Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery ≠ Race-Based Slavery

Many modern readers assume that slavery in the New Testament is equivalent to the race-based slavery of the African slave trade. While not defending the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, Tim Keller and Don Carson explain why it’s important not to equate it with the race-based slavery that we may be more familiar with.

Tim Keller

KellerTimothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), 213–14, 280–83.

Paul is speaking to servants and masters [in Ephesians 6:5–9], and this raises many questions in the minds of modern readers about the Bible’s depiction of the evil of slavery. While much can be said about this subject,* it is important to remember that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was not the same as the New World institution that developed in the wake of the African slave trade. Slavery in Paul’s time was not race-based and was seldom lifelong. It was more like what we would call indentured servitude. But for our purposes, think of this passage as a rhetorical amplifier and consider this: If slave owners are told they must not manage workers in pride and through fear, how much more should this be true of employers today? And if slaves are told it is possible to find satisfaction and meaning in their work, how much more should this be true of workers today?

*Endnote 201, formatting added:

The modern reader winces at the words “slaves” (verse 5) and “masters” (verse 9) largely because we immediately think only of the modern African slave trade, in which slavery was race-based, lifelong, and based on kidnapping.

However, in the ancient world there were many “slaveries.” There is good evidence that much of slavery was very harsh and brutal, but there is also lots of evidence that many slaves were not treated like African slaves would be, but lived normal lives and were paid the going wage, but were not allowed to quit or change employers, and were in slavery an average of ten years.

Prisoners of war often became slaves, and men could be sentenced to being galley slaves for crimes. A person could become a slave for a set period of time in order to work off debts, because there was no such thing as bankruptcy in ancient times. Often the result was an indentured servanthood for years until the debts were paid.

To our surprise, slaves could own slaves, and many slaves were doctors, professors, administrators, and civil servants. (See Andrew T. Lincoln’s discussion of ancient slavery Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians [Word, 1990] in his Word commentary on Ephesians, 415–20.) In his survey, Lincoln says that no one in ancient times could conceive of an economic or labor structure without it. While there were brutal forms of slavery, the concept—indentured labor in which the laborer was not free to market his skills to other employers—was considered a given. Quoting another scholar, he writes that this was so accepted, “one cannot correctly speak of the slave ‘problem’ in antiquity” (Lincoln quoting Westerman, 415.) In other words, no one—not even slaves—thought the whole institution should be abolished.

This is why Paul’s letters do not aim at abolishing slavery but rather aim to transform the variegated ancient institution from the inside. As the scholar F.F. Bruce says about Paul’s brief statements about the equality of slaves and masters in the first book of Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, “What [Paul’s letters] do is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution of slavery could only wilt and die” (F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free [Eerdmans, 1977], 407).

That is quite right. Slavery was an accepted institution in all cultures and societies of the world from time immemorial. Only within Christianity did the idea eventually arise that slavery was an abominable institution to be abolished. Why? Largely because of the implications of the gospel, laid out by Paul.

  • All Christians are “slaves” of Christ, who himself came as a doulos, or servant (Philippians 2:7).
  • Paul regularly told Christian slave owners that their slaves were equal to them in the sight of God and had to be treated as brothers (1 Corinthians 7:22–23).
  • In Galatians chapter 3, verses 26–29, he writes that in Christ there is no slave or free—again, all are equal.
  • The case study in which he applies this gospel theology is the book of Philemon. There Paul sends Onesimus, a Christian slave, back to his Christian master, Philemon. Philemon is told that Onesimus is his beloved brother in the Lord and a fellow man.

In Miroslav Volf’s book Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Brazos, 2011), he says that this kind of teaching so transforms the master-servant relationship that, while it is still there in form—the servant is still to work for his employer—“slavery has been abolished even if its outer institutional shell remains . . .” (p. 92).

This of course undermined and weakened the institution of slavery among Christians very quickly, so that it was “emptied of its inner content” until eventually it was discarded. Later, the institution of race-based, kidnapping-fueled slavery in the New World was so out of accord with biblical principles that Christians led the fight to have slavery abolished.

Despite how complicated this subject is, it is important for Christians today to think it out. Many critics of Christianity simply assume that the Bible wrongly endorsed slavery and that therefore it may be wrong about other things it teaches. Actually, biblical theology destroyed the coercive heart of the institution of slavery within the Christian community and finally led Christians to abolish the inevitably oppression-prone institution itself.

For more on how Christianity gave the world the idea that slavery was wrong, see Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton University Press, 2003), Chapter 4, “God’s Justice.”

In sum, when Paul speaks to Christians in Ephesians 6, he is not denouncing the institution of slavery per se (which would have been useless in imperial Rome). He is speaking directly to individual Christians within the institution about how to conduct themselves, and what he says is quite revolutionary.

