Paul and Slavery, Part 1
When Paul told slaves to obey their masters, was he advocating slavery? Or, was there something else going on?
The Situation: Slavery Was Assumed
In the ancient world, slavery was simply an assumption. People didn’t know there was another way to do things, and many wouldn’t have cared if they did. This was true from the beginning of history up through the time we are talking about, the time of Paul the apostle.
In the New Testament, we find statements made by men like Paul that seem to be pro-slavery (such as Col 3.22). However, if we consider the situation Paul was in and what he was trying to accomplish, things look a little different.
The problem for someone like Paul was that he did not live in a modern, Western democracy. There was no freedom of speech and no opportunity to vote. In the Roman world, if you wanted to change something like the laws governing slavery, you needed to be Caesar or have his ear. An itinerant preacher of a fledgling religion simply didn’t have the power to make that kind of change. For Paul, there were only two options.
The Options: Revolt or Inspire
Certainly, Paul could have told slaves that slavery was wrong and that they should throw off their chains and revolt, and if he had, he would not have been the first one to do so. In the centuries leading up to New Testament times, there were many slave rebellions (like the one led by Spartacus). Every one of them was put down in an extremely bloody manner.
Roman authorities were afraid of slave rebellions, and there was even a saying “You have as many enemies as you have slaves.” Given the power of Rome and their fear of another slave rebellion, if Paul had tried to preach the end of slavery in the Roman world, he and his followers would have been killed very quickly.
So, Paul chose another path, the path of inspiration. What he did was to tell Christians that “in Christ” you are all equal, and there is no slave or free. But, at the same time, he also told them to obey their earthly masters.
By upholding the standard household order (slaves obeying masters), he kept the Romans from thinking he was starting a revolution. However, at the same time, he accomplished functional fairness within the Christian community by getting slaves and masters to treat each other as brothers.
The Result: Change of Heart
Two things happened as a result of Paul’s choice to inspire people. The first thing was that he created a change of heart in the people who followed his teachings. If he had been able to change the law and abolish slavery, I imagine (if he had been successful) something like what happened in the United States after the Civil War would have happened. Slavery would be gone, yes, but rampant discrimination would still exist.
However, by Paul teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, Paul undercut the ability for discrimination even to exist. What would result from following his teachings would be for everyone in the Christian community to view and treat everyone else as equals.
The second thing that happened was that he created an effect on the people outside of Christianity. Even though Paul could not command anyone outside the Christian community to act any differently, he could still have an effect on them. If Christians acted as he told them to and masters and slaves treated each other as brothers, outsiders would certainly take notice. That sort of behavior would have been unheard of in that world.
In the modern West, we live in a different situation than Paul did, and we are able to change laws. Should we have gotten rid of slavery? Absolutely! Could Paul have gotten rid of it? Not a chance. But, he took the best option available to him. He commanded the Christian community to live as equals in the body of Christ. Everyone still had the same roles in this world, but he told those who were a part of the body of Christ to live for the world above and treat each other as equals now.
You can view Paul and Slavery, Part 2 here.