What the NT does or doesn’t say about slavery is a difficult but important topic. One of the great difficulties in the contemporary context is that nowhere does anyone in the NT come out and directly say “slavery is inherently wrong.” This causes quite a difficulty for those of us who live in a society that has concluded slavery is inherently wrong (although, our social record of today still shows we are remarkably tolerant of non-institutionalized slavery such as sex slavery and slavery loosely defined when it results in cheap products to buy). Given that slavery is established and regulated in the OT Law, this lack of greater comment can be troubling. I mean, Jesus goes out of his way to say, “The food laws don’t apply in the same way anymore,” while also indicating that laws about murdering and committing adultery do. What does the NT have to say about slavery? Out of that big question, I want to draw attention to an interesting asymmetry in the Household codes found in Ephesians: slavery appears to be grounded on a different ethical set of norms than the other relationships addressed.
Multiple grounds and moving norms
Jesus, in his teaching on divorce and marriage, indicates that at least one aspect of the OT Law was inherently time-bound, or, said better, was a concession in the Law which did not sketch out the entire desire of God. As the discussion in Matthew 19.8 goes:
8 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὅτι Μωϋσῆς πρὸς τὴν σκληροκαρδίαν ὑμῶν ἐπέτρεψεν ὑμῖν ἀπολῦσαι τὰς γυναῖκας ὑμῶν, ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς δὲ οὐ γέγονεν οὕτως.
He said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives due to the hardness of your hearts, but from the beginning it was not so.
Within Torah itself, then, there are various standards in play. At least one law here—regarding marriage and divorce—appears to play a culture-regulation function more so than a divine intention function. Or, to put things differently, if the Law is primarily giving wisdom for living in relationship with God, some of the wisdom makes a concession to human cultural practices and shapes them in the best way possible, while other aspects transcend human cultural practices. The structure of what Jesus says here indicates a creational norm which is higher and better than the norm which Torah lays out as the path of living wisely as God’s people.
As we consider the question of the NT and slavery then, we do well to note that there are multiple levels on which ethical norms can be grounded.
The household code
Ephesians 5.21-6.9 (parallel Colossians 3.18-4.1) contains a “household code,” where Paul addresses the behavior and responsibilities of different social relationships which fall within the Greco-Roman household: wife-husband, child-parent, slave-master. There are many interesting features of this household code worth commenting on. Most relevant to thinking about slavery, I suggest there is a basic structure shared by all three portions of the household code: address key relationship in terms of expected behavior and give the rationale, or grounding, which undergirds the ethic. Attending to the rationales for the expected behavior in each grouping is instructive.
The relationship of marriage is grounded in two important realities: creational norm and gospel norm. The expected behavior of husband and wife towards each other is undergirded by the way God created which itself is undergirded by the gospel. Difficult to imagine a stronger ethical grounding.
The relationship of children and parents is grounded in Torah as its ethical basis. First, Paul rearticulates the command from the 10 commandments as applicable to how children are to live and behave. Second, the commandment to parents echoes the Shema and following verses in Deut 6.4-9 where parents are given the key task of instructing their children in Torah, the path of godly wisdom for life.
At this point, note that both the wife-husband and child-parent portions of the household code are grounded on key realities: creation and Torah. The on-going ethics of how these groups relate is governed by foundational realities of creation and revelation.
This is not the case in the slave-master relationship.
Paul’s discussion of slavery here contains no appeal to the laws about slaves and masters in the Torah or to creational norms.
Slaves are to obey their masters as an act of faithfulness to Christ. But of course, all acts of Christian life are to be grounded on faithfulness to Christ. And many acts of faithful Christian living take different forms in different places. While this is in one sense an immensely strong ethical norm, in another sense it is quite weak: it is a strong guide to behavior for anyone who happens to be a δοῦλος (slave), but doesn’t really say anything about the on-going validity of the master-slave portion of the household.
Likewise, the masters are addressed not in terms of creational norms or OT law on slavery, but via a reminder that whatever their privileged status may be vis-à-vis their slave in social standing and rights, they don’t have a special standing before God. This is certainly no ringing endorsement for the normativity of the master-slave relationship in terms of creation or Law.
This treatment of masters a slaves could, of course, reflect a context in which OT Hebrew slavery practices would not easily fit. It may be nothing more than that the institution of Greco-Roman slavery as practiced in Ephesians (and the rest of Asia Minor and perhaps the entire empire, since slavery was foundational throughout the Roman Empire) was not a form of slavery that could be compared or and/or governed by the slavery laws in the OT.
More likely, I think, is that this asymmetry between the ethical grounding of slave-master over against wife-husband and child-parent is both intentional and significant. It is significant in indicating that of the three institutions profiled, slavery does in fact have a different nature than the other two. Marriage and children are fundamental to the human order as God has created it; slavery is not. The ethical grounding reflects a different degree of normativity. Slavery is a cultural practice—widespread though it may be—which does not have an on-going grounding in normative OT ethics, despite being regulated in the Law.
This general stance of ambivalence towards the social institution of slavery is reflected also in 1 Corinthians 7.17-23, where Paul advises slaves to gain their freedom if possible (7.21). The relationship of slaves vis-à-vis their masters appears to be at a different level of creational, ethical norms that that of wife-husband and child-parent. There is more material in Paul’s writings, as well as the rest of the NT, which could be appealed to (one thinks immediately of the letter to Philemon), but that goes beyond the scope of this post.
A unifying ethical vision?
Here I have noted that the household code in Ephesians (and less clearly in Colossians) contains an “ethical asymmetry” in the way it grounds the slave-master relationship form the other household relationships it touches on. The behavior/relationship of slaves and masters is grounded in general Christian faithfulness of the sort which belongs in all aspects of life rather than in a creational norm or normative OT law, as the other two relationships are. This asymmetry built into the household codes suggests that, unlike the other two relationships, slave-master is not an intentional part of human order, but simply a cultural practice within which people have to make sense of their lives.
It is true that in advising believers about how to deal with slavery, Paul never clearly says, “it is wrong to have slaves.” From our point of view today in Western culture, that is what we wish he would have said. But this asymmetry is one piece in a puzzle which points in that direction.