In our sermon series looking at God’s transforming grace in the book of Colossians, we note in chapter three, verse twenty-two: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything… Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly…” (Colossians 3:22; 4:1). Slaves?! Reading along about how the Lord wants us to live in the power of Christ’s resurrection (Col. 3:1-4), and how that power should transform our families (Col. 3:18-21), it can be jarring to come to these verses and hear the Apostle Paul talk about slavery. Why doesn’t Paul scream out against slavery? Is he condoning it? Why does Scripture speak this way?
The problem of slavery cannot be dusted away by appealing to a translation issue. Our English word “slave” is translating the Greek word doulos, which is usually translated as “slave” or “servant” (Matt. 13:27; Acts 16:17; Rom. 6:16; 1 Peter 2:16). While the King James Version translates this verse as reading “servants,” many modern translations render this as “slaves” as well (NIV, NRSV, ESV, NET, etc.). But what helps us to truly understand what the Apostle Paul means by this word is the surrounding context. In Colossians 3:22 – 4:1, he is describing the relationship between a slave who works for his master.
One thing that helps modern readers of God’s Word to understand passages that speak to slavery (such as Ephesians 6:5 – 9; the epistle of Philemon) is to distinguish what slavery looked like in the ancient world compared to slavery that occurred in America. While the slavery of modern times was sinfully based on race and kidnapping (stealing Africans to enslave them in America), slavery in the ancient world was often much different. In Jesus’ day of the Roman Empire, anywhere from 20 – 45% of the population would have been slaves, and these from a variety of nationalities. Slaves may be forced into hard labor camps, but they may have reached privileged positions of imperial status or become doctors (many scholars hypothesize that Dr. Luke – who wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts – may have been a former slave). But regardless of their position, slaves were often paid, afforded some basic cares, and could work to earn their freedom. Often, masters granted their slaves freedom in their wills.
Certainly, this does not excuse slavery. Slavery – whether ancient or modern – is an imperfect system that reminds us we are living in a sin-cursed world. The point to understand here is that ancient slavery differed drastically from modern abuses, and Paul wrote Colossians within the social context of that day.
But there are also elements within Scripture that indicates God’s grace was at work transforming the slavery system. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 7:23, “You were bought at a price; do not become the slaves (douloi) of men” insists that being owned by Christ makes all other social relationships irrelevant. Further, the directions Paul gave to slaves and masters in Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon demonstrate that each were to treat one another based on Christ’s love and service, not on the cultural norms of the day. The fact that masters and slaves were brothers in Christ was more important than any other status they possessed. In fact, Philemon suggests even more strongly that, instead of relating as masters and slaves, Christians ought to transform prior relationships and now acknowledge that we are spiritual siblings and heirs together of the grace of life.
So what about you? Are there relationships that you have with others that makes it difficult to get along? Whether it is an employer/employee, family member, a bully, or someone who makes you feel terrible, the most important truth isn’t your earthly relationship to that person, but your spiritual relationship to Jesus Christ. As Paul reminded the Colossians, we have already experienced resurrection power through faith in Christ Jesus! Therefore, we should live as transformed citizens of heaven, offering forgiveness, love, and kindness – even as Jesus has shown these to us. It would have been daunting to live as a slave or master in ancient Rome, yet called to treat others in love through Christ. But it was not impossible! Trust the same grace of Jesus to transform your relationships with others today. When we do so, we learn that God’s Word can be trusted even when it talks about slavery, because we have been made “slaves of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1).
Thankful for the freeing love of being a slave to Christ,
 For more explanation of what slavery looked like in the ancient world, see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity 3rd Ed (Eerdmans, 2003).