‘Make Good Use of Your Servitude’

Some Observations on Biblical Interpretation and Slavery

by Michael Marlowe

October, 2003

“When you buy a Hebrew slave, six years shall he serve; and in the seventh shall he go out free, for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and the children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. And if the slave shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: then his master shall bring him unto God, and he shall bring him to the door or unto the door-post, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”

—Exodus 21:2-6.

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”

—Ephesians 6:5-6.

If there is anything in the Bible that makes modern people nervous, it is its treatment of slavery. Slavery is humanely regulated in the legal portions of the Old Testament, and in the epistles of the New Testament slaveholders are exhorted to show kindness to slaves, but nowhere in the Bible is there anything which can be interpreted as a disapproval of the institution as such. People of our generation, Christians included, tend to have a very hard time with this, because it seems to amount to a tacit approval of the institution, and we balk at the idea that God did not consider the institution itself to be immoral.

Part of the problem is that we have false ideas about what slavery was really like. The life of a slave was not easy, but we get an exaggerated idea of the hardships of slavery from watching movies or reading historical material that is written on a popular level. Here the purpose is usually to dramatize the plight of slaves or to make some point about the evils of slavery in general, (1) but the historical reality was less dramatic. In most cases the life of a slave was not much different from the life of any lower-class worker. Those who have been in the military have experienced something like it — being legally bound to an employer and to a job that one cannot simply “quit” at will, not free to leave without permission, subject to discipline if one disobeys or is grossly negligent — all of this is familiar enough to those of us who have served in the military. And yet we know that the daily life of a good soldier is not especially hard. This is what it was like to be a slave.

Another problem is, when thinking about slavery we tend to have in mind the recent slavery of the black race in America, and so the whole subject of slavery gets mixed up with the issue of racism. But in ancient times, slavery was not associated with any particular race. By condoning slavery the Bible does not approve of racism.

A third reason why modern people have a hard time understanding the Bible’s treatment of slavery is that we often now tend to confuse morality with political values. The modern tendency is to politicize everything, including even the Christian gospel. Moral philosophy or ethics has become so politicized that it seems to be almost a sub-department of political science now, which is why we have seen the rise of an elaborate political correctness in our public life. “Racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” and so on, are the really serious sins under this new morality. Although we all know that people are not really equal, the egalitarian ideology of our time is considered to be of such overriding importance that any slight affront to it is considered sinful, while the principles of ordinary old-fashioned morality are downplayed and even denied. This political correctness is not merely a fad, it is the logical and inevitable result of the politicization of morality, the elaboration of an entirely new morality based upon political ideas of right and wrong.

In recent years the principle of equality has been raised to the status of a theological axiom in liberal churches. This is illustrated by the remarks made by an Episcopal bishop in an interview following his church’s decision to appoint a homosexual bishop in the Summer of 2003. The “Right Reverend” John Bryson Chane appealed to the egalitarian principle in this manner:

When I look at where gay, lesbian, and transgender persons are, they have been excluded from the full sacramental life of the Episcopal Church in the United States — and, in fact, excluded from the full sacramental life pretty much within the Anglican Communion. What I have to say to that is if, in fact, we believe theologically that God created human beings in the good image of God as creator, and if we, in fact, believe that everybody is equal in God’s eyes, then how in God’s name can we say that we don’t have enough theology to work this issue through? And how can we say that a person’s sexuality does not allow them to enter into the full life of this communion? (2)

“Everybody is equal in God’s eyes” is the premise, taken utterly for granted here, and in a rather sweeping way that includes not only spiritual matters but also matters of church government. But the authors of the Bible knew nothing of such modern egalitarian notions. Morality in the Bible is set forth as a personal matter, not a political matter, and it is certainly not based upon any idea that all people are of equal worth in God’s eyes. Salvation in the Bible is no “equal opportunity” proposition either. As for the political and social order, the Bible does not direct us to anything beyond the hierarchical principles of order which pertained to the ancient world of kings and patriarchs, promising only that in due time a righteous Kingdom will come. This must be understood by anyone who wants to get a clear idea of what the Bible is all about. A sensible and honest reading of the Bible cannot be possible for those who would read into it the politicized egalitarian morality of our age. Even the most cherished idea of modern civil philosophy — that “all men are created equal,” and “endowed with certain inalienable rights,” as the American Declaration of Independance puts it — must be left behind by the student who would fully enter into the world of the Bible.

