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Slavery in the New Testament

It has been estimated that one third of the Roman population were slaves. Slavery was a common part of everyday life. If you went to the doctor, visited an accountant or bought goods in the markets, all of those jobs could’ve been done by slaves. There were slaves in every section of labor. Some worked in mines and quarries, in homes, farms, as soldiers, gladiators and prostitution. One could become a slave for various reasons: prisoners of war, children of slaves, you could be sold into slavery, orphans or abandoned children were often raised as slaves. You could also sell yourself into slavery because of debts, to get an education, or to be owned by a prestigious house. Slavery was not based on the color of one’s skin. Anyone could be a slave, and anyone could own a slave. There were possibilities of buying one’s freedom. Does that mean slavery is good? Of course not, but condemning slavery would have made millions of people homeless and on the streets. The Roman empire would have been in an uproar. Many slaves were slaves by choice. A whole society would’ve crumbled by trying to make such a drastic change. However, Christianity had within it the seeds of its demise.

In the New Testament, Paul taught more than any other directly on the subject of slavery. Mutual respect and concern were emphasized because both slave and master have the same Lord (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1). The letter of Philemon was written to a slave owner about his runaway slave. In this letter, Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus not just as a slave, “but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Phile. 1:16). The Bible teaches that if you can earn your freedom, you should but that becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you are free (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Being a slave has no bearing on salvation or your status before God (Gal. 3:28). Christian slaves are permitted to object to a master’s order based on conscience but must patiently endure the punishment (1 Pet. 2:19-20).

Indirectly, the New Testament has much to say about slavery. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” sets the first principle to erode slavery (Matt. 7:12). To “love your neighbor as yourself” would undermine the concept of slavery (Mark 12:31). It also condemns kidnapping (1 Tim. 1:8-10). Widows and orphans were to be supported by the church to prevent their sale into slavery (Jas. 1:27). The idea that “while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” should have motivated those in the church to help keep brethren from slavery (Gal. 6:10).

Slavery is horrible and a blight on any society. It was Christianity that changed the concept of our responsibilities to our neighbors and eventually ended slavery.