What does 1 Corinthians 7 actually say about slavery?

In  amongst what Paul has to say about singleness, celibacy, abstinence, non-Christian partners and divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, he talks about the situation that slaves find themselves in. Whilst our focus has been understanding the issue of sexual ethics, I want to pause on this particular example because the question of Paul’s attitude to slavery has been a significant one throughout history, both when it came to the question of abolition and also in contemporary debates about how to handle what he had to say about other ethics too. The argument has been about whether Paul’s ethical teaching was culturally constrained.  Did the culture of his day leave him happy to accept certain things such as slavery, which if he were alive today, he would not.

Paul’s statement about slavery is as follows: 

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (v21-24, NIV).

The context is that in verse 17, he has encouraged the believers to continue living for the time in the circumstances they find themselves. He then gives two examples of this with the intention of helping them to think through the questions they have about marriage and celibacy.  The first example he gives is of circumcision.  If you have been circumcised, then there’s little you can do to rectify it.  So remain as you are.  If you haven’t yet been circumcised then don’t get circumcised. This is because, to the believer, circumcision, as something belonging to the old covenant, is nothing. Note, it’s not about whether or not it’s good or bad, it’s that it is irrelevant. It is of no interest to them. It doesn’t matter. They should not be worrying about whether or not they are circumcised because this won’t affect their walk with God, rather they should be concerned with obeying what God has commanded them to do.  We can see how this applies across to the question of marriage and singleness.  The believers in Corinth shouldn’t be obsessing about that question. The real issue is not about whether or not they are married or single but whether they are completely committed to Christ.

With Slaves, Paul says that they shouldn’t be troubled or concerned by their situation (v21a). Notice that this is different from saying “you should remain permanently as you are.”  Rather, it is simply saying that this shouldn’t bother them.  Their status in Christ is not controlled by the status given them by other men.  Paul does however say two further things. There’s the obvious mirror point which follows the pattern of the other examples.  Those who are free are not to allow themselves to be sold into slavery. Paul’s reason for this is that they already belong to Christ (v24). However, notice that the slave should use the opportunity if it comes to obtain their freedom (v21a).  It’s not just that they are permitted and free to do so.  It is that they are strongly encouraged to.  One might even dare to say that they are obligated to.  Remember that a key point in 1 Corinthians 7 is about respecting and keeping the obligations you are under.  It seems to me, that the strong argument here is that we have a prior obligation to Jesus as the one who has bought us.  So, we should do all that we can in order to meet that obligation. I’m tempted to argue that Paul even goes so far as to suggest that whilst a marriage obligation does not in and of itself compromise our obligation to Jesus, even if the single person may at times find some aspects of that obligation easier, that there is something about the slave/master relationship that does compete with our relationship to Christ.

Now, Paul is saying that the slave themselves should not be anxious about their situation and therefore I think the implication is that the responsibility is not on them individually to engineer opportunities for their freedom. However, he is not saying that slavery is okay and that the church should do nothing about it.  Indeed, I would argue that this passage makes it clear that Paul doesn’t see slavery as a good thing. The implication then is that the church, collectively, as far as possible should work against slavery and the slave trade.

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