This is denied by many liberal scholars (e.g. John Dominic Crossan, Gerd Theissen, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza), who, trying to put a ‘biblical’ coloring on their politicized version of Christianity, have argued that the New Testament contains some evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a social revolutionary who founded a short-lived ‘egalitarian’ community based upon a ‘discipleship of equals.’ These scholars maintain that by the end of the first century the egalitarian program of Jesus was abandoned by his followers, who suppressed the egalitarianism of the early Church when they wrote or edited the New Testament documents. In two recent articles (3) John H. Elliott has reviewed these unconvincing efforts to find an egalitarian ‘historical Jesus,’ and in conclusion he finds it necessary to restate the obvious:

This concept that all persons are equal in respect to economic, social, legal, and political domains is of modern, Enlightenment origin and has been shaped by momentous economic, social, and political changes dramatically distancing our modern world from that of the biblical writers. The equality celebrated in the American and French revolutions, has little, if anything, in common with the comparatively rarely discussed concept of equality (more frequently “equity” or proportional equality) in the ancient world. Accordingly, searching for instances of egalitarianism in the New Testament communities, indeed in the ancient world on the whole, is as pointless as hunting for modern needles in ancient haystacks. (4)

As hard as this may be, it is only by prescinding from such modern cultural presuppositions and by adopting instead the presuppositions of the Bible’s authors, that one can even begin to understand and respect its teachings as the word of God. As D.E. Nineham puts it:

If God has condescended to address men in the full particularity of their peculiar historical and cultured environments, then we have got to immerse ourselves fully and sympathetically in those environments, with their customs and values, ways of thinking and patterns of imagery, before we can understand either his demand or their response. (5)

Unfortunately, it is not only liberal scholars who refuse to immerse themselves sympathetically in the Bible, but also many ‘evangelical’ scholars. We are not always well served by our own conservative commentators and translators in this matter. There seems to be an apologetic motive at work here — the Bible is domesticated in order to avoid scandalizing those who would be shocked to discover how utterly foreign it is to modern values. (6) This tendency appears in many forms. Regarding slavery, some of our English translations remove the offense by using the word “servants” instead of “slaves,” (7) and many evangelical expositors have tried to distract attention from the foreignness of the Bible’s teaching on slavery by dwelling upon things in the Bible which they allege to be part of some latent egalitarian “trajectory.” Usually reference is made to something or other in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon, which is construed as if the whole point of the letter was to urge Philemon to free his slave Onesimus. But this attempt to discover and highlight some hidden egalitarian agenda in the Bible is all the more difficult for evangelicals because they cannot simply dismiss most of the New Testament by calling it “secondary,” as do the liberals. And it not only fails to convince, but it is a serious misdirection, because it prevents people from coming to terms with the world-view of the Biblical authors.

However much we may want to find a Biblical case for the abolition of slavery, it is simply not there, not even in the Epistle to Philemon. (8) As George Elden Ladd puts it:

Paul has no word of criticism for the institution as such. In this sense, he was unconcerned about “social ethics” — the impact of the gospel on social structures. In fact, he admonishes slaves to be indifferent to their social status (1 Cor. 7:21), because a human slave is really a freedman of the Lord. (9)

1 Corinthians 7:21

Ladd mentions the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21, which we will examine now in some detail, because some recent Bible versions have paraphrased the verse in such a way that it appears to be telling slaves that they should seek emancipation. But this interpretation is anachronistic and does violence to the context. In fact the meaning is quite the opposite. It is an instruction to slaves that they should care so little for worldly freedom that they should not even take notice of any opportunities to become free, as in the following modern versions:

New English Bible (margin). Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let that trouble you; but even if a chance of liberty should come, choose rather to make good use of your servitude.

Revised English Bible (margin). Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let that trouble you; but even if a chance of freedom should come, choose rather to make good use of your servitude.

