by Max Aplin
It seems clear that some non-Christians are put off the Christian faith by what they see as immoral attitudes in the early church towards slavery. Many seem to think that first century Christians usually approved of the practice of owning slaves. And even those who would acknowledge that early Christians generally tolerated rather than supported slavery, are often sharply critical of their tolerance. These supposed attitudes of first century believers put some people off the Christian faith today.
It is also surely true that many Christians themselves are troubled by this issue. For some it leads to questioning the authority of the Bible. And for others it just leads to puzzlement and a certain amount of disappointment.
So, what are we to make of this? Is this topic an unavoidable source of embarrassment for Christians today? Or can we come up with a reasonable defence for the attitudes of the early church to slavery?
I believe we can do the latter. I am convinced that when all factors are taken into account, the attitudes of early Christians to slavery were not immoral and that they do make sense.
THE NEW TESTAMENT NEVER APPROVES OF OR CONDEMNS SLAVERY
To begin with, we need to understand clearly that the New Testament never endorses or promotes slavery in any way. It never, ever speaks favourably about this practice, whether explicitly or implicitly. And those who think that it does are simply mistaken.
It is also true, however, that the New Testament never criticises or speaks unfavourably about slavery. No New Testament authors condemn the practice of owning slaves.
Instead, those New Testament writers who refer to slavery, just assume that it exists and that people need to live their lives in the context of a slave-owning society. Some passages instruct Christian slave owners how to live out this role in a God-fearing and kind way (see, e.g., Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:22-25). And other passages teach Christian slaves how they should live their lives (see, e.g., Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 4:1; 1 Peter 2:18-20).
MANY EARLY CHRISTIANS MUST HAVE PROFOUNDLY DISLIKED SLAVERY
At first sight, then, the attitude of the early church to slavery seems to have been one of neutrality. But first impressions can sometimes be misleading, and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions. Instead, let’s think about this a bit more deeply. What reasons might there be for thinking that the early Christians either approved or disapproved of the practice of owning slaves?
Well, for a start, there were probably some believers in the first century who didn’t really stop to question the morality of slavery. All Christians should be constantly doing their best to decide which of the values of their societies do and do not please God. In 1 Thessalonians 5:21 Paul tells the church in Thessalonica to ‘put everything to the test’, and we should all try to live this out. Sadly, however, many Christians today don’t seem to do very much of this. The values of society are copied unquestioningly in all sorts of ways. And it makes sense to think that the same was true in the first century.
So it seems reasonable to believe that in the early church there were probably some Christians who didn’t stop to think about the rights and wrongs of slavery, even though they should have done. They may just have assumed that it was an acceptable practice without giving it any real thought.
But for Christians who did think and pray about things, it is difficult to believe that they would have been in favour of slavery.
First, a great many Christian slaves would doubtless have wished that they did not live in a slave-owning society. Without slavery, they would have avoided the mistreatment that was so common from slave owners. Furthermore, being a Christian is all about making Jesus Christ Lord and following Him with our lives. But for a Christian who was a slave and had a non-Christian owner, this must have been terribly difficult to do. Instead of being free to follow Jesus where He might lead, a slave would have been restricted by what his or her owner allowed. For more than one reason, then, Christian slaves must have hated the practice of slavery.
But it was surely not just slaves who felt this way. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a Christian pastor in the first century Greco-Roman world. Pastors should be encouraging their flocks to live for Jesus. But there is no doubt that the directions for living given by pastors to slaves in their churches would often have conflicted with the orders given to them by their non-Christian masters. This must have made the lives of pastors very difficult.
Besides, pastors who cared for the Christians in their churches must have frequently been distressed at the mistreatment of Christian slaves they knew and loved. Imagine how it would have been for a pastor to meet up with a devout Christian slave in his congregation and hear about the latest beating he had received from a sadistic master. It must have been very upsetting and frustrating.
For at least two reasons, then, it is surely the case that many leaders in the early church would have deeply disliked the institution of slavery. And many other Christians too, who cared for the wellbeing of their brothers and sisters who were slaves, must have felt the same way.
WHY DIDN’T THE EARLY CHURCH SPEAK OUT AGAINST SLAVERY?
But if early Christians who thought and prayed about things disapproved of the practice of owning slaves, why is there no evidence in the New Testament that they tried to reform society? Why is there not even any evidence that they spoke out publicly against this practice?
I think there is a perfectly reasonable answer to these questions that can be summed up in one word: persecution. We need to understand that throughout the first century the church was often persecuted. References to this in the New Testament include:
Matthew 10:17-23; Mark 10:30; 13:9-13; John 15:18-21; 16:1-4; Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41; 6:8-8:1; 9:1-2, 23-24, 29; 12:1-5; 13:44-51 14:1-23; 16:16-40; 17:5-9, 13-15; 18:12-17; 19:23-41; 21:27-26:32; Romans 8:35-37; 12:14; 2 Corinthians 11:23-26; 12:10; Galatians 1:13; 4:29; Philippians 1:28-30; Colossians 4:18; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; 2 Timothy 2:9-10; 3:12; 4:16; Hebrews 10:32-34; 13:3, 23; 1 Peter 3:14; 4:4, 12-19; 1 John 3:13; Revelation 1:9; 2:10, 13; 6:9-11.
This is a long list, but it is by no means exhaustive. Many other New Testament references could be added to it as well. There is no doubt that just by living as Christians and sharing the good news with others, the early church experienced a great deal of hostility.
We need to realise too what a massive thing slavery was in the Greco-Roman world. There were literally millions of slaves. Slavery was, in many respects, the first century equivalent of electricity today. Huge segments of society ran on the work done by slaves.
