In the brouhaha over NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick protesting the treatment of “black people and people of color” in the U.S. by refusing to stand for the National Anthem, many in the media revisited this country’s history of slavery. Several pundits even made the dubious claim that the anthem itself is a celebration of slavery.
The controversy called to mind a larger question for Christians. Many opponents of Christianity say the Bible condones slavery. Others say the fact that none of the inspired writers (indeed, not even Christ himself in the Gospel accounts) condemn slavery outright shows an implicit acceptance of it. But the fact is, the Bible promotes an ethic of equality and mercy to the downtrodden, including those who were enslaved in the ancient world.
A “slave religion”
In his letters to Christian communities, St. Paul described himself as a slave who belonged to Christ (see Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1), exhorted his listeners not to be slaves to sin (see Romans 6:15-23), and encouraged them to be slaves to one another (see Galatians 5:13). Paul even said that Christ took on the nature of a slave and became poor for our sake (see 2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:7).
His audience knew what it meant to be a slave—not surprising, since Christianity’s compassion for the lowly earned it a reputation as a “slave religion.” The second-century pagan critic Celsus once described converts to the Church as “foolish and low individuals” like “slaves, and women, and children” (Origen, Against Celsus, 3.59).
However, this language of Paul’s does not mean he endorsed slavery or that he thought it should be a part of God’s kingdom. To understand why this is the case, let’s look at the specific exhortations Paul gives to slaves, starting with one passage critics of the Bible often cite:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free (Eph. 6:5-8).
Many critics of the Bible say these words are indefensible. And yet what advice should Paul have given Christian slaves in the Roman Empire? To rebel against their masters? A hundred years before, a slave named Spartacus had led a rebellion in southern France that scored a few victories but was defeated by the Roman general Marcus Crassus. Spartacus died in battle, and 6,000 of his comrades were crucified along the Appian Way. A similar fate would have awaited any Christian slave uprising.
Maybe instead of encouraging outright rebellion, Paul could have said that slavery was wrong and encouraged slaves to simply revile their masters. But even that advice would have risked the persecution of the whole Church had the Roman authorities become aware of it.
Paul was more concerned about people being enslaved to sin than their being enslaved to other people (though, as we will see, Paul was also concerned about human slavery). This attitude parallels Jesus’ warning that sinners become “slaves to sin” (John 8:34), as well as his exhortation to fear the one who can kill the body and the soul in hell and not just the one who can kill the body (see Matthew 10:28).
Paul’s advice to slaves
Paul’s advice to Christian slaves was to endure their unjust condition by persevering in holiness. For example, Paul told Titus, “Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, nor to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9-10).
A slave may not have had control over whether he would be enslaved in this life, but he could control whether he would be enslaved to Satan in the next. St. Peter also taught this when he told slaves, “Be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:18-19).
Peter and the other apostles knew that slavery was wrong, but they also knew that it was better to conquer evil with good (see Romans 12:21) than to commit evil in order to achieve good. That’s why Peter asks what good it does for a slave to commit evil against his master and then be beaten in return. At least, when a slave is beaten for no good reason and does not respond with evil (in imitation of Christ, who endured similar abuses without retaliation), he will stand blameless before God (see 1 Peter 2:20).
Loyalty to a master was also a common way for slaves in the Roman Empire to earn their freedom. After serving a master faithfully, a slave would be released as a libertus who served his master in a new capacity as a freeman (we will see what that entailed shortly). Paul may even have exhorted slaves to acquire their freedom in this way:
Every one should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Never mind. 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, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God (1 Cor. 7:20-24).
This passage shows that Paul didn’t think slavery was a good thing. In fact, he implicitly argued that men could not own other men because God owns all humans by virtue of having redeemed them on the cross (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 7:23). Being enslaved to men was an unjust part of this life that had no place in the kingdom of God.
In that kingdom, everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, is a slave of Christ, our true Lord and Master. That’s why Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
This was a revolutionary idea, given that Roman intellectuals, while lamenting some aspects of slavery, generally held slaves to be of lesser worth than free men. One example of this is the philosopher Seneca who, although he discouraged merciless corporal punishment, compared slaves to valuable property like jewels one must constantly worry about.
According to Joshel, “Seneca sees slaves as inferiors who can never rise above the level of humble friends” (Slavery in the Roman World, 127). In contrast, slaves in the early Church were not stigmatized. In fact, some—like Pius I (A.D. 140-155) and Callixtus I (218-223)—even held the office of pope.
So, however one considers the deeply troubling history of slavery in the U.S., even of slaveholders who deemed themselves Christians, one cannot appeal to Christianity to justify this ancient and immoral practice.
To learn more about what St. Paul said about slavery, including his advice to Christian slave owners in the Roman Empire, check out Trent’s new book, Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties.