Why Is the New Testament Silent on Slavery — or Is It?
By Paul Copan
During the first century, 85 to 90 percent of Rome’s population consisted of slaves in both lowly and prestigious positions. This was a step backward from the Old Testament, but this was Rome’s fault.
Slaves as Persons
The New Testament presupposes a fundamental equality because all humans are created in God’s image (James 3:9). Yet, an even deeper unity in Christ transcends 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” (Galatians 3:28; cp. Colossians 3:11).
Some critics claim, “Jesus never said anything about the wrongness of slavery.” Not so. He explicitly opposedevery form of oppression in His mission “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 NASB1; cp. Isaiah 61:1). While Jesus did not press for some economic reform plan in Israel, He did address attitudes such as greed, materialism, contentment, and generosity.
New Testament writers addressed underlying attitudes regarding slavery: Christian masters called Christian slaves “brothers” or “sisters.” The New Testament commanded masters to show compassion, justice, and patience. Their position as master meant responsibility and service, not oppression and privilege. Thus, the worm was already in the wood for altering social structures.
New Testament writers, like Jesus their Master, opposed the dehumanization and oppression of others. In fact, Paul gave household rules in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 4 not only for Christian slaves but for Christian masters as well. Slaves are ultimately responsible to God, their heavenly Master. But masters are to “treat your slaves in the same way” — namely, as persons governed by a heavenly Master (Ephesians 6:9). Commentator P.T. O’Brien points out that “Paul’s cryptic exhortation is outrageous” for his day.2
Given the spiritual equality of slave and free, slaves even took on leadership positions in churches. Paul’s ministry illustrates how in Christ there is neither slave nor free, when he greeted people by name in his epistles. Some of these people had commonly used slave and freedman names. For example, in Romans 16:7,9, he refers to slaves such as Andronicus and Urbanus (common slave names) as “kinsman,” “fellow prisoner,” and “fellow worker” (NASB). The New Testament’s approach to slavery is contrary to aristocrats and philosophers such as Aristotle, who held that certain humans were slaves by nature (Politics I.13).
Paul reminded Christian masters that they, with their slaves, were fellow-slaves of the same impartial Master. Thus, they were not to mistreat them but rather deal with them as brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul called on human masters to grant “justice and fairness” to their slaves (Colossians 4:1, NASB). In unprecedented fashion, Paul treated slaves as morally responsible persons (Colossians 3:22–25) who, like their Christian masters, are “brothers” and part of Christ’s body (1 Timothy 6:2).3 Christians — slave and master alike — belong to Christ (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). Spiritual status is more fundamental and freeing than social status…
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