It is an undeniable fact that during the first century of Christian slavery was an immensely important institution in the Roman Empire, where Christianity first flourished (though it rapidly spread to neighboring states like Parthia and Axum). Some historians estimate that around ten percent of the Roman Empire, and up to a third of the population of Rome and Italy, was made up of slaves. As has already been written elsewhere , slavery in the ancient world was different from the slavery that most Americans (and others) are familiar with from the recent history of the United States, Caribbean, and Brazil, where a racially based system of slavery prevailed for centuries.
As horrible an institution as slavery is, and let us be honest and up front about that fact from the start, slavery in the Roman world was less horrible than its later forms in the West for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons was that slavery was seen as a status of being unfree that could theoretically happen to anyone and was not limited to a particular ethnicity, which meant that slavery was not part of a larger institution of social control to preserve distinctions between elite ethnic groups, but was a social status that could result from someone being kidnapped by slave dealers, sold into slavery for family or personal indebtedness, or could result from being a citizen of a region that had decided to rebel against the Roman empire. As anyone could be a slave at some point in their future, there was no particular lasting social stigma that attached to having been a slave, nor was slavery seen as the proper state for a particular group of people.
Also of notable interest is that slavery was not seen as a permanent state either. A slave that was hard-working and had reasonably marketable skills could expect to be free within a decade or so of enslavement, and to then become a client of his former slave (whose status as a patron would improve by having free clients), and become part of a network of relationships that would help ensure financial and social well-being as well as provide the chance for a decent and honorable living as well as a good reputation from neighbors and friends and customers. While we are used to thinking of slavery as a permanent state that one could not escape, the ancient world saw it as a period of probation that could be easily escaped by someone who had a reasonable work ethic, and a temporary status that offered no permanent dishonor or shame and that could even result in an improved status from before by providing a place and an identity as a protege of a person who had a good reputation within the community.
It is in light of this larger historical and cultural context that we have to examine the slave codes of the Bible, advice and direction that is given by the apostles of the NT church to those who were (at the time) slaves. Let us first look at the slave codes, examine what they said in light of the culture and mindset of the time, and then see what lessons can be drawn for us today. In seeing the contemporary relevance of these slave codes, we may properly see what behavior is expected of employees and employers (as the apostles spoke both to slaves and masters as possessing obligations given their relationship with God). Though most nations of the world (apart from a few holdouts like Mauritania and Thailand) do not recognize slavery in any semi-official sense, in all countries of the world at all times in history there have been people who had to work wages to earn their living from others who provided those wages in exchange for honest and profitable labor. Therefore the slave codes of the Bible can still speak to us even if the language we use is somewhat different. Even if we are not slaves, the vast majority of us have some experience or expectation of working for a living and therefore it is useful to examine what the Bible says to those in such a position about how they are to conduct their professional lives as employees who depend on wages from an employer.
First, let us examine what these slave codes say (remembering, of course, to keep their language in context). Ephesians 6:5-9 reads: “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleassers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”
What does this passage say? It speaks far more to slaves than to masters (this is a common thread running through these slave codes, in that there is more commentary given to the slaves than to masters). What it advocates is the standard biblical advice to those dealing with authorities–be obedient, recognizing the will of God in one’s current state, and behave honorably and decently, using one’s labor to serve God, with the expectation of a reward for faithful labor from God no matter one’s social status. Paul writes urging believers who are slaves to serve from the heart with proper fear and respect with genuine service rather than merely trying to look good through eye service as the wicked behave. In short, those who are slaves are called to serve their masters in a similar spirit and manner to believers who are called to serve God as their master. Having said that, Paul turns to the masters and reminds them that they too are slaves to a Master in heaven who has no partiality as to the earthly status of His servants, which is of no importance (as all believers are of equal status in the eyes of God–see Galatians 3:29-32). Since masters too have a Master, they are to give up threatening and coercion and treat others with the love and honor that Christians are called to give to all men (1 Peter 2:17). Mutual love and godly service and concern, in other words, is to eradicate the social distance between master and slave, or that divide that still exists in the modern world between employer and employee to a lesser extent.
Colossians 3:22-4:1 makes essentially the same point. It reads: “Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” Again, this message is substantially the same as the advice that Paul gave to the slaves of Ephesus. We again see the reminder that God will give rewards (or punishment) for a failure to properly respect and serve others in love. Being a Christian is no excuse for being a lazy and unproductive worker, and those who are Christians are called to work hard and also work sincerely with all their might, so that our faith may not be called into disrepute by the misconduct of its adherents. Again, servants and masters are reminded that they have a Master in heaven who judges and honors without partiality, and we are called upon to do the same (see James 2:1-13). These messages are consistent with what is said in the rest of scripture.
The apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 2:18-25, also wrote a slave code that provides the same approach as well as additional spiritual meaning: “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience towards God one suffers grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who commited no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth,’ who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness–by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
This particular passage is like Paul’s slave codes in urging servants to behave with gentleness and serve in sincerity, but it adds a considerable amount of (often painful) detail about the fact that we are not only called in this life to serve the godly and gentle but also the harsh and ungodly. Often in this life those of us who behave righteously suffer for living in godly ways, and it is a difficult thing (something I must admit not doing very well) to suffer gracefully and without reviling and hostility, knowing that Jesus Christ suffered the same as we did. We who are called to be Christians sometimes have to mimic the silence of Christ in the face of massive personal injustice, trusting in God to make things right and to avenge us rather than to seek to threaten and avenge ourselves in the flesh. This is not an easy task, but those who are called are called to be like Jesus Christ, and sometimes that means that we too are called to suffer from others for doing and speaking righteously, better understanding the pain and sorrow that comes from living in a wicked and corrupt world. Lord, thy Kingdom come!
What sort of relevance do these passages have for Christians today? We still live in a corrupt and wicked world today. The righteous still must at times suffer undeservedly (even as we all must admit that we are sometimes punished in this life for our owns sins and faults, to refine and purify us and preserve us from future judgment). Most of us as Christians are called and live our lives where we not only serve our congregations as members under the authority of leaders, but serve companies as employees, and even if we do not tend to like to consider ourselves as bondservants or slaves, we are all wage earners (or salaried employees) who serve others and are accountable to bosses just the same. Even those who fancy themselves to be bosses often are managers with higher ups as well, or are entrepreneuers with costumers as bosses. Everyone has masters and everyone has to serve someone; we simply cannot escape that concern. Therefore, these passages, in reminding us that by serving others with sincerity of heart and generosity of spirit, with hard work and honorable conduct, we are serving God, and whether we are rewarded in this life or not (and most of us will be, since companies and customers alike tend to honor those who serve them faithfully and well), we will be rewarded for our faithful and patient service by our Master in heaven. And that is something we can all take comfort in.