Does the Bible Condone Slavery, Part 3. What is a doulos/slave in Bible terms, and does that match the type of slavery prevalent in the American South #120

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Happy Monday, friends – and God bless all of you essential workers, first responders, medical professionals and others that are headed into work today to keep our country going, to serve the needs of the people, and to heal and help the sick. We are more grateful for you than we have ever been before, and that gratitude and appreciation is long overdue. 

Today’s Bible readings include Numbers 4, Song of Songs 2, Psalms 38 and Hebrews 2. Our focus question remains on the issue of slavery and the Bible. Specifically, we will compare what the Bible calls doulos/bond-servants/slaves with what most westerners think when they hear the term ‘slave.’ I’m reading some excerpts from my book The Bible and Racism, which is available on Amazon, and has never been featured as a Oprah Winfrey’s book of the month for reasons I can’t begin to fathom. 

It should be remembered, that the Israelites themselves started out as slaves, aliens and strangers in a strange land. They were under the yoke of slavery for over 400 years, a fact prophesied by God to Abraham in Genesis 15. The Israelites knew first hand the horrors of slavery for centuries. 

In Matthew 6:24 Jesus teaches, “No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money.” This is Jesus’ first mention of slavery, and it is interesting on two different counts. First, Jesus demonstrates here that one can be a slave and love one’s master. Second, it introduces us to the New Testament use of the word “slave.” In this particular instance, the word Jesus uses is the verb “douleuō” which means either to be a slave OR to be a servant. The same verb is used in Luke 15:29, “but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.”

In this case, the verb is used by the elder brother in Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son. The elder brother was obviously not a slave in his father’s household, but he did work and serve his father. The fact is that the Greek verb “douleuō” and the Greek noun “doulos” from which it is derived can be used to indicate either slavery or service, and the meaning of the word is probably more in line with our English word servant, than our connotations of the word “slave.”

Matthew 20:26-28 “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In vs 26, the word used by Jesus that the ESV translates as “servant,” is the Greek word “diakonos” and the word that Jesus uses in vs 27, translated as “slave,” is “doulos” Diakonos is the Greek word that was used for somebody who waited on tables in the first century – a server. It was co-opted by the church to mean “deacon,” in Acts 6, and ultimately came to also mean “minister.” Jesus’ teaching here is revolutionary – He is saying that the key to greatness, and the key to becoming first, or chief, is to be a servant or slave.

In context, it appears that the words servant and slave are used very similarly here by Jesus, and they are used glowingly. In the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, being a servant is being great, and being a slave is opening the door to being chief. This proclamation goes right along with Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:31, “Many who are first will be last,” in the Kingdom of Heaven and eternity. It should be said here that being a master – especially the master of a slave – would be the opposite of servanthood, and in many ways, the opposite of being great. 

Romans 6: 15-23 15 “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The word “bond-servant” (doulos) appears in about 36 verses in the New Testament, with Romans 6 and Galatians 4 being the two densest discussions of the topic. While Paul’s discussion of slavery (or bond-servitude) here is largely metaphoric, there are still two noteworthy facts about slavery in the Bible found in this passage. First, as indicated by vs. 16, New Testament slavery does carry implications of obedience. Second, Paul here contrasts two polar opposites that humans will serve: Either they will be slaves to sin, a terrible master that brings only death, or they will be slaves to God, a master that brings freedom, sanctification, and eternal life. In Pauline theology, all humans are slaves to something, a fact that has extreme implications when discussing the complicated issue of slavery in the Bible. In the way that Paul discusses slavery, the key question relates to how good the master is. If the master is sin itself, or a cruel human, then slavery is a terrible evil. If the master is God, or a Godly human, then servant-hood is very different.

American Christians, no matter their race, hopefully cringe in their inner-selves when they hear the word slavery. The system of slavery in America from its inception until the late 19th century was race-based, cruel, godless, an abomination and diametrically opposed to the understanding of slavery/servitude in the Bible. Slavery in the Bible was far more similar to what we think of when we think of somebody serving as a butler, or a housekeeper, or a groundskeeper. No, it wasn’t a glorious position, and yes, sometimes slaves were taken advantage of, but first century slavery, at least the type discussed in the New Testament, was NOT race-based, and shared little in common with the race-based, kidnapping focused slavery of England and the Americas.

The idea of being slaves to God or Christ is a recurring theme in the New Testament, far more prevalent than is commonly understood, appearing in Matthew 6:24, Matthew 22:3-10, Mark 13:34, Luke 12:37, Luke 12:38, Luke 12:45, Luke 17:10!, John 15:15, Acts 2:18, Acts 4:29, Acts 16:17, Ephesians 6:6, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 3:24, 1 Peter 2:16, Romans 6:22, Romans 16:18, Revelation 1:1, Revelation 2:20, Revelation 6:11, Revelation 7:3, Revelation 19:2, Revelation 19:5, Revelation 22:3, and Revelation 22:6, and quite possibly at least a dozen other verses.

