A Slave to a Hermeneutic

The Adult Bible Study Guide continues its examination of Ephesians, this week dealing with troubling texts again. Last week it was the gendered language around marital submission. A similar focus on power relationships continues this week as the lesson parses the problematic language in Ephesians 6:1-9. The verses move from reminding children to obey their parents to telling slaves not only to obey their masters, but to do it for Christ. It raises many questions, including how one can believe in biblical literalism while critically engaging the historical use of such texts to theologically justify the horrors of slavery.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/sabbath-school/2023/slave-hermeneutic

From John McVay, Good Word

We must adopt a way of interpreting the household code in Ephesians that addresses [Eph 5:21-6:9] as a whole since the assumptions and structures that supported slavery in the first century were also determinative for marriage and child rearing
… it becomes clear that we are not called to adopt first-century, pagan aberrations of the eternal and biblical models of marriage and child rearing (noting Paul’s citation of [Gen 2:24] or the immoral institution of slavery.*

Bible students must also accomplish a second task: With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they must be prepared to hear eternal and cross-cultural counsel addressing our relationships today. Paul does not just critique the flawed social structures of the “old humanity” ([Eph 4:22] He celebrates the creation of a new humanity ([Eph 2:15], which turns away from the corrupt values believers once endorsed…

In this new humanity, those in positions of authority no longer operate to enhance their own power and comfort. They no longer misuse and abuse their charges at will, but reflect the self-sacrificing model of Christ ([Eph 5:2].,

In offering rules for the Christian household (5:21–6:9), then, Paul provides a ringing manifesto for Christ’s new humanity as he challenges the social mores and structures of the first century. As we listen in, we gain profound insight about how to be truly human and Christian in our own time.

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What is the historical context that informs the meaning of Ephesians 6:5-9? What were certain Christian slaves doing that was so offensive to the author? What were their names? How many were there? How well did the author know them? Who were the Christian masters that the author admonishes in verse 9? How many NT Christians owned slaves? Etc. Etc.

We know very little about the historical context that informs the meaning of Ephesians 6:5-9. Accordingly, we know very little about the meaning of Ephesians 6:5-9. A good interview of John McVay, who I like, would be about thirty minutes of questions in which his response to every single question would be, “I don’t know.”

The Adventist pioneers formally regarded Scripture as their ultimate authority but were nimble and agile enough to do the right thing. That nimbleness and agility does not characterize many SDAs today.

It’s important to note that the SDA argument in favor of slavery is much stronger than the 19th century Christian argument in favor of slavery. The author of Ephesians, by structurally linking slavery with the Edenic institutions of marriage and family, argues (an SDA can plausibly suggest) that slavery has its origins in a paradise that existed before sin. Indeed, the Fourth Commandment, which SDAs claim is eternal, references slavery, and in so doing, establishes (an SDA can plausibly suggest) that slavery, too, is eternal. And of course, the SDA neosubordinationists, who dichotomize being into essence and function, should be very comfortable supporting slavery, as they extend Equal but Subordinate argumentation to the master and slave.


Well, “slavery” - what does / did it mean ? Tiro was a slave of Cicero and constructed a system of shortwriting with his Tironian Notes. - - the “slaves” with the work of their hands were the ones doing the production in the Roman Empire - on the fields and in the vintages - - in the quarries - - in the shops - -Recently found in Pompeji the very little chamber housing a slave. - -

Well, the housemaid in one of Mozarts dwellings here in Vienne - slept on the coalbox in the kitchen. Labourers here lived in appartments of “kitchen and one room” - and also hosted “bedgoers” there- - the mortar for palaces and monasteries and and and were transported by little tubs : Women ( !) (“Maurerweibel”) carried them on their heads and so could use their hands for climbing up the long ladders - the ones working in the brickworks slept in the cooling off ovens there - – the composer Joseph Haydn practically was a slave of the Eszterhazys - 1850 every second birth recorded in Vienna was out of wedlock - within this society of servants - -

I wouls suggest : Better speak of workers - instead of slaves - - - -

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John McVay, Good Word

What was it like to [be] a slave in the first century? Slaves were completely under the thumb of the slave master, subject to his every command. For example, the master controlled the sex lives of slaves and could demand sexual favors from them for himself or for whomever he wished. While some household slaves could hope for “freedom” or manumission around age thirty, this was an advanced age at a time when the life expectancy for males was forty years and for females, thirty. Moreover, with so-called freedom, a slave would become a “freedman,” which hardly resembled the existence of a freeborn person. The manumitted slave retained a durable, demeaning identity as a slave as well as a continued relationship with the former master, who could still require various tasks and could revoke their manumission if it was economically advantageous to do so.

