Some of the problematic texts in the New Testament are those that seem to condone the use of slavery. This passage happens to be one of those. To our modern American sensibilities this is horrific. How could the early church sanction the practice of slavery in any way?
Well, there’s a few things that we need to understand about slavery in Israel, and I think one of the ways to understand it is to look at modern constructs of slavery in America. For example, I am personally enslaved to Quicken Loans, Visa, and the IRS. My masters allow me to choose where and how I work so long as I give them what I owe them at the time intervals they establish. Currently, they collectively allow me to keep half of what I earn while they get the rest. If I don’t do what they require they will limit my future spending options (credit score), garnish my wages, take my home away, or maybe even throw me in jail. Granted, I allowed myself to become their slave in exchange for their paying my debts up front and I can buy my freedom anytime at a prearranged price. This is similar in many ways to the early American practice of having indentured servants, where American landowners would pay for a European person’s passage to America in exchange for 7 years service. In these ways, selective “slavery” can be a functional tool.
I do think though that Israelite slavery often functioned more like this than the cruel and violent slavery America practiced for centuries. Israelites could sell themselves into slavery (like I did with my mortgage) and then buy their freedom eventually (like I hope to with my mortgage). Admittedly there are examples in scripture where conquered nations were forced to be slaves or masters were cruel and there are no good excuses for this.
Unfortunately, the horrible evil of slavery that is part of America’s past and continues to have echoes into our present, causes us to read many passages of Scripture in this vein. When you study God’s instructions on slaves and masters in the law and Paul’s teachings on slavery in the New Testament, I think it looks more like the indentured servant practice seen in Colonial America. I don’t believe that anything in the Bible ever condoned or sanctioned the slave trade that treated humans like animals.
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul teaches that the early Christians should pray for their leaders. Well, at this point their leader was the Roman Emperor Nero, who burned Christians as human torches. Certainly he wasn’t sanctioning Nero’s actions, but rather telling Christians to live as well as they can within whatever context they find themselves. If you are under a cruel dictator, pray for him and be good citizens so he will leave you alone and you can do the work of the Kingdom of God. If you are a slave, be a good servant to your master so that it will reflect well on you and the one you truly serve, that is Jesus.
Certainly there are other good and valuable teachings in 1 Timothy 6 and I encourage you to make sure you read it all yourself, but I did want to take some time to deal with this difficult and uncomfortable topic.