First, Proverbs 29:21 certainly speaks of slavery. Slavery was a fact of life in the ancient world. It was sometimes as wicked as modern slavery, or 19th century slavery, or 15th century slavery, but sometimes it was not. That’s a whole different discussion. Proverbs deals with life as it is as much as life as we wish it would be.
In truth, many places in the Bible speak of slavery. Nowhere is slavery truly endorsed, though Paul speaks to slaves of accepting life and going on as best possible. Neither is mistreatment of slaves approved, except by mangling this verse. Which comes from our modern tendency to argue from opposite extremes. Notice how the verse disapproves of “pampering” a slave.
We need to set that aside for a moment, though, and examine the word “slave” in Proverbs. Actually, let us widen the net and take apart the Hebrew word עֶ֫בֶד and see what uses this word has. First, it is used of a “villein” (see medieval England) or a serf in feudalism. This is someone who has to work land, has a measure of freedom in place but not of movement. It is also used of military subordination and of non-familial dependents. This is the term used by Joseph’s brothers when they come to Egypt for food (Genesis 42:10) and Jacob of himself to Esau (Genesis 33:14).
This is not the word for someone held in perpetual bondage with absolutely no rights. Let us keep that straight from the get-go: there is no lash inherent in this terminology, and likely the translations from the Septuagint forward that have rendered this as “servant” or “house-servant” rather than “slave” serve the modern reader better. (corrections from better Hebrew speakers are welcome, that’s why there are comments)
Pampering, though, is an excellent word choice. The Septuagint uses the Greek for “live wantonly,” so those concepts pair well. This is someone who is allowed to shirk their responsibilities and have pleasure instead. Pleasure that is unearned.
The issue at stake here is this: if you expect someone to work for their living then you had best not let them slack for the first years of their life. Not that we expect toddlers to work, but the reference here is to ages where work could be reasonably expected.
This wisdom applies to many other relationships, and it’s worth broadening. First of all, it works in parenting: kids who are pampered until 21 are headed for struggles very different from kids given responsibility. Further, within churches, I think there is value here in thinking about how we work together.
Now, to be clear, I think that anyone who views church members as their “slaves” had better have been resurrected three days after crucifixion, have nail scarred hands, and be able to walk on water. There’s no room for superiority among us all. But this applies in churches: when we allow (and sometimes encourage) large groups of people to sit back and do nothing, then in the end we will have people who expect to just that: nothing.
This includes pampering the preacher and not expecting him to occasionally take out the trash, too. Otherwise, he’ll be a bit on the lazy side.