John McVay, Good Word

To what extent does slavery still impact our world today? Friday’s lesson reflects some statistics from the Global Slavery Index, whose 2023 report may be accessed at cdn.walkfree.org (click on “Explore the Global Slavery Index”). The index uses “modern slavery” as “an umbrella term, which encompasses several types of exploitation, including forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriage.” The GSI judges that today 49.6 million people live in modern slavery, up by 10 million people since 2018. When our church was limited to the United States, it participated in the abolitionist movement to combat slavery. What role should a global Seventh-day Adventist Church play with regard to the global phenomenon of modern slavery?


I was surprised at the information selected and omitted from the Spirit of Prophecy to supplement the lesson. I was further surprised that the editors and/or authors of the lesson omitted Ellen G. White’s counsel regarding how the SDA church should respond the Fugitive Slave Law (the counsel was that no SDA should honor the law by returning a slave). I was further surprised by the omission of the SDA pioneers’ position on slavery in the United States; they were abolitionists. I was further surprised by the omission that one of the GC Presidents (John Byington, first GC President) was involved with the underground rail road (assisting slaves to escape from slavery to freedom). My understanding is that the SDA pioneers considered systemic slavery as indicia that identified the country that had the appearance of a lamb but spoke as a dragon. It appears to me that the authors and editors of the lesson missed an opportunity to deal with the slavery question in the United States by considering, comparing and analyzing why apparently the God inspired counsel regarding slavery in the first century was substantially different than the God inspired counsel regarding slavery in the 19th century. The reasons for the prolonged civil war, as described in the Spirit of Prophecy, with additional death and property destruction should have also been considered within the context of slavery in the United States to gain a perspective on how God views slavery. The omissions to me were glaring.


Thank you Mr. Carpenter for this post. For a while I have wanted someone in the Adventist leadership to speak open and honestly on slavery. I am African-American and several of my White Adventist friends have told me over the years that every race has been enslaved, when I spoke on the evils of slavery. They refuse to see why American slavery should upset me so much. I live in Georgia, just a stones throw from Florida where the Governor there has extolled how slaves somehow were blessed to be slaves because they learned skills like blacksmithing, and has outlawed the teaching of slavery honestly citing that is a “woke” agenda that will make Blacks hate Whites. When I learned about slavery and its brutality here in America it help to understand how many Blacks may have low self-esteem and other negative feelings and practices. Instead of making me hate White people, I focus on how it has help me to see my beauty as a dark-skin Black woman and my beauty and hair texture is just as beautiful as my White counterpart. Being able to love myself enables me to love White people as The Bible tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. When I devalued myself because I taught that I was less than Whites because I didn’t know how much slavery contributed to this, would contribute to bad feelings toward Whites. The truth of the horrors of slavery led me to believe the impact on seeing who I am. The Christian Church has to be real. Telling the truth about the Holocaust didn’t make Corrie Ten Boon hate the Nazis who killed her family. It led Corrie to want to minister to Nazis to tell them The Love of God in Christ Jesus who can remove and heal this hate. To deny the horrors doesn’t fix the problem. If we confess our sins He is just and faithful to forgive and heal us.


Carpenters beef is with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic as opposed to the historical critical method. But these are not necessarily mutually exclusive interpretations of the text. The histo/grammatical one is more devotional while the histo/critical more focused on sources.

However, Carpenter objects to proof texting, and proposes to discredit the histo/gram hermeneutic by using slavery as an example of its weakness.

First, it should be noted that Christ and Paul used proof texting when speaking to those they wished to convince of truth: (Luke 24:27: And beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. See also especially Romans 9-11. The book of Hebrews as well). They were proof texting. So, the method is not without precedent.

