Interpreting the Bible rightly is not, for the most part, a difficult process if we keep a few principles in mind. Among the most important of these is that God does not automatically endorse a practice just because it is described and regulated in His Word. For example, Scripture regulates divorce, but divorce is clearly not the ideal for marriage as the Lord designed it. God gave divorce laws to protect innocent spouses from further damage in cases of desertion and infidelity only because sin entered creation (Deut. 24:1–4; Matt. 19:1–12; 1 Cor. 7:1–16). Whether the transgressor is the husband, wife, or both, sin leads to divorce, but one spouse can, without breaking God’s law, initiate a divorce when, in God’s sight, just cause for divorce exists.
With the institution of slavery, we cannot assume Paul and the other biblical authors saw it as the ideal for creation just because their writings regulate the practice. Paul’s directions to Christian masters and slaves assume participation in slavery as it was known in the first century, and it did not automatically render one’s profession of faith invalid — if slaves were treated well (Col. 3:22–4:1; Eph. 6:5–9). At the same time, the apostle regarded freedom from enslavement better than its alternative, for he exhorted slaves to seek liberty when they could (1 Cor. 7:21). First-century slaves regularly bought their freedom — they could save up gifts of money and land over time to pay for manumission. In the city of Rome, at least, most slaves could expect to be free by age thirty. We do not want to make ancient slavery better than it was, but the aforementioned reality alone reveals that it was more humane than American slavery, where freeing oneself from bondage was mostly a vain hope. Such differences also show it is naive at best to believe Paul would have said what he does about slavery if slavery as practiced in the American South was the slavery he knew. All these factors begin to show us why Paul takes the positions that he does on slavery.
Though Paul implies that Christian participation in first-century slavery was not always prohibited, the fact that slavery is not the ideal, coupled with his apostolic authority, meant he could order Christian slavemasters to forgive and free slaves when appropriate. Paul could have appealed to His apostolic office when writing to Philemon, but he chose not to (v. 8). Tomorrow we will begin to see why.
As today’s study shows, understanding the cultural background of a passage in Scripture is important to figuring out why an author says what he says. In turn, as we hope to show in future studies, knowing this historical context also helps us apply today those texts that discuss difficult issues, such as slavery. Good resources, such as a basic Bible dictionary and encyclopedia can help any Christian learn more about the background of a biblical passage.