Paul and Slavery

Painting entitled "Le marché aux esclaves...
The Slave Market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The apostle Paul has been accused of discrimination against women, and of being supportive of slavery, amongst other things. But the fact is that he made some revolutionary statements considering the accepted wisdom and culture of his day, striking at the heart of discrimination. Let’s explore the matter further.

Throughout human history slavery has been an accepted feature of society. It has been in existence for thousands of years. All of the ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Aztecs, Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians and Romans were economically dependent on the institution of slavery.

Slavery in ancient Rome

The economy of the Roman Empire was dependent on slavery. In Italy it is estimated that 35-40% of the population were slaves, with similar proportions throughout the empire. Slaves performed menial tasks such as farming, household duties, mining etc. They were subject to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), torture, and summary execution. Any form of rebellion was handled ruthlessly by the authorities, often resulting in mass crucifixions.

If the early church had directly opposed the institution of slavery it would have been seen as a subversive political act. Christians would have been persecuted as a political organisation rather than for their faith.

But we are called to be the salt of the earth and the time would come (1800 years later) when Christians would say, “Enough is enough, we can no longer tolerate this” and slavery would be (at least legally) abolished.

Paul’s statements on slavery

Paul came from Tarsus in modern-day Turkey and was brought up in Greek and Hebrew cultures. His initial response to the early Christians was violent and extreme as he fought to protect the status quo of the Jewish religion. But his conversion brought about a total change of thinking, emphasising grace over law, and having a passion about bringing the gospel to the whole Roman Empire.

We must remember that Paul was writing to people of his time and of his own culture. Slavery was thoroughly embedded in the culture and the Romans enforced it strongly. To have spoken out against the institution of slavery would have been regarded as political extremism, and would have invited the wrath of the Roman Empire.

Paul therefore accepted that slavery was part of society, but this doesn’t mean that he accepted that slavery was right. In fact, his views were very different from those prevalent in society. Slaves would have been looked down upon, treated as second-class citizens, having no rights, and regarded as sub-human.

In writing to the Church in Corinth, he said:

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.
(1 Corinthians 7:21, NIV)

Do what your boss tells you to do

Slaves had no option but to obey their masters. To disobey could result in a beating or even death. Paul said, yes obey your masters but do so is sincerity in the same way that you would obey your spiritual master, Jesus Christ. It is rather like a modern-day preacher saying that we must do what our employers tell us to do. Unlike slaves, employees have the option of leaving the employment, but all the time we are in employment, we can interpret this verse as, “Do what your boss tells you to do”.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
(Ephesians 6:5, NIV)

Slave traders

Although Paul didn’t speak out against the institution of slavery, it is obvious that he didn’t see slave traders in a good light! He lumped together slave traders with lawbreakers, rebels, murderers, adulterers, liars and perjurers.

… for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers.
(1 Timothy 1:10 NIV)

Neither Slave nor Free

When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he made this revolutionary statement about the equality of all human beings:

There is neither Jew nor Greek,
slave nor free,
male nor female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Galatians 3:28 NIV)

In one fantastic statement, he did away with discrimination based on race, class and sex. We know only too well how people from other nations, people of lower social class, and women, are not only discriminated against, but regarded as being worth less or even of being sub-human.

Less than human

In fact the only way that “free” people in Paul’s time could have coped with slavery was to regard slaves as being worthless or less than human. We see the same situation in the caste system in India, where people of a lower caste are treated with disdain.

It is impossible to deny people their human rights and at the same time regard them as equals. If we seek to maintain our level of security and prosperity at the expense of other people, we can only do so if we regard the less privileged as being somehow worth less than ourselves.

Imagine the impact that Paul’s statement would have had on a Christian slave owner of his day. If that person took Paul’s words seriously, and regarded his slaves as equal in status to himself, he would have had to give those slaves their freedom, or at the very least, would have treated them as he treated his family.

So Paul, was not politically active in speaking out against the institution of slavery, but what he said struck at the heart of attitudes which regarded slaves as sub-human.

Equal Value

I wish that followers of Jesus Christ hadn’t waited another 1800 years before people like Wilberforce came along and fought against the institution of slavery. But before we can change society, we have to change people’s thinking, and attitudes.

What Paul said gets to the heart of the problem. Evil men will always try to enslave others, legally or illegally and people seeking justice will need to fight against slavery in whatever form it takes. But equally we need to spread the good news that all humans have equal rights and all men and women have equal value; because when we think like that it becomes impossible to treat our fellow-man as a slave.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

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