Second, if you just focus on the texts addressed to slaves, you do not see how radical Paul’s suggestions to masters were: Eph 6:9. “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. (That is, use the golden rule). Do not threaten them since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven and there is no favoritism with him.” Wow! Watch out masters!

And Paul did not forbid seeking freedom. ! Cor 7:21. And as was noted, Gal 3:28 says that in Christ, there are no slaves etc.

Third, the pro-slavery book. Again, it was an unbalanced presentation. Was there mention of the way masters should act? If you are going to quote scripture on a topic, better quote all, including Gal 3:28. And to not do so shows hypocrisy. Our pioneers saw that there were deeper principles involved and so acted accordingly.

And I find it interesting that no one is quoting from Philemon where Paul addressed the issue head on, and proposes freedom for the slave!

And finally a quote from “Does the Bible’s New Testament Endorse Slavery?” By Jon Davis:

It does not….

Instead, we see recognition in Colossians 3:22–35 and in 1 Peter 2:18–25 that slavery amounts to hardship. The hardship might be self-inflicted debt payoff, but it is always a loss of freedom and liberty for the slave. There is simply no reference in the Bible to suggest that slavery in general is a good practice that God condones or supports. The Bible merely acknowledges the fact that people are in the situation of slavery, and points out the character of God despite these hardships.

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Yes. Christianity speaks to individuals in whatever situations they are in. It’s on the sam level as “Render unto Caesar…”.

Slavery is as old as mankind, covering the globe - “to the victor belong the spoils” has been the attitude from the beginning, and represents “man’s inhumanity toward man”. Biblical Christianity isn’t a rally cry for political change. It calls for a heart change in both the slave holder and the slave. It says nothing about the practice of slavery except by simple deduction -if you love your fellow man …


Thank you Alexander for this reminder of the contrast between the modern understanding of slavery as an evil to be expunged, and Paul’s teaching that gave slaves tools to maintain self-respect.

It is necessary and important that we have gone beyond Paul’s letters regarding slavery. In doing so we are actually following Paul’s example. When Paul spoke for the inclusion of Gentiles in church, he went beyond Jesus’ teachings on race. And he was in direct conflict with the xenophobia of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus, in turn, was creative in his reading of the Scriptures. For example, he elevated mercy above sacrifice (Mt 12:7), rather than the original obedience (1 Sa 15:22).

So, we need to follow Jesus and his gospel of forgiveness, Paul and his inclusion of all races, the abolitionists who spoke against the trade in people. We need to keep going to value female leadership and affirm love in homosexual relationships. It’s all part of the same project.


20th and 21st century Christians have turned themselves into metaphorical pretzels trying to salvage Paul’s writings and trying to pretend they are progressive, egalitarian, humanistic, life affirming, freedom affirming, and trying to explain away the plain odious meaning of the texts as they were understood for a millennium.

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Understood, or “used” to justify…

It’s not like Christians said, “Oh, look, the Bible says I can own slaves.” It’s more like “How can I justify owning slaves”.

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@john Mc Vay,yesterday in the theachers preparation group -without me giving any stimulus - one of Hungarian origin described the economy of lords /landlords and their serfs in bondage here up to Enlightenmen - - and the very minimal changes until now. the agricultural economy there still not finding new just and right ways. - - - Then the other, the CEO of a construction entreprise, told us about the power and might in his hands and with this getting through our recent society and the business practices there - and his daily conscientiuos troubles with increasing the turnover and maintining the shareholders interests - by having Pauls advices for - - the masters.
Oh yes, I know that. With a political mandate here my remark on hearing one name mentioned , just “Why him ??!” was the end of ones career ! (This was not my personal revenge, it ws my responibilty - but other motifs ??) - -The young woman, single, with a boy of early schoolage ,we hat brought out from drug abuse - heroine. After a long search she at last got a job in some store. And she came weeping : The local manager repeatedly was raping her in a back room - - and she urgently was needing the salary . - - And , do you imagine a man, only a few words of German , a refugee, being the “laborer for rent” by his xxx enterprise , sent to Mc Donald, McDonald passing him on to OEBB( - the railroad company) there - poorly informed about his “duty” , scrubbing the most dirty floor on his knees - - anxious not to be fired this evening for not having properly done his job - - becuse one distinguished lady bothering about him being in her way - -

OK, the General Conference should think about the UN -named “slavery” - - and each of us should be aware of the millions of “slaves” in our economy here, twisted between "dependency " and “might”
We still have the slave - master conditions here - and not only here.

