaves to their masters — something prohibited in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 23:15,16)? Some charge that Paul was siding with Hammurabi against the Old Testament.

Reading a New Testament epistle such as Philemon is like listening to only one party in a phone conversation. We only hear Paul’s voice, but plenty of gaps exist that we would like to have filled in. What was Paul’s relation to Philemon (“dear friend and fellow worker” and “partner” Philemon 1,17)? What debt did Philemon owe Paul? How had Onesimus wronged Philemon (if he even did)?7

Many interpreters have taken the liberty to help us fill in the gaps. The typical result? They read too much into the text. The common fugitive-slave hypothesis (that Onesimus was a runaway slave of Philemon’s) is quite late, dating back to the church father John Chrysostom (347–407 A.D.). However, genuine scholarly disagreement exists about this interpretation. For one thing, the epistle contains no “flight” verbs, as though Onesimus had suddenly gone AWOL. And Paul revealed no hint of fear that Philemon would brutally treat a returning Onesimus, as Roman masters typically did when they caught their runaway slaves.

Some have plausibly suggested that Onesimus and Philemon were estranged Christian (perhaps biological) brothers.8 Paul exhorted Philemon not to receive Onesimus as a slave (whose status in Roman society meant alienation and dishonor); rather he was to welcome Onesimus as a beloved brother: “that you might have him back for good —no longer as a slave, butbetter than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 15,16, emphasis added).

Notice the similar sounding language in Galatians 4:7: “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (NASB, emphasis added). This may shed further light on how to interpret the epistle of Philemon. Paul wanted to help heal the rift so Philemon would receive Onesimus (not a slave) back as a beloved brother in the Lord — not even simply a biological brother. To do so would follow God’s own example in receiving us as sons and daughters rather than slaves.

Even if Onesimus were a slave, this still did not mean he was a fugitive. If a disagreement or misunderstanding had occurred between Onesimus and Philemon, and Onesimus had sought out Paul to intervene or arbitrate the dispute, this would not have rendered Onesimus an official fugitive. And given Paul’s knowledge of Philemon’s character and track record of Christian dedication, the suggestion that Onesimus’s coming back was Hammurabi revisited is off the mark. Again, if Onesimus were a slave in Onesimus’s household, Paul’s strategy was this: Instead of forbidding slavery, impose fellowship.9

In summary, Jesus and New Testament writers opposed oppression, slave trade, and treating humans as cargo. The earliest Christians were a revolutionary, new community united by Christ — a people transcending racial, social, and sexual barriers — which eventually led to a slavery-free Europe a few centuries later.


1. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).

2. P.T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, Pillar Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 454.

3. Ibid., 455.

4. See Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, NIBC 13 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1988), 45,46,49n.

5. Jonathan Hill, What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2005), 176.

6. See Ronald C. White, A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2009), which explores these themes in detail.

7. For a fine general discussion, see David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards, Rediscovering Paul (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2007), 237–41. I also borrow insights from Allen Dwight Callahan, “Paul’s Epistle to Philemon: Toward an Alternative Argumentum,” The Harvard Theological Review 86.4 (October 1993): 357–76; Sarah Winter, “Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 1–15.

8. See Callahan, “Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.”

9. James Tunstead Burtchaell, Philemon’s Problem: A Theology of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 21.