Why Didn’t Paul Work to Abolish Slavery?

From Pastor Chris

On Sunday, one of the household relationships we will explore is that of slaves and masters. “Slaves,” Paul writes, “obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as you would Christ” (Ephesians 6:5, CSB).

It is nearly impossible for us not to see this command in Ephesians through the lens of slavery in the American South. If you have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or watched movies set in the antebellum South, images of shackled Africans, slave ships, harsh whippings, and perpetually splintered families rightfully cause us to question how Paul can address slaves without challenging slavery as an institution.

However, we must understand that slavery in the ancient world was vastly different than the American iteration. For starters, race was not a factor. “People became slaves through birth, parental selling or abandonment, captivity in war, inability to pay debts, and voluntary attempts to better one’s condition.”* As incomprehensible as volunteering for slavery may seem, there were certain vocations and opportunities only open to slaves, and attachment to a wealthy household could offer a significant increase in living conditions and social security. Vocationally slaves worked in most professions, including “civil service, medical care, teaching, accountancy, business, domestic work, and agricultural employment.”** Many were better educated than their owners. Slaves had the legal right to own property and other slaves, obtain additional employment, save money, and purchase their freedom, which many did by the age of 30.

Scholars estimate that one third of the Greco-Roman population was enslaved. The experience of a slave was entirely dependent on the character of his or her master. Masters had the legal freedom to abuse their slaves, and some did. Stories of brutal masters occasionally appear in ancient accounts, but not to the extent that such mistreatment caused social unrest. Indeed, no oppressed “slave class” existed to be unsettled, as slaves spanned all social and economic classes except for the upper tiers. Slavery was an unquestioned reality in the ancient world and no evidence exists of any government or group seeking to abolish the institution.

While this description bears little resemblance to the brutal injustices of American slavery, conditions around ancient slavery still had elements of social inequity. Slaves who paid for their freedom could still be financially and vocationally obligated to their former owners for life. Becoming a legally freedperson was socially advantageous enough for most slaves to pursue, yet they could never entirely step out from underneath their master’s agenda. In western terms, imagine an English butler of considerable social standing who, even after finding other employment, must check in periodically at the estate to see if his services are needed.

Paul speaks into this social structure with subversive, Christ-centered truth. He challenges Philemon to grant freedom to Onesimus, his runaway slave. He lumps “enslavers” in his list of sinners with murderers, the sexually immoral, and perjurers (1 Timothy 1:10). His harsh indictment of the Corinthians’ abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) likely involved social divides. Leading up to the gospel meal, the masters and patrons ate the best foods as they lounged in the fine dining room while slaves and freedmen crammed into an outside space and hoped for leftovers.*** This was so egregious because, earlier in the letter, Paul refused to allow human social structures have any place in the family of God. “For he who is called by the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called as a free man is Christ’s slave” (1 Corinthians 7:22, CSB). As Paul reminds masters in Ephesians 6:9, “he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and…there is no partiality with him.”

So while slavery in Paul’s world did not deserve the abolitionist actions that the American institution did, the gospel still addresses the ways in which the social structure lent itself to value one image-bearer over another. We may pat our backs for being a post-slavery society, yet do we still allow ethnic, economic, or educational divides to dictate the honor we show to brothers and sisters in Christ? Let us live as one family in Christ, for “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians by Klyne Snodgrass

** Ephesians (Word Biblical Commentary), by Andrew Lincoln

*** See Richard Hays’ treatment of this in his commentary on 1 Corinthians


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