On Biblical Slavery – Oliver O’Donovan

From time to time I come across an article, speech or writing  which just has to be shared. Not necessarily reported on or disected, just shared. This is one such article which is filed under the Verbatim section.

Read also: Why doesn’t the New Testament condemn slavery?


I have in the past often come across those who accuse the Bible of “being in favour of”, “propagating” or “accommodating” slavery. It is typically spoken in judgement over the Bible and, in effect, God. It is assumed that we all agree slavery is bad or immoral. The fact that so many modern fundamentalist and/or evangelical Christians lead the fight against the so-called ‘modern day slavery’ (human trafficking) and why they played leading roles in the abolition of slavery in both Britain and the United States, is rarely questioned. Or it is questioned and then simply concluded that Bible-believers adopt ‘non-Christian morals of the day’ at the cost of Biblical moral teaching. Or it is acknowledged and for that very reason perceived as confusing.

We might ask though whether Christians are against ‘slavery’ regardless of what the word entails at any given moment in time, or if they are more likely opposed to the inhumane treatment of fellow human beings?

I believe this section from Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations may serve to be helpful, even if only in an introductory sense:

“The codes in which these two Epistles (Ephesians and Colossians) then address the attitudes of wives to husbands and husbands to wives, of children to parents and parents to children, and, most disconcertingly to modern readers, of slaves to masters and masters to slaves. All have in common an element of hegemony and subordination. The purpose of the catechesis is to defend that order, while stressing three qualifying factors: the mutuality of the duties; the fundamental equality of the persons; and the practical difference that these two factors make to the way the relation is interpreted…”

“It is worth exploring this interpretation further in the case of slavery, since it is commonly said that the church simply settled for compromise with this institution. That underestimates what the church believed it was doing and the concreteness with which it made the claim that the slave called in Christ was Christ’s freedman, and the freedman called in Christ Christ’s slave (1 Corinthians 7:22). The misunderstanding rises in part from the word ‘slave’ itself, which to us denotes a social institution altogether apart from the normal structures of economic organisation and exceptionally oppressive in the terms on which it governs the exchange of labour for livelihood. ‘Slavery’ has existed, for most of the last millennium, only on the fringes of civilisation, as a colonial indulgence or as a sub-political pathology. To the ancient world, on the other hand, it was central to any imaginable economic organisation, providing the only skilled labour-market for the chief unit of production, which was the household business. So the word douleia appears in contexts where we might speak not of ‘slavery’ but of ‘domestic service’, or quite simply of ‘employment’.

What the apostolic church wished to affirm was the possibility of reconceiving the traditional household economic organisation in such a way that its participants stood on a new footing of equality. They were both employees of Christ; they owed Him the conscientious performance of their respective duties. The master had to ensure that the servant received ‘justice and equity’ (Colossians 4:1), and was not entitled to use threats (Ephesians 6:9). The servant had to conceive his service as a benefit he was free to confer upon one to whom he was bound in a covenant of mutual love and trust (1 Timothy 6:2).

It is wrong to think of the church as simply tolerating slavery because it could not abolish it. It believed that Christ had abolished it. The modern conception of what the early church failed to do is dominated by the thought of legal reform; Wilberforce’s battles in the House of Commons become the norm by which the early church is implicitly criticised (and, perhaps, indulgently forgiven). Undoubtedly, the early church had no direct power over the law. But it might have claimed to have taken a more direct route. It knew something about law and liberation from it. With this law, as with all law, the key to freedom was the way in which one understood oneself in Christ. It was the slave-mind which produced unfree behaviour, and Christ had abolished the slave-mind. Slaves who were ‘called’ were now his servants and therefore no one else’s. ‘You must not be slaves to men!’ Paul exclaimed (1 Corinthians 7:21). Did Paul hint to Philemon, it is sometimes asked, that he should free Onesimus? No: because Christ has freed Onesimus without consulting Philemon. Paul makes it clear that he feels under no obligation to send Onesimus back, and does so only that Philemon may be party to the mutual charity which affirms the former slave’s status as a brother. There is no place for punitive measures (18). (Paul’s letter is not as clear as its commentators sometimes are that Onesimus was converted after leaving Philemon’s house. Possibly it should be read as a rebuke to Philemon for having failed to treat his Christian slaves as brothers hitherto.) Did legal status count for nothing with the early church then? Not for absolutely nothing, since Paul is prepared to  recommend to Christian slaves that they take any opportunity that comes their way to change their position (1 Corinthians 7:21). Yet the essential element of freedom is already there. They have been liberated by the call of Christ, and they occupy their economic and social position with an altogether different standing, and as members of a community which affirms their standing. Slaves and free are differentiated in the church only as Jew and Gentile are, or as married and unmarried are; it is a difference of social role without concomitant difference of dignity or freedom. ”


The focus here remains largely on New Testament (more specifically post-resurrection and -ascension) responses and references to slavery while the Old Testament contains references of its own with regards to slavery and the treatment of slaves. A few possible considerations once again: what a ‘slave’ was then compared to our current idea of both ‘slave’ and ‘employee’, how Israel operated among the nations, and in which capacity it was to be governed.


Serv via Oliver O’Donovan


Read also: Why doesn’t the New Testament condemn slavery?


About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Culture, Ethics, Slavery and Human trafficking, Verbatim. Bookmark the permalink.

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