The Master-Slave Relationship

May 22, 2019

by Gregory Beale

How does the above discussion of slaves and masters in my comments on Col. 3:22–4:1 bear upon the question of slavery in general and Paul’s own view of the institution of slavery? First, Paul has qualified the slave-master relationship by saying that both have a Lord in heaven who will judge them for the good and bad that they do. In addition, Paul addresses both as accountable parties who are to yield voluntary obedience to the Lord in the master-slave relationship. Especially significant is that slaves are viewed as responsible parties, who are to yield responsible and sincere obedience to masters and above all faithful obedience to the Lord, since it is the Lord whom they ultimately serve.

it is important to remember that “the old antebellum” view of slavery does not overlap well with Greco-Roman slavery

Second, Paul views the slave Onesimus, mentioned in Col. 4:9, to be a “faithful and beloved brother,” who is a full-standing member of the church at Colossae (i.e., “who is one of your number”; so likewise Philem. 16, where Paul also calls him a “beloved brother”). Onesimus is also Paul’s “child” (Philem. 10). Consequently, though Onesimus is a slave in his worldly calling, he is equal in brotherhood to his other Christian brothers and sisters. In this respect, Paul further significantly qualifies the institution of slavery by saying that within the new-covenant community distinctions of “slave” and “free” have been abolished with respect to inheriting salvation and spiritual equality in fellowship (Col. 3:11; Gal. 3:28; cf. Pao 2012: 283). The nearest that Paul gets to a notion of emancipation is 1 Cor. 7:21: after saying that a person should “remain in that condition in which he was called” (1 Cor. 7:20), he asks, “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.” This probably is to be understood against the Roman background in which deserving slaves in urban areas were regularly offered manumission as a reward. Paul is telling slaves to take advantage of such offers (MacDonald 2000: 163).

Third, masters are to treat slaves “justly and fairly” (Col. 4:1), which is an ever-present and governing ethic for them to follow.

all Christians, including slaves and masters, are spiritually equal

Fourth, although Paul acknowledges the divine endorsement of the institution of marriage (1 Cor. 7:2–5; Eph. 5:31; 1 Tim. 4:3–4), the parent-child relationship (Eph. 6:1–2; 1 Tim. 2:15), and civil rulers (Rom. 13:1–7), here and elsewhere he does not understand that slavery has been divinely instituted (see Hurley 1981: 158–61). This means that Paul is “regulating an existing condition, not endorsing the institution of slavery” (Witherington 2007:185). It is this last issue that raises very thorny problems for Paul’s view of slavery. The consensus is that all forms of first-century slavery entailed the notion that masters owned slaves as their own property and had absolute authority over them. But this may not have been Paul’s view of what he might consider a viable form of “slavery,” since his view was likely shaped by the OT idea of slavery, which appears to have been different from Greco-Roman slavery. The former had a concept that the master owned the labor of the slave and not the slaves themselves (in line with the understanding of indentured servanthood; e.g., among others see Murray 1957: 97–204), though for criminals and conquered soldiers such labor sometimes likely would have been carried out in a kind of “prison” context. On the other hand, it is important to remember that “the old antebellum” view of slavery does not overlap well with Greco-Roman slavery, since various forms of this slavery were more lenient than the old South slavery (e.g., the Roman practice of releasing slaves after they served for a certain period; see again MacDonald 2000: 163). Some forms of first-century slavery may have been hard to distinguish from the OT concept.

Fifth, and troubling to many, neither Paul nor other NT writers condemn the institution of slavery as sinful, and they do not command Christians to emancipate slaves (Murray 1957: 260). However, as we have seen, Paul comes close to doing so, encouraging slaves to become free if they can.

Paul viewed his instructions to slaves to have a missionary purpose.

In the light of these above five considerations, one may detect a trajectory in Paul. It is not a trajectory that involves changes from the first century to the twenty-first, as some have contended. Indeed, Paul appears to be affirming ethics that are normative for the interim, inaugurated eschatological age, though recalling that he has radically qualified ideas of slavery for Christians, including encouragement to slaves to become free. Just as the human institution of marriage and the concomitant institution of the parent-child relationship will pass away in the consummated new creation, so will the institution of slavery. In the inaugurated form of the new creation, all Christians, including slaves and masters, are spiritually equal, though each have particular roles they must continue with in “this world [that] is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). In fact, as some commentators suggest, it is quite possible that a slave could become an elder, so that their Christian human masters would be under their slaves’ spiritual authority in the church community.

Is it appropriate to understand the ethics governing the master-slave relationship to govern the employer-employee relationship? The answer is yes. This is not merely based on discerning principles of the master-slave relationship and applying these principles to the employer-employee relationship. Indeed, such an application to employers and employees is made by Paul himself. In Eph. 6:5–9, almost the same commands are given to masters and slaves as are found in Col. 3:22–4:1. However, the most glaring difference is that Col. 3:24 says “knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance,” whereas the parallel in Eph. 6:8 has “knowing that whatever good each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” Paul sees that the master-slave commands and the principles expressed in them in Eph. 6:5–9 appear implicitly to be applicable also to the “free.” Thus it is entirely viable to apply the instructions for masters and slaves to employers and employees in the ancient and modern world. Paul mentions “slave and free” in Col. 3:11, which refers to both as part of the corporate “new man” in Christ, and he also teaches that both are newly created “according to the image” of God (3:10).

Finally, though not stated in Colossians, it is apparent that Paul viewed his instructions to slaves to have a missionary purpose. Titus 2:9–10: “Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (following Garland 1998: 256; so also 1 Tim. 6:1). This is parallel elsewhere to wives who are to “be submissive to your own husbands so that . . . they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives” (1 Pet. 3:1; likewise see Titus 2:5). Indeed, the directly following paragraph (Col. 4:2–6) likely indicates the missionary purpose of every aspect of the lives of Christians (as in 3:17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus”), especially as they conduct their roles within the household.


Excerpted from G. K. Beale, Colossians and Philemon (BECNT), (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 455–457. Used with permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Gregory Beale

Dr. Beale (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at WTS.

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