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Slavery and the New Testament

In March 2012, the group American Atheists erected a billboard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with an image of a slave and this citation from St. Paul: “Slaves, obey your masters.” The billboard lasted a day before it was torn down. Members of local civil rights organizations condemned the image, and American Atheists apologized for its actions. But the atheists also made it clear in their press releases that those who were angry at them should really be angry at the Bible for its pro-slavery message.

Critics such as the American Atheists are mistaken when they say the New Testament ignores or even approves of slavery. The Bible promotes an ethic of equality and mercy to the downtrodden, including those who were enslaved in the ancient world.

Slavery in ancient Rome

Estimates of the slave population in the Roman Empire range from 15 to 90 percent of the population, but most scholars settle for a figure between to 25 and 40 percent (Siu Fung Wu, Suffering in Romans, 234). Most of these slaves were purchased from foreign merchants, acquired when Rome invaded other territories (for example, when Rome conquered Carthage during the First and Second Punic Wars), or were born into slavery. Although a few slaves were able to purchase their freedom, most endured a cruel existence.

According to historian Sandra Joshel, slaves could not legally marry or own property: “The slave was a thing, property, an object . . . wounding or killing a slave was usually counted as damage to property; the owner, not the slave, sued for the recovery of a loss to property” (Slavery in the Roman World, 38, 41).

The situation improved somewhat in the mid-second century A.D., when the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius passed legislation that forbade masters from killing their slaves without just cause. The legislation also gave slaves the right to complain about harsh treatment from their masters; but even in cases of abuse, the law did not provide for the abused slave to be released. It prescribed instead the sale of the slave to a master who would treat him better.

Of course, these reforms came long after the time of Christ’s earthly ministry when slaves, especially farmland slaves, faced a miserable existence. But if that’s the case, then why didn’t Jesus speak out against slavery?

Jesus and slavery

First, the Bible tells us that Jesus said and did many things that are not recorded in it (John 20:30; 21:25), so we can’t confidently assert that Jesus never said anything about slavery. Second, Jesus told a crowd in Nazareth that the prophet Isaiah’s promise of an anointed one who would be “sent to proclaim release to the captives” was fulfilled in him (Luke 4:18). This implies that part of Jesus’ mission was to free people from whatever held them captive—be it spiritual captivity, like sin or demonic possession; or material captivity, such as unjust taxation (Luke 19:1-10; 20:19-26); or oppressive, man-made religious traditions (Matt. 23:1-4, Mark 7:1-23).

It’s reasonable then to believe that Jesus thought of slavery as a similar kind of oppression that had no place in the kingdom of God. However, some critics say Jesus’ use of slaves as characters in his parables (see Matthew 25:14-30) meant he accepted slavery. But Jesus did not condone everything found in his parables. These stories used familiar circumstances in order to teach people less-familiar spiritual truths.

For example, Jesus’ description of the prodigal son being paid so poorly that he nearly starved to death does not mean that Jesus condoned such poor working conditions (see Luke 15:14-17). It was simply a fact of life to which his listeners could relate.

In fact, Jesus’ parables teach people to mercifully forgive debts (see Matthew 18:23-35) and to pay laborers their worth (see Luke 10:7), which are ideas that strike at the heart of slavery and other forms of economic exploitation. Scholar Jennifer Glancy writes:

Awareness of the dishonor associated with slavery should bring us a fresh appreciation of the newness of Jesus’ mandate to his followers to embrace the role of “slave of all” [Mark 9:35]. Jesus died an excruciating and humiliating death, the death of a slave. This death is a model for the disciple’s life. Jesus does not condemn the institution of slavery. What he demands is something unexpected. He stipulates that his followers are to become a community of slaves serving one another (Matt. 20:26-27)” (Slavery as Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today, 27).

It’s true that we have no record of Jesus explicitly rejecting the institution of slavery, but he did instill in his followers an implicit rejection of slavery that can be seen in the writings of his disciples and future apostles.

St. Paul and slavery

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 the reputation of being 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 in Paul’s letters does not mean that 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 Paul wrote this letter, a slave named Spartacus 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 life. 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).

However, slaves in the early Church were not stigmatized, and some, like Pius I (A.D. 140-155) and Callixtus I (218-223), even held the office of pope.

