In the history of humanity, I suspect that the Bible is probably the most misquoted book that has ever been written. Christians use the Bible to buttress their own belief systems and non-believers try to use the Bible against itself. An example of the latter case is an American atheist organization that, in 2012, paid for a billboard in Harrisburg, PA. The billboard pictured an African slave and quoted Colossians 3:22, “Slaves, obey your masters.” The implication, of course, is that the Bible is pro-slavery.
So, is this true? Is the Bible pro-slavery? Now, if you were to ask me if the Bible has ever been abused historically to support the institution of slavery I would say, “Absolutely!” The fact is undeniable. But the irony behind what the atheists are doing with the billboard is that by cherry-picking Bible passages to argue that the Bible supports slavery, they are doing exactly what pro-slavery Christians did (albeit with a different intent). They are taking the Scriptures out of context to support a pre-conceived opinion or idea.
Like most things in this life, however, it is important to go below a superficial level to discover the truth. So, again, is it true? Is the Bible pro-slavery? Since the billboard quotes Paul’s letter to the Colossians, let’s begin there. Earlier in that very same letter Paul writes, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
So, what’s going on? Why is Paul in one spot seeming to support slavery and, in the very same letter, appearing to speak against it? To understand what’s going on here let’s look at the historical-cultural context of this passage. In Paul’s day, the institution of slavery was so completely accepted as a part of the economic and cultural life that few outside the Church even questioned it. Indeed, in the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, roughly half the population were slaves! In this context, if Church leaders had called for the immediate abolishment of slavery, the Christian movement would have drawn the ire of Rome and probably been wiped out. That’s what the Romans did in those days (case in point—the Jews in 70 C.E.).
Instead, the Church tried a different approach. They reached out to slave masters with the gospel, which changed their hearts and their attitudes. They also built a culture in the early Church that was anti-slavery. Both of these methods are beautifully illustrated in Paul’s letter to Philemon. In this extraordinary letter, all the more extraordinary for its brevity, Paul tells a slave-owning Christian named Philemon that he could command him to free his slave, Onesimus, but prefers to appeal to him as a brother. Paul then goes on to do everything but outright command Philemon to free his slave.
So, given all this, let’s get back to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Sitting as he was in a Roman prison while writing this letter, Paul had three options he could offer to enslaved Christians. He could have encouraged them to rebel which would have been a death sentence. He could have told them to offer begrudging, resentful, service to their masters which would have gone against the Christian ethos and spirit and brought a swift and perhaps brutal reprisal on the slaves. Or he could tell them to offer their best service to their masters knowing that it was God who would judge both them and their masters. Paul chose the third option.
It’s worth noting, too, that slavery in North America and England was not abolished by secular moralists but by Christians. Christians like William Wilberforce, acting on their Christian convictions and reading of Scripture, devoted their lives to the abolishment of slavery.
In closing, note, too, that in 1 Timothy 1, in a passage where Paul condemns murderers, liars, and those who kill their fathers and mothers, Paul also mentions slave traders. I guess it’s not as much fun, though, to put that on a billboard.