Healthy Leaders


God and Slavery: The Christian and Social Change

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

Slavery in New Testament Times

Slavery was a deeply entrenched practice in the world of the New Testament. The institution was universal in the Near East and in the Mediterranean world, and an estimated one-in-four people or more were slaves.[1] Nearly everyone in the Roman Empire took the institution of slavery for granted, except early Stoics who said that it was “against nature.”

This evil of slavery was so thoroughly interwoven with the entire domestic and public life of the heathen world, and so deliberately regarded, even by the greatest philosophers, Aristotle[2] for instance, as natural and indispensable, that the abolition of it, even if desirable, seemed to belong among the impossible things.[3]

Unlike in the modern western world, slavery then was not based on an assumption of racial inferiority. Rather it was more of an economic matter – the slave might be the plunder from a military conquest, a criminal, someone who defaulted on debts, or simply one born into a slave family.

Roman law acknowledged that slaves were persons by nature, but from an economic standpoint they were treated as property. Their treatment was dependent on the master’s goodness, or lack thereof, and many were treated severely. The master could legally execute his slaves, and they would all be executed if the master were murdered.

Even their family life was under the master’s control. Slaves had no legal standing and their marriages were not legal contracts. Slaves were often abused sexually. Procreation was only to happen with the master’s consent and then the children became his property. Sometimes the slaves would suffer having their family broken up and the children given away or sold.

In the Greco-Roman world, owning slaves was not limited to the rich; many households included at least one slave. The Greeks and Romans both employed a system in which slaves could own property, earn money, and buy their freedom, after saving enough money. Sometimes they were freed by the master in his will as a benefit for years of faithful service and as a token of generosity.

After freedom, slaves were still looked down upon and, while free to do many things, did not enjoy the full rights of Roman citizenship. The children of freed slaves, however, enjoyed the privileges of Roman citizenship without restrictions.

Progressive Revelation

While God allowed slavery in Israel in the Old Testament (e.g., Ex. 21:20-21; Lev. 25:44-46), that does not mean it was His highest will. In order to understand this, we must first understand progressive revelation.

For example, Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are frequently misunderstood:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (Matt. 5:38-39)

Jesus quotes from the Law of Moses and says, “But I say to you …” He appears to contradict the Law. When taken in the context of the entire Bible, however, we see that Jesus’ statement does not represent a contradiction but rather a progression and deepening of ethical thought.

Before the Law, unlimited revenge ruled the earth. This is seen in several statements in Genesis 4:

Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. (Gen. 4:15)

Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen. 4:23-24)

Then, when Moses gave the Law to Israel, that revenge was limited by justice. No longer was it acceptable to avenge one wrong with a greater retribution:

But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Ex. 21:23-25)

Ultimately, when Jesus came, He took retribution for wrongs to its highest level – the level of grace and forgiveness:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (Matt. 5:38-39)

This is not a contradiction, but a progressive revelation. The ethical standard has progressed from unlimited retribution to limited retribution to forgiveness – from revenge to justice to mercy.

The Bible and Slavery

This idea of progressive revelation is also true regarding how God dealt with slavery. In biblical times, slavery was a normal part of society. But before the Law of Moses, slavery was unrestrained. Then, in the Law of Moses, God allowed slavery while limiting it and regulating it (e.g., Ex. 21:2-11; Lev. 25:39-46). Finally, in the New Testament, we see the equality of all men set forth (Gal. 3:28; Phm. 15-16).

In fact, both Testaments teach clearly against slavery:

Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Ex. 6:6)

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. (Ex. 21:16)

If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. (Lev. 25:39-43)

You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him. (Deut. 23:15-16)

If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deut. 24:7)

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages … (Jer. 22:13)

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

… understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers [“slave traders”], liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine … (1 Tim. 1:9-10)

For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Phm. 15-16)

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore … cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. (Rev. 18:11, 13)

The New Testament embraces the tension between the temporal social reality in the world of that day where slavery was a part of life (1 Cor. 7:20-24) and the eternal spiritual reality in the Church in which there are “neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11) and all are equal (Eph. 6:9).

