The Slavery Issue: Did Paul support slavery?
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 Cor. 7:20-24 NIV)
While I have never met a Christian who taught or believed (to my knowledge, anyway) that the Bible supported slavery, this is a common point of contention for many anti-Christian folks who claim that Christianity is an evil religion for supporting slavery.
Certainly there are those Christians in the past who used this passage to justify slavery, such as in the American South. This is, of course, unfortunate, to say the least—especially since this seems to be based on a mistranslation of the Greek, combined with another of Augustine’s heresies.
I recently read a paper by S. Scott Bartchy of the UCLA Dept. of History that builds a pretty good case for the position that the Greek word translated as “situation” or “condition” had no such meaning until Martin Luther mistranslated it into German. According to Bartchy and others he mentions, the word’s only meaning is “calling,” in the context of being called by God. Bartchy claims that Luther’s mistranslation was intentional, to defend against a popular notion that God’s call meant a call to become a monk or priest (which is how Luther ended up a monk—he was studying to e a lawyer). Luther wanted to reinforce that we can be called to serve in whatever our current occupation happens to be.
While the context certainly seems consistent with Luther’s alleged mistranslation, Paul clearly encourages slaves to become free if given the opportunity, consistent with “owe no many anything.” Bartchy believes that rather than supporting slavery, Paul is making the point that you don’t have to become anything else in order to accept God’s call. You don’t have to become free, although it’s a good thing if you can obtain your freedom in a non-rebellious manner. You can be a good Christian slave (consider the impact Joseph had in Egypt); so accept God’s call, even though your circumstances aren’t ideal:
24. To be sure, Paul along with almost all of his contemporaries apparently did not imagine that slavery as such could be eliminated from his world. Nevertheless, Paul did not want any enslaved persons who had become Christ-followers to think that their legal-social status could influence negatively their relationship to God or their warm welcome into the “body of Christ.” The key question was: who did they think they were? It is a question of their primary identity. For Paul, being “in Christ” trumps all other definers.
Bartchy also points out that while Paul didn’t support slavery, Augustine did:
26. Augustine explained that God instituted slavery as punishment for the offense of Adam‟s original sin. In sharp contrast, Paul never connected this institution either with the will of God as punishment for sin…or with the orders of creation.
Augustine’s thoughts on slavery are, again, unfortunate, as are the consequences of Luther’s translation error, especially since so few people think for themselves—including, it seems, Bible translators.
Of course, I am not an expert in NT Greek, and I haven’t researched this issue. Bartchy could be stark, raving mad, for all I know. If he’s correct, that at least removes one more excuse for people to write off Christianity.