Today’s English Version (margin). Were you a slave when God called you? Well, never mind; but even if you have a chance to become a free man, choose rather to make the best of your condition as a slave.

New American Bible. Were you a slave when your call came? Give it no thought. Even supposing you could go free, you would be better off making the most of your slavery.

American Standard Version. Wast thou called being a bond-servant? care not for it: nay, even if thou canst become free, use it rather.

Revised Standard Version (margin). Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition instead.

New Revised Standard Version. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.

The Church Fathers (early writers of the Church) favored this interpretation. See, for example, the commentaries of Chrysostom, Theodoret, and Theophlact. Here are Chrysostom’s words on the verse:

“Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called. Hast thou been called, having an unbelieving wife? Continue to have her. Cast not out thy wife for the faith’s sake. Hast thou been called, being a slave? Care not for it. Continue to be a slave. Hast thou been called, being in uncircumcision? Remain uncircumcised. Being circumcised, didst thou become a believer? Continue circumcised. For this is the meaning of, “As God hath distributed unto each man.” For these are no hindrances to piety. Thou art called, being a slave; another, with an unbelieving wife; another, being circumcised.

Astonishing! where has he put slavery? As circumcision profits not, and uncircumcision does no harm, so neither doth slavery, nor yet liberty. And that he might point out this with surpassing clearness, he says, “But even (All eikai dunasai) if thou canst become free, use it rather:” that is, rather continue a slave. Now upon what possible ground does he tell the person who might be set free to remain a slave? He means to point out that slavery is no harm but rather an advantage.

Now we are not ignorant that some say the words, “use it rather,” are spoken with regard to liberty: interpreting it, “if thou canst become free, become free.” But the expression would be very contrary to Paul’s manner if he intended this. For he would not, when consoling the slave and signifying that he was in no respect injured, have told him to get free. Since perhaps someone might say, “What then, if I am not able? I am an injured and degraded person.” This then is not what he says: but as I said, meaning to point out that a man gets nothing by being made free, he says, “Though thou hast it in thy power to be made free, remain rather in slavery.”

Next he adds also the cause; “For he that was called in the Lord being a bondservant, is the Lord’s free man: likewise he that was called, being free, is Christ’s bondservant.” “For,” saith he, “in the things that relate to Christ, both are equal: and like as thou art the slave of Christ, so also is thy master. How then is the slave a free man? Because He has freed thee not only from sin, but also from outward slavery while continuing a slave. For he suffers not the slave to be a slave, not even though he be a man abiding in slavery: and this is the great wonder.

But how is the slave a free man while continuing a slave? When he is freed from passions and the diseases of the mind: when he looks down upon riches and wrath and all other the like passions.

Ver. 23. “Ye were bought with a price: become not bondservants of men.” This saying is addressed not to slaves only but also to free men. For it is possible for one who is a slave not to be a slave; and for one who is a freeman to be a slave. “And how can one be a slave and not a slave?” When he doeth all for God: when he feigns nothing, and doeth nothing out of eye-service towards men: that is how one that is a slave to men can be free. Or again, how doth one that is free become a slave? When he serves men in any evil service, either for gluttony or desire of wealth or for office’s sake. For such an one, though he be free, is more of a slave than any man. (10)

Early modern interpreters which follow this line include Camerarius, Estius, Wolf, Bengel, and many others. In the nineteenth century, de Wette, Osiander, Maier, Ewald, Baur, Vaihinger, Weiss, and Meyer. In recent years it generally prevails among scholarly commentators, as for example in C.K. Barrett’s commentary:

Were you a slave when you were called? See i.26 for the low social standing of many Corinthian Christians. Let not that trouble you, but even though you should be able to become free (emancipation could take place in a variety of ways, and was not infrequent) put up rather with your present status. A number of grammarians (e.g. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, i. 247; ii. 165; Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, pp. 21, 167; M.E. Thrall, Greek Particles in the New Testament (1962), pp. 78-82), and many commentators, prefer to render, If you actually (ει και) have an opportunity of becoming free, by all means (μαλλον, elative) seize it. This finds some support in the aorist tense of the imperative (χρησαι), but does not make sense in the context; see especially the discussion, with references, in J.N. Sevenster, Paul and Seneca, pp. 189 f. (and the same context for a discussion of the Pauline and Stoic attitudes to slavery). Particularly important is the for (γαρ) with which the next verse begins: You need not hesitate to put up with your servile condition, for the slave who has been called in the Lord (that is, to be a Christian, one who is in Christ) is the Lord’s freedman; and similarly the free man who has been called is Christ’s slave.(11)

