Calvin on slavery

I thought it might be of interest to have a look at one of the Reformers and see how he handled the question of slavery in Scripture. So here’s some commentary on how John Calvin handles Ephesians 6.  Calvin is of particular interest because as I’ve argued previously, he seems to argue from Ephesians 5:21 for a form of “mutual submission.”[1] Let’s look at how he handles the issue of slaves with his exposition of Ephesians 6:9-10.

Calvin starts by observing that there is an understandable resistance against the authority exercised over them by slaves and servants. It’s understandable because he perceives legitimate grievance.[2]  On the instructions in Ephesians 6, his observation is that these are minimal when compared to the actual condition of slaves.  

“Whoever reads the accounts of the dispositions and conduct of slaves, which are scattered through the writings of the ancients, will be at no loss to perceive that the number of injunctions here given does not exceed that of the diseases which prevailed among this class, and which it was of importance to cure. But the same instruction applies to male and female servants of our own times. It is God who appoints and regulates all the arrangements of society.[3]

This is perhaps a little ambiguous as to whether he is commenting on the ills of the slave class in terms of their own moral failings or to what they have suffered in terms of oppression and cruelty.  It is worth noting though that the tone of his commentary is to point to Christ who offers a light burden and easy yoke compared to what this world offers. Furthermore, as we continue it does become clearer that his concern is with the harsh conditions that slaves and servants faced.  His view being that the servant class of his own day faired favourably with the experience of slaves in Paul’s time.

“As the condition of servants is much more agreeable than that of slaves in ancient times, they ought to consider themselves far less excusable, if they do not endeavor, in every way, to comply with Paul’s injunctions.” [4]

It is worth remembering that he writes at a different stage in history to the later abolitionists. Therefore his comments do not appear to have in mind the victims of the African slave trade but rather domestic service in his own time. At the same time, Calvin demonstrates a socio-economic conservatism assuming a certain structure to society ordained by God. In that respect, he is no revolutionary, not for him class struggle or the overthrow of unjust systems and structures.

For Calvin, the crucial issue is the spiritual status of both slaves and masters.

“Masters according to the flesh. (Ver. 5.) This expression is used to soften the harsh aspect of slavery. He reminds them that their spiritual freedom, which was by far the most desirable, remained untouched.” [5]

Christians who find themselves to be slaves or servants therefore have a specific motivation to serve well that comes not from their outward status or the treatment they receive from their masters but from their relationship to Christ.

“Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth. What a powerful consolation! However unworthy, however ungrateful or cruel, their masters may be, God will accept their services as rendered to himself. When servants take into account the pride and arrogance of their masters, they often become more indolent from the thought that their labour is thrown away. But Paul informs them that their reward is laid up with God for services which appear to be ill bestowed on unfeeling men; and that there is no reason, therefore, why they should be led aside from the path of duty. He adds, whether bond or free No distinction is made between a slave and a free man. The world is wont to set little value on the labours of slaves; but God esteems them as highly as the duties of kings. In his estimate, the outward station is thrown aside, and each is judged according to the uprightness of his heart.” [6]

Similarly, a master’s treatment of his servants or slaves should arise not from his worldly status.

“9.And ye masters. In the treatment of their slaves, the laws granted to masters a vast amount of power. Whatever had thus been sanctioned by the civil code was regarded by many as in itself lawful. To such an extent did their cruelty in some instances proceed, that the Roman emperors were forced to restrain their tyranny. But though no royal edicts had ever been issued for the protection of slaves, God allows to masters no power over them beyond what is consistent with the law of love.”[7]

Calvin observes that at different times, the civil authorities have intervened in order to restrain the actions of slaveowners. Whilst such legal enforcement might not have existed in Calvin’s context, he argues here that this does not allow believers to do as they please. AS a side note, we might observe the implications here for our own ethical dilemmas concerning COVID. There have been times over the past year when strict regulations have been in place and times as now in the UK where there have been none. However, the believer is called to go above and beyond the requirements of the Law. This is because we live under a different law. Our concern is not with what enables minimal compliance with the regulatory authorities but rather with what is good, just and loving towards our neighbour.

