Paul, the Institution of Slavery, and the Cross-shaped Life



Submitted to Dr. Joshua Jipp in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
NT 6252 Interpreting Paul and General Epistles at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


Whether as a paper or a blog post, this writing is a woefully inadequate starting point for discussion on these issues. Both as I typed it originally and as I have been repurposing it now for republication as a blog post, I have felt its weight and how little I know about this difficult subject. I fear, as I throw this out onto the net for anyone to read, that it could be interpreted as somehow dismissive or unfeeling. I certainly hope not. In no way do I think the answers to these questions are easy or that I have them all figured out, but I think it’s important not to shy away from the discussion. So, thank you for reading my humble contribution to it. As I write, I fall back on the hope of God’s promise that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).


Slavery in 18th and 19th century America – along with the wickedness which spawned both the institution and related prejudices that exist even to our day – was and is a great injustice. It violates God’s character and defiles His image in human beings. The Apostle Paul has received no end of criticism from scholars, pastors and laypeople alike, reading passages like Philemon 1-25 and Col 3:18-4:1, who feel that Paul is signaling tacit approval of these institutions and patterns of human interaction that have caused so much suffering for so many. I believe, however, that these critics are misreading Paul. Or, at the very least, they are attempting to hijack the focus of his letters, asking him to answer questions he was not intending to answer when he wrote them.

Note: The NT book of Philemon is a letter from the Apostle Paul to a slaveowner in Colossae named Philemon. Paul is sending one of his slaves, Onesimus, back to Philemon with this letter. Onesimus had come to Christ through Paul’s ministry and was serving Paul in prison. Now, Paul is asking Philemon (also a Christian) to welcome Onesimus back as a brother (rather than a slave), because they both belong to the Lord.

The Scriptures, like any text, are to be read in light of the intention of their authors. This is a well-understood, well-defended biblical hermeneutic. We seek, as we study the bible, to understand what an author like Paul is doing with what he is saying – the so-called “world in front of the text,” or its “transhistorical intention.”[1] As such, I contend that Paul is doing something entirely different than his critics are demanding of him.

In this brief paper, I will attempt to demonstrate this fact, and describe the theology I believe Paul intends for us to adopt as a result of reading these passages. Finally, I will apply that Christological perspective specifically to the related topics of slavery and justice.

Fix Your Eyes on Things Above

Christians are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20). We belong to another world. We are not to be conformed to the standards of this world, but to be transformed into new patterns of thinking and acting (Rom 12:2). We are called by God to fix our eyes on heavenly things (Col 3:2).

The Apostle Paul, following his dramatic face-to-face meeting with the risen Messiah, was absolutely consumed with this other-worldly perspective. His entire post-conversion life was oriented around principles and patterns of thinking that defied earthly custom. He had, instead, the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). When he planted churches and subsequently wrote letters to them, Paul communicated on every page the idea that we are to imitate the Messiah, Jesus, not the world around us. Consequently, understanding any of his letters must center on this truth.

Interpreting Philemon

The purpose of Paul’s letter to Philemon, for example, is to challenge Philemon’s perspective on human relationships in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. He expects Philemon to function differently as a redeemed citizen of the Messiah’s kingdom. All the old divisions and hierarchies are no longer in play. There is no longer slave nor free (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). The earthly status Philemon possesses as a slave owner is of no more consequence to Paul than his own status as a well-born, highly-educated Jewish Pharisee (Phil 3:4-8). Similarly, and no less shockingly, Onesimus’ earthly status as a slave is also irrelevant. What matters to Paul is that he, Philemon and Onesimus are all children of God and brothers in Christ (Phlm 16).

So, Paul isn’t writing about the institution of slavery in this letter per se – either to condone or condemn it. Rather, he is communicating the implications of the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus on human relationships, specifically in this case between Philemon and Onesimus. Although Roman culture may prescribe various patterns of relating that the world around them would readily embrace, Paul expects Philemon to look beyond / rise above them, and welcome Onesimus the way that Christ welcomed Philemon, not in the way any worldly institution (be it formalized slavery or any other) would dictate their interactions with one another. The only consideration Paul gives to earthly roles or titles or rights or privileges in his letter is to set the example of laying them aside for the sake of love (Phlm 8-9). To read Philemon as a Pauline critique for or against the institution of slavery is to miss Paul’s broader point: the ground is eminently level at the foot of the cross.

