The practice of slavery has developed in virtually every civilization known to humankind. Slavery in ancient Rome differed from its more modern forms in that it was not based on race. Nevertheless, it was an abusive and degrading institution. As much as two thirds of the Roman Empire were slaves during the 1st century — in both lowly and prestigious positions. Besides manual labor, slaves performed many domestic services, and might be employed at highly skilled jobs and professions. Greek slaves in particular were often highly educated working as accountants, tutors, physicians, etc. Unskilled slaves, or those sentenced to slavery as punishment, worked on farms, in mines, and at mills. Their living conditions were often brutal and their lives were usually short.
Ancient Rome was one of only a few “slave societies” in recorded history. The term “slave society” distinguishes between societies where slavery was practiced and societies where slavery defined the principle labor market through buying and selling. The 18th century (or Antebellum) American South would also be considered a “slave society.”
Open vs. Closed Slavery Systems
Another distinction historians and anthropologists make is distinguishing between “open” and “closed” systems of slavery. In the “open slavery system” slaves could be freed and accepted fully into general society; in the “closed slavery system” slaves were a separate group and were not accepted into general society even if freed. Roman slavery generally conformed to the “open slavery system.” Cicero, a Roman politician, lawyer, and orator, who died shortly before the birth of Christ, noted in his speeches that a Roman slave could usually be set free within seven years and under Roman law a slave would normally be freed by age 30. By contrast, “American slavery [was] perhaps the most closed and caste-like of any [slave] system known.” Thus, 17th-19th century slavery in America was both a “slave society” as well as a “closed slavery system.” And, sadly, many of the effects of our “closed slavery system” remain embedded in our culture.
New Testament Roman Slavery
I found that the following quote serves as an adequate overview: “In the first century, slaves were not necessarily distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech or by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves [or their children] into slavery for economic or social [reasons]; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated after [several] years of service…they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; their natural inferiority was not assumed.”
Basic New Testament Teaching
Jesus is the most revolutionary person who ever lived – and the purpose of His coming was to initiate a full-fledged yet subversive revolution — an upside down kingdom. Jesus, in His first coming, established the kingdom of God on the earth. Jesus, in His second coming, will consummate the kingdom of God on the earth. A helpful illustration is the Allied troops successfully landing on Normandy Beach in WW-2. With the success of the invasion the back of Hitler’s army was broken and the end of the war was inevitable. However, some of the fiercest fighting of the war occurred in the 11-month period between the Normandy invasion and VE-Day (e.g., The Battle of the Bulge). It is the same with Jesus and His kingdom – His death and resurrection breaks the back of Satan’s army and the end of the war in inevitable yet we are still in a very real fight.
Jesus and the New Testament writer’s subversive and revolutionary Christian affirmations, if taken seriously, begin to tear apart the fabric of institutional slavery. Jesus and the NT writers proclaimed the kingdom of God, declaring God alone as the one true King over heaven and earth. Jesus called His followers, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to live in a radically different way on earth and to “fight” in a radically different way. Rather than hating their enemies, they were to love them. Rather than seeking revenge, the disciples of Jesus were to turn the other cheek. No ordinary revolutionary would say things like this. Jesus was advancing a deeper and more pervasive revolution, the overthrow of the kingdom of the Evil One and the victory of the kingdom of God. Jesus (and the New Testament writers) sought to keep the good news of the gospel at the hub of the cultural wheel – not social justice or any number of other legitimate causes.
The seeds for the destruction of slavery were sown in the New Testament.
The New Testament writers position on the negative status of slavery is more than clear:
- Jesus clearly stated that His role and calling was to “proclaim release to the captives…[and] to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19)
- Paul clearly and decisively repudiated slave trading (1 Tim 1:9-10)
- NT authors affirmed the full human dignity and equal spiritual status of all people (Matt. 7:12; Acts 17:26-31; Eph. 2:14; Gal 3:28; Col. 3:11, 4; 1 Jn. 3:17)
- Paul encouraged slaves to acquire their freedom whenever possible (1 Cor. 7:20–22)
- In Revelation 18:11–13, doomed Babylon (i.e., those who oppose God) stands condemned because she had treated humans as “cargo,” having trafficked in “slaves [literally ‘bodies’] and human lives.” This repudiation of treating humans as cargo assumes the doctrine of the image of God in all human beings.
The Bible clearly teaches a fundamental equality because all humans are image bearers of God (Genesis 1:26; James 3:9). Yet, an even deeper unity in Christ is to transcend human boundaries and social structures: no Jew or Greek, slave or free, no male and female, as all believers are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Col. 3:11; Gal. 3:28).
