Christianity and Slavery By David Feddes Two thousand years ago over half the people in the Roman

Empire were slaves. Then along came somebody who told his followers, "You have only one Master and you are all brothers." The man who said this didn't start a slave revolt. e didn't change society overnight. !ut "esus was good news for slaves. #herever "esus' influence spread, the lowly were lifted up and the institution of slavery was wea$ened. "esus has been a world changer in many ways, and this is surely true in the area of freedom and dignity. Millions of people who now en%oy freedom might still be slaves if not for &hrist's impact on the world. 'lavery was ingrained in the cultures of Europe, (sia, (frica, among natives in )orth and 'outh (merica**%ust about everywhere one earth. !ut in culture after culture, slavery wilted and shriveled away when the gospel of &hrist too$ root and grew. )ot everyone who claimed to follow "esus too$ his message to heart. 'ome tried to defend slavery in +od's name and insisted on their own superiority over others, rather than regarding them as members of the same family in &hrist. !ut wherever "esus' followers faithfully regarded "esus as their only true Master and each other as brothers and sisters, things changed. 'laves no longer saw themselves as nobodies, and slave owners no longer saw their slaves as property. #hen slaves gained true human dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of their masters, the entire relationship of master and slave was sure to change, and the acceptability of slavery was sure to fade. The apostle ,aul was one of the earliest, most effective messengers for "esus. -n city after city, ,aul preached the gospel of eternal life through &hrist, and ,aul wrote letters under &hrist's direction which are a big part of the !ible. .ne of ,aul's letters was written to ,hilemon, a man ,aul had led to faith in "esus. ,hilemon had owned a slave, .nesimus. This slave stole from ,hilemon and ran off to another city. There .nesimus met ,aul and became a &hristian. ,aul loved him li$e a son but sent him bac$ to his master, ,hilemon, whom ,aul also loved. ,aul sent ,hilemon a letter of advice about what to do with .nesimus. -n the Roman Empire, a runaway slave could be punished with death. !ut that would not happen to this runaway. ,aul told ,hilemon to accept his former slave bac$ "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. e is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the /ord" 0,hilemon 123. ,hilemon too$ ,aul's advice and preserved the letter so that others could read it as part of the #ord of +od and e4perience its impact. ,aul's advice to see someone not as a slave but as a dear brother echoed "esus' principle, "You have only one Master and you are all brothers." Did Paul Support Slavery? ,eople sometimes charge that the !ible, especially ,aul's letters, supported slavery and oppression. (fter all, in two of ,aul's letters to churches, he wrote, "'laves, obey your earthly masters" 0Ephesians 2567 &olossians 85993. Many church members were slaves and needed +od's guidance on how to deal with their situation. #hat if ,aul had told them to rebel or run away: #hat would have happened: &ountless &hristian slaves would have been $illed, and the Roman Empire would have persecuted &hristians more fiercely than ever. 'o rather than trying to abolish slavery on the spot, ,aul told slaves to obey. ;oes that mean ,aul supported slavery: )ot at all. e spo$e of "slave traders" as "ungodly and sinful" 01 Timothy 15<*1=3. e told slaves, "-f you can gain your freedom, do so" 01 &orinthians >5913. -f slaves were offered freedom, they should accept, and if they could buy their freedom, they should do it.