On one hand, slaves and masters are given instructions in the New Testament on how to live their lives as slaves and masters now in the light of their commitment to Christ and of Jesus’ very soon return (1 Cor. 7:31).

Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Cor. 7:20-24)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him. (Eph. 6:5-9; see also Col. 3:22 – 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18-25)

Paul did not tell the slaves to rebel and fight for their freedom, but to serve God faithfully in their current situation. Of course, if a slave can gain his freedom then he should do so!

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) (1 Cor. 7:21)

On the other hand, in his letter to Philemon we see the expression of Paul’s hope that there will be no slavery even now among the redeemed because in Christ we are all one. In fact, Paul’s request of Philemon went beyond other documents of his time in not only pleading for clemency for a runaway slave but appealing that he be released.[4]

For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Phm. 15-16)

Slavery and the Early Church

Following Paul’s teaching, the Early Church recognized no status difference between slave and master. All people were to be seated together. The word “slave,” although very common among the graves of non-Christians, is never used in inscriptions in the Christian burials in the catacombs.

Christianity spread freely among slaves and they were often the instrument of salvation for their masters, especially among the women and children whose training was commonly entrusted to them. Many slaves died as martyrs for Christ. Slaves were also permitted to hold leadership roles in the Church; in fact, Callistus, a former slave, even became the bishop of the church of the city of Rome in ad 218-223!

According to Ignatius, a second-century bishop, church funds were used to buy freedom for slaves.[5] Some Christians even surrendered their freedom to ransom others from slavery.[6] Marriage among slaves was protected, and non-Christians were urged to free their slaves or allow them to purchase their own freedom. There are recorded examples of hundreds, and even thousands, of slaves being freed at a time, when a very wealthy master came to the Lord and, recognizing the equality of all men, set all his slaves free.

… we read in the Acts of the martyrdom of the Roman bishop Alexander, that a Roman prefect, Hermas, converted by that bishop, in the reign of Trajan, received baptism at an Easter festival with his wife and children and twelve hundred and fifty slaves, and on this occasion gave all his slaves their freedom and munificent gifts besides. So in the martyrology of St. Sebastian, it is related that a wealthy Roman prefect, Chromatius, under Diocletian, on embracing Christianity, emancipated fourteen hundred slaves, after having them baptized with himself, because their sonship with God put an end to their servitude to man. Several epitaphs in the catacombs mention the fact of manumission [emancipation]. In the beginning of the fourth century St. Cantius, Cantianus, and Cantianilla, of an old Roman family, set all their slaves, seventy-three in number, at liberty, after they had received baptism. St. Melania emancipated eight thousand slaves; St. Ovidius, five thousand; Hermes, a prefect in the reign of Trajan, twelve hundred and fifty.[7]

Later, the freeing of slaves was so significant that it became a ritualistic act in churches.[8]

Thus, while the Early Church never sought to accomplish institutional change[9] – it was only after Constantine that the Church began to attack the institution of slavery itself – the equality of all men in Christ was well established in the Church. According to Schaff, “Christianity almost obliterated the distinction between the two classes of society.”[10]

At the same time, church leaders continued to exhort slaves the same way that Paul had – to serve God and find freedom in Christ in the midst of their current situation.

For example, Ignatius wrote to Polycarp:

Do not despise either male or female slaves, yet neither let them be puffed up with conceit, but rather let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not long to be set free [from slavery] at the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.[11]

Tertullian wrote that outward freedom was worthless without the inward freedom of the soul from the bondage of sin.

