An artist's rendition of Paul, Philemon and his slave Onesimus
In the early years of Christianity people were divided by slave or free. All ancient civilizations had slaves. The concept of slavery as immoral or abusive was nonexistent. To question whether there should be people who are owned by other people was never questioned..
"Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them."
1 Corinthians 7:21-24
This passage has often been used by Paul’s critics to say he was indifferent to slavery. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are slaves purchased by Christ, like those purchased in a marketplace, and that true freedom is only found in Christ — while slavery by comparison is nothing.
slavery in Paul’s day was not as oppressive as later forms of slavery. Many prominent people in the ancient world were slaves, including teachers, writers, politicians, artisans and philosophers. Some slaves were better off financially than many who were born free or had purchased their freedom. And slaves often anticipated their freedom after 10 to 20 years of service to their masters, yet some chose to stay with their masters.
The process of being released from slavery is recorded on ancient wall inscriptions found at Delphi, north of Corinth. A ritual took place in a sacred temple, in which a slave would pay a priest the funds to purchase his or her freedom from the owner. (Slaves could negotiate the transaction on their own.) Once freed, the slave’s name was inscribed on the walls of the temple.
The early church had little interest in freeing slaves from their masters (Eph 6:5-9). In the second century, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, advised Polycarp not to encourage Christians to purchase the freedom of the slaves. He writes:
"Do not be haughty to slaves, either men or women; yet do not let them be puffed up, but let them rather endure slavery to the glory of God, that they may obtain a better freedom from God. Let them not desire to be set free at the Church’s expense, that they be not found the slaves of lust." (Polycarp 4.3)
So, Paul’s advice to his readers to keep their current social status — as a citizen or slave and single or married person — was to enable them to focus more clearly on the great day when Christ will come again (1 Cor 7:26-31; see also 1 Thess 5:1-11).
Mention slavery today in modern times and it conjures up images of the cruelest and unimaginable hell and hideous institution of the United States and other countries of the Americas. These are probably the worst conditions of the history of slavery. Slavery was never relatively good for those enslaved, but compared to other times and places some would say if wasn't brutal. To say the least. The picture above with the overseer with the whip and in our minds of slavery is of bull whippings, rape, kidnapping and separation of families. Long hours of exhaustive work with very little sleep or food.
“Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason but the most deceitful one for calling the religion of this land Christianity…”
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