The Early Church and Slavery

I just want to say right off the top that I know this is a sensitive topic for a lot of people.  However, it’s also a topic that has been distorted by atheists and others who would seek to damage the credibility of the Bible.  The reality is that some subjects are difficult, but they must be addressed.  So I will endeavor to do so in the most sincere and careful way in which I know.

As stated above, the charge has been made against the Bible that it promotes and even encourages slavery.  The charges range from the Bible being “racist” all the way up to it actually being evil.  However, upon closer inspection these charges are not only undesirable, but completely unfounded.  This is another case of enemies of the Bible either misinterpreting what the Bible says, or as is more likely, misrepresenting what the Bible says.

In order to understand the Bible’s position on slavery, a few things must be understood.  First, there was no possible way that the early church could have ended slavery.  It was so ingrained into society that it was actually part of the economy.  If the early church would have staked its platform to ending slavery it would have never survived the first century, because of its relative small size in relation to the rest of the empire.  Instead, what Christianity offered was a completely new way of living.

Second, slavery in New Testament times was NOT racial.  This is an important fact that cannot be overstated.  The evil of slavery in America was based on the thought that white men were superior to everyone else, which is clearly false.  This was not the case with slavery in the first century.  Most slaves at the time had either been conquered in warfare or owed debts that they could not pay.  They were not slaves because of their skin color.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the message of Christianity actually undermined slavery.  All we have to do is look at Paul’s writings.  No, Paul does not outright denounce slavery.  That would have completely undone what he was trying to do.  People would have been offended and stopped listening to him immediately.  Instead, he said that slavery, when considered within the Kingdom of God, didn’t matter.

In the mind of Paul and the early church, it didn’t matter if you were a slave or if you were free, you were considered part of the family of God.  In Galatians 3:28 Paul says, “there is neither slave nor free.”  In other words, societal status doesn’t matter in the family of God.  We are all brothers and sisters.  While this position doesn’t eliminate slavery in the outside world, it makes it virtually impossible for it to exist in the church.  Paul wasn’t interested in changing the culture of the world.  He was interested in changing people’s lives.

The letter to Philemon is an excellent example of how Paul felt about slavery.  Philemon had a runaway slave named Onesimus who had done him wrong somehow.  Onesimus ends up meeting Paul and obeys the gospel, and this letter to Philemon offers Paul’s way of making everything right.  Philemon was probably kind of shocked at what he read.

Paul lets Philemon know that he is sending Onesimus back, but he wants him to no longer treat him as a slave, but rather as a brother.  This was unheard of in the ancient world!  The normal penalty for a slave running way and doing his master wrong could have involved all kinds of punishment, including imprisonment.  But Paul intercedes on behalf of Onesimus, and even offers to pay any debt that he owes Philemon.  This is a beautiful characterization of Jesus Christ himself, who offered himself up for the sins of the world.

So, no, Paul didn’t necessarily say that slavery was evil and should be ended.  He didn’t have to say it because it was demonstrated in his actions.  In Paul’s mind all men were truly created equal, and they all could be part of the family of God.  As a matter of fact, abolitionists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used the New Testament to demonstrate the perils and evils of slavery.  In short, the message of the entire Bible is that all people are equal, and they can all come to Jesus.

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