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Colossians 3:22-25 (NIV) states:

22 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. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.

Atheists on a certain Internet forum used this as an argument that the Bible condones slavery. What is a Christian counterargument to this statement?

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    – Ken Graham
    Commented May 29 at 1:01
  • Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let that bother you. Of course, if you have a chance to become free, take advantage of the opportunity. 1 Corinthians 7:21.
    – One Face
    Commented Jun 3 at 0:57

3 Answers 3

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This isn't condoning slavery, it is simply acknowledging its existence, and providing advice to those Christians that happen to be slaves.

The message is similar to that in Romans 13:1 and following verses:

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. (NLT)

Paul is not saying that brutal dictatorships should be supported, but that Christians living within such countries shouldn't actively rebel against the government (except when necessary to continue following God's laws).

The basic idea is that whatever circumstances Christians live in, they should strive to fit in as well as possible, not being seen as trouble makers, but as setting a good example.

And as far as slavery itself is concerned, four verses later, Paul reminds Christians how they should treat people that they have authority over:

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

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    I don't know, it sounds to me like "those in positions of authority have been placed there by God" is an explicit condoning of the kind of relationship that atheists are complaining about in which one person is "in their place" being meek and submissive to the will of another. What I'm not sure is why they are all surprised by this, given that Christianity is at its core largely about being meek and submissive to (at least) God. Furthermore, the statement "those in positions of authority have been placed there by God" is probably an accurate reflection of a commonly held belief at that time
    – Andy
    Commented May 27 at 13:42
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    This is a cautionary tale on how anything, if taken out of the greater context, can have any meaning the interpreter wishes for. Let's not forget that this is a historical text. A thorough interpretation is necessary to understand how these teachings apply to our reality today. Nobody in their sane mind would say that we need to hammer thieves to crosses today because the Bible said it has, empirically, 50% odds of redeeming them. Commented May 27 at 16:54
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    This argument is not very persuasive. In fact, if I had to convince a jury of my peers that the Bible does condone slavery, I would come to this answer and to get the citations, and add a dictionary definition of "condone": "to regard or treat (something bad or blameworthy) as acceptable, forgivable, or harmless" (Merriam-Webster) and say these references show that slavery is/was considered acceptable and forgivable. Commented May 28 at 13:09
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    @MindwinRememberMonica "Nobody in their sane mind would say that we need to hammer thieves to crosses" I distinctly remember a pastor at the church I went to in my youth telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we must accept every part of the Bible literally, or we were not really Christian.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 28 at 17:55
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    No True Scotsman would interpret the Bible as anything less than its literal interpretation! — Said the Illogical and Fallacious Preacher. — @JimmyJames Commented May 31 at 18:34
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The main rebuttal would be the book of Philemon. It's one of those single-chapter books of the New Testament because it's a short letter from Paul to a guy named Philemon. The reason for the letter is that Paul has run into another man named Onesimus and he's sending Onesimus back to Philemon.

Onesimus is Philemon's fugitive slave.

This is the meat of the argument (emphasis mine)

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[b] who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

As you can see, Paul is being coy about the issue at hand. Onesimus has fled from his master and is now hanging out with Paul. Paul does not want to just declare Onesimus free, so he send him back to his master, in accordance with Roman law (remember, Paul is pending trial before Caesar as he write this). So Paul is

  1. Keeping the Roman law
  2. Guilt-tripping Philemon into freeing Onesimus of his own free will

There's also ample places where the New Testament compares sin to slavery

Romans 6:16-18

16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

Romans 7:14

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.

Romans 7:25b

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Sin is something the Bible is fully against. Yet we see time and time where it's compared to slavery. That comparison makes no sense if you view slavery in a positive light.

Oh, and Onesimus does appear to have been set free.

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  • None of those Romans quotes say slavery is bad or even compare it to sin - they are saying you can be a "slave to sin", but it's the sin part that's considered bad not the slave. They don't say anything about just being a slave to an arbitrary master. And in the other quote Paul seems to be requesting the freedom of a specific slave rather than condemning slavery as a whole, or calling for its abolition.
    – komodosp
    Commented May 28 at 17:50
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What else does the Bible say about slavery?

In 1 Timothy 1:8-10, Paul lists "slave traders" (NASB) in a list of sins, which are against "sound teaching".

In Amos 1, when God spoke out against the sins of the nations surrounding Israel, he says,

"Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they carried into exile a whole people to deliver them up to Edom." (Amos 1:6 ESV)

Also, 2 Chronicles 28:8-11 tells about when Israel captured 200,000 people of Judah as slaves, but God was very upset about this and commanded them to let their captives go free.

As has been stated, the letter Paul wrote to Philemon is a letter written to try to persuade a man named Philemon to accept a former slave of his as a free man instead.

Much of the slavery mentioned in the Bible was very different from modern slavery. People could become slaves to pay off a debt, and Hebrew "slaves" also were normally to be let free (along with gifts) after serving for seven years (Exodus 21:2). Further, the apostle Paul specifically said "do not become slaves of men" (1 Corinthians 7:23), and so the Bible says slavery should be avoided.

Also, if things were so bad for a slave that he fled from his master, then God commanded his people to not return the slave to his master:

"You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him." (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, ESV)

There is quite a bit more the Bible has to say about slavery, and GotQuestions.org has an excellent article on it.

Does Colossians condone slavery?

Agreeing with Paul, the apostle Peter commanded slaves who serve harsh masters to still submit to them, saying, "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." (1 Peter 2:18 NIV).

This doesn't justify the actions of such harsh masters. (The Bible's message over and over is to be kind, considerate, and loving. And in Ephesians 6:9, masters are commanded to not even threaten their slaves.) Rather, what we see in 1 Peter and Colossians are commands on what slaves should do when their masters were sinning against them by being harsh. Neither Peter nor Paul condoned slavery. Rather, they wrote about how slaves should live in spite of the position they're in.

Why didn't God just clearly prohibit slavery altogether?

The Bible specifically records that instead of outlawing certain practices God hates, he instead regulated them. As one example, take divorce.

In Malachi 2:16, God said, "I hate divorce..." (NASB). I don't know Hebrew, but even though not all translations translate this phrase the same way, the idea that God hates divorce is contained elsewhere in Scriptuure. Indeed, when Jesus was asked in Matthew 19 on why divorce was permitted, Jesus replied "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Matthew 19:8, ESV).

So then, God allowed divorce due to the hardness of his people's hearts.

Besides the hardness of people's hearts, there is one other reason I'd guess that God did not clearly forbid all forms of slavery, not even in the New Testament. True, God obviously cares a lot about justice in this world (e.g. Micah 6:8, Amos 5:15). However, though he does care about our well being in this life (Psalm 35:27), God cares more about people's eternal well being, and outlawing slavery in the first century could easily have hindered the spread of the gospel. What we have instead of God outlawing all forms of slavery, is a transformative message that changes people in a way that they even love their enemies (Matthew 5:44).

A final thought

Though Christians (as well as everyone else) do not always live up to God's standard, note that some Christians indeed have done much to oppose slavery. As a prime example, take William Wilberforce, the English politician from 200 years ago. It is precisely becuase Wilberforce converted to Christianity that he so adamently opposed the slave trade, and eventually, he succeded in aboloshing it in England.

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