You are not a slave!

When it comes to the complex issue of labor and management, the Bible has answers. But are we asking it the right questions?

In the old joke, a man wanted to know God’s will from the Scripture. I’ll open the Bible at random and point, and that will be God’s direction for me. When he opened his eyes, his finger was resting on the verse, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” I’ll try it again, he said: this time he opened to the verse, “Go thou and do likewise.”

God’s Word is true, but those verses were not the answer to that man’s question!

Yet, we commit the same error on the topic of labor: most of the teaching I have run across is based squarely on three Bible passages on the theme of SLAVERY, texts that only indirectly have to do with employers and their employees or labor and management. It is “wrongly dividing the Word of truth” to take passages about slaves and slap them on the table as God’s program for labor and management. Yet if we search the internet for blogs or sermons about slaves and masters in the New Testament, they will find that plenty of North American churches are preaching a message that sounds something like this:

Here is what the Bible says and it’s simple!

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord (Col 3:22).

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ (Eph 6:5).

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Pet 2:18).

And [chuckle, chuckle], no, we’re not slaves, but just turn slave into employee, and swap out master and make it employer, and it comes out about right!

Rather than give a full expression of the Christian work ethic, I want to explore this whole “an Employee is a what the Bible calls a Slave” business.

One blogger writes that the slave and the employee are more or less the same thing:

That’s not to say that the relationships are exactly the same, not at all. But the application of Paul’s teaching does relate to the situations we find ourselves in.

He goes on to explain that the “employee/slave” has the freedom to quit and find new work; otherwise, he argues, the differences between the two roles are minimal.

Another writer falsely assumes that “the social structure of master and slave in 1st century Roman culture” is basically “reflected today in the employer/employee relationship.”

Also typical of this viewpoint is John MacArthur:

Because God has sovereignly established the social order, we are to serve our employer as though we are serving the Lord (cf. Col. 3:17, 22-25). If employers are unfair, God will deal with them. The mandate is to submit, not strike or demonstrate. [1]

Peppered throughout that short statement is a whole list of assumptions that are foreign to the text of Colossians:

  1. Employers are established by God and must be obeyed, period.
  2. Employees are wholly accountable to their employers.
  3. On the other hand, employers are not answerable to their employees.
  4. Employers are accountable to God alone.
  5. Employers who are unfair (who “do wrong”, which might include being exploitive or abusive or dishonest) must not be restrained or punished by human authority.
  6. Going on strike is unchristian.
  7. Demonstrating is unchristian.

I challenge my readers to show from Scripture where any of these seven principles are taught in the Bible when it is speaking of free employees and their employers.

And yes, the Bible does speak of paid labor, for example, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard” (Matt 20:1-2). They are not slaves, and they had the right to take or leave the work and negotiate their pay. By contrast, in another parable, the master owns slaves [from the word doulos, see below], whom he sends to work in his fields (Matt 13:27). Slaves and free employees knew very well which position was which!

Ironically, MacArthur’s latest book [2] makes much of the Greek word doulos, emphasizing that it means bondslave, not merely servant and certainly not employee. Then, how can he and others so blithely redefine the word in Col 3:22? In Eph 6:5 Paul uses doulos and its cognate verb douleuo, which means “to perform the duties of a slave” – not a servant, not a hired worker, not an employee, but a slave who is owned by a master and serves “with fear and trembling.” After all, a slave might receive a flogging for disobedience (1 Pet 2:20), a right that the Roman law protected. Paul knew very well the difference between slavery and free labor (1 Cor 7:21-24). To non-slaves, that is, free workers, he says “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men” – that is, free workers are not slaves.

A slave is a slave is a slave

In apostolic times, a maximum of 1/3 of the population was enslaved. When the apostles wrote Colossians and Ephesians and 1 Peter and addressed the Christian slaves, everyone knew precisely of whom they were speaking: slaves, and by no means not hired labor. This is not splitting hairs between two synonyms: in a very real sense, these three texts have not been directly applicable in the US since the 13th Amendment of 1865 – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.” If you are living in slavery today, do not submit to your master; rather close this blog, pick up the phone and dial the police! Likewise, we should be grateful to the Lord that, for example, there is legal recourse for a woman threatened with firing if she doesn’t “cooperate” with her boss; or regulations concerning hazardous substances such polyvinylchloride; or prohibitions of exploitative child labor. These labor rights and others stand fundamentally opposed to the “an Employee is a Slave” model; the Christian of today has every liberty to make use of these and other protections with an untroubled conscience.

To be sure, some of the virtues of a good slave (sincerity, hard work, fearing the Lord, good will, honesty, respect) are virtues for any Christian in any situation, whether employer or employee. But that does not mean that a slave = a worker. That hermeneutical leap is just as egregious as saying that “fear God and honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17) makes it a sin to campaign against a sitting president.

