Like polygamy, slavery is conditionally allowed in the Bible. Paul writes in Colossians 4:1, “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” Slaves were to be shown certain considerations including Sabbath rest to “refresh themselves” (Exodus 23:12). They were to go free if a master knocked out a tooth or blinded an eye (Exodus 21:26-27). If a master struck his male or female slaves so that they died, he would be punished, but if the slaves survived a day or two, he received no punishment, since slaves were his “property” (Exodus 21:20-21). Hebrews could not acquire a male Hebrew as a bondservant but as a hireling, free to return to the property of his forefathers in the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-43). However, a Hebrew could become a permanent slave if he chose to, by reason of love (Exodus 21:5-7).
Physical slavery is not portrayed positively in the Bible, also like polygamy. Christians are the bride of Christ, but human husbands from Abraham to David to Solomon aren’t shown successfully handling more than one wife; likewise, we lack biblical examples of human masters successfully handling the power that makes anyone under them a slave.
The word ebed occurs 800 times in 714 verses in the Hebrew concordance of the King James Version (KJV) of the Old Testament and means slave, servant or subject. The Greek word doulos occurs 127 times in the New Testament. Although its primary Strong’s definition is “slave,” doulos is primarily translated “servant” in the KJV, and “slave,” “bond-servant” or “bondslave” in the New American Standard Bible (NASB). While humans like me dwell on the differences between servants and slaves, God seems more concerned about who their master is: He or righteousness is the only good option (Romans 6:18-19).
Biblical treatment of slavery focuses on the spiritual rather than the physical. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul writes that physical freedom is preferable to physical slavery but says in verse 22: “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave.” God’s calling reverses slavery and freedom, but Paul’s main point in this passage is verses 23-24: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.” This is similar to the reason God gives for Hebrews remaining free: “For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale” (Leviticus 25:42). Believers belong to God.
In His great grace and mercy, God makes us slaves His children. Christ suffered and died for this transformation, as shown in Hebrews 2:
10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. 11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, 12 saying, “I will proclaim Your name to My brethren, In the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.” 13 And again, “I will put My trust in Him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children whom God has given Me.” 14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
Christ’s death broke Satan’s power over death, freeing those whose lifelong fear of death made them lifelong slaves.
Paul teaches in Galatians 4:1-6 that in both the physical and spiritual realm, a child heir is a slave before receiving full rights as a son:
Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. 3 So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. 4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
In Christ, slaves become heirs.
Jesus Himself discusses this liberation in John 8:31-36:
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
These Jews proudly denied their past and present spiritual slavery, unable to accept their only chance of spiritual freedom from the only One who could give it to them. In the next verse of the passage, Jesus says, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.” They hated Jesus but loved their status as “free” descendants of Abraham.
In Galatians 3:23-27, Paul reveals what makes believers true children of Abraham and of God:
But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
Faith in Christ obliterates distinctions of ethnicity, class and sex: all believers belong to Christ, are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise and sons of God. This is the best and fullest equality and freedom.
In 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Paul’s greatest concern seems to be how believers act as slaves:
All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. 2 Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.
Physical Christian slaves must conduct themselves in such a way that God will not be shamed–just as they should if physically free. When Christ’s redemption makes us spiritually free, even the horror of physical slavery is inconsequential in comparison.