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The Elephant in the Room

Words of Faith Final

The Elephant in the Room

Words of Faith 4-27-2021

Dr. Jeffrey D. Hoy © 2021

Faith Fellowship Church - Melbourne, FL

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Ephesians 6

[5] Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. [6] Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. [7] Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, [8] because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.


      Hmm.  Okay.  What do we do with this?  Slavery?  Does the Bible endorse slavery?  Is slavery approved by God?  What do we do about slavery in our world today? 

      We could just not talk about it, but then, it would surely be the elephant in the room that no one is talking about. So how do we deal with this?

      First, we must realize that slavery is always wrong. Humans were created to be free. Humans were not created to be enslaved or owned by another. Period.

      But that is not the end of the discussion. In the ancient world, slavery was an economic institution that often functioned to pay off debt or to provide for those enslaved.  This was quite different from slavery in American history or slavery in the world today. This does not defend the practice.  But slavery was the primary mode of labor and, in a sense, provided basic "employment."  Because of this, most Bible interpreters treat the application of these verses in terms of employment and labor rather than slavery.  We will get to that later.  But let’s talk about the elephant in the room. 

      Rome had artisans, tradesmen, and traders, but labor was done by slaves. Provision was made for slaves, and at some levels, they worked in households with fairly decent living standards.  This would be the equivalent of minimum wage jobs at a generally low standard of living. There was no "working middle class" in Rome. Still, there were over 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire or about one-third of the population.  The problem Paul faced was that many of these slaves were becoming Christians, as were many slave owners.  There were more and more Christian slaves under Christian masters.

       While Roman slavery was an unjust institution, it was in many ways not nearly as brutal as the African slave trade practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Roman slavery was more humane than the mass slaughter of conquered peoples.  Slaves taken in war later operated seamlessly in society and could eventually become "freedmen" under Roman law.  So, slavery was something like low-wage employment or paying off a secured debt.  American slavery was brutal by comparison.

       We still must remember that in Luke 4:18-19, Jesus declared: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

        Freedom is clearly the Kingdom treasure that Jesus came to announce and deliver.  Yet neither Jesus nor Paul tried to politically overthrow the institution of slavery.  Jesus probably did not confront slavery because it was seldom practiced in 1st century Judaism. Jesus came primarily to the house of Israel and rarely engaged Gentiles.  Jesus did not seek to overthrow any practice of the pagan and oppressive rule of Rome.

       Paul encountered many pagan institutions such as slavery, idolatry, and ritual prostitution.  He confronted many pagan practices but did not forcefully seek to overthrow the institution of slavery.  He was most concerned with proclaiming the Gospel of grace and establishing churches that would live as communities of grace. 

       Paul did proclaim a liberation of the heart-- "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  Paul’s focus was on the change of heart that is rendered by the Gospel of Christ and the work of the Spirit.  In the book of Philemon, Paul pleaded the case of the Gospel on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus-- treat him as a brother.

       Paul wrote to the believers at Corinth, where some would have been slaves. 

     Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you--although if you can gain your freedom, do so.  For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave.  You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to (1 Corinthians 7:20-24).

       We should note that this was situational.  Paul discerned with the Lord that the damage being done through this practice was not severe enough to warrant a disruption of the society at the expense of Christian witness.  (He might have discerned the opposite conclusion in regard to a very different situation involving modern sex slave trading.)

       Legalized slavery was eventually removed in most of the world at the leading of God.  People realized the equality of men in sight of God.  People discovered a common Christian brotherhood.  People discovered the spiritual freedom of the Christian man.  People discovered the Lordship of Christ to which every other lordship is subordinate.

       Evangelical Christians were greatly involved in calling for the abolition of slavery.  Charles Spurgeon called slavery "the foulest blot," which "may have to be washed out in blood."  His sermons were burned in America.  John Wesley called slavery "the sum of all villainies" and railed against it.  Charles Finney was a key force in the Christian Abolitionist movement.

       So does the Bible support slavery?  Not at all.  The message of the Bible proclaims freedom for the prisoner, but this comes through the transformation of the heart. 

      Today, we face a new menace through an equally dark blot in human dealings, which we call "human trafficking."  Whether in the form of underground household slavery or slavery for the purpose of prostitution, it is an ugly business that is largely unknown. The time for allowing institutions to take their course is past, and great effort must be made toward securing human freedoms.


     Lord God, I pray for the day when all humans are free.  I pray for the freedom that comes only through spiritual transformation.  I pray for the freedom that comes when society recognized the equality of all people.  I pray that we all may be freedmen who have been set free from the bondage of sin and death.  In Jesus’ Name.