Calvin goes on to distinguish the Christian approach to the question of how we treat slaves from the moral philosophy of his day.

“When philosophers attempt to give to the principles of equity their full effect in restraining the excess of severity to slaves, they inculcate that masters ought to treat them in the same manner as hired servants. But they never look beyond utility; and, in judging even of that, they inquire only what is advantageous to the head of the family, or conducive to good order. The Apostle proceeds on a very different principle. He lays down what is lawful according to the Divine appointment, and how far they, too, are debtors to their servants.” [8]

The trouble in Calvin’s day was that philosophy looked at utility, the argument was more about how to best treat those under you in order to get the best out of them. Even today, we see such calculations when it comes to workers rights, pay, holidays, sick leave and maternity pay.  However, increasingly the focus has moved away from what is expedient. Still, our concern with rights focuses on what people are perceived to deserve. The Bible and the Gospel pushes us beyond what is deserved to love, compassion and grace. I am to treat others well regardless of whether I consider them deserving.

This gives further protection against self-pride. We are tempted also to assume that people find themselves in in particular situations because they have brought it on themselves, because they deserve it.  However, Calvin says:

“those who are invested with power are apt to flatter themselves, as if God would countenance such corruptions. “Who is he that God should regard him, or defend his interest against mine?” Paul, on the contrary, informs masters that they are mistaken if they suppose that their servants will be of little or no account before God, because they are so before men. “God is no respecter of persons,” (Acts 10:34,) and the cause of the meanest man will not be a whit less regarded by him than that of the loftiest monarch.” [9]

For Calvin then, it is possible for people to hold to roles that are subordinate in status and power to others without that impinging on their equal dignity and worth, there is a right order which does not undermine value and identity.  The primary relationship that matters for him is the relationship between believers and God and then their relationship with one another in God’s family, this trumps the expectations and norms of social hierarchies.  Christians are motivated not by social norms or civil law but by Christ and the Gospel. This should motivate masters to treat servants well, to respect them as equals and it should also motivate servants to work hard.

This does not place Calvin with the abolitionists.  It seems at first reading that he was unlikely to have been in the vanguard with the likes of Wilberforce and Clarkson in terms of campaigning to outlaw the slave trade. However we do need to be alert to his different context and a perception built on his own culture and experience which seems significantly removed from the Atlantic Slave Trade. Notable Calvinists who were more contemporary or after the abolitionists such as Whitfield, Edwards and Dabney were happy to condone and even participate in slave ownership and they may well have found some justification in Calvin’s exposition.  Their argument would have been that we cannot overthrow the structures of society but that we have a responsibility to treat others well within those structures.  However, whether a John Calvin transported to their day and with their knowledge of the slave trade and the condition of slaves would have agreed is perhaps up for discussion. To some extent that would have of course depended on his understanding of 1 Timothy 1:10’s description of man stealers. It is plausible that he would have considered those engaged in the slave trade and the beneficiaries of it as coming under the condemnation of that text.

I would prefer Calvin to come out and explicitly denounce the slave trade and slave ownership. That he doesn’t should not lead me to try and defend him by excusing him as a man of his time nor try to reinterpret him more favourably.  Rather, honest historical reflection requires that we recognise the weaknesses and failings of our spiritual heroes.  Yet at the same time, I cannot ignore how far Calvin does move the debate here.  His reminder that the priority is the family of God should have challenged his later followers and has something to say to us today.


[1] See David J Williams, Marriage at Work, 31. Marriage at Work (wordpress.com) (accessed 27/08/2021).

[2] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection (p. 117). Kindle Edition.

[3] Calvin, Ephesians, 117.

[4] Calvin, Ephesians, 117.

[5] Calvin, Ephesians, 117.

[6] Calvin, Ephesians, 117.

[7] Calvin, Ephesians, 118.

[8] Calvin, Ephesians, 118.

[9] Calvin, Ephesians, 119.