The Bible supports slavery? “Yes, but Roman slavery was different,” say some. Yet Stanford’s Walter Scheidel (Cambridge World History of Slavery) concludes, “The story of the Roman slave supply must count as one of the darkest chapters of human history.” One-third of Italy was enslaved, many for sex. There’s evidence of branding, excruciating work assignments, and barbaric punishments, but no evidence any slave had a day in court under slave-abuse laws. The enslaved were legally property. Most, especially the masses of non-prestige workers, would never be freed. (Even emancipation, or manumission, required continuing patronage to the master.) Scheidel finds in the 1997 Journal of Roman Studies, “the incidence of manumission was rather low.” None could be freed before age 30, and adult life expectancy was roughly 37. Women were rarely freed before menopause, ensuring their children remained enslaved. Enslavement was enforced by omnipresent police brutality.
Passages like Colossians 3:22 tell the enslaved to obey masters. Is Paul OK with this slavery?
That would contradict the other ideas and practices of Jesus and the first Christians. They believed all persons are created in God’s image, contradicting the Roman legal theory justifying slavery. They espoused Beatitudes and fruit of the Spirit inconsistent with enslavement. They shocked Romans by making the last first. They accepted all classes, nationalities, and ethnicities equally. They openly critiqued public and political culture, despite facing martyrdom.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians is half of a pair of letters, both publicly read in Colossae. Philemon, Colossians’ twin, addresses the former slave-owner Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus. The letter explains that Paul has been sheltering and collaborating with Onesimus, violating Rome’s fugitive slave law. This was an extremely touchy subject. Runaway slaves undermined the empire—directly, by upending economic privileges, and indirectly by challenging the social gulf between enslaved and free. Romans exquisitely coordinated all levels of government and military to eradicate fugitive slave holding; the penalties for runaways and accomplices were substantial. Yet Paul is in his element. He is open about his civil disobedience, praises Onesimus, and chides Philemon. Paul attacks the ideological basis for slavery, operative since Aristotle. Onesimus, Paul says, is by nature a brother to Philemon—a family member and fellow heir, not an inferior or a piece of property. Slavery has no rationale. It doesn’t reflect differences in character or aptitude or destiny or essence or dignity.
So why does Paul tell slaves to obey their masters? This might actually be part of a compassionate approach to subverting slavery. Why even mention the culture’s assumption about slave behavior unless Christians sensed and were taught that enslavement was inconsistent with what Christians know and believe? Some might have concluded insurrection was expected of them, especially when Paul has challenged fugitive slave laws. Paul suggests the disobedience of slave rebellions isn’t likely to help the enslaved. The last rebellion had ended in a bloodbath, with the 6,000 surviving slaves all crucified along the Appian Way.
Instead, the New Testament’s authors undermine slavery’s foundations. This was supported in various ways by Gregory of Nyssa, St. Patrick, Origen, Augustine, and John Chrysostom.
The New Testament addressed a culture that constructed personal identity from stereotypes about ethnicity, gender, class, legal status, and age. The first Christians pointed to a different way. When your sense of self is grounded not in individualism or labeling, but in being a sibling in a diverse community framed by God’s love, many new things become possible: respect for others, careful listening, laying down privilege for others’ good, and working for change. Achieving this new sense of identity required the first believers to face their own ignorance, habits, cowardice, and assumptions—and to repent. This has always been the Christian way.
About the Author
Kurt Schaefer, of Wayland, Mich., is professor emeritus (Calvin University) of history of economic thought and an M.Div. graduate of Calvin Seminary. He is an elder (and parish accordion player!) at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids. He is the author of Husband, Wife, Father, Child, Master, Slave: Peter through Roman Eyes and Singing with Jesus: The Lord’s Psalm.