If Christians had spoken out publicly against slavery, we can be sure that powerful people with vested interests in it would have taken a very dim view of what they were saying. And it seems almost certain that the persecution they experienced would have increased significantly. But they were simply not in a position to face this, especially when their words would have had very little effect anyway.
And given that speaking out publicly against slavery would have been so problematic, it should be obvious that trying to reform society in this area would have been completely out of the question. The early Christians had their hands full as it was.
WHY DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT NOT CONDEMN SLAVERY AT ALL?
But although it would have been unwise for the early Christians to speak out publicly against slavery, why do we not even find incidental references in the New Testament that criticise this practice?
There are a few points to make here.
First, although getting rid of slavery would have been a valuable goal if it was achievable, the early church had far more important goals. The Christian message of good news is about providing people with a way of avoiding eternal punishment in hell. It was infinitely more important to help people avoid hell than it was to help them get out of slavery. So it is not a surprise that the New Testament concentrates on what is most important.
Second, the early Christians were realists. They would have understood clearly that they were not in a position to reform society in its practice of slavery. And it is therefore not surprising that the New Testament authors talk about other things instead.
Third, first century Christians needed to be careful even about incidental references to things that could have been discovered by their enemies. Even rumours that the Christians disapproved of slavery could have led to increased persecution if the wrong people heard them. Therefore, it would often have been better to keep quiet about things that were not of first importance.
In view of these points, I don’t think it is difficult to reconcile the fact that the New Testament never criticises slavery with a general dislike of slavery among early Christians.
WHY DID CHRISTIANS CONTINUE TO OWN SLAVES?
But although it made sense for early believers to keep criticisms of slavery to themselves, couldn’t they have avoided owning slaves? Why didn’t it become standard practice for Christian slave owners to free their slaves and avoid buying new ones?
Well, Christian slave owners in the early church surely did free their slaves more than they would have done if they had not been believers. Freeing slaves after they had been in slavery for some years was a common practice of the time. And, given that many Christians must have profoundly disliked slavery, as we saw above, it seems reasonable to think that Christian slave owners often freed slaves.
However, if Christians who owned slaves had typically freed all their slaves, the Christians would have become known for doing this. And, again, we can easily imagine that powerful people with interests in slavery would have reacted strongly for fear that the practice of not owning slaves might catch on. The persecution of Christians would almost certainly have increased. But the Christians were being persecuted enough as it was.
And as far as buying slaves is concerned, if Christians didn’t buy them, then pagan masters would have. And life for a slave with a pagan owner would typically have been far worse than for one with a Christian owner. In fact, if Christian owners acted on the principles in Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 3:22-25, their slaves should not have been badly treated at all.
When we think things through, then, it really would have been unwise for early Christians to collectively renounce the practice of owning slaves. It would very probably have caused far more problems than it solved.
When we take the first century context into account, therefore, the fact that the New Testament never condemns slavery is not really a surprise. Although a great many early Christians, including leaders, must have hated this aspect of Greco-Roman society, they were simply not in a position to do anything about it. And so they concentrated their attention on other things instead.
Similarly, the fact that some in the early church continued to own slaves is also not surprising. If the Christians had all given up the practice of owning slaves, it would almost certainly have led to increased persecution. But they were being persecuted quite enough as it was.
CHRISTIANS LED THE ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENTS OF THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES
Those who are offended by supposed attitudes of the early church to slavery should also bear in mind that in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was Christians, especially evangelicals, who spearheaded the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. At that time, of course, it was realistic to try to reform society. So that is exactly what Christians did.
If you haven’t already seen it, I thoroughly recommend the 2006 film, Amazing Grace. This tells the story of how abolitionist William Wilberforce succeeded in his struggles against powerful slave owners among the British establishment. And Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian.
SLAVERY IN A POSITIVE SENSE
Despite all that is bad about slavery, there is one sense in which being a slave is a positive thing. The New Testament itself often refers to Christians as slaves of God or Christ. See, for example:
Acts 2:18; 4:29; 16:17; Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 7:22; Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:6; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 4:12; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1; Revelation 1:1; 22:3.
In each of these verses the Greek word doulos is used, the standard word for ‘slave’ in Greek of the first century.
Disappointingly, however, in the above texts and others, it is very common for English versions to translate as ‘servant’ instead of ‘slave’.
This is wrong, for a few reasons:
First, it seems that many translators find the idea of Christians being slaves offensive, so they translate doulos with something else instead.
However, translators of the Bible should always do their best to convey what the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts are saying. They should never alter the meaning of a passage because they find it offensive or because they think others might be offended by it. The whole point of the Bible is to hear what God has to tell us. And to knowingly mistranslate a passage is therefore to act against the purpose of biblical revelation.
Second, ‘servant’ in modern English does a poor job of giving the meaning of doulos. Servants remind us of people in places like Downton Abbey, paid employees of a very low social class. However, these servants were far from being slaves. For example, they could choose to leave their places of employment and get a job elsewhere if they wanted. By contrast, a doulos was regarded as the unpaid legal property of his or her owner and had no legal right to leave whatsoever.
Third, I think doulos in the above verses is actually meant to startle us slightly. We Christians are so under the authority of God that we are His slaves! Jesus is our Lord to such an extent that we are His slaves!
This is what these verses are telling us about the relationship between Christians and God or Jesus. And Bible translators shouldn’t water this down for fear of offending people.
Of course, God loves His slaves deeply, so this kind of slavery involves no abuse on the part of the slave owner. And paradoxically, to be God’s slave is to be truly free. Living under the all-encompassing authority of God is exactly how humans are designed to exist. So being the slaves of God and of Christ makes us free to be who we are really meant to be.