1 Timothy 1:10

Sometimes 1 Timothy 1:10 is mentioned as one verse which might indicate that the Bible considers slavery to be sinful. This misinterpretation was often put forth in abolitionist writings of the Civil-War Era. For example, in 1836 Angelina Grimke (a feminist abolitionist who was neither a scholar nor a believer in the Bible) wrote, “how can it be said Paul sanctioned slavery, when, as though to put this matter beyond all doubt, in that black catalogue of sins enumerated in his first epistle to Timothy, he mentions ‘menstealers,’ which word may be translated ‘slavedealers’?” (12) The verse lists ανδραποδισταις “menstealers” along with other ungodly and sinful persons (murderers, fornicators, sodomites, liars, etc.), and indeed this word is translated “slave traders” in the New International Version and in the New Living Translation. The New International Reader’s Version (a revision of the NIV for children) even interprets it as, “people who buy and sell slaves.” This is in keeping with Grimke’s interpretation. But this is certainly not the meaning of the word. Thayer’s Lexicon explains that the word means “one who steals the slaves of others and sells them” or “one who unjustly reduces free men to slavery.” This crime was often committed in ancient times. Penalties for it are specified in the Mosaic Law (see Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7), and it is frequently mentioned by Greek writers as the crime of ανδραποδον. In the ancient Roman code known as the Lex Fabia (third-second century B.C.) these slave-snatchers were called plagiarii, and so the word is translated thus in the Vulgate. (13) So ανδραποδισταις in 1 Timothy 1:10 does not refer to all slave traders, any more than the word πορνοις “whoremongers, fornicators” in the same verse could refer all men who have sexual relations with a woman. It refers to those who engage in an illegal activity, kidnapping of slaves, and not the legal slave-trade itself. For this reason, most Bible versions translate the word “kidnappers.”

Why have the translators of the NIV and the NLT used the words “slave traders” here, without even indicating the correct interpretation in a footnote? One might expect the NIV Study Bible, at least, to indicate the meaning, but even in that copiously annotated edition of the NIV there is no explanatory note here. We also observe that the recently-published English Standard Version has “enslavers” here, which is somewhat better than “slave-traders,” and it also has a note stating that the word means “those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery.” But this translation and this note are also incorrect for two reasons: In ancient times those who were taken captive in war were often kept or sold as slaves, unless they were redeemed by the payment of a ransom, and this military custom was not considered to be ανδραποδον. It was considered to be a merciful alternative to the massacre of defeated enemies. (14) Also, the crime of ανδραποδον often involved the kidnapping of one who was already a slave, not the enslavement of one who had been free. If the translators were not satisfied with “kidnappers” because this word does not indicate the connection with the illegal slave trade, they might have rendered it “slave-kidnappers,” but “enslavers” is not the meaning of this word.

We suspect an apologetic purpose for these mistranslations. All of these versions were sponsored by evangelical publishers, and many evangelical apologists have used isolated misinterpretations of 1 Timothy 1:10 in support of their contention that the Bible does not really condone slavery after all. But however well-meaning this may be, and however expedient it may be for apologists, it prevents people from really coming to terms with the world-view of the Biblical authors—a world-view which is very remote from modern egalitarian values and agendas.

None of this is to suggest that slavery is a good idea in the modern world. But it is a requirement of scholarly integrity, and of any true understanding of the Bible, that we should refrain from importing our own modern political and social values into the text.


1. For example, Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (vol 1, chap. 8, § 48) hyperbolically states that at times there were perhaps twice as many slaves as freemen in the Roman empire, and that, while the treatment of slaves “depended on the character of the master,” “as a rule it was harsh and cruel.” Indeed, life was harsh for all working-class people in ancient Rome by modern standards. But it strains credulity when we are asked to believe (without any evidence presented for the sweeping assertion) that “the character of the master” was “as a rule ... cruel.” Such characterizations belong more to the realm of melodrama than to history.

