Slaves were commanded to be good slaves in the Bible?

Slaves be obedient to your masters!

Texts: 1 Corinthians 7:20-22; Ephesians 6:5-9; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 2 Peter 2:18-19

Roman mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia (2nd century AD)

I like to remind students that the Bible was written by actual people that lived in a certain time and place. The authors of these texts viewed slavery differently than we do in the 21st century because for them it was a fact of life. Perhaps these authors had not asked some of the questions about slavery that those of the modern age have grappled with. We certainly see examples of this as the prophet Joseph Smith learned how revelation works – the principle that I like to emphasize is that generally the Lord will wait for us to ask the right question. It is easier for him to reveal something to us if we are in the right frame of mind and are asking the right questions. We see this over and over again throughout the texts of the Restoration, from the questions the Brother of Jared asks the Lord in Ether to Joseph wondering about Alvin being in the Celestial Kingdom and how that brought about the redemptive work for the dead.

When it comes to some of these sticky slavery scriptures in the text of the Bible, I appreciate the commentary from Christian Smith:

Take another example of the historical unfolding of the full meaning of the gospel for social relations: the authors of the New Testament did not understand and work out the clear moral implications of the gospel for the moral issue of slavery. They were, like all humans, limited in time, place, and range of vision. So for them, slavery was an unalterable fact of life and the gospel meant primarily that slaves should submit to their masters and masters should treat their slaves well (see 1 Corinthians 7:20-22; Ephesians 6:5-9; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-19). At the same time, even during the apostolic era the gospel began to plant seeds of eventual emancipation, in the form of the then-radical idea that slaves and masters were equals and brothers in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; Philemon 1:15-17), and indirectly through the theological equation of slavery with sin (see John 8:34; Romans 6:6, 7:14, 8:15; Galatians 4:3, 5:1).

But for those seeds to germinate and grow- that is, for believers to realize that the gospel, when elaborated, actually means the end of slavery- took a long time and a lot of struggle. It happened through a historical process of learning and seeing new things resulting from old truths (think William Wilberforce, John Newton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, etc.). As a result, we today, rightly I believe, better understand that a full grasp of the gospel and its implications inevitably work out into a condemnation of human slavery as a categorical moral evil requiring termination. That, again, was not an apostolic teaching found anywhere other than in the most embryonic form in the New Testament. But it is nevertheless a truth of the apostolically taught gospel found throughout the New Testament, which was grasped eventually by Christians working out the ramifications of the gospel in history. (Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, p. 167)

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives:
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2 Responses to Slaves were commanded to be good slaves in the Bible?

  1. Pingback: The Messiness of Scripture | LDS Scripture Teachings

  2. Pingback: Slave Laws in the Old Testament | LDS Scripture Teachings

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