Slavery is evil. It is wrong for one person to own another person. While people argue in favor of various moral issues, no one is arguing in favor of slavery. The issue is clear cut. Slavery is wrong.
That brings up a problem for readers of the New Testament. Why is slavery mentioned in several places and not once condemned or even questioned? Why is this moral problem for us not a moral problem for the authors of the New Testament?
Roman Slavery was Different than New World Slavery
First of all, we must note that Roman slavery was unlike New World slavery in the following ways:
- not based on race,
- many slaves were captives of war,
- some people voluntarily became slaves for the sake of education or social status,
- slaves had certain legal rights,
- manumission was common. (For more details on the differences between the two forms of slavery read the post here.)
Analyzing the differences between Roman slavery and New World slavery is the key to alleviating this challenge for some biblical interpreters. Those who focus on the differences even go so far as asking, “Should we even refer to both institutions with the same term?”
While Roman slavery may have been more humane than New World slavery, it still included the element of force that resulted in a loss of dignity and a great deal of suffering for many people so let’s press on.
Slavery was Ubiquitous
Slavery in the ancient Roman Empire permeated every part of society. In Rome, as much as one-third of the population was enslaved (Walvin, James, A Short History of Slavery). You wouldn’t have been able to step outside your house without seeing a slave. (Some ancient slaves had facial brandings and in later centuries others wore metal neck collars.) And if you were a person of considerable means you would have had slaves working inside your house. Slaves were a part of life and they were everywhere.
Growing Up in a Slave Society
Imagine growing up as a free person in a slave society. From the age of five, you would have recognized that while some people give commands others obey those commands. If the commands are not obeyed, you hear and maybe even see slaves being physically beaten. As you mature, you realize that some slaves are required to please their masters sexually. Over time, you would come to the conclusion that some people belonged to other people. And if you had the capacity to consider the entire system of slavery, you would understand that the roots of slavery ran deep throughout the Empire—economically, socially, and politically.
So here’s the question: As a free person who grew up in a slave society, how would you begin to question the institution of slavery—a ubiquitous institution that you benefited from? And how would you get to the point where you called that institution evil? Sadly, most ancient people never reached that point. For the vast majority, slavery was a moral blind spot.
Recognizing our Moral Blind Spots
Before we quickly judge the ancient world as morally inferior because of the slavery issue, we must ask ourselves, “What moral blind spots do we have?” Two thousand years from now, what current practices will be considered evil? We can only guess based on the voices of the minority because a cultural moral blind spot means that the majority can’t see it. Here are a few things that voices on the fringe are speaking against: Westerners buying inexpensive items made by poor Asian children, the prison system, minimum wage, full-time jobs with no health insurance, mandatory school attendance from the ages of 5 to 18, cost of university, fast food, lack of concern for the environment, privacy issues, warfare tactics and technology, political campaign contributions, etc. It’s difficult to step back from a system that we are living in and criticize it. Criticism requires the ability to see the problem and the courage to speak out against it.
The Roots of Abolition
So who saw the entire system of slavery as evil and spoke up against it? From the first three centuries of Christian history, the answer is no one—Christian or non-Christian. (That is, according to the extant written records.) Certain writers noted the immorality of abusing slaves, but no one condemned the entire system of slavery. For example, Paul claimed that “slave traders” were “lawbreakers and rebels” (1 Tim. 1:9-10) so he would have certainly had a problem with that key aspect of New World slavery, but he did not denounce slaveholding in itself. Later in the same letter, he commanded slaves to “consider their masters worthy of full respect” (1 Tim. 6:1).
Why not? Why did centuries pass without anyone speaking out against slaveholding? Perhaps they couldn’t see the evil of slaveholding because it was simply a part of life. If they felt misgivings about slavery, perhaps they justified it in one of the following ways. First, slaves were captives of war and slavery was a result of one country defeating another country. Second, slavery was better than having hundreds of thousands of homeless people. Third, slaves benefited socially and intellectually by living with their masters. Fourth, some people chose to become slaves so what was evil about allowing them to follow through with that choice?