2. Radio interview with the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Bishop of Washington, DC, broadcast by National Public Radio on August 1, 2003 and subsequently published in the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. We note the irony of this appeal to the egalitarian principle in the context of the Episcopal Church’s decision, which concerned the appointment of a homosexual to a prestigious and decidedly hierarchical office, with an honorific title and a pompous costume. Such ecclesiastical personages bear little resemblance to the “bishops” or overseers mentioned in the Bible.

3. John H. Elliott, “Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian. A Critique of an Anachronistic and Idealist Theory,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 32/3 (2002). pp. 75-91; “The Jesus Movement Was Not Egalitarian but Family-oriented,” Biblical Interpretation 11/2 (April 2003), pp. 173-210.

4. John H. Elliott, “The Jesus Movement Was Not Egalitarian,” p. 174.

5. D.E. Nineham, The Church’s Use of the Bible Past and Present (London: SPCK, 1963), p. 161.

6. This is not mere speculation. Douglas Groothuis, professor of apologetics at Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary, has published on the internet a surprisingly frank article — “Apologetics: The Egalitarian Imperative” (originally dated June 04, 2002) — in which he argues that “biblical egalitarianism” is an “apologetic imperative” because “unbelievers recoil in horror, and reject the gospel without further thought” after hearing “pronouncements about female submission.”

7. For example, in the ESV revision of the RSV the words “he [Joseph] made slaves of them” in Genesis 47:21 were softened to “he made servants of them.” But such changes were not usually necessary, because the RSV ordinarily used the word “servant,” as in Romans 1:1, where Paul really calls himself a “slave of Christ.” One recent version, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, reluctantly uses the word “slave” with a mark pointing to an editorial note in the appendix: “The strong Greek word doulos cannot be accurately translated in English by ‘servant’ or ‘bond servant’; the HCSB translates this word as ‘slave,’ not out of insensitivity to the legitimate concerns of modern English speakers, but out of a commitment to accurately convey the brutal reality of the Roman Empire’s inhumane institution as well as the ownership called for by Christ.” It seems that the editors could not bring themselves to use the word “slave” without a note denouncing slavery as an inhumane and brutal institution. But we observe that Paul and the other biblical authors were not moved to make any such apology for their use of the word doulos. Rather, as the HCSB note mentions, they used the word as a very apt one to express the ‘ownership called for by Christ.’ But would they have done this if the reality of slavery in ancient Rome was as brutal and inhumane as the writer of this note seems to think? Wayne Grudem, one of the translators of the English Standard Version, maintains that “the word ‘slave’ is probably not the best translation of the Greek word doulos” because in ancient times slavery “was an institution far different from the horrible abuses of slavery in the 18th and 19th century in North America” (Interview with Adrian Warnock, 8 Dec. 2006).

8. The apologists for slavery in the Confederate States of America produced some writings on this subject which are today usually dismissed as mere special-pleading, and perhaps rightly so. But whatever one may think of their motives, it should be recognized that their opponents were much more guilty of special-pleading when they tried to use the Bible in support of the abolitionist cause. The truth is, the Bible gives no deliberate support to either side of this political question, because the Bible was not written for political purposes. For an interesting critique of the abolitionist use of Scripture see the discussion in chapter 3 of Albert Taylor Bledsoe’s An Essay on Liberty and Slavery (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & co., 1856).

9. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 529.

10. Homily XIX on 1 Corinthians. English translation from Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. American edition. Series I, Vol. XII (New York, 1889).

11. C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 170f.

12. Angelina Grimke, “Appeal to the Christian women of the South,” in The Anti-Slavery Examiner 1/2 (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836)

13. For details on the Roman law see the article “Plagium” by George Long in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, ed. William Smith (London: John Murray, 1875).

14. It is not at all clear how this ancient practice can be called less humane than the modern practice of deliberately and wantonly destroying civilian populations by aerial bombardment, as was done by Allied forces during the Second World War. This policy of “total war” against the population of a foreign country, which is even now the plan of the American military in the event of nuclear war, can hardly be called more humane than slavery.