This question on the r/Christianity subreddit sparked quite a controversy in the comments. But I think it’s worth thinking about and trying to get at an answer.
Would Jesus have been in favor of, or at least complicit with the system of slavery?
[TL;DR – NO!]
The unfortunate part of answering this question is that a biblical case can be made both in support of slavery and against it. That’s why both Union and Confederate soldiers could believe they had God on their side. Slave owners and abolitionists both used Scripture to justify their actions and ideologies.
I think we have to start by admitting some things:
- Slavery was a part of society and culture basically from the beginning of Scripture. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. The Israelites were allowed to have slaves/servants (with certain rules and restrictions). The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans all had slavery as part of their economic system.
- Jesus and his earliest followers did not explicitly fight against the institution of slavery. They did not speak out against it. They weren’t really abolitionists.
- Both Paul and Peter addressed slaves and slave masters in their letters, but never encouraged slaves to rebel or run away and never indicated that masters should free their slaves.
- As pointed out by one of the commenters (a self-described atheist), the entire letter of Philemon is about Paul sending a runaway slave back to his master.
If that’s all we looked at, then it would seem clear that Jesus, the early Christians, and indeed the Bible and God himself, all condoned and approved of slavery. These are the things atheists will point to as a reason for not taking Scripture seriously.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
Freedom for prisoners, release for captives, mercy for the oppressed, the Year of the Lord’s Favor (i.e. the year of Jubilee, see Leviticus 25). This is what could be expected when the Messiah comes. In fact, Jesus read this very passage at the start of his ministry and boldly pronounced that he was the one Isaiah was talking about.
Slavery had no place in the Kingdom of God as inaugurated by his Anointed One.
Mary knew this would be the case. As the incarnate God developed in her womb, Mary offered a song/prayer known commonly as the Magnificat. Look at what she says right in the middle of it.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
Mary knew something was about to happen. She knew that God’s kingdom was near. She knew the implications that would have for societies and cultures and economic structures. And she rejoiced that she got to play a role in it.
Like we admitted early, Jesus never really addresses the institution of slavery except to turn all power structures on their heads. Jesus may not have said that slavery is evil and wrong. But he did say that whoever wants to be the greatest must become a slave to all (Matthew 20:27; Mark 10:44). The gospels record Jesus talking about servants much more frequently. But even then, it was mostly in parables describing our relationship with God. God is the “master,” we are his “servants.” But when it came to human power structures, Jesus would say things like “the greatest among you will be your servant.”
As evil as slavery was/is, that wasn’t Jesus’ primary goal. If Jesus only came as an outspoken abolitionist, he wouldn’t have been the Savior of the world. Working toward ending slavery is a fantastic, necessary endeavor, but that’s only a small part of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here’s the genius of what Jesus was doing. If you set all the slaves free, you ostracize and demonize the slave owners. But if you show how slaves and masters are on equal ground at the foot of the cross, then real lasting change is possible.
One of my favorite lines from any Christmas hymn is this one from “O Holy Night”:
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
So if Christ came to break chains, end oppression, and set us free (among other things), then what did that look like in the early church? Let’s take a look at some of Paul’s and Peter’s letters to see how this played out.
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Corinthians 7:21-24)
A few important notes about this passage. Paul encourages slaves to “gain freedom” if they can, but not necessarily to fight and rebel. If you came to faith in Christ as a slave, then you are free in the Lord. If you were a free person, then you are a slave to the Lord. Faith in Christ changes our status among each other. There’s no need to fight for what’s already been given. It’s also important to keep in mind that the earliest followers of Christ still believed that his return was imminent. Christ would be coming back any day now, so they thought. Therefore, let’s not rock the boat too much. We see a lot of things change over time as we progress through Paul’s letters.
Now we come to one of the most incredible passages not just in the Bible but in all of ancient literature:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
Paul makes a similar statement a little later, too.
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)
Paul makes the bold claim that we are all equal in Christ. Race, nationality, gender, language, and socioeconomic status have no bearing on your place in the church. When masters and slaves are worshiping and serving together, that is laying the groundwork for bringing slavery to an end.
Now we need to take a look at the “household codes” found in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. (Colossians 3:22-25)
Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:16-21)
Paul and Peter are trying to reframe the whole hierarchy of human power structures. If you are a slave, you are not working for your master but for the Lord. If you are a master, then you should treat your slaves like you would a brother, or in fact Christ. As Christ submitted himself to human authority, so should we. But as Christ never used his power and authority to oppress others, neither should we.
A quick word about Philemon. Yes, Paul was sending Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to his master, Philemon. But if you actually read the letter, Paul makes it clear that things have changed. Onesimus is not returning as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as he would welcome Paul. The slave and the master are brothers. This changes everything.
NEVER, under any circumstances, was it ever stated or even implied that the North American Slave Trade industry was ordained by God or anything but pure evil. Those who used these passages as justification for the atrocities of slavery in the Americas and the British Empire were completely missing the whole point. Using the very words of Jesus (who said not to lord power over others) in order to lord power over others is entirely heretical. It’s a gross abuse of power and Scripture. It’s a sad part of our history as a church and as a nation that there were slave owners who thought God was on their side.
Jesus said, “Whatever you did/did not do to the least of these, you did/did not do it to me.”
Jesus stands with the oppressed. Jesus parties with the marginalized and outcast. Would Jesus approve of or condone slavery? I think the answer is emphatically NO.