A traveler along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua around 70 B.C. had some gruesome companions for their journey. Along both sides of the road for a hundred miles were the crucified bodies of six-thousand men. These were the survivors of the slave revolt led by Spartacus between 73 and 71 B.C. Roman authorities wanted to make an example of these men as a deterrent to any considering a similar action. Historian Mark Cartwright estimates that 1 in 3 people in Italy and 1 in 5 across the Roman empire were slaves. Slavery, Cartwright says, was the foundation on which was built “the entire edifice of the Roman state and society.” Rome, therefore, took slave revolts very seriously.
It was into this slave-dependent society that Jesus Christ was born and the gospel first preached to all the world. In my last post we looked what the Old Testament says about slavery. In this post we’ll consider the New Testament’s teaching on this topic. If you’ve not read the first post, I encourage you to do so before reading this one.
New Testament translators use two English words to describe an enslaved person, “bondservant” and “slave.” Sometimes those words refer to the relationship between Christ and his followers as in Romans 6:22:
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
Other times, they describe the master / slave relationship within the Roman system as in Colossians 3:11:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
It is this second usage we will look at as we consider what the New Testament teaches about slavery.
As the gospel spread throughout the Roman world, it was inevitable, because of their ubiquitousness, that slaves would become Christians. Because of this, the Apostle Paul, in his letters, gives instructions to slaves and slave masters on how to live life as a believer. For example:
Bondservants, 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 bondservants 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 bondservant 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. – Ephesians 6:5-9
Lest we think this was a more benign form of slavery, more akin to a modern day servant, consider this from Seneca (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.) concerning how slaves were treated:
We abuse them as one does pack animals, not even as one abuses men.
Joshua J. Mark, in the article on the Spartacus rebellion linked above, says:
The poor treatment of slaves was so widespread it came to be regarded as natural. One needed to break the slaves’ will as an individual in order to have a compliant servant who would meet the expectations of a slave in Roman society. Free labor meant greater leisure and profit for those who owned slaves but those slaves were only profitable if they were submissive and did as they were told without question or hesitation. The fact that the slave population was so great is testament to the Roman ability to maintain this kind of control over those they enslaved.
It is to this society that Paul writes the words of Ephesians 6:5-9 and similar passages. This harkens back to the laws regarding treatment of slaves given to Old Testament Israel that we looked at in the last post. Christian masters were to treat their slaves differently than their pagan neighbors and Christian slaves were to work for their masters differently than their pagan counterparts. Radical stuff given the context and culture.
But, why didn’t Paul simply call for an end to slavery? Why not call on Christian masters wholesale to set their slaves free? I think for the same reason that God did not do so in Old Testament Israel, because the overarching goal was bigger than this one issue. Paul’s goal was to preach the gospel to the ends of the Roman world (Acts 13:47, I Corinthians 2:2, Galatians 6:14). And, for the most part, he was free to do so. Most of Paul’s opposition came from the Jews, not Roman officials. Only later would the Roman Empire begin to persecute Christians in a systematic way. But, if Christianity had been early on associated with a movement to eradicate slavery, it would have been strangled in its crib by Roman authorities who, as we’ve seen, did not take such things lightly.
When Paul is giving general advice he tells slaves to work diligently and masters to treat their slaves well. In other words, seek to honor God in the position you find yourself, be it good or bad – the same advice he gives every believer. But, he also tells slaves if they can obtain their freedom they should do so (I Corinthians 7:17-24).
So, can we use Paul’s admonition to slaves to obey their masters to justify slavery? No, no more than we can use his admonition not to seek divorce for Christians married to unbelievers to justify marrying an unbeliever (I Corinthians 7:13). Paul is talking about how to be a Christian in a certain circumstance, he’s not commenting on the appropriateness of that circumstance. A Christian is called to live differently than an unbeliever no matter the circumstance they are in. Paul would have done his hearers a disservice were he not to instruct them on Christian living regarding a circumstance common to many of them.
But, I think it is through Paul’s counsel to Philemon that we can get at the heart of what he believed regarding slavery and what the Christian’s response should be. The Book of Philemon is a personal letter from Paul to a friend, Philemon, written on behalf of one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, who had run away and was working with Paul. Here, Paul is not giving general instructions to a church but pastoral counsel to an individual. It is a case study on how to implement Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1. He goes beyond telling masters to “treat your slaves well” and describes what that looks like, admonishing Philemon to “do what is required” (Philemon 1:8). And “what is required” is that Philemon treat Onesimus as a Christian brother by setting him free to help spread the gospel. Church tradition says that Philemon did as Paul asked. Onesimus was given his freedom and eventually became an elder at the church in Ephesus.
I think you can summarize Paul’s teaching on slavery as follows:
- If you’re a Christian slave, try to obtain your freedom. But, if you cannot, serve your master as you would Christ, leaving justice in God’s hands.
- If you’re a Christian slave owner, set your slaves free if possible and, if not, treat them as brothers in Christ – which essentially means cease treating them like slaves.
None of this can or should be used to imply Paul’s approval of slavery as an institution.
In the end, we don’t need a specific command from the lips of Paul or Christ to tell us enslaving another human being is wrong. The entire tenor of the New Testament tells us this. If we embrace what it says about how to treat others, we will reject slavery. We cannot obey what Jesus says is the greatest commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and others as ourselves while enslaving others (Luke 10:27).