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A difficult discussion indeed. Ethical standards are often based on perspectives and are not as absolute as we may wish. If morality is based upon what is God’s will in each given situation as gleaned from the life and counsels of Jesus and His word, there is a challenge of harmonizing with the more fluid ethics. Calvary and submission in the face of gross and clear injustice for many is unethical and inexcusable, but a perception of what was His Father’s Will informed a morality which superseded ethical concerns and produced our salvation. He stood up for others, even in His own unethical submission.

The temptation of substituting a social gospel for the gospel of Jesus Christ will always have a strong appeal in this broken world. Balancing our duty to ourselves and others with our duty to clear indicators of God’s will, must always take us back to Gethsemane and Calvary.

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Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 by Charles Reagan Wilson is a good source documenting that most American Christians interpreted the Bible to be proslavery. Even many abolitionists considered that African blacks were inherently inferior to whites and were against slavery because slave labor was tough competition for poor whites. As Alexander argues, the same hermeneutic method that supported US slavery supports male “headship” in the priesthood.
Another good source is : "In His Image, But … Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910 by H. Shelton Smith. The racism in this book underlies EG White’s amalgamation statements. (Even abolitionists like Harriett Beecher Stow of Uncle Tom’s Cabin displayed racist attitudes). White believed that blacks were a hybrid (amalgamation) of men and apes --as many did in her day. And she appears to have copied this idea from the book of Jasher from which she obtained other extra biblical details concerning Enoch, Noah, and other biblical characters. When Jasher appeared in the 1840s is was an equivalent to the Dead Sea Scrolls in the popular press.


So, are you saying that the abolitionist movement that was championed by northerners and northern preachers was a social gospel against God’s will and the ethic of Calvary? Was the civil rights movement led by MLK? Which then leads to the wider question, is the church to stand mute in the face of societal injustice and simply promote a gospel of individual salvation?

Only if one views the gospel’s ultimate aim as a semi gnostic escape from this world, then the above can be answered in the affirmative. But, if one sees the gospel of the kingdom of God as God’s move to transform the world beginning with one new humanity that no longer reflects the divided, exploitative ethos of this present age, then how can communities of faith not speak out against injustice and oppression and work for positive change…starting in our own midst? Biblical proof texts notwithstanding.

Christ spoke out against the institutional hypocrisy within Israel, the mistreatment of the poor, the widows, the powerless, and the bigoted attitudes of ethnic and religious superiority nurtured against Samaritans and Gentiles, etc. He reached out to the marginalized, elevated women to positions of status within his own movement (which we also find in the authentic Pauline letters), and stood up to the power brokers of his day within Judea. In this way he was in line with the prophets that preceded him.

And before it’s said that this was within the church, Israel and then Judea weren’t the church. They weren’t simply an ecclesiastical body, Israel/Judea was also a nation. Jesus and his movement were modeling a national overhaul. A new, reordered Israel gathered around him that was to reach out to bless the world. The threat to the existing order of things helped get him crucified.

The church, as a new humanity where there is to be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male or female, is to model this and call for this in a still divided and broken world. It is to be a signpost in the present to the future that God is pointing to through his Spirit. A present responsibility and future to which we have often turned a blind eye partly by retreating into an overly individualized and spiritualized distortion of the gospel. We need to start in our own midst, but not end there.




While I agree that our social concerns and responsibilities are part of our Christian identity, there is the danger of those social responsibilities supplanting our Christianity. Our involvement in the social establishment absolutely needs to be informed by our Christianity; but Christ’s focus, while influencing the social conditions of his day, was not to change the political situation. This is plain in his teachings and his behaviour - “render unto Caesar…” - “blessed are the peacemakers”. The results of partisanship are plainly visible even in our discussions right here. In the heat of these exchanges, we always step out of our Christianity and revert to personal attacks.

In the places where Jesus speaks directly, his focus is always to the individual amid a social condition. It always speaks of control and concern even for those who appose us. The current social concerns are always motivated by politics - we can count on that. This sets up a division where our Christian concern for “the other” disappears. It is a fine line.