(BTW, I wish this book would’ve been available two years ago when I was preparing a mini-series on work. Overall, it’s excellent. 13-page sample PDF available here.)

Don Carson (via Lee Strobel)

StrobelLee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 166–69:

Jesus and Slavery

There was one other issue I wanted to raise with Carson. I glanced at my watch. “Do you have a few more minutes?” I asked. When he indicated he did, I began to address one more controversial topic.

To be God, Jesus must be ethically perfect. But some critics of Christianity have charged that he fell short because, they say, he tacitly approved of the morally abhorrent practice of slavery. As Morton Smith wrote,

There were innumerable slaves of the emperor and of the Roman state; the Jerusalem Temple owned slaves; the High Priest owned slaves (one of them lost an ear in Jesus’ arrest); all of the rich and almost all of the middle class owned slaves. So far as we are told, Jesus never attacked this practice. . . . There seem to have been slave revolts in Palestine and Jordan in Jesus’ youth; a miracle-working leader of such a revolt would have attracted a large following. If Jesus had denounced slavery or promised liberation, we should almost certainly have heard of his doing it. We hear nothing, so the most likely supposition is that he said nothing. [Morton Smith, “Biblical Arguments for Slavery,” Free Inquiry (Spring 1987), 30.]

How can Jesus’ failure to push for the abolition of slavery be squared with God’s love for all people? “Why didn’t Jesus stand up and shout, ‘Slavery is wrong’?” I asked. “Was he morally deficient for not working to dismantle an institution that demeaned people who were made in the image of God?”

Carson straightened up in his chair. “I really think that people who raise that objection are missing the point,” he said. “If you’ll permit me, I’ll set the stage by talking about slavery, ancient and modern, because in our culture the issue is understandably charged with overtones that it didn’t have in the ancient world.”

I gestured for him to continue. “Please go ahead,” I said.

Overthrowing Oppression

“In his book Race and Culture, African-American scholar Thomas Sowell points out that every major world culture until the modern period, without exception, has had slavery,” Carson explained. “While it could be tied to military conquests, usually slavery served an economic function. They didn’t have bankruptcy laws, so if you got yourself into terrible hock, you sold yourself and/or your family into slavery. As it was discharging a debt, slavery was also providing work. It wasn’t necessarily all bad; at least it was an option for survival.

“Please understand me: I’m not trying to romanticize slavery in any way. However, in Roman times there were menial laborers who were slaves, and there were also others who were the equivalent of distinguished Ph.D.’s, who were teaching families. And there was no association of a particular race with slavery.

“In American slavery, though, all blacks and only blacks were slaves. That was one of the peculiar horrors of it, and it generated an unfair sense of black inferiority that many of us continue to fight to this day.

“Now let’s look at the Bible. In Jewish society, under the Law everyone was to be freed every Jubilee. In other words, there was a slavery liberation every seventh year. Whether or not things actually worked out that way, this was nevertheless what God said, and this was the framework in which Jesus was brought up.

“But you have to keep your eye on Jesus’ mission. Essentially, he did not come to overturn the Roman economic system, which included slavery. He came to free men and women from their sins. And here’s my point: what his message does is transform people so they begin to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves. Naturally, that has an impact on the idea of slavery.

“Look at what the apostle Paul says in his letter to Philemon concerning a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul doesn’t say to overthrow slavery, because all that would do would be to get him executed. Instead he tells Philemon he’d better treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, just as he would treat Paul himself. And then, to make matters perfectly clear, Paul emphasizes, ‘Remember, you owe your whole life to me because of the gospel.’

“The overthrowing of slavery, then, is through the transformation of men and women by the gospel rather than through merely changing an economic system. We’ve all seen what can happen when you merely overthrow an economic system and impose a new order. The whole communist dream was to have a ‘revolutionary man’ followed by the ‘new man.’ Trouble is, they never found the ‘new man.’ They got rid of the oppressors of the peasants, but that didn’t mean the peasants were suddenly free—they were just under a new regime of darkness. In the final analysis, if you want lasting change, you’ve got to transform the hearts of human beings. And that was Jesus’ mission.

“It’s also worth asking the question that Sowell poses: how did slavery stop? He points out that the driving impetus for the abolition of slavery was the evangelical awakening in England. Christians rammed abolition through Parliament in the beginning of the nineteenth century and then eventually used British gunboats to stop the slave trade across the Atlantic.

“While there were about eleven million Africans who were shipped to America—and many didn’t make it—there were about thirteen million Africans shipped to become slaves in the Arab world. Again it was the British, prompted by people whose hearts had been changed by Christ, who sent their gunboats to the Persian Gulf to oppose this.”

