Tuesday: Slavery in Paul’s Day

Read through the counsel to slaves and slave masters in the following passages: Ephesians 6:5-9Colossians 3:22-25Colossians 4:11 Corinthians 7:20-241 Timothy 6:1-21 Peter 2:18-25. How would you summarize this advice?

It is startling to hear Paul address Christian slave masters and to imagine Christian slaves and their Christian slave master seated together in the house churches of Ephesus. Slavery in the Greco-Roman world could differ from the later version in the New World in significant ways. It was not focused on a single ethnic group.

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Urban, household slaves were sometimes offered opportunities for education and could work as architects, physicians, and philosophers. Freedom sometimes occurred for these household slaves after a limited period of service, though most slaves never gained their freedom. In an attempt to acknowledge such differences, a number of recent Bible versions translate the Greek term doulos (“slave”) in Ephesians 6:5-8 as “bondservant.”

Regardless, slavery at any time, in any culture, in any circumstances, is an inexcusable evil, and God will judge, and condemn, slaveholders according to His infinite justice—and for that we can be thankful.

The cry of ex-slave Publilius Syrus is haunting: “It is beautiful to die instead of being degraded as a slave.” Given the full range of these realities, the translation of doulos as “slave” is to be preferred (NIV, NRSV), especially since these slaves are living under the threat of their masters (Ephesians 6:9).

Slavery was an ever-present evil in Paul’s world. He addresses it, not as a social reformer but as a pastor who advises believers how to deal with current realities and to cast a new vision centered on the transformation of the individual believer, which later could have wider implications for society at large: “His vision was not for manumission of slaves in the Roman Empire. Rather his view was about something other than legal manumission, that is, a new creation sibling-based fellowship on the basis of adoption as children of God. . . . For Paul the social revolution was to occur in the church, in the body of Christ, at the local level, and in the Christian house church and household.”—Scot McKnight, The Letter to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017), pp. 10, 11.

One of the great stains on Christian history is how some used these biblical passages about slavery to justify this evil. What frightening message should we take away about how carefully we need to handle the Word of God?

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