Interpreting Colossians 3:18-4:1

Similarly, in Colossians, Paul gives instructions to the various members of a typical Roman household on how to relate to one another in light of their rebirth in Christ. This list of so-called “household codes” specifically covers relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. Again, Paul is not writing this letter to critique Roman social customs or family structures or the institution of slavery. His purpose is to teach the Colossians how to relate to one another. It dishonors the Lord for a slave – our modern equivalent might be a corporate employee or household servant – to do just enough to look good, but rather to labor as if they are working directly for God Himself, to please Him. Rather than looking to earthly wages (which would be zero in the case of a slave) as compensation for our work, we are to see God Himself as our benefactor. He will surely pay us extravagantly either as a reward for doing right or as a condemnation for doing wrong. Again, Paul calls us to look beyond earthly customs and institutions, and to fix our eyes on heaven – to understand the world around us in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

Paul’s Theology and the Centrality of the Gospel

But why stop there? Why does Paul not go on a rant about the inherent injustice and unfairness of slavery? Why not order Philemon to free all his slaves (surely, Onesimus wasn’t the only one), because to do otherwise is to fail to seek justice? Or, for that matter, why not give us, in Colossians, a treatise on the evils of patriarchal society, with all its misogynistic woes, and call for a new activist movement to be launched in Colossae to seek equality for women? Etc.

Avoiding Eisegesis

First of all, we can’t project our cultural values or the problems we discern in our modern society onto Paul and his writings. Slavery (not to mention the other cultural morays that form the backdrop of texts like Philemon or Colossians) in 1st century Asia Minor simply wasn’t the same institution as it was in 19th century America, or as Paul’s 21st century critics see it today. “Freedom” didn’t mean the same thing either. For the average Roman, a free person was still a servant of the emperor / empire. And for Paul, “freedom” meant freedom from sin for the sake of serving one another (Gal 5:13) and becoming a slave to righteousness (Rom 6:15-18). Nor did anyone in Paul’s world value (or it might be better to say worship) individualism and independence the way we do today. In fact, many slaves in Paul’s day would never want to be freed, because they knew that would mean a lack of provision (food) and protection. To be sure, 1st century slavery was wrought with injustice and pain, but it wasn’t remotely the same injustice and pain we remember as we look back at 19th century America.

In sum, we have to be very careful not to expect Paul to speak directly into a situation that wouldn’t exist for 2,000 years at the time of his writing. Instead, we must develop theology to apply to today’s world and culture, as we study God’s word, which is infallible “in all that it affirms”[2] not “to answer every question we think to ask.” If we discern the world in front of the text – what Paul is intentionally affirming; what he’s trying to accomplish with what he’s writing – then we can apply it to our situation today, unencumbered by an unwarranted disappointment in (or judgment of) Paul for failing to address it directly to our modern situation in our preferred terms.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

So, what is Paul affirming? His focus is entirely on the gospel: the reality of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and session of God’s Messiah, and its implications for individual and community life. To Paul, everything else is merely context for this amazingly good news. When in prison, Paul is thinking about how that can advance the gospel (Phil 1:12-14). When confronted by self-serving preachers, Paul is thinking about how that can advance the gospel (Phil 1:15-18). Flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, homeless, danger abounding, etc (2 Cor 11:23-28), and Paul is asking that we pray for his boldness to declare the gospel (Eph 6:19-20). Paul met with every form of injustice there was, but we never see him engaging in feverish activism for anything except the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think this is why Paul encourages people to “remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Cor 7:20). Paul views all of life – every decision, every role, every status – according to how it would affect the spread of the gospel message. It’s as if social institutions were unimportant to him, because he was laser-focused on Jesus. So, if you are unmarried, stop worrying about how to change your state for the better (as society would define it), and focus on how you can best serve Christ by loving others as a single person. If you are a husband or wife, then the same calling applies: how can you be the best husband or the best wife possible for Jesus and His Kingdom (so Col 3:19)? And if you are a slave, Paul applies the same thinking as well. Focus on the gospel. Be the church. Honor God in all you do, wherever you are. Be about the work of the Lord and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Bloom where you’re planted.

