The practice of slavery—owning, buying and selling other human beings as property—is older than written history. Only in the last century has slavery been condemned and made illegal in every nation.
By the time history begins to be written, slavery is an institution protected by the governing authorities. In the Old Testament of the Bible, foreign slaves were entitled to less harsh treatment than in neighboring countries, but still, Mosaic law permitted the practice.
Slavery among the Greeks and Romans was an everyday fact of life, seldom questioned by anyone. Gerard Casey writes in Freedom’s Progress?:
“Among philosophers, Plato, who accepted the institution of slavery without any misgivings, is more representative of the common attitude towards the institution than is Aristotle who, at least, felt a need to provide it with some measure of justification. With the exception of Aristotle and possibly some of the Stoics, few in Antiquity, or even long after, ever objected to the institution of slavery or seriously considered its abolition.“
Written at the height of Roman power, the New Testament frequently deals with slavery, especially in light of the many slaves in the ranks of early Christian converts. As we have seen, the Christian duty of a slave was the same as that of the freeman: obey your rulers and live a good Christian life. St. Paul did not vary his teaching:
“Bondservants [slaves], be obedient to those who are your masters.” Eph. 6:5–9.
“Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed.” 1 Tim. 6:1, 2
“Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters . . . that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.” Titus 2:9,10.
Upon first reading, it may seem that the early Christians saw nothing wrong with one person being the property of another, but from the beginning, there are telling cracks that form a different narrative. St. Peter repeats Paul’s advice above, but acknowledges that enslavement is unjust when he suggests that the suffering of the slave is wrongful:
“Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully.” 1 Peter 2:18–25.
Note that submission to a slave-master is not “commendable” because slavery is right or just. The slave is commended because he is “suffering wrongfully.” He is “offering the other cheek.” He is “going the second mile.” St. Paul once wrote to a Christian slave-owner, Philemon, and sent the letter with Philemon’s own escaped slave Onesimus, who had become one of Paul’s converts. Paul appealed to Philemon:
“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Phil. 1:15–16
Both Peter and Paul understand that for one man to own another was incongruent with the teachings of their master. To enslave another human being obviously falls short of Jesus’ command to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31. Paul advised that slaves who could obtain their freedom should do so. 1 Cor. 7:21. He also ranked slave traders among the worst sinners, alongside murderers. 1 Tim. 1:9–10.
When it came to Christianity, no “master and slave” distinctions could exist:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 3:28.
The earliest narrative suggests that Christianity and slavery would be in conflict for as long as both existed, even though in the Roman world and beyond, slavery was so firmly entrenched that the prospect of opposing—let alone ending—that institution, was unimaginable. For hundreds of years, pagan Rome held tightly to slavery in all its harshness.