Gregory of Nyssa (335-395)
While we don’t know for certain why the slave system was not immediately condemned by the first Christians, we know that in the fourth century a church bishop named Gregory of Nyssa vehemently attacked the slave system. According to some, Gregory of Nyssa was the first ancient abolitionist. If he was not the first abolitionist, he was probably the most vociferous. In his Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes, “Gregory of Nyssa composed what is probably the most scathing critique of slaveholding in all antiquity” (Glancy, Jennifer A., Slavery as Moral Problem, ch. 4)
William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
Let’s fast forward to the modern abolition movement. Who denounced institutional slavery in the modern world? The English politician who spent his career fighting for the cause of abolition was William Wilberforce. (You can see Wilbeforce’s work A Practical View of Christianity, watch his story unfold in the movie Amazing Grace or read his life story as told by Eric Metaxas.) Wilberforce, along with other Christians such as Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe, argued persistently for the end of slavery within the British Empire.
Christianity leads toward Abolition
Both Gregory of Nyssa and William Wilberforce found the resources to recognize slavery as evil and the courage to fight for the end of slavery from within the Christian faith. And is it too much of a stretch to say that we owe some of our present-day condemnation of slavery to the works of those two men? After all, with all of our moral disagreements, how did we get to the point where we universally condemn slavery, especially when slavery was once universally approved or at least universally accepted?
Yes, New Testament statements were used as justification for slavery, but would there have been an anti-slavery movement without the New Testament? Think of the facts again: the most vehement opposition to ancient slavery came from a Christian bishop and the modern abolition movement was largely initiated by Christians, one of whom was William Wilberforce. The Christan faith must contain something that, for some people, clearly points them toward abolition.
(For my analysis of the key NT statements on slavery see my post Analyzing New Testament Statements on Slavery.)
The NT does not contain a wholesale condemnation of slavery and from our vantage point that is a problem. I wish a NT author called for the end of slavery. Perhaps that would have curtailed centuries of slavery justified in part by NT statements.
On the one hand, it’s understandable, for example, that Paul wouldn’t call for the end of slavery in the Roman Empire. His focus was only on the small Christian community within the Roman Empire. Addressing the Corinthian church, Paul wrote, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Paul’s focus was clearly on the church and not with society at large. While the Christian message has implications for society, reforming society was not the primary concern of the first Christians. And let’s not forget that the idea of citizens reforming society was not a concept that crossed peoples’ minds in the Roman Empire as it does in modern Western societies.
On the other hand, why did Paul not call for the end of slavery at least within the Christian community? Why did his instructions to Christian slave owners not include “Free your slaves”? Could he see the inherent problem with slavery? Could he see the full implications of his statement in Galatians 3:28? From our perspective it doesn’t look like any of the NT authors saw the moral problem with slavery—at least they didn’t see it as a problem that should be abolished as soon as possible.
The NT, however, does contain revolutionary statements for slave-master relations. Perhaps nothing was more revolutionary than slaves and masters worshiping in the same assembly. And why should these two groups worship together? Because ultimately, the distinction between slaves and masters did not even exist. In the Lord, there was no longer slave nor free. All were a part of the same family. Second, Jesus understood his role as a slave and he called his disciples to follow his example. Worshiping the Lord, who served and died as a slave, surely must have brought dignity to the role of the slave. And lack of dignity was a root problem for slaves. And third, the NT tempers the unrivaled authority of masters by asserting that both slaves and masters have the same Master in heaven who will not show favoritism.
What the NT authors introduced into the slave-master relationship—unity between slaves and free, a Lord who served as a slave, and a Master in heaven who will judge both slaves and masters without favoritism—led to slavery’s ultimate demise. That doesn’t mean the NT authors intentionally introduced slavery-destroying elements into society. That doesn’t even mean the NT authors were aware that their faith contained slavery-destroying elements. But even if they were unaware of it, the message of the first Christians contained ideas that served as a vacuum sucking the power out of the concept of slavery. While only a small percentage of Christians turned the vacuum on, when they did, the force was strong enough to lead to abolition.
It’s true: The first Christians did not call for the end of slavery, but the first people who called for the end of slavery were Christians.