How can the world make a servant free? All is mere show in the world, nothing truth. For the slave is already free, as a purchase of Christ; and the freedman is a servant of Christ. If thou takest the freedom which the world can give for true, thou hast thereby become again the servant of man, and hast lost the freedom of Christ, in that thou thinkest it bondage.[12]

Thus, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 are not in any way a condoning of slavery. Paul simply faces the reality of it. Moreover, his fundamental agenda was not a temporal, political one, but an eternal one. Therefore, if a slave can become free then he should do so (1 Cor. 7:21) and, in the Church, believers should accept each other as brothers and not as slaves (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Phm. 15-16). However, those slaves who will not be set free should continue to serve God with all their heart and build up a greater inheritance in the true life that is soon to come.

The Christian and Social Change

The issue of slavery provides us with a very practical example of how the New Testament and then the Early Church approached social change in general.

Jesus spoke deeply of the personal responsibilities of His followers to walk righteously and justly, and in a way that glorifies God. Moreover, He said that His followers would be “salt” and “light” impacting the world around them.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:13-16)

Clearly, for us to be salt and light relates to our own lives and our personal impact on those around us.

Jesus never initiated a political movement that sought social change. In fact, at one critical moment, He specifically declined that opportunity:

Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My Kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36; see also Matt. 26:52; John 6:15)

Jesus did, however, provide an extraordinary example of being salt and light as He gave His time, love, friendship and healing to the dispossessed. He gathered with the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors, women, lepers, Samaritans, Gentiles. He reached out to those who had been neglected and abused by society.

Thus, Jesus drew a clear distinction. The Christian is to walk with God, righteously and justly, in his own life and community. He is to be utterly different from the world and its ways. He is to serve those who have been abused by those in power. In doing so, he will have a profound impact on everyone around him. He will change his world.

We see the same clear vision in Paul. He called believers to walk deeply with God in truth and righteousness, to do good to all men (Gal. 6:10), and to change the lives of those around them by their lives and by their words as they shared the Gospel of hope and made disciples. Like Jesus, Paul reached out to the neglected and abused – the Gentiles, the poor, the disabled, prisoners, children, the elderly, slaves, women. But he also never sought institutional reform.

This explains why Paul accepted the fact that slavery was a part of the social order of his time and he instructed both slaves and masters how to live appropriately as believers within that social order (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22 – 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:18-25). Paul never tried to change the social institution of slavery. At the same time, he instructed Philemon to set Onesimus free – a profound request in that day!

The fact that Paul didn’t try to change the social institution of slavery in no way meant that he condoned it. His moral rejection of slavery was reflected in his letter to Philemon and elsewhere in his writings. He taught that slave trading was a vile sin (1 Tim. 1:10). He affirmed the absolute equality before God of both master and slave (Eph. 6:9), and that there are “neither slave nor free” in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). And he instructed Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave but … as a beloved brother” (Phm. 16).

However, he knew his calling was not to try to reform the kingdoms of man but rather to call men into the Kingdom of God.

Then the Early Church, following both Jesus’ and Paul’s examples and teaching, did the same thing.

They often released slaves if they owned them. They purchased freedom for slaves. They worked hard to serve those who were oppressed. The Early Church believed – as Jesus and Paul did – in the equality of all men in Christ, and they lived in a way that aligned with this truth as salt and light in their communities. They were not passive. They were not just inward-looking. Slavery mattered greatly to them. They were salt and light. They did good to all men. They were very active and they sought to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God (Mic. 6:8).

It was only after Constantine that the Church began to attack the institution of slavery itself.[13] By that time deep change had occurred in society broadly regarding slavery. The Church had profoundly impacted its world.

But the church before Constantine labored with great success to elevate the intellectual and moral condition of the slaves, to adjust inwardly the inequality between slaves and masters, as the first and efficient step towards the final outward abolition of the evil, and to influence the public opinion even of the heathens. Here the church was aided by a concurrent movement in philosophy and legislation. The cruel views of Cato, who advised to work the slaves, like beasts of burden, to death rather than allow them to become old and unprofitable, gave way to the milder and humane views of Seneca, Pliny, and Plutarch, who very nearly approach the apostolic teaching. To the influence of the later Stoic philosophy must be attributed many improvements in the slave-code of imperial Rome. But the most important improvements were made from the triumph of Constantine to the reign of Justinian, under directly Christian influences.[14]