Paul does talk about an ethic for free workers (the “other two-thirds” of the working population), for example in 1 Thess 4:11-12 and 2 Thess 3:6-15, an ethic in which I strongly believe and have written about elsewhere. It’s interesting that nowhere in his letters does Paul address employers of free workers. But Paul is not the only biblical author. The Old Testament law addresses itself more often to employers or to slave-owners than it does to workers and slaves. When the prophets preach, it is rarely to scold laborers for not putting in a fair day’s work, but the masters and employers for exploiting their workers (Ezek 22:29 – “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice”). Employers and masters were restrained not just by their personal ethic or by “industry standards,” but by the Law of Moses. In the New Testament, it is James who is the champion of labor, directing his preaching to those who neglect the needy (Jas 1:27; 2:14-17), look down on the working poor (2:1-7), hanker after inflated profits (4:13-17) or exploit hired workers (5:1-6; “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts”).

Pastors might ask themselves when was the last time they preached against unfair management practices. I’ve heard many sermons where workers are told how to act righteously (and slavishly). I have heard perhaps one sermon, at least that I can recall, where employers or business owners were challenged to live more righteously with their employees. In our current climate, it is almost an unspoken evangelical assumption that employers and business people and entepreneurs are on the side of the angels, creating wealth, creating jobs, and carrying on the good fight against lazy and greedy workers. Maybe that’s how it plays out with the people of your congregation; for its part, the Bible assumes that employers might act as sinfully as their workers.

NOTES: [1] John MacArthur, “Submission in the Workplace, Part I.” Online: www.biblebb.com/files/mac/sg60-26.htm. MacArthur also indulges in the fallacy of guilt by association when he links workers’ rights with radical feminism, gay rights and revolution: “Our society is preoccupied with demanding its rights. It campaigns for the rights of students, women, children, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, criminals, employees, and the homeless. When people believe their rights have been denied, they often react with strikes, protests, insurrections, and walk outs. The underlying mentality is, ‘Give me my rights or I’ll fight back in every way possible.’ In contrast, God’s Word says Christians are not to demand their rights by being troublemakers or lawbreakers in society. The believing citizen is to submit to civil authorities (1 Pet. 2:13-17) and the believing servant is to submit to his master (vv. 18-21).” Gary adds: Paul, to name one example, certainly did demand his legal rights as a citizen, acting as a “trouble-maker” against established authority on at least four occasions.

[2] John MacArthur, Slave: the Hidden Truth about your Identity in Christ, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. MacArthur mishandles the Greek and overstates his case in this volume, but that is an issue for another day.

“You are not a slave,” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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20 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nathan, so far as I know, the US has no laws prohibiting demonstration outright, so a follower of Christ who demonstrates in the US while abiding by whatever restrictions apply (location, for one, and language for another) is functioning properly with regard to the laws under which he or she lives.

  2. Gary, I have this lovely resource titled A Text-Book of Roman Law from Augustus to Justinian. It was expensive, but well worth every penny. So I don’t KNOW something about this subject, but I have access to information, which is the next best thing!

  3. Thanks Gary. I think I agree that there are certain circumstances where it’s OK to demonstrate, but I live in a culture where this right is abused and everything becomes an excuse to complain and pout. Still, my specific question is “what can we learn from NT teaching on slaves and their masters that’s applicable today?” I don’t like ending with the feeling that those verses mean nothing to us since we don’t live in a culture where slavery is legal.

    • As I said a few times, I do affirm that these verses, like all Bible verses, at least “indirectly” apply to all believers in all times, and that we cannot “dismiss” them. That is, I think I’ve already clearly said that it’s wrong to say “those verses mean nothing to us”.

      • Meaning and application are two different things. What the verses mean is that there were laws in the Roman Empire that governed the relationship between slaves and masters and that becoming a Christian did not make those laws null and void. The application for people who live in a culture without legal slavery is with respect to the Christian’s relationship to the laws of the government under which he or she lives.

      • [Gary: I here combine a few mails from Nathan into this one]

        So what would you say is the application of those verses for us? I guess all that I’ve said is really just to ask that because the article focuses on the misuses of the passages but not on its uses. I have always taught that every human authority comes from God (including employers). Thanks for your patience. I’m just trying to come to a personal understanding about this. And it’s important because so much of the New Testament deals with slavery.

        And I agree Carrie that the application today would be to submit to laws in government which is precisely why I insist on the application. The very examples mentioned before from the NT to say it’s OK to demonstrate are in relation to government laws. I agree that slaves are not employees, but I believe that the attitude that slaves are encouraged to display just has to do with a Christian attitude in general (the fruit of the Spirit?) and is not limited to that specific relationship with masters although it seems to me that NT authors address slaves specifically because it would be harder to submit when their condition seemed so unfair compared to free workers.

