For the next two weeks, my sermon series on Colossians will be in the portion of the household code dealing with slaves and masters. Later, we’ll explore Philemon. But this is not the only household code in Scripture that addresses the subject. We find them in Ephesians 5-6 and Titus 2. The subject appears in 1 Timothy 6, 1 Peter 2, 1 Corinthians 7 and some other places. It is important for us to remember that in Philippians 2 Jesus is called a slave who obeyed to the point of death, death on a cross.
It is hard for us to grasp all of this. Thankfully legalized slavery has been abolished in most of the world. We are still fighting human trafficking. We have a very different set of experiences than the original audience of the Scriptures. So let’s look as this, at times with help from John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life. (I am a bit uncomfortable with his reliance upon James Jordan at times. Some theonomists have fallen into what I think is the dangerous false doctrine of kinism).
Slavery was common in most of the ancient world. Not race-based slavery, but slavery. In the Old Testament we see that the Patriarchs owned slaves. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers (which as man-stealing was punished by death in the Old Testament, and was affirmed as a heinous sin in the New Testament).
One example of race-based slavery that we have in the Scriptures is Israel’s experience in Egypt. It was a picture of our slavery to sin, from which we need to be redeemed. God’s people were being oppressed and exploited as Satan thru Pharaoh sought to destroy the holy seed that would produce Messiah. God delivered them from the clutches of Egypt through a series of plagues culminating in the death of the firstborn in all of Egypt. Israel’s firstborn were ransomed thru the blood of the lamb on the doorposts, prefiguring the blood of the Lamb that would take away the sins of the world. God used this great evil of slavery to reveal the greatness and means of His salvation of sinners. Their cries were real, just as ours are as we feel the weight of our sin & addictions, and the misery of others’ sins against us.
You would think that they Israelites would not have the institution of slavery in their Promised Land. But they did. Hard for us to fathom, isn’t it? The Law regulated it. Foreigners could be enslaved by Israel if they were conquered by them, assuming they were not neighbors, and didn’t surrender (Deut. 20:10-11). They would become part of the government’s work force. They were usually slaves for life. They were not to treat them like the Egyptians had treated the Israelites.
“In the Old Testament, there were two distinct forms of slavery: the slavery of foreigners, and the slavery of Israelites.”
Israelites could become slaves of their brothers: temporarily. It was what we would call indentured servitude. Due to debt, they would sell themselves to the person(s) they owed for a period of 6 years. Or their poverty was so severe they couldn’t support themselves, and would sell themselves as slaves. The master was not only to release them, but to give them “seed money” for their future so they might not end up on his doorstep again.
“The emphasis here is that the slave is a fellow Israelite who has fallen on hard times, whether or not of his own making. The master is to be generous to his poor brother.”
If the slave didn’t want to go free, he could permanently become a slave to that particular master, declaring his loyalty in a public ceremony (Deut. 15:12ff). This form of slavery was a “remedy for poverty.” It was intended to be temporary.
Slaves would be freed if the master severely injured them. There were limits to the punishment they meted out. But all of this was still slavery- you were not your own, you were bought with a price and subject to the master’s will regarding your labor. The laborer’s alienation did not begin with capitalism. Much of humanity lived as slaves.
Greco-Roman slavery was similar in some way. Some slaves were defeated enemies. Some slaves sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts. But some were criminals. The most dangerous criminals usually received the death penalty. Others would be put to work instead of sitting in a cell and going to the weight room.
“Slavery without threats is scarcely slavery. One characteristic that distinguishes slavery from other employment is the right of the master to beat the slave, and it is the constant threat of beating that supports the relationship.”
The most difficult conditions were experienced by those in mines and other forms of hard labor. The easiest life was typically found among the domestic slaves. They were part of the household, and generally treated well. Some were quite educated and skilled. But they were under the control of the pater familias and a cruel master could make one’s life miserable. Some masters would take advantage of their slaves.
Freedom could be purchased by the slave or others (Plato’s freedom was purchased by friends who sent him off to Greece from Sicily). Freedom could be a provision in a will. Freedmen often continued to have a connection to their master.
This is the historical and social setting of Paul’s (and Peter’s) instructions to slaves. They were to recognize they had a new Master- Jesus. They really served Him, not their “master according to the flesh.” The master they could see was only their immediate supervisor, the one that mattered was Jesus. Jesus was the One to whom both master and slave were accountable. 1 Peter 2 notes that it was possible to suffer unjustly. Obedience ended at the command to sin, with a willingness to accept unjust punishment like Jesus did.
In Rome, as many as 1 in 3 persons was a slave. That was how common it was. Within the Empire, estimates are that 1 in 5 was a slave. In Asia Minor, where Colossae is, few were granted freedom. Many of the people in the church there were involved in slavery as either slave or master.
No one questioned slavery as an institution. Many didn’t want to be slaves. The slave uprisings were typically among those conquered in war, like Spartacus. Those rebellions were put down ruthlessly. Some like Seneca argued for the improved treatment of slaves. But there doesn’t seem to be any cry to end the practice.
Aristotle unwittingly put into motion the notion of race-based slavery. He would write that some were “slaves by nature.” He meant some individuals were incapable of caring for themselves, not some races. But still a dangerous thought. He likened slaves to tools. “A slave is just a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.” For Aristotle they were less than people.
Centuries later, Aristotle’s works would be rediscovered and translated by Muslims. They would begin to travel into the heart of Africa to steal men and women to be slaves (a practice that continues today). They began the slave trade out of Africa, which is not taught so many think the slave trade was begun by Christians. As a result they often convert to Islam.
“the Black nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Blacks) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals” 14th century Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun
Christian scholars were able to read Aristotle as a result of the work by Muslims. His ideas no doubt shaped their views as the Europeans began to be involved in the slave trade. Race-based slavery became the rule instead of the exception. This slavery was rooted in kidnapping or man stealing. It was sinful in nearly every way imaginable.
Slavery was no longer a way to get out of extreme poverty and pay off debts. It became more exploitative and dehumanizing. Slaves were generally no longer educated but kept in ignorance.
Many (most?) of those who fought to end such slavery were Christians. William Wilberforce fought the incremental battle against the slave trade and then slavery for decades before it was finally outlawed in Britain. Sadly, they were often opposed by others who were Christians.
Somethings we take for granted were not part of the experience of our ancestors. Since we take them for granted, we are prone to be harsh towards others who participated in slavery in its various historical forms. While we should be glad that as an institution it is now illegal we cannot hold the past to our standards. God, who is just, will deal with all that perfectly. That’s part of what the New Testament reminds us. Our earthly condition isn’t the main thing. Our eternal condition is, and all will have to give an accounting. Not to you and me, but to God. In our self-righteousness we try to make this the litmus test of “true Christianity.” Surely other generations of Christians could condemn us by their litmus tests.
Let us keep this in perspective when we read the New Testament as well. Those instructions seem like bowing to “the man.” What recourse did the early church, on the fringe of society as it was, have? It was seen as dangerous as it was. To attack a social and economic institution that NO ONE questioned would be suicidal.
But Paul saw that the gospel changes the people in the institution. It changed masters and how they treated slaves. It changed slaves and how they served their masters. Paul was concerned about how people lived out their faith in their context. That should be our concern as we grapple with institutions that seem evil and oppressive to us. We continue to live in a fallen society that reflects the old man in Adam with all its sin. But we live there as new men in Christ who reflect all His righteousness.