So slavery was an accepted way of life within the Roman Empire. As strange as this may sound to us today, there were also Christians who owned and served as slaves at that time. Although The Doctor has mentioned this before, the master/slave relationship (like the one that existed between Onesimus and Philemon in the first century) can often be very difficult for people to understand in our 21st century world.
For instance, the idea that one human being can be made to serve as the property of another human being is rightly viewed today as a violation of basic human rights. It’s also safe to say that most people today would probably (and correctly) agree that the whole idea of “slavery” is evil and totally unacceptable.
Yet the New Testament contains passages such as Ephesians 6:5 that say, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (NIV). And Colossians 3:22 says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (NIV). Then there is 1 Timothy 6:1 which tells us, “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered” (NIV).
People often validate these Scriptures today by saying, “Well, the master/slave relationship model that used to exist back then no longer exists today. So now we have to take the Biblical teaching on this subject and apply it to the next closest relationship model that does exist today: the employer/employee relationship.”
In other words, we recognize that there is Biblical principle behind these Scriptures that tells us that Christians must honor God and show respect to the people that they work for. This principle (like all Biblical principles) is consistent and stays the same in all times and places.
However, this Biblical principle can be adapted to meet the needs of different cultures. In this instance, the Biblical teaching on slaves and masters can be put to use in any working relationship, no matter what the time or place. So this general approach can often be a good way to interpret and apply Scriptures like the ones that we see above.
However, we should also recognize that these Scriptures also present some tough questions. For example, how could the Bible tell a slave to be obedient, respectful, and sincere in a relationship that we recognize today as immoral and wrong? This sort of question can often be very challenging for someone who wants to be a thinking person of God and represent Christ well in the arena of ideas at school or at work.
This subject came up in a discussion that The Doctor once had with someone who made the following statement:
“What really troubles me is that I don’t see you disavowing the notion from Paul that slavery might just be OK. I know there are some people… who still believe that… a Christian nation… could have slavery as a practice and still be righteous before God.”
“Come now. Let us reason together. You tell me: if slavery were operative today… would you agitate for it to end, or would you read the words of Paul to those who do the agitating and tell them that Holy Scripture says that slaves should obey their masters?”
So how would you answer this question? Is it possible that these Scriptures demonstrate God’s approval of an immoral practice like slavery- the very same practice that serves as the backdrop to the entire book of Philemon? Well, let’s see if we can answer this important question by looking at some assumptions first.
To start, have you ever really thought about why people view slavery (or many other moral wrongs, for that matter) as something evil? (1) Perhaps the best way to begin is to first ask, “what is evil?” Well, if we go to the dictionary definition of the word “evil” we find that it says in part that “evil” is…
1. The quality of being morally bad or wrong
2. That which causes harm, misfortune, or destruction
3. Something that is a cause or source of suffering, injury, or destruction (2)
So you can see that evil can be a “thing” but this immediately presents a problem when you think about it. For instance, let’s say that someone who doesn’t believe in Christianity wants to debate the concept of “evil” as it relates to God. That person might start by saying this…
We both agree that God is good, right? You, of course, respond by agreeing that God is good.
We both agree that God created everything, right? Again, you respond in agreement that God created everything.
Now watch as the trap springs shut…
Well, if God is good and God created everything and evil is something, then God must have created evil too, right? And if God created evil, then God must at least be partially evil as well.
Now we have a problem, don’t we? That conclusion can’t be right because James 1:13 says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…” (NIV). And 1st John 1:5 says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” So how do we reconcile these things? If God is the creator of everything, but God isn’t evil and isn’t responsible for evil, then how did it get here?
Well, without going outside the lines of our subject, there’s a good way to look at evil that doesn’t deny it’s reality or incorrectly make God responsible for it. Here it is: Evil can also be defined as the absence of something good that should be there. In other words, when something good should exist but doesn’t, then that’s evil.
For example, if you have nice clear skin without any blemishes, then that’s certainly not evil because everyone should ideally have good clear skin. However, if someone was to lose his or her eyesight or hearing, then evil is the result because the good thing that should be there (like the ability to hear and see) is now missing. As one scholar-type puts it, “Evil is, in reality, a parasite that cannot exist except as a hole in something that should be solid.” (3)
So what does all this have to do with slavery? Well, that answer comes next.
(1) See here
(2) American Heritage Dictionary
(3) “When Skeptics Ask” Dr. Norman Geisler pg. 61