Urge bond-servants to be subject to their own masters in everything.

Titus 2.9


When translating Titus, we made an important editorial decision that must now be addressed. We changed the word “slave” to “worker,” thereby retaining the wise instruction from Paul and adapting it to our own cultural context, sidestepping the tricky issue of first century slavery. But we need a moment to address the issue of slavery in the Bible.

Does the Bible support slavery? People once thought it did. In fact, during the civil war many preachers defended slavery through literal interpretations of passages like Ephesians 6 (“slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling”) and Titus 2 (“tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect”).

Sadly, there are several biblical passages that don’t condemn slavery, but should. Among them:

  • Leviticus 25.44 (“You may purchase slaves …”)
  • Exodus 21.2 (“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years …”)
  • 1 Timothy 6.1 (“Slaves should show full respect for their masters …”)

What are we to make of them?

First, it should be noted that slavery was an unavoidable component of everyday life in both the ancient near east and the Roman Empire. That doesn’t justify its existence, but contextualizes the relative silence on the issue since life absent slavery was no more comprehensible to them, then, than life without electricity would be to us, now. It was the way things got done.

Second, we should note that there were almost no rules governing the treatment of slaves in those ancient cultures. Had the Bible stayed silent on the issue, there would have been nothing protecting slaves. Yet scripture advocates for proper care of slaves, invoking the memory of Israel’s own season of subjugation. God’s people were meant to treat slaves, outsiders, and aliens well since “they themselves were once slaves in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 15.15).

Third, Genesis 1 and 2 clearly demonstrate that all people, as descendants of Adam and Eve, have been made in the image and likeness of our Creator. We have all been afforded both dignity and humility as God’s heirs and co-operants in his ongoing creation and administration of the earth; consequently, it is illogical that God ever intended us to be laid so low. You don’t crown a king in order to place him in shackles and beat him for compliance.

Then, in Exodus, God gives the strongest possible prohibition against slavery saying “he who sells a man … will be put to death” (Exodus 21.16). Likewise, in the Revelation of St. John, those who trade slaves first mourn the fall of Babylon and then join in her punishment at the hands of God’s angel for participating in her wicked ways (see Revelation 18-19). Once again, slavery receives the harshest punishment imaginable.

Of course we aren’t the first people to recognize the Bible’s anti-slavery stance. Both William Wilberforce in England and Harriet Beecher Stowe in the United States were outspoken Christians who fought for abolition on the basis of their commitment to Christ. Likewise Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who—though nominal believers—credited God with the impulse to liberate men, as well as preachers like Charles Finney and John Wesley.

But it took us a long time to arrive at the right conclusion, which leaves us with a permanent stain upon our shared heritage. That stain does not wholly reside with Christians, but neither are Christians entirely free from it (despite our work to redress a considerable wrong).

When Christ proclaims freedom to those enslaved, we might well take his words literally and figuratively. There are, of course, many kinds of slavery beyond the purchase of flesh. In the same way we need to pursue liberty for those actually enchained, we ought to also pursue freedom for those caught up in the chains of sin.

Addiction is a kind of slavery, whether to drugs or alcohol. Having worked with heroin addicts, I can think of no more grotesque kind of slavery than that which drives people to betray their families, steal from their loved ones, and prostitute their future for a fix.

But not all manifestations of slavery are so obvious. We can also become enslaved to our self-image. Whether pursuing social media status, popularity, or the ever-elusive idea of “finding our true selves,” we are often prey to the social pressures and demands of our time.

Entitlement and victimization are twin manifestations of slavery wherein we feel like we are owed a measure of success by the world, and when we don’t receive it, we cry out that the world is unfair and out to get us. If there ever was a certain way to remain destitute, it is by blaming everyone else for our failures.

But the most egregious slavery is modern-day sex trafficking. Once thought to be a problem largely overseas, the truth is that slavery in America is alive and well. Whether through strip clubs, back alley brothels, unregistered laundry mats, massage parlors, or cash-only restaurants, there are reports of thousands and thousands and thousands of people held against their will with no option for emancipation without deportation.

Fortunately God’s people are once again striding to the fore, and groups like the International Justice Mission and the Set Free Movement are actively engaged in fighting human trafficking on the gospel basis that all people deserve freedom and dignity as image-bearers of our Creator.

My friend Robin Smith is a modern day abolitionist, running the Refuge House in Nevada for women transitioning out of the sex trade. Her stories of rescue, escape, incarceration, and rehabilitation are heart-wrenching. You only have to hear one story about a woman locked in a basement for two years before you realize the world is not as nice as they show on Netflix.

All of which begs the question, what can ordinary people do to interrupt such extraordinary evil? Three things: give money to good organizations so they can continue; pray for increased deliverance, legislation, and activism; share information about the good work these organizations do via social media and local church congregations.

The most important issue involves recognizing that every human being has been made in the image of God. None of us are slaves. We are heirs and joint heirs, sons and daughters, kings and priests meant to reign with God over the earth.

That doesn’t just mean you and me, but everyone—from the family paddling their raft through the Gulf of Mexico to the young girl running for her life through Bangkok. We simply cannot stand by and let this evil persist in God’s world. Remember, we are tenants in God’s home. It’s time for us to clean house.