Multiple passages in the New Testament encourage slaves to respect or obey their masters. And from the list you can see it’s hardly once off: Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-20; 1 Corinthians 7:20-24; as well as the entire book of Philemon. And more so, slave masters, even Christian ones, are never told to automatically free their slaves and be done with the institution of slavery.

Some people use the presence of those passages to discount the message of Jesus overall. For them it’s the final (or first and only) hammer blow against Christianity. And then for some people, even Christians, they link those passages as an argument against other parts or beliefs of the Bible they disagree with. So, does the New Testament support slavery?

Below are five points to get us thinking about this question.

1. Contextually, 1st Century Slavery was Different to Later Forms

Slavery at a basic level involves a loss and lack of freedom.

Slavery at a basic level involves a loss and lack of freedom, and instead being under the power of another. While that is common across ancient and modern slavery, it is important to note that slavery in the 1st century was also different to the slavery we might think of from the 15th to 19th century (the trans-Atlantic slave trade), or even Arab slavery that started in the 8th century.

How So?

Let’s take the racial element for instance which often sits at the forefront of our mental images. The late Frank M. Snowden Jr., once professor emeritus of Classics at Howard University in the USA, as he considers the ‘the ancient view of blacks’ in the period of 3000 BCE to 400 CE, says: “In antiquity slavery was independent of race or class, and by far the vast majority of the thousands of slaves was white, not black. The identification of blackness with slavery did not develop. No single ethnic group was associated with slave status or with the descendants of slaves.”

Ancient slavery, unlike modern versions, was not based on racism.

Yes, later forms of slavery are linked to the systematic dehumanisation of black men and women. But that’s not the case for 1st century slavery. To read that back in is simply anachronistic, relying more on Hollywood or certain contemporary ideological presuppositions, than on history. So, ancient slavery, unlike modern versions, was not based on racism. That doesn’t mean it was good—it just means that whatever it was, it was that irrespective of ethnicity.

But other differences were also present. For instance, Murray J. Harris, a professor emeritus of New Testament, in his book Slave of Christ, in distinguishing ancient slavery from modern states: “In the first century, slaves were not distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech, by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves into slavery for economic or social advantage; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated [freed] after 10 to 20 years of service or by their thirties at the latest; they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; their natural inferiority was not assumed.”

My point is simply to make sure we have 1st century slavery in our minds, and not modern slavery, when we come to the New Testament.

However, Don’t Idealise 1st Century Slavery

However, having said all of that, it would still be wrong to romanticise 1st century slavery. The main sources of ancient slavery were still through warfare, piracy, brigandage, the international slave trade, kidnapping, infant exposure, natural reproduction among slaves, and the punishment of criminals (Dictionary of New Testament Background).

It would still be wrong to romanticise 1st century slavery.

Harris would note that legally slaves were objects, not subjects in the eyes of Roman law—effectively without rights. And how they were treated as persons varied according to the nature of their work, how they were acquired, where they worked, the prospect of freedom (manumission), and of course, the temperament of their master (cf. 1 Peter 2:18). Thus, it’s not without reason that Paul talks about being “under the yoke as slaves” (1 Timothy 6:1). 

Now, with that broad contextual point made, let’s continue with what the New Testament does say regarding slavery.

2. The New Testament Condemns Slave-traders

In other words, the New Testament condemns people who kidnap others and sell them as slaves (1 Timothy 1:10; cf. Exodus 21:16). People who deal in human lives as though they are stealing or selling cattle are judged as ungodly (Revelation 18:11-13).

The New Testament condemns people who kidnap others and sell them as slaves.

That means, for our question, the unequivocal condemnation of any forms of ancient slavery that match that description. And it certainly means the same for later versions of slavery in Africa—where brown Arabs, white Europeans and even black Africans treated black African bodies and souls merely as commodities. 

And for any professing Christians who wrongly tried to justify any forms of that kind of slavery—they will answer to the One who created all men and women in his image.

So, the New Testament condemns slave-traders.

3. The New Testament Encourages Slaves to Get Their Physical Freedom if Possible

Paul recognises that needing to become a slave represents a level of brokenness.