In the New Testament, the Greek word doulos is frequently used to designate a slave (one bound to another), but also a follower of Christ (or a “bondslave” of Christ). The term would have been an extremely common metaphor that every strata of society would have understood, which points to a relation of absolute dependence where the master and the servant stand on opposite sides with the former having a full claim and the latter having a full commitment. The metaphor indicates that a true servant can exercise no will or initiative on his or her own. Jesus Himself took on the “form of a doulos” (Philippians 2:7). As believers we have moved from being slaves to sin to become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:17-18) by the matchless grace of God through the Incarnation of Jesus.
Theologian and author, John Piper writes that instead of a frontal attack on the culturally pervasive institution of slavery in his day, Paul took another approach in his letter to Philemon. Onesimus was a slave, Philemon was master and both were now Christians. Onesimus had evidently run away from Colossae (Colossians 4:9) to Rome where Paul, in prison, had led him to faith in Jesus. Now he was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. This letter tells Philemon how to receive Onesimus. In the process, Paul does at least 11 things that work together to undermine slavery.
- Paul draws attention to Philemon’s love for all the saints. “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (1:5). This puts Philemon’s relation with Onesimus (now one of the saints) under the banner of God’s saving grace and love, well beyond commerce.
- Paul models for Philemon the superiority of appeals over commands when it comes to relationships governed by love. “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (1:8-9). This points Philemon to the new dynamics that will hold sway between him and Onesimus. Acting out of freedom from a heart of love is the goal in the relationship.
- Paul heightens the sense of Onesimus being in the family of God by calling him his child. “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (1:10). Remember, Philemon, however you deal with him, you are dealing with my child.
- Paul raises the stakes again by saying that Onesimus has become entwined around his own deep affections. “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (1:12). The word for “heart” is “bowels.” This means, “I am deeply bound emotionally to this man.” Treat him that way.
- Paul again emphasizes that he wants to avoid force or coercion in his relationship with Philemon. “I would have been glad to keep him with me…but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (1:13-14). This is pointing Philemon to how he is to deal with Onesimus so that he too will act “of his own accord.”
- Paul raises the intensity of the relationship again with the word forever. “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever” (1:15). In other words, Onesimus is not coming back into any ordinary, secular relationship. It is forever.
- Paul says that Philemon’s relationship can no longer be the usual master-slave relationship. “[You have him back] no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (1:16). Whether he lets Onesimus go back free to serve Paul, or keeps him in his service, things cannot remain as they were. “No longer as a slave” does not lose its force when Paul adds, “more than a slave.”
- In that same verse (1:16), Paul refers to Onesimus as Philemon’s beloved brother. This is the relationship that takes the place of slave. “No longer as a slave…but as a beloved brother.” Onesimus now gets the “holy kiss” (1 Thessalonians 5:26) from Philemon and eats at his side at the Lord’s Table.
- Paul makes clear that Onesimus is with Philemon in the Lord. “[He is] a beloved brother…in the Lord” (1:16). Onesimus’s identity is now the same as Philemon’s. He is “in the Lord.”
- Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus the way he would receive Paul. “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (1:17). This is perhaps as strong as anything he has said: Philemon, how would you see me, treat me, relate to me, receive me? Treat your former slave and new brother that way.
- Paul says to Philemon that he will cover all Onesimus’ debts. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (1:18). This is a beautiful picture of the gospel. All our debts are charged to Christ’s account.
The upshot of all this is that Paul has pointed the church away from slavery because it is an institution that is incompatible with the way the gospel works in people’s lives. Whether the slavery is economic, racial, sexual, mild, or brutal, Paul’s way of dealing with Philemon works to undermine the institution across its various manifestations. To walk “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14) is to walk away from slavery.
In summary, Jesus and New Testament writers stringently opposed oppression, greed, lust of every kind, slave trade, and treating humans as cargo. It should also be noted the New Testament teaches that only through grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone do we receive the life and power of the Holy Spirit to walk in the way of God’s kingdom. God’s grace comes to us and does IN us and THROUGH us what we could never do on our own. The earliest Christians were a subversive, revolutionary, new community united by, in, and through Jesus Christ — a people transcending racial, social, and sexual barriers.
And some days, if I am honest, it doesn’t look like we’ve made much progress…
 Moses Finley. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, Chatto and Windus, 1980.
 Marcus Tullius Cicero. Orationes Philippicae 8.32. (A series of 14 political speeches Cicero gave condemning Mark Antony in 44 BC and 43 BC.)
 James L. Watson. Slavery as an Institution, Open and Closed Systems, in James L. Watson (ed.), Asian and African Systems of Slavery, Blackwell, 1980: 43.
 Slavery in America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco.
 Murray Harris. Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ, IVP 2001: 44.
 Adapted from Oscar Cullmann. Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time, John Knox Press, Rev October 1964.
 Another common NT term, diakonos, derives from a verb meaning “to wait at table,” or “to serve.” As the Son of man, Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45).