      • Hi Nathan, blessings!

        My essay was not a positive approach on how to deal with slavery passages, since I think the more important question is how millions of Christians will be told on Labor Day that they are basically “slaves”, leading to a broad misuse of Scripture. For that reason I dealt with what I regard as a serious hermeneutical problem, that is, taking instructions that are designed for one group and applying them to an entirely different group without giving sufficient heed to the question of applicability.

        Take a look at 1 Timothy 2-5: there are specific directions for adult men, then adult women (ch. 2); then overseers; then deacons; then deacon’s wives (or female deacons? all in ch. 3); then female widows, both young and old, and then elders (ch. 5). Now, if I look at that list, the one category that is directly applicable to me is that I’m an adult male Christian (only one verse, 1 Tim 2:8!). Nevertheless, I absolutely must pay close attention to all the other instruction, even if I am not, for example, a young female widow or a deacon – this is because ALL Scripture is given for my instruction, even it’s not directed to me. The same with the OT – there are passages for kings, Levites, priests, women, Jewish men, etc., and I get blessed and instructed by them even though I am not required to purify myself as a woman does or dress like a priest does.

        Now, as far as 1 Cor 7, what do we have? Instructions for Christian men and women and children; single, engaged, lifelong chaste, married (to believers or unbelievers), widowed, divorced, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. If I look through the list I see, okay, I am an adult Gentile Christian man, married to a Christian woman, and a freely-contracted worker.

        Now, I can underline the instructions that are specifically directed to me, but I must also seek a blessing by all the verses. However, I am not obligated to obey instructions given to other groups if they are not directly relevant to me. In fact, Paul commands that married people NOT live chaste lives; and Gentiles NOT to live as Jews; and he commands free workers NOT to live as slaves.

        My essay – like many in my blog – deals with the hermeneutical implications of certain popular ideas in our culture. In addition, I did offer some direction for application to free workers, based on the criteria I’ve just described: “To be sure, some of the virtues of a good slave (sincerity, hard work, fearing the Lord, good will, honesty, respect) are virtues for any Christian in any situation, whether employer or employee.” Nevertheless, I think many preachers tell free workers to act as slaves, when that is precisely what Paul says not to do. To use my illustrations above, as a Christian married man I get help and guidance by reading the biblical teaching to women, widows, the divorced, etc – but that does not mean that a married person IS THE SAME AS or IS JUST LIKE a divorced or widowed one, nor that he/she should full take on that role.

        By the way: If employers are ordained of God – and I’m not sure how you could demonstrate that Scripturally – I would imagine that that means they should never be disobeyed, that we must never negotiate contracts with them, and as far as I can see, that we should never quit our jobs.

        If she’s following our dialogue – and she is, she is! – I’ll let Carrie comment on your response to her thoughts; I sense that you may have misunderstood her. She was speaking of Roman laws that governed slavery, free employment and other societal relationships.

        • Thanks a lot Gary,
          Your article has encouraged me to think and dig deeper into this issue. I love having these great theological / hermeneutical discussions because I grow in my understanding of Biblical texts like these. You have a point. I guess my struggle has been that throughout my life I’ve just assumed that the slave principle is applicable at least in some ways to employees. I’m still in the process of deciding if there isn’t some kind of application of the commands that are given to slaves that simply has to do with the way a Christian deals with others in society in general. You’ve given a couple examples in the article but I’m just looking into it more.
          My question now is, “what kind of authority does an employer have (that God would want us to honor)?”
          This is very important to me because as a pastor I constantly have to give advice (which I want to be biblical about) about this issue. Just yesterday I told someone it was OK to talk to his boss about the things he thought weren’t fair.
          Again, thanks for taking the time. I’m being edified!

          • The pleasure is mine, Nathan. By the way, I agree with the advice you gave.

  4. One significant distinction between hired laborers and slaves was that slaves were considered a part of the household of their owners, while day laborers were not. As I understand Roman law from the first century, a married couple were not considered a household unless they had slaves. The relationship between slaves and masters, therefore, was part of the household dynamic and was governed by the household codes of Roman law. Hired workers were another story altogether. To conflate the two in their own setting and then to draw some universal conclusions from that conflation is to tread on dangerous hermeneutical ground.

    • Carrie, hi!

      I think you have a point here. On the other hand, freedmen and women could also elect to stay with the household as paid workers if the master consented, correct? That’s how I have understood oikos and oikia (Acts 16:15, 31, Phil 4:22), but perhaps my definition is broader than is warranted.