Even in the setting of 1st century slavery, we still find someone like Paul saying to slaves: “if you can become free, by all means take the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). Paul recognises that needing to become a slave for employment or to pay off debts still represents a level of brokenness—you are still a slave. And how much more so for those who had become slaves through other means, or had harsh masters.

If Paul says that for the 1st century institution of slavery, then how much more would he say it for the later racially determined forms? And so, again, in this point we don’t find support from the New Testament for slavery.

4. The New Testament Reminds Christians that a Slave Master and Slave are Fundamentally Equal before God

Did you know that there’s an entire letter in the New Testament written to a slave owner who became a Christian? In that letter the slave owner is asked to remember that a certain slave of his, who also trusted Christ, is “a dearly loved brother” (Philemon 16).

Many earthly forms and structures basically communicate: ‘I’m better than you.’ But in Jesus, any hierarchies we create and use as power plays over others, are instead levelled. And so, in relation to our question, slaves were counted as dear brothers and sisters, almost as though saying: ‘Sure you might be a slave master and you might be a slave, but in Jesus you’re both siblings in Christ!’

At the most important level of equality before God, we are equal.

As Paul says elsewhere: “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). It’s not that those categories no longer exist! After all, for example we’re still male and female, even when we become Christians. But it’s that at the most important level of equality before God, we are equal.

That’s God’s view. And that would surely affect their view and treatment of one another, whether the person was a fellow Christian (sharing re-creation in the image of Christ) or simply a fellow human being (sharing creation in the image of God). That changes things, doesn’t it? These New Testament verses hardly sound like a support of (any kind of) slavery to me—it sounds like a brewing social revolution with deep societal consequences.

Lastly, and this is really where most of the passages people are thinking about fit in:

5. The New Testament Preaches a Radical Way to Live No Matter What (even in Horrible Circumstances)

The real drive of the New Testament is that if you’re trusting in Jesus then it should radically shape your life, no matter the circumstances. Even in terrible situations.


God Addresses Slave Masters

For Christians who were slave masters, it expects their following of Jesus as Lord to shape how they treat their slaves, often saying something like: ‘Masters, deal with your slaves justly and fairly, since you know that you too have a Master in heaven’ (Colossians 4:1). In other words, these masters were to model their own being under Jesus to their slaves—Christian or not.

If you’re trusting in Jesus then it should radically shape your life.

That might stick uncomfortably with us. Maybe we’d prefer a command for Christian slave masters to free their slaves—and perhaps some did in particular circumstances (kidnapping etc.). Perhaps other instances meant it was safer or better for these men and women to remain with this slave master for their limited period of slavery—perhaps paying off a debt. But because the causes and cases differ, we don’t know for certain.

Regardless, here’s the point: being in Christ was to fundamentally shape slave master’s treatment of the people who had come under them. Treating them as people, not mere property—following the gospel more than Roman law. And having that spill out in words and actions of kindness and humility, rather than of threats and humiliation. Think what a witness to a different and better reality that would have been in that context. A radically different way to live.

And He Addresses Slaves

For slaves themselves, the message is: ‘obey your human masters in everything…work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people’ (Colossians 3:22-23). Why? Well, again, because no matter the situation, these Christians counted as slaves were to model the fact that ultimately, they belonged to Christ. Jesus was their Lord more than their current master.

Slaves were to model the fact that ultimately, they belonged to Christ.

Again, that won’t sit well with everyone. And again, I don’t want to diminish the hardships or paint them as good. And lastly, yet again, it must be said that this cannot be an excuse for the terrible treatment of people, or for inactivity towards overthrowing injustice! But outside of that, this opens a window into a greater reality. One that preaches that life knowing Jesus is so satisfying, and the hope in him so certain that it secures a radical way for people to live in and for Jesus—even in tough circumstances.

Often we’re only able to live life well when things are going well. Isn’t that true? But what Jesus offers is so much more and so much deeper: a secure life even when circumstances around us aren’t great. Can atheism or Islam or ancestral religions do that? I don’t think so.

In Conclusion:

1. Contextually, slavery in the 1st century New Testament isn’t the same as later forms of slavery

And then, the New Testament:

2. Condemns slave traders
3. Encourages slaves to get their physical freedom if possible
4. Reminds Christians that a slave master and slave are fundamentally equal before God
5. Preaches a radical way to live no matter what (and even in horrible circumstances).