“Why does it seem like the Bible condones slavery? For example Paul told slaves to returns to their masters when they had run away. Was it more of a cultural thing?”
Thanks for the question. I am glad you say that it seems like the Bible condones slavery. In answering a question like this it is always important to remember that the Bible should be read as a book which shows us the way of salvation in Jesus Christ.That being said doesn’t mean that it doesn’t indirectly address various issues of our society or culture.
However, just because something is mentioned in what appears to be a neutral way, doesn’t mean that the Bible condones it. For instance, remember when Jesus was asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar? Jesus said: “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the to God the things that are God’s.” Does that mean that Jesus legitimized everything that Caesar did? Of course not! Therefore the mentioning of slavery without condemning it does not mean that Paul was condoning the practice of slavery. In fact, Paul actually speaks in the book of Philemon (where the reference in the questions seems to originate) that the fact that Onesimus became a believer means that Philemon should receive him as a brother! We read in Philemon 1:15-16: “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Another factor to acknowledge is that slavery in the 1st century was not like slavery of the 18th century. Realize that social, economic, and legal positions of slaves have differed vastly in different systems of slavery in different times and places. Some slaves, although not all, were treated as sons & heirs by their masters. When Paul encourages slaves to be obedient to their masters he was instructing them about what respecting those in authority would look like in that context. Besides, are not some people slaves to their masters (employers) today? Some people are such workaholics that in reality they are slaves – albeit better paid. Instead of being literally in physical bondage they are held in bondage by money, or other perks. They provide cell phones so they can be tethered to their work all the time!
Therefore whatever situation we find ourselves, whether slaves or free, let us live for the Lord!