Paul’s advice to slave owners

Like Peter, Paul said that when it came to slaves and free people, God doesn’t play favorites. Instead, every “wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done” (Col. 3:25). Just as Paul exhorted slaves not to sin against their masters, he exhorted masters not to sin against their slaves.

His advice for slave owners is summarized in Colossians 4:1, where he says, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven”; as well as in Ephesians 6:9, which adds the exhortation that masters should stop “threatening” their slaves.

The letter to Philemon gives us a unique, pastoral anecdote concerning Paul’s view of slavery. In this letter, Paul describes his desire to return a slave named Onesimus to his master, Philemon. Paul tells Philemon that he can command him to do the right thing, but for love’s sake Paul makes an appeal instead (see Philemon 8-9). He asks that Onesimus, whom Paul is sending back to Philemon apparently on his own initiative (see Philemon 12), be received “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” (Philem. 16).

Although scholarly interpretations of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus differ, I am partial to the view that these men were half brothers. If that’s true, then both men had the same father; but Philemon was born to a free wife, thus giving him inheritance rights and authority, whereas Onesimus was born to a slave wife or a concubine and was therefore treated with the same social status as his mother. This explains how the men could be brothers “in the flesh” as well as “in the Lord.”

But even if this was not the men’s relationship, a question still arises in the minds of critics. We know Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, so why didn’t Paul explicitly command Philemon to free him? In fact, why didn’t Paul command all Christian slave owners to free their slaves?

First, slavery was tightly regulated in the Roman Empire, as is evidenced in the Lex Fufia Caninia and Lex Aelia Sentia, passed at the behest of Caesar Augustus. These laws required anyone seeking to free a slave, what is called manumission, to present good reasons to a Roman council.

The Roman jurist Gaius, for example, said that one good reason for freeing a slave was if the slave were a family member (Institutes of the Civil Law 6). This would explain why Paul wanted Philemon to have Onesimus return as “more than a slave,” which could mean that he was asking Philemon to restore Onesimus to an equal, familial status through manumission.

These laws also forbade masters from freeing too many slaves at one time, which seemed to be necessary, because manumission was common. Augustus even banned this practice for any slave under the age of thirty in order to keep the slave population in check (Stephen Wilson, The Means of Naming: A Social History 30). Therefore, an exhortation to “free all the slaves” may have violated Roman law and been considered seditious as demanding that the entire institution of slavery be abolished.

In addition, in ancient Rome freed slaves did not abandon their masters after settling into new employment. Instead, these slaves became “clients” (liberti) and their former masters became “patrons” (patroni) to whom they still owed loyalty, favors, and the fruit of their labor (Slavery in the Roman World, 122). Freed slaves usually took the name of their former master’s family, and the client-patron relationship helped the liberti overcome social stigmas and monetary hurdles that prevented them from climbing the Roman social ladder.

Since manumission was common, Paul may have taken for granted that slaves belonging to Christian masters would enjoy good living conditions until they were released at the right time to serve as liberti. This may even have motivated Paul to write about slaves who take advantage of a Christian master’s kindness: “Those [slaves] who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved” (1 Tim. 6:2).

This comports with Paul’s other teachings that Christians are united in one Mystical Body (see 1 Corinthians 12) and that all Christians, free or slave, are called to be slaves to one another (see Galatians 5:13). In fact, when it comes to Onesimus, St. Ignatius of Antioch tells us that he was freed and became a bishop in Ephesus (Letter to the Ephesians 1).

But even if that was not the case, we can agree that Paul did not favor slavery. In fact, Paul’s preaching of the gospel was aimed at undermining slavery through the imposition of religious and moral demands that made owning human beings antithetical to the Christian life. Renowned New Testament scholar James Dunn summarized the issue well:

The economies of the ancient world could not have functioned without slavery. Consequently, a responsible challenge to the practice of slavery would have required a complete reworking of the economic system and complete rethinking of social structures, which was scarcely thinkable at the time . . . [Paul’s] call for masters to treat their slaves “with justice and equity” assumes a higher degree of equality than was normal. And above all, the repeated reference to the primary relationship to the Lord (for both slave and free) highlights a fundamental criterion of human relationships which in the longer term was bound to undermine the institution itself (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 699, 701).

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