Critics of the apostle Paul point to the fact that he refers repeatedly to slaves and masters but makes no attempt to call for an end to the institution of slavery. It is also embarrassingly true that American slave owners and their preachers used Paul’s texts to justify their beliefs and practices.
To compare the shame of the North American and British slave trade with first-century Roman slavery is a case of false equivalency. Brian J. Dodd has pointed out that slavery in the Mediterranean world of Paul was vastly different. (1) Slaves could and did earn their freedom. (2) They were not distinguished on the basis of race or color. In fact, it would have been difficult to tell, on the basis of appearance, the difference between a slave and a free person.
(3) Unlike the slaves in the American South, those in the Roman world had legal rights, including the right to appeal in the case of unfair treatment. (4) In some cases slavery was an opportunity for social and economic advancement. Some people sold themselves into slavery in search of a better life. (Paul discouraged this practice in 1 Corinthians 7:22-23.)
(5) Slaves in Roman society were often well educated and highly skilled. They occupied such trades as tutors, scribes, clerks, bookkeepers, civil servants, physicians, and household managers. (Slaves who worked in the mines, as gladiators and as galley-slaves on Roman ships were mostly prisoners of war or criminals.) (6) Slaves could own property and save money. This allowed many to purchase their own freedom and eventual Roman citizenship.
(7) Sometimes slaves in prominent households preferred to remain in this position rather than to seek emancipation because it was advantageous to them to be treated well under a kindly master.
Ben Witherington has added that as we try to understand Paul, it is useful to remember that no ancient government considered abolishing slavery. No former slaves or philosophers wrote attacking the institution. The slave revolts we read about in ancient history were not attempts to overthrow the institution but to improve working conditions or to protest abuses. Manumission (buying freedom) was so common in the first century that Caesar Augustus set up laws to restrict it. There is evidence in early Christian writings that some Christians gave sacrificially to purchase the freedom of fellow church members who were slaves. (The Paul Quest, InterVarsity press, 1998)
So what are we to make of Paul’s instructions to Christian slaves to obey their masters and do their work for the Lord (Colossians 3:22-25)? How are we to understand his words in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24, 1 Timothy 6:1-4, and Titus 2:9-10? We must begin by setting aside any thought that Paul would have condoned the kidnapping, violence, brutality, and inhumanity of the British and North American slave trade. We must, rather, interpret his writings within the context of his own world, the Greek and Roman world of the first century.
To that world, Paul brought the radical teaching that Christian slaves and masters are brothers in Christ, freed from sin, and liberated to serve Jesus. In the church, they are equals. They are to see themselves as an alternative society, part of a new humanity in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Paul went out of his way to identify with slaves. He called himself a “slave of Christ” (Philippians 1:1). He most likely worked alongside slaves when he plied his trade as a tentmaker. He dignified them by regarding them as persons of value, teaching them the virtue of work done for God. His short letter to Philemon was an appeal for the restoration, and possible liberation, of a runaway slave who had become a Christian, and whose service to Paul had been invaluable.
Brian J. Dodd has written: “It would be naive to fault Paul for not making an all-out, frontal assault on the institution of slavery. What would a meaningful protest have meant in a stratified society where there were no referenda, no public opinion surveys, no democratic process for the masses? Furthermore, a protest against slavery as such would have been interpreted as treason and sedition. It probably never occurred to Paul to lodge such a protest, and it is anachronistic for us to fault him from our social-legal position that cherishes the right of free speech. On Paul’s side of the interpretive bridge, such rights did not exist… .” (The Problem of Paul, InterVarsity Press, 1996; cf. S. Scott Bartchey, “Slavery in the NT,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed.)
Paul knew that slavery was an economic institution upon which Roman society depended. Any attempt to overthrow slavery would have been met with instant retaliation and the most severe punishment. Instead, his strategy was to undermine injustice with Christian love and mutuality. Even as Paul taught respect for the institutions of government (Romans 13:1-7), he knew that the good news of Jesus would penetrate Greek and Roman social structures with the influence of unselfish love. Paul’s calling was to proclaim the powerful gospel of Christ. He knew that it would change people’s hearts and create a new society.