Carson’s response made sense not only historically but also in my own experience. For example, years ago I knew a businessman who was a rabid racist with a superior and condescending attitude toward anyone of another color. He hardly made any effort to conceal his contempt for African-Americans, letting his bigoted bile frequently spill out in crude jokes and caustic remarks. No amount of arguments could dissuade him from his disgusting opinions.

Then he became a follower of Jesus. As I watched in amazement, his attitudes, his perspective, and his values changed over time as his heart was renewed by God. He came to realize that he could no longer harbor ill-will toward any person, since the Bible teaches that all people are made in the image of God. Today I can honestly say that he’s genuinely caring and accepting toward others, including those who are different from him.

Legislation didn’t change him. Reasoning didn’t change him. Emotional appeals didn’t change him. He’ll tell you that God changed him from the inside out—decisively, completely, permanently. That’s one of many examples I’ve seen of the power of the gospel that Carson was talking about—the power to transform vengeful haters into humanitarians, hardhearted hoarders into softhearted givers, power-mongers into selfless servants, and people who exploit others—through slavery or some other form of oppression—into people who embrace all.

This squares with what the apostle Paul said in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


  1. D. A. Carson, “The SBJT Forum: In your book Love in Hard Places you gave us some reflections on racism. Summarize some of the more uncomfortable thoughts that spring to your mind when you think about this subject,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8, no. 2 (2004): 74–78.
  2. John Piper, Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce    (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006).
  3. John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian   (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). Cf. Interracial Marriage: Oppose, Tolerate, or Celebrate?
  4. J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race  (New Studies in Biblical Theology 14; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003).
  5. Jarvis Williams, One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010). 61-page PDF excerpt.
  6. Critiquing William Webb’s Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic


  1. says

    Thank you, this is very helpful. I just read (or rather, listened to via audiobook) Roots by Alex Haley this year. According to Haley, they had this kind of economic slavery even in Africa.

  2. Paul Matzko says

    I’m glad you posted this, Andy. It’s a very useful overview of the distinction between ancient slavery and antebellum race-based slavery in America (although they assume that their readers have a strong understanding of American slavery).

    I will push back a bit against this point from Keller: “Later, the institution of race-based, kidnapping-fueled slavery in the New World was so out of accord with biblical principles that Christians led the fight to have slavery abolished.”

    That is true—hello, Wilberforce!—so far as it goes, but it is also true that Christians led the fight to keep slavery in place, including the then prominent theologian James Henley Thornwell. (See pages 210-211 of Luke Harlow’s essay in Mark Noll’s Religion and American Politics.)

  3. F. C. Torino says

    One of the best books on ancient slavery is Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death. The key word to understand ancient slavery is patronage. Patronage was important. Without patronage, one was socially ostracized. Lack of patronage resulted in a social death, a brutal sort of natal alienation. In contrast, Paul’s letter to Philemon enjoins the slave master to extend kinship into God’s community, a rebuke to social death so common to ancient slave societies.

    In addition, as the footnotes attest, ancient slavery has not equal in the social Darwinism driven slavery of the 19th and 20th century. Modern slavery was more invidious since it was undergirded by social Darwinism that enabled the Germans to justify the enslavement of Slavs, Gypsies and Jews. However, as Westerman also points out, slaves owned slaves. And some Athenian cities employed slaves as officers of the peace. Ancient slavery was more complex than modern slavery.

  4. Joe Rigney says


    Appreciate the post. Would you say that the differences between Greco-Roman slavery and antebellum slavery are so significant that the commands to masters and slaves in the NT would not apply at all to the antebellum period? In other words, were (Christian) men like Jonathan Edwards, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson wrong to apply those NT commands to themselves and their slaves, as those who lived in slave-holding societies (and all who, to one degree or another, wished for an end to slavery as it existed in America)?

  5. John Dickson says

    Good one, Andy. A vital point. Every Christian in the secularising West should know this stuff. God bless.

  6. says

    This explanation feels a little convenient and not terribly helpful. The New Testament invokes the image of slavery that goes much further than an economic system, but a total relinquishing of your rights. The apostle Paul called himself a slave and a bondservant over and over. We are “slaves” to sin. The New Testament also discusses what you’ve talked about, especially in a story like the Prodigal Son where he pleads with his father to allow him to be “one of your hired servants”. That scenario sums up what you’ve described: the PS needed to pay a debt and he hoped his father would let him through labor. Definitely not “slavery” as we understand it. But the Bible discusses slavery in way more graphic terms than that. If you’re interested in engaging that conversation with critics, you’ll need to go further than this. Because siven the distinction the New Testament makes, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to whitewash slavery of the era to answer someone’s rather benign criticism of Jesus’ life.


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