The most frequent name used to designate general followers of Jesus in the New Testament is the word “brothers.” Unless I am mistaken, the second most frequent name for general followers of Jesus in the New Testament is “slave/servant/doulos.” (The word “disciple”also frequently refers to followers of Jesus, but is more often applied to the original 12 disciples of Jesus, and is not used at all after the book of Acts) Let this idea sink in, because it is crucial: followers of God, according to the Bible, are slaves/servants/douloses of Him. To be a servant is not a bad thing, according to Jesus, but is the very key to greatness. Americans and Westerners look down on serving and servitude, but Jesus practically glorified it. That acknowledged, I want to reiterate that race-based slavery is a cruel and horrid abomination, and its perpetrators deserve nothing more than derision.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14 12 “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

The early church was made up of slaves, freeman and nobles. It was composed of Jews, Greeks, Romans and other ‘barbarians.’ There were all shades of skin color, and all manner of economic class together when the early church met. Sometimes, this dynamic led to favoritism and partiality, but multiple times in Scripture, the church was sternly warned to not give any place to favoring one people group over another. As Paul notes here in 1 Corinthians 12, all of the members – slave or free – were baptized by ONE Spirit into ONE Body. The coming of Christ Jesus, His death on the cross and His resurrection has destroyed every dividing wall in humanity.  To reiterate: Slaves, free, nobles, rich, poor, Gentiles, Jews, strangers, aliens and the like are all now saints, citizens, members of the household of God, and co-heirs with Christ. All other titles and positions are meaningless.

. 2 Corinthians 4:5 For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves because of Jesus. Once again we see a normative New Testament usage of the word doulos/servant/slave. Paul is proclaiming that he and his apostle team are ‘slaves’ to the Corinthians. In doing so, he is also demonstrating the lack of racial baggage that adhered to the word doulos in the first century.

The book Racism and the Bible covers many more verses in this discussion and goes much deeper. If this is an issue you still want to grapple with, I’d encourage you to get the book, or just leave a comment, and I’ll send you a .pdf of the chapter in question if you’d like. I’ll move to a close: 

So, what is the conclusion of this complicated question, does the Bible indeed condone slavery? The answers is primarily no, with a couple of important caveats. The first and primary answer is no – the Bible soundly and roundly condemns any sort of race-based slavery, and any sort of slavery that includes kidnapping, violence, coercion, or threatening behavior. On the other hand, the Bible does condone doulos/servant/slavery, at least in a sense of the word ‘condone,’ by not calling for the utter abolishment of slavery. That answer at first might seem wishy-washy, but it accurately reflects the tenor and tone of the Bible’s teaching about slavery and servitude. As we have seen above, the writers of the Bible, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had no trouble whatsoever referring to themselves as slaves of Christ, and didn’t blink an eye about calling followers of Jesus to slavery/servitude of God. The word ‘doulos/servant/slave,’ though it was a lowly word and position, simply did not carry the same racial baggage and negative connotations to them that it does to us.

Writer John Ellis gets it correct in this nuanced discussion of slavery and the Bible: “It’s true that the Bible never explicitly condemns slavery, but it never condones it either. It does regulate, liberally regulates, an already existing institution – an institution that had little resemblance to the slavery found in the American South.”

Right off the bat, Exodus 21:16 flatly forbids and condemns what most people mean when they reference slavery. Look, if God’s Word clearly states, and it does, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death”, it’s hard, at least with a straight face, to claim that the Bible condones slavery as defined by 18th and 19th century America. I know many preachers tried to make that case, but they were horribly and sinfully mistaken – trying to justify their wickedness, rather than being led by God’s Word. 

Truth be told, the slavery that the Bible discusses would be more appropriately termed “indentured servitude.” For one thing, there was no racial element involved. 

Fair enough, but the Bible is one thing and the Church another, right? I mean, the Church supported slavery, didn’t it? Well, no. In fact, many of the Christians and churches that opposed American chattel slavery on moral and religious grounds often pointed to the reality that the version of slavery practiced during Biblical times would not allow for American chattel slavery. Referring to slavery in the Old Testament, Kentucky Baptist preacher James M. Pendleton wrote in the 1840s, “there are points of material dissimilarity between that system and our system of slavery.”

One of those “points of material dissimilarity” was that if the Southern slaveholders were to practice the type of slavery that was regulated by the Bible, they would have to enslave whites as well as Africans. Noted historian Mark Noll points to the anti-slavery arguments of Minister John Fee, among others of the time, that the concept of slavery based on race was not only absurd but unbiblical. Unfortunately, this argument failed to make inroads with the Southern slaveholders, and Mark Noll concludes with the telling statement that this failure “reveals that factors other than simple fidelity to Scripture were exerting great influence [over Southern slave-holders].” (Source:

Now, to our final answer: Does the Bible condone slavery? I believe the answer is no. Does the Bible outlaw/forbid slavery – also no, but it absolutely does outlaw the kind of race-based, kidnapping fueled slavery practiced in Western countries in the last 500 years. I think the best way to express the Bible’s position on slavery, taking into account the whole counsel of the New Testament, is that the Bible strongly discourages slavery, calls for equality, kindness, mutual respect, and mutual benefit in boss and bondservant type relationships, elevates servanthood to a position of greatness, and forbids any and all kinds of racism. 

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