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Meanwhile, those who remained in slavery were instructed to do their wor$ well, not %ust to please their earthly masters but to please &hrist. #or$ "li$e slaves of &hrist," ,aul said, "because you $now that the /ord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free" 0Ephesians 2563. 'laves weren?t the only ones ,aul instructed. e also addressed masters who had become &hristians. e told them not to threaten slaves 0Ephesians 25<3. -nstead, ,aul ordered, "Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you $now that you have a Master in heaven" 0&olossians @513. )ow, what would happen if &hristian masters regarded slaves as brothers instead of property: #hat would happen if masters paid fair wages and did not threaten slaves or force them to be employed against their will: The bondage would no longer e4ist. (nd that's what happened as the 'pirit of &hrist wor$ed in people's lives. !ut what about &hristian slaves with non*&hristian masters: 'hould they feel sorry for themselves and hate their masters: )o, ,aul taught them to care more about the salvation of their masters than about their own slavery. -t would be far worse for a non*&hristian master to suffer in hell forever than for a &hristian slave to endure a few bad years. &hristian slaves, said ,aul, should be cooperative and " show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will ma$e the teaching about +od our 'avior attractive" 0Titus 95<*1=3. The main concern was not %ust social and political eAuality but to lead people to salvation and ma$e them brothers and sisters in +od's family. ,aul urged &hristian slaves to focus more on the privilege of belonging to &hrist than on the problem of being in slavery. "#ere you a slave when you were called:" said ,aul. ";on't let it trouble you**although if you can gain your freedom, do so. Bor he who was a slave when he was called by the /ord is the /ord's freedman7 similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is &hrist's slave. You were bought at a price7 do not become slaves of men." 01 &orinthians >591* 9@3. (nyone bought by "esus? blood and treasured by +od could not thin$ of himself as merely a slave and a nobody. e wasn't %ust somebody's slave7 he was a child of the Cing of the universe. ,aul himself was often mistreated and spent a lot of time in prison for his faith, but even in chains he lived in the freedom of &hrist, and he wanted others to have this same &hristian freedom even in hard situations. -n those first decades after &hrist's coming, economic and social and racial status counted for very little in the church. #hat counted most was being loved by +od and adopted as his children. (s ,aul put it, "You are all sons of +od through faith in &hrist "esus, for all of you who were baptiDed into &hrist have clothed yourselves with &hrist. There is neither ... slave nor free ... for you are all one in &hrist "esus..." 0+alatians 859E3. "Bor we were all baptiDed by one 'pirit into one body**whether ... slave or free" 01 &orinthians 195183. These weren?t %ust ,aul?s own thoughts. They were revealed by +od and mirrored the mind of &hrist. "esus didn't overthrow institutions with violence7 he transformed relationships with truth and love Greatness in Serving !y faith in "esus, a slave could become a prince in +od?s $ingdom. Even if the world around him treated him as a slave, he $new himself to be much more than that. The !ible says, FThe brother in humble circumstances ought to ta$e pride in his high positionG 0"ames 15<3. The honor of being +od?s child and a citiDen of heaven gave %oy and dignity to even the lowliest slave. (s the church grew, the &hristian brotherhood and respect for people of every social class had a transforming effect not %ust on individuals but on entire civiliDations. -n classical culture during the early years of &hristianity, more than half the people were slaves, and the upper class people of the Roman Empire loo$ed down on the slaves. ,oliticians and intellectuals thought along the lines of the famous philosopher (ristotle, who said that slavery
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was good because "the master gained a wor$er, and the slave came under the guidance of a superior, reasonable being." (ccording to (ristotle, Fa slave is a living tool, %ust as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore there can be no friendship with a slave as a slave.G The &hristian church was different. Masters who became &hristians were taught to see their slaves as dear brothers. 'laves were loved and treasured as valuable members of the church. 'laves worshiped beside nobles. 'laves received the same baptism as the rich. 'laves ate at the same table of the /ord?s 'upper as the powerful. 