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This is an anachronism. Jewish midrash which is how Jesus and Paul would have been trained in the scriptures, was not modern proof texting. Contemporary Christianity, even proof texters, don’t interpret the scriptures in this way. Secondly, there is no proof text that explicitly says that the messiah would rise again on the third day. Search for a single text…it’s not there. Which means that something else is going on here regarding Jesus’s opening the scriptures to his disciples.

The NT writers were interpreting and reinterpreting the entire OT, its narrative and sweep, in light of what had happened and what they had experienced in Jesus. That includes Luke in his account. That also includes Paul.

If one is looking for proof texts, there is a stronger case from the OT that regarding Gentile inclusion circumcision in order to belong to the covenant people should have continued. It was said in the Torah to be an ordinance/law that would last forever. No expiration date on it. It was only through the Christ event, the early apostolic preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles ( most forcefully Paul’s continual experience), and witnessing their coming to faith and reception of the transforming Spirit without circumcision, that Paul advocated a circumcision/Torah free gospel. Torah was no longer the covenant terms, and circumcision was no longer the entrance sign and rite for belonging to the covenant people of God in the messiah.

This was not proof text driven. It was experience driven through the power and leading of the Spirit and in light of the preaching of Christ. The theology seems worked out later, in letters such as Galatians and Romans. The big principles of God not favoring one people group above another, of equality and inclusive love being the basis of God’s rule in Christ, and of the equal dignity and belonging of Jew and Gentile, male and female, and slave and free in the gospel and in God’s eyes, are what became the driving force of Paul’s preaching and his authentic letters.

The movement against modern slavery and the later civil rights movement were driven by the same big principles of the gospel, and by the same Spirit…even if the full equality of Africans wasn’t fully acknowledged at first by the abolitionists. The proof texters were the southern slave holders and their preachers. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the method. And not in line with what the NT writers and Christ himself were all about, and how they handled the scriptures.

How this can inform the arguments regarding the equality of women and their roles in the body of Christ and the inclusion of LGBT people is the question.



Jesus was not preoccupied with social reform. He promoted a new kingdom which was not of this world. Yet the principles He espoused, if implemented, would have produced a model society. His anger with the status quo was moreso that they obscured the vision and obstructed the access of the people to Him, the Messiah… His acute disappointment was that leaders and people alike, rejected Him. In Him all the agenda items of Daniel 9:24 were fulfilled and to be fulfilled, but He saw His people losing their way because they chose another instead of Him. He lamented their loss more than His kiorejection. Tweaking the social order pales in comparison to changing the heart of man! Paul’s treatment of the relations between human beings in Ephesus does not condone inequality, nor do the biblical counsels to keep standing in the face of injustice, sanction it. They both recognize the inevitability of brokenness in a broken world, and prescribe a formula to gain the benefit of the gospel of Jesus against all odds, even in the fire. A trip to Gethsemane and Calvary where Jesus conquered injustice, or to the tomb that Sunday morning when His perfection and His holiness exhausted our sins! Faith in Him and His promises are at the heart of assurance. A challenge to the secular, critical mind no doubt. In view of the brevity of life and the transience of things, a value system based on the other worldly focus of gospel of Jesus commends itself. It puts us on our best behaviour here while we embrace the assurance of a perfect world in the hereafter.

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It may sound trite, but the difference between the social gospel and the gospel of Jesus Christ is that the former is busy mopping up the water while the latter has turned off the pipe. As long as this broken world lasts, demands for social justice and reform will abound. The social gospel will not satisfy the incessant demands, though it will bring episodes and moments of relief. Battles will be won but the war will keep raging. While the disciple of Jesus will support reform and any improvement in the human situation, he/she has to be wary of preoccupation with human effort, as the means of producing wholeness.
It may seem that both gospels have similar end results in mind, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is grander in scope and delivers on all the ills the social gospel strives to cure. It changes the person. Jesus stood up for Mary, as much as he stood up with Zacchaeus . His healing went deeper than the problems that met the eye. Yet, He did not touch the Roman oppression. He did not ignore it, but He knew that in time, His gospel will deal with Rome and all its permutations before and after the cosmic bell rings.