      • Ah, Gary, the tricky class of libertini. The laws concerning manumission were numerous and complex: according to the Lex Aelia Sentia (AD 4), the manumitter had to be over 20; the manumittee over 30 if he is to become a civis (with some exceptions). Sometimes, a slave was freed so that he could become the heir, if the owner had no heirs, and thus the stigma of intestacy and posthumous insolvency was avoided. An ancilla who was freed so that she could marry could not change her mind after and then not marry. Those are the laws that are easy to understand. The others are so complicated that I cannot say offhand just what the legal relationship would be between a freedman or woman who stayed with the household and the former owner, but it most definitely would not be the same as when the person had been a slave. It is possible that the relationship would be of patron and client, in which case the laws of obsequium would apply.

        • So, yes, I thought you would know something about this!

          • I did a little more digging in my law book to see what laws governed workmen (day hires/locatio operarum). Both parties were liable for culpa: the workman for being incompetent; the employer for not providing the agreed-upon wage when the agreed-upon conditions were met. There are other laws that deal with piece work, or contract work (building a house, for example, or crafting a gold ring), mostly aimed at who assumes what risk under what conditions. Employers were not analogous to masters, nor workmen to slaves.

  5. It’s a good article Gary, but I have mixed feelings about this. I think I’m right in the middle (between you and MacArthur). I think before dismissing a passage because it was written in a different cultural setting than ours, we need to give careful consideration to the principle behind it. After all, it is in the Bible. I’ve found that it doesn’t take much encouragement to fight for your rights. I’m not saying that demonstrations are bad, but I’m saying that you don’t have to be a Christian to demand what someone owes you.
    At what point is it best to surrender your rights than to make sure they’re kept? I understand the master / slave principle as the conviction that everything we do should be in submission to God, and therefore we submit to man (even though men in authority make mistakes).
    I fully agree with you that more emphasis should be made on the other side of the way employers treat employees (specially if they’re Christians).
    What do you think?

    • Hi Nathan, thanks for sharing!

      I agree, “dismissing a passage” is always wrong – I hope I’m not committing the sin of dismissing any of God’s Word. Nevertheless, I would insist that in Paul’s day, slavery was slavery, and free employment was free employment, and Paul clearly acknowledges that slaves and free workers have responsiblities that are distinct, even though in some ways they are overlapping. In 1 Cor 7 he told the “free” Corinthians outright, “do not become slaves of human beings”, that since that would be a radical and negative change of circumstances for them. Likewise, in the OT, there were slaves and their were hired workers, and each group was to act in accord with their specific calling.

      As I read, for example, Paul’s life, I see that on a number of occasions he gave a hearty defense of his personal rights: the right not to be beaten (twice, Acts 16:35-40, Acts 22:25-29), the right to appeal to Caesar (Acts 26), the right to marry, to receive support for his ministry, to eat meat (1 Cor 9) and many other things. Paul did not simply cave in to pressure, he either (1) asserted his rights or (2) asserted them and then chose not to avail himself of them (esp 1 Cor 9).

      You say: “I understand the master / slave principle as the conviction that everything we do should be in submission to God, and therefore we submit to man (even though men in authority make mistakes).” I entirely agree – IF you are a slave. But Paul never said that free workers should submit to their employers as to the Lord!

      Even if the circumstances are right for it, it takes courage to assert (and yes, “demand”) one’s rights. It also takes love, as shown by Paul in Acts 16:35-40 – he asserted his rights, as I read him, in part to force the Philippian government to show more respect to the disciples Paul was leaving there. Civil disobedience or striking are on occasion the more righteous course of action, and some Christians participate in them, not for their personal gain, but to fight for the protection of their fellow Christians (for example, Coptic Christians are demonstrating against the government, not to make money, but to protect all believers in Christ in that country; likewise, Christian people disobeyed Jim Crow laws 60 years ago, not just for their own profit, but to help an entire race – this was wonderfully defended by MLK in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

  6. A friend writes: Hi Gary, with all this controversy with Mr. Cathy of Chick-Fil-A, whom I agree with 100%, Christians were demonstrating, and I felt like they didn’t need to; that God would work things out. So, are Christians allowed to demonstrate in that sort of situation? Every time I see Christians demonstrating they are usually not sounding very godlike, but more judgmental and hostile.

    Gary: thanks for your note! I believe that John MacArthur is incorrect when he says that Christians should not demonstrate. I myself have participated in several demonstrations, and would have participated in others but for the fact that I live outside of the USA and cannot get to them. I certain agree with you that many Christians are poor witnesses in that type of situation; nevertheless, I don’t think their behavior invalidates our right and, yes, our responsibility to speak up for the truth.

  7. Excellent article Gary. Thankyou!

  8. To assume that a first-century AD slave and and a twenty-first century AD employee are analogous statuses is to demonstrate a regrettable lack of cultural awareness of both our own culture and of Greco-Roman culture during the Imperial era. Thank you Gary, for pointing out that there is a difference. Let us be guilty of neither cultural anachronism nor cultural obsolescence in our reading.

    And as for pastors delivering sermons against unfair management . . . well that might smack of socialism and God forbid we go there!


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