'ome who were slaves in society became leaders in the church. .ne former slave, &allistus, even became bishop of Rome. The church, whenever it was faithful to "esus, was loving, liberating, and uplifting for people no matter what level of society they came from. #hat a contrast between the church and the culture around itH )o wonder so many slaves were attracted to &hrist and to his church. (nd still today, any factor wor$er or farmhand or burger flipper or cubicle dweller who feels li$e a slave or a nobody finds out that in the church of "esus &hrist, everybody matters. "esus taught that there?s no greatness in being bossy and loo$ing down on others, and thereIs no shame in wor$ing hard to serve others. "esus defined the difference between the class* conscious world and the &hristian attitude when he said, "You $now that those who are regarded as rulers of the +entiles lord it over them, and their high officials e4ercise authority over them. )ot so with you. -nstead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. Bor even the 'on of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" 0Mar$ 1=5@9*@63. "esus taught that a slave whose wor$ accomplished something useful was greater than a proud, spoiled ruler who did nothing but order others around. "esus set the pattern not %ust by his words but by his e4ample. Though he was $ing of heaven, he made himself a servant to the needs of people who needed salvation. -f the /ord of the universe could serve so humbly, his followers could see humble service as a glorious thing. Setting Slaves Free (s more and more people became &hristians and accepted this mindset, slaves gained status and dignity in the church, and many wealthy &hristians freed their slaves. #hen "esus taught, "You have only one Master and you are all brothers," and when he taught the +olden Rule, ";o to others what you would have them do to you" 0Matthew >5193, "esus planted the seeds for setting slaves free. #hen a slave owner became a &hristian, learned the +olden Rule, and regarded others as brothers, how could he $eep slaves in bondage against their will: istorians point out that in the second and third century after "esus? coming, the act of setting slaves free was more freAuent in urban households led by &hristians than anywhere else. The official act of liberation usually too$ place in church with a bishop loo$ing on. "ohn &hrysostom was the world?s foremost &hristian preacher in the mid*8==?s. !y that time &hristianity was so widespread that some people went to church even if they weren?t truly devoted to &hrist. (mong the churchgoers were upper*class people who owned huge numbers of slaves. 'ome said slavery was necessary for society and good for the slaves themselves. &hrysostom fired bac$ that it was pride and selfishness, not concern for humanity, that moved them to have slaves. They were too proud to do honest wor$, and too proud to see all people as their eAuals before +od. &hrysostom pointed out that +od gave us hands and feet so that we could do our own wor$ without ma$ing servants do it all for us. e said that if +od wanted people to have slaves, he would have created a slave for (dam. 'lavery came into the world as an accursed effect of sin,
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said &hrysostom, "but when &hrist came, e put an end also to this." &hrysostom insisted that slaves should never be whipped or put in chains. -n fact, he said there was really only one way to own slaves in a &hristian way. "!uy a slave," said &hrysostom, "train him in a s$ill to earn his own living, and then set him free." (round the year @== a !ritish teenager named ,atricius was captured by pirates and was sold as a slave to the pagan chief of an -rish tribe. -t was one of the great turning points in history. (fter si4 years of slavery, the ,atricius gained his freedom. e could have stayed in !ritain, but the young man was so devoted to &hrist and cared so much about the land that had enslaved him that he returned to -reland as a missionary. There ,atricius led thousands of -rish people to &hrist and became $nown to history as 't. ,atric$. aving once been a slave himself, ,atric$ condemned all forms of slavery and taught the new -rish &hristians to set slaves free. )ot all &hristians and church officials set slaves free. 'ome still had slaves and defended slavery. Their thin$ing was shaped more by the world than by +od's #ord. !ut the biblical principle of seeing people not as slaves but as brothers had an effect that $ept growing. ,rofessor (lvin 'chmidt writes, "Bor several centuries bishops and councils recommended the redemption of captive slaves, and for five centuries the Trinitarian mon$s redeemed &hristian slaves from Moorish servitude. !y the twelfth century slaves in Europe were rare, and by the fourteenth century slavery was almost un$nown on the &ontinent." Slavery Revived and Abolished 'ad to say, societies influenced by &hristianity sometimes fall bac$ward and sAuander the gains of &hristian civiliDation. Bor instance, abortion and $illing of newborns were common in the Roman Empire and then faded under the influence of &hristianity, only to reappear centuries later when people abandoned &hristian teaching for pagan practices. -n a similar way, slavery faded under &hristianity's influence, then made a comebac$ centuries later when powerful people put finances ahead of &hrist. -n the 12==s the powers of Europe decided that their colonies could prosper by using slaves, most of them obtained in (frica. )ow, enslavement was nothing new for (fricans. Most (frican societies had slaves and even regarded slaves as a unit of money. Yale scholar /amin 'anneh was born in #est (frica and is an e4pert on the history of slavery in (frica. e says that slavery "was part and parcel of the (frican value system." The buying and selling of tribal slaves attracted merchants from the (rab world, and (rab Muslims had a booming slave trade in (frica for at least >== years before Europeans decided they could profit from it. Most (fricans slaves were sold into slavery by their fellow (fricans. .ver four million (frican slaves were e4ported to -slamic countries even before (merica was discovered. The enslavement of (fricans was not