The Cruciform Life: Your Needs Over My Rights

No matter which of his letters we consider, we simply cannot conclude a conversation about Paul’s theology without talking about sacrificial love — “cruciform” love; love in the shape of the cross. This is perhaps the most prominent and important theme in Paul’s regenerate life, and therefore in his apostolic writing: imitating Christ in sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. Paul firmly believes that, in so doing, he is fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). Throughout the New Testament, we see him setting aside his rights for the sake of someone else’s needs. This pattern is so widespread that bible scholars have given it a formulaic descriptor: “although x, not y, but z.”[3] In both the Philemon (e.g. vv8-9) and Colossians passages mentioned, this mindset permeates Paul’s behavior and his expectation of those who would read his letters and imitate him as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1).

Inferring a Position on Slavery from Paul’s Christology

So, what does Paul’s theology in general – and his Christology in particular – tell us about his view of slavery? First, we know that Paul expects the follower of Christ to actually follow Christ’s example (Phil 2:5-11), becoming the servant of all (1 Cor 12:25; c.f. Mark 9:35). Even without talking about the image of God and the dignity of human life, we must understand this to preclude any Christian’s belief that they could own or enslave another human being. To be a Christian (a little Christ), one must seek to love her neighbor as herself (Rom 13:9; c.f. Mark 12:31), to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), to submit to one another (Eph 5:21), to see each other as family, not property (Phlm 16), and so on. Slave ownership, whether in 19th century America or 1st century Colossae, does not and cannot exemplify these principles. So therefore, it would not meet Paul’s expectation of a godly cross-shaped life. It is an oxymoron for a Christian to condone slavery.

We also know that Paul intends every Christ-follower to be a slave to God, a slave to righteousness – a state of mind antithetical to being enslaved by or conformed to this world or the things of this world (Rom 6:15ff). This clearly implies that one who owns slaves (e.g. Philemon) and one who is owned as a slave (e.g. Onesimus) should both consider themselves slaves to God (Eph 6:8-9). But as I’ve described, this has little if anything to do with one’s seeking to escape from his or her current station in life as defined in this-worldly terms. Paul is concerned with matters of the heart and spirit, not matters of social station or status. In Paul’s mind, we must seek (and cooperate with the Spirit in attaining) freedom from any snare that would entangle us spiritually, whether we are slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, etc. He is remarkably unfocused – one might even say disinterested – in the earthly context in which seeking that freedom (living the Christian life) occurs. Paul’s attitude toward his imprisonment in Philippians (1:12-14) is a helpful model for us in this regard. He does not seek his freedom; rather, he sees his imprisonment as yet the latest context in which he will continue to run the race (1 Cor 9:24ff) and complete his mission to preach the word in any circumstance (2 Tim 4:1-2).


Slavery is a great evil. It violates the image of God in human beings, goes against the grain of God’s character, and is at odds with the Christian life, as demonstrated and commanded by the Messiah, Jesus, and His apostle, Paul. However, it stands alongside a great many other social evils in this world, none of which were truly Paul’s focus when he wrote the epistles which now comprise most of the New Testament. Instead, like Jesus, Paul taught consistently about the shape and attitude of the heart – the inner life that overflows into outer behavior. Any sensible interpretation and application of Paul’s instruction to throw off worldly living and put on Christ (e.g. Eph 4:17ff) or his demonstrated life of cruciform love (e.g. Rom 15:1-7) must include a disdain for the institution of slavery and an eager willingness to undermine it as a legitimate human institution. The godly life of the follower of Jesus cannot include participation in or indifference toward slavery and all its works. It is therefore unnecessary in my view for Paul to make explicit demands on Philemon to free Onesimus or on the Colossian church to rise up as activists against slavery. Paul has instead called them (and us) to a much higher standard than that (which includes but far exceeds a godly contempt for slavery): to live the cross-shaped life of a follower of the Messiah, Jesus.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013), 43–48.
[2] “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” Dallas Theological Seminary, accessed March 16, 2018.
[3] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, Second Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 538.


Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters. Second Ed. 1 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017.

Kuruvilla, Abraham. Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013.

Image credit:
1) Slaves in cotton field – The Daily Beast

About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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1 Response to Paul, the Institution of Slavery, and the Cross-shaped Life

  1. mamanerd2 says:

    I have thoughts but I need to meditate on them…


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