Investigating The Bible: ‘You shall not wrong him’: the subject of slavery


Feb. 12 is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. In 1843, after Lincoln lost his bid to be in Congress a second term, he might have remained a successful country lawyer if Stephen Douglas, a Senator in 1850, had not proposed and passed a bill which allowed slavery in the new states of Nebraska and Kansas. This was a violation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had banned slavery in new western states. Lincoln often said, “If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.” The new law energized Lincoln to re-enter politics and his success afterwards changed the course of our nation.

On slavery, the apostle Paul wrote words which trouble us when we read them today: “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, and with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5; English Standard Version used throughout). Some translations use “slaves” instead of bondservants. Paul repeats this command two other times elsewhere. Does the Bible support such an inhumane practice? The answer lies in examining the culture and the whole message of the Bible.

Slavery in the New Testament was unlike that of early America. First, it was not tied to race. Instead, the people of a conquered nation often became slaves. The Romans had defeated all other nations. Some sources have estimated that up to one third of the ancient population were slaves. Romans sometimes treated their slaves with consideration, sometimes with cruelty. If an escaped slave was caught, he could have an “F” hot-iron branded onto his forehead for “Fugitive”, or he could even be crucified. Other, humane owners offered slaves financial incentives and bonuses, which they could save and ultimately use to buy their freedom.

Emperor Claudius decreed in the first century that sick or infirm slaves, abandoned by their masters, should receive freedom. Slavery could also be entered voluntarily to pay off debts in seven years. The Old Testament commanded fair treatment of slaves and even supported their escape: “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, …You shall not wrong him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

Bondservants or slaves were often professional men, with much responsibility. In a parable of Jesus (Matthew 25:14-30), a wealthy man left on a long journey and entrusted money, called talents, to his bondservants. Each talent was worth about 20 years of income for a common laborer. Today, if an annual laboring income is $25,000, in that story one bondservant received the equivalent of $500,000, a second received $1 million and the third received at least $5 million!

Paul had compassionate instructions for slave owners: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in Heaven.”

(Colossians 4:1). In one instance, he wrote to the slave owner, Philemon, that he should receive back his escaped slave, Onesimus, without punishment and even give him treatment as a free man. “I am sending him back to you…that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother… (and to) …receive him as you would receive me…”(Philemon 12-17).

The Bible shatters the concept of class and privilege: “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith…There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28).

Bible scholar William Barclay tells of a possibility with Philemon’s slave. Fifty years after Paul’s letter, a leader of the early church, Ignatius, was being transported to his martyrdom in Rome. On the way, he wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus and had high praise for their wonderful bishop, named Onesimus. Perhaps this was the same young, runaway slave, who rose to a high position of respect in the early church.

David Carlson. Pastor (yes, that is his last name but not his profession) is a Polk County, Oregon resident and graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in Minnesota.



We have sex SLAVES here in the U.S. in 2024, male and female. I-5 is the busiest human trafficking corridor in the U.S. How about going after the abductors and pimps instead of the middle class of McMinnville, who, in great numbers, already are Christians? I think preachers (v. scholars) should leave us be. This column is truly boring for anyone with a brain who uses it.

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