We have seen in previous articles that the Bible does not condone the kind of slavery that existed either in the antebellum South in America, or in Egypt or any other oppressive regime. But we shall also see that the biblical texts, especially as we progress in time to the New Testament, not only do not condone oppressive slavery, but contain the seeds for the abolition of the institution of slavery altogether.
Slavery in Roman times:
Under the Roman empire slavery took somewhat of a step backwards, but still not quite like the American South. Some slaves in Rome were indeed considered property, without legal rights, usually not in household jobs. Others were household slaves, who were permitted to own property and even eventually purchase their freedom. This second type of slavery is the type that Paul typically addresses in New Testament texts. Even the household slaves in Rome could be badly mistreated by their masters, and God again corrects these in his commands to masters in the New Testament.
For an excellent article on Old and New Testament slavery see here.
So why didn’t Paul just command that masters should immediately free all slaves, or that slaves should rise up and revolt against their masters? For one thing, to be a good witness, Christianity was not to be seen as a faith that caused rebellion against the social structure of the day. If Rome saw them as revolutionaries or insurrectionists, they would have been met with swift military opposition, and the messengers of the gospel would have been under even greater persecution than they already had been. Also, if the slaves were immediately freed, many would starve, as they were no longer under the master’s roof, eating his food and partaking of his health care. In both these cases, there would be a lot of unnecessary death and hardship.
So what was God’ strategy here? Not social reform, but reform of the heart through the gospel. He reminded masters and slaves in Ephesians 6:5-9 that they both should work as though serving the Lord, and not men, and by doing so to be good witnesses for Christ. Masters, in particular (verse 9) were reminded to treat their slaves with kindness, since they were also under a Master in heaven who sees no class distinction between masters and slaves. And so we have a further progression in scripture toward the equality of all humans. The only owner of persons is the Creator, Jesus Himself.
Other New Testament passages show the progression as God slowly leads stubborn humans toward recognizing the equality of all people. Galatians 3: 28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Colossians 3:11: “” there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free; but Christ is all, and in all.” 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have all made to drink into one Spirit.” In the body of Christ, these inequalities melt away.
This is further driven home in the Letter of Paul to Philemon. This little book was actually used by abolitionists centuries later in Christian countries. In the letter Paul intercedes for Onesimus, a former slave of Philemon who had apparently ran away, and had become a Christian through the ministry of Paul. Paul pleads on behalf of Onesimus for Philemon to take him back, but not as a servant, but as a “brother beloved” (verse 16), and to receive him as he would have received Paul himself. It’s possible that he was also asking Philemon to free Onesimus as well. Regardless, such a brotherly relationship between master and slave was unheard of in the surrounding society, and it would only be a matter of time that slavery among Christians and in countries dominated by Christianity would be abolished.
So we see how as we look at snapshots in time through the scripture, we see God’s trajectory in His Word starting with removing abuses in an inferior system, then promoting unheard of equality within this system, and finally planting the seeds for the eventual abolition of the slavery system. Yet there is a slavery that remains, slavery to God and righteousness. In Romans chapter 6:16-22, Paul spells out that we are slaves, one way or the other, either to sin or righteousness. As Bob Dylan once sang, “you’ve gotta serve somebody! It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody!”
In serving Christ we are set more and more free (John 8:36) , because He came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18). The end result is holiness and everlasting life (Romans 6:22-23). And in serving Christ we also serve one another: “..you have be called unto liberty…by love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13).
So the Bible does not condone slavery to men, but servanthood to God.
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