In conclusion, Paul’s letter to Philemon shows us the true meaning of the Christian’s calling to be “salt” and “light.” It does not focus on alignment with political parties and human attempts at social reform. Jesus, Paul and the Early Church did not do that.[15] In their own lives and communities, however, they lived in a way that was radically different from the world around them, serving the dispossessed, challenging the social norms and calling people to come to Christ and, in Him, to live on a much higher moral plane, all while setting their eyes on the true eternal Kingdom.[16]

[1] In some agricultural regions, slaves comprised more than half the population! Because of this vast number of slaves, the Romans lived in constant fear of slave conspiracies and insurrections.

[2] Aristotle wrote, “It is manifest therefore that there are cases of people of whom some are freemen and the others slaves by nature, and for these slavery is an institution both expedient and just.” (Aristotle. (1944). Aristotle in 23 Volumes, translated by H. Rackham. (Vol. 21). Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.)

[3] Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1910). History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2, p. 348). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[4] So clear and powerful was the message of the Bible that many of the earliest U.S. slaveholders did not want their slaves to be exposed to Christianity for fear that they would be compelled to free them. The Christian message had to be corrupted to make it neutral or supportive of slavery (Raboteau, Albert J., (1978), Slave Religion. New York: Oxford University Press). A “Slave Bible” was published in London in 1807 on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. They used the Slave Bible to teach the African slaves toiling in the Caribbean how to read while also introducing them to Christianity. However, the publishers of the Slave Bible removed portions of the Bible, such as the Exodus story, that could inspire hope for liberation. Instead, they emphasized passages that justified and strengthened the system of slavery that the British Empire needed.

[5] “And such sums of money as are collected from them in the manner aforesaid, appoint to be laid out in the redemption of the saints, the deliverance of slaves, and of captives, and of prisoners, and of those that have been abused, and of those that have been condemned by tyrants to single combat and death on account of the name of Christ. For the Scripture says: ‘Deliver those that are led to death, and redeem those that are ready to be slain, do not spare.’” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 4:9)

[6] “We know that many among ourselves have delivered themselves to bondage, that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves to slavery, and receiving the price paid for themselves have fed others.” (1 Clement 55:2)

[7] Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1910). History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2, pp. 352–353). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[8] “After the third century the manumission became a solemn act, which took place in the presence of the clergy and the congregation. It was celebrated on church festivals, especially on Easter. The master led the slave to the altar; there the document of emancipation was read, the minister pronounced the blessing, and the congregation received him as a free brother with equal rights and privileges. Constantine found this custom already established, and African councils of the fourth century requested the emperor to give it general force. He placed it under the superintendence of the clergy.” (Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1910). History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2, pp. 353–354). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.)

[9] “Ancient Christianity was not especially concerned with forms of social liberation. … Emancipation simply never was and never became a goal of ancient Christianity.” (Harper, Kyle. (2011). Slavery in the Late Roman World ad 275-425 (pp. 471-473). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.)

[10] For an excellent study of the Church and slavery in the first three centuries after Christ, please see Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1910). History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2, pp. 348-353). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[11] Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 94-95). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

[12] Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1910). History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2, p. 349). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[13] For a broad study of slavery at the time, please see Harper, Kyle. (2011). Slavery in the Late Roman World ad 275-425. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

[14] Schaff, P., & Schaff, D. S. (1910). History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2, pp. 349–350). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[15] “Paul was no William Wilberforce, but without Paul we might never have had William Wilberforce.” (Bird, M. F. (2009). Colossians and Philemon (p. 30). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.)

[16] Just as Paul told the slaves of his time, “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor. 7:21), likewise, if God calls you to a position of institutional power (e.g., congressman, mayor, police chief) then you should certainly use that opportunity to bring institutional reform as you are able. However, for most Christians, the primary expression of being “salt” and “light” should be in the hard work of their own lives and relationships, as they take personal responsibility to bring change around them through loving and serving the dispossessed and marginalized.

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