Slavery and its defeat

At the time of the writing of the New Testament, in the Roman Empire, there were essentially three classes of people: The rich, the slaves (about half the population), and freemen. These “freemen” were free in that they were not owned by anyone, yet they often went hungry because of their “freedom.” Whereas, slaves sometimes had good masters and sometimes had bad masters.

Slavery in Rome was not what it was like in America 150 years ago.

“In Paul’s day, slavery was not based on race. Additionally, slaves had any number of duties and responsibilities, ranging from farming, mining, and milling to cooking, teaching, and managing. Furthermore, slaves were not infrequently freed from the shackles of slavery (a process known as manumission).

There is no mistaking the fact, however, that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was degrading, dehumanizing, and downright disgusting. Taken together, slaves were perceived and treated as property and were frequently subject to unimaginable punishments based on their maters’ malevolent whims. Indeed, Roman historian Cassius Dio tells of an especially cruel slave owner, Vedius Pollio, who had slaves who displeased him thrown into a pool of flesh-eating eels.”[1]

So, what was slavery’s defeat? Harriet Beecher Stowe said:

“The Christian master was directed to receive his Christianized slave, ‘NOT now as a slave, but above a slave, a brother beloved [Philemon 16];’ and, as in all these other cases, nothing was said to him about the barbarous powers which the Roman law gave him, since it was perfectly understood that he could not at the same time treat him as a brother beloved and as a slave in the sense of [unconstitutional] Roman law.

When, therefore, the question is asked, why did not the apostles seek the abolition of slavery, we answer, they did seek it. They sought it by the safest, shortest, and most direct course which could possibly have been adopted.”[2]

Paul’s system founded on Jesus the Christ—Jesus who came to serve and not be served—subverts any form of human oppression.[3] So, we see Paul lays the necessary groundwork for the emancipation proclamation. The gospel has changed the basic structure of the way Paul looks at the world and it should change the way we see the world as well.

For instance, Paul said:

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Rom. 10:12).

“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). 

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). 

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is call, and in all” (Col. 3:11). 

In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she makes an interesting point. At the time of writing, slavery had been done away with in Brittan (much by the help of William Wilberforce) but was still alive and strong in the United States. In her book, two men are discussing the legitimacy of slavery and one of them suggest that in Brittan they may not own people on paper but their bosses still own them if they want to eat…[4]

Part of what this points us to is that the problem is not just slavery, but the problem is all of humanity (as repugnant as slavery is). Humans will often use and abuse others if they can. So Paul sees the problem as not just slavery, not just an institutional, legislative problem, the problem is deeper, much deeper. The problem is that humanity needs to know their Master in heaven before they can imitate Him, they need to be in Christ before they will see that they are one with supposed lower beings. 

Notice, their were still problems even after slavery. In fact, there are still problems today. The emancipation proclaimation didn’t and couldn’t go far enough. It didn’t and sadly couldn’t deal with problems of the heart. We don’t just need a change of the law (though obviously we do at times need changes in the law), when need the law to be written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). A radical shift needs to take place if there is to be true lasting change (and racial reconciliation). Humanity needs to see humanity created in the image of God and precious (whatever the color of skin or political ideology). 

Let’s love our neighbors, whoever the are. Let’s love people of all colors and races. People are precious to God (even when we don’t agree with them and even when they’re inconvenient). Let’s protect life, born and unborn. People, all people, are precious in God’s sight.


[1] Roman History, 54.23 as qouted in Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still, Thinking Through Paul: A Survery of His Life, Letters, and Theology, 216.

[2] The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting The Original Facts And Documents Upon Which The Story Is Founded, Together With Corroborative Statements Verifying The Truth Of The Work, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co, Cleveland, Ohio: Jewett, Proctor & Worthington, and London: Low and Co, 1853).

[3] cf. Thomas Keene’s words from a lecture on the Pauline Epistles.

[4] Augustine St. Clare’s argument, in Uncle Sam’s Cabin, was a common one, no doubt, not only among thoughtful slaveowners, but also among northerners who disapproved of the system of slavery. The arguement rests on two premises: first, that there is a difference of degree, not kind, between American racial slavery and the sort of oppression of the powerless that has always taken place everywhere in the world (nineteenth-century England is given as an example; e.g. Oliver Twist); second, that I know, as an individual, that I myself cannot end this oppressive system, so the best (in fact the only) action I can take is to behave decently within the system.


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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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