started by Europe and its (merican colonies, but they got into the business, and their responsibility is especially heavy because they should have $nown better. They had the gospel and the heritage of centuries in which slavery had almost vanished under &hristian influence. Many Europeans and (mericans got into the (frican slave trade simply because there was money to be made. !ut there were always &hristians who resisted this. "&hrist died for all," said Jua$er &hristian +eorge Bo4, "for the blac$s as much as for you that are called whites." +eorge #hitefield, the greatest (merican preacher of the 1>==s 0and perhaps any era3 told whites to thin$ of slave children as eAual to their own. "Thin$ your children are in any way better by nature than poor )egroes: )oH -n no wayH" thundered #hitefield. -n 1>>@ evangelist "ohn #esley thundered against the slave traders, ";o you never feel another person's pain: ave you no sympathy:" That was #esley's way of applying "esus' statement, ";o to others as you would have them do to you." -n 1>E> a small group of &hristians began a public campaign against !ritish involvement
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in the (frican slave trade. #illiam #ilberforce, a devout follower of "esus and a talented member of parliament, led the effort, and a few decades later, !ritain at last outlawed the slave trade in all !ritish territories. Many politicians and business leaders fought fiercely to $eep the slave trade going. .ne ob%ection was that opposition to slavery was motivated by religion. "Things have come to a pretty pass," griped /ord Melbourne, "when religion is allowed to invade public life." -n (merica a pro* slavery congressman had a similar complaint about mi4ing religion and politics, snarling that &hristians claimed to understand human rights better than the rest of the world. Today we hear similar complaints against &hristians who value unborn babies and oppose abortion, human cloning, and destruction of embryos for research. ";on't mi4 religion and politics"**that's a freAuent refrain among people who ignore the !ible and &hristian history in order to treat fellow humans as property instead of as people. -n any case, &hristianity was too strong in England and in (merica for slavery to prevail. -n England the slave trade was outlawed, and by the mid*1E==s the anti*slavery movement in (merica was growing strong, often led by &hristian preachers and &hristian authors such as arriet !eecher 'towe, the author of Kncle Tom's &abin. 'lavery would probably have ended eventually in (merica, even without the &ivil #ar, but that conflict brought (merican slavery to decisive end. Slave Power Meanwhile, as white people in !ritain and the Knited 'tates argued over slavery, what were the slaves themselves doing: Many were becoming &hristians. They heard biblical truths about freedom, dignity, loosing chains of oppression, and being +od's children, and they found comfort and courage. 'o%ourner Truth spo$e of the sorrow of slavery and the comfort of &hrist when she said, "- have borne thirteen children and seem 'em mos' all sold off into slavery, and when - cried out with a mother's grief, none but "esus heard." Their masters might treat them as inferior, but the #ord of +od told them that all men are eAual in &hrist. Many slaves believed truth of +od, not the falsehood of their masters. Baith in &hrist comforted the distressed, and church life providing a setting in which slaves used talents and leadership s$ills, which they would go on to apply in other areas of life beyond the church. They became people of strength and dignity, and nothing empowered them more than their churches and the good news of new life in "esus &hrist. (nd how did (frica itself start moving beyond slavery: ,rofessor /amin 'anneh tells the gripping story of what happened in the 1E==s after some former (merican slaves went bac$ to the land of their roots and brought &hristianity to many who were still slaves in (frican. Earlier mission efforts in (frica had focused on a top*down approach of converting the chiefs in order to &hristianiDe the rest of the tribe. !ut the former slaves wor$ed from the bottom up, teaching slaves and former slaves in various (frican nations. They showed them the &hristian structure for families. They empowered the people at the bottom level of society by educational efforts and societies to help the poor. (s a result, slavery became less common in (frica. !efore that, says ;r. 'anneh, slavery was ingrained in (frican society. )othing could change it**e4cept the "moral crisis" which came about as the former slaves taught others the dignity of every individual before +od. -n the words of 'anneh, "(frican captives themselves too$ to this $ind of religion with gusto. They embraced it. You can see why5 in their own societies, once a slave always a slave. You always carried with you this stigma. This doctrine said that the stigma is dissolved in the blood of &hrist." .nce again !ible's words were confirmed5 "There is neither slave nor free, for you are all one in &hrist "esus." -n more recent times, slavery was revived for a time in nations that idoliDed government
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instead of following &hrist. )aDi concentration camps and communist labor camps enslaved millions. Even today in some parts of the world, people wor$ under harsh conditions for barely enough pay to buy food. 'ome brutal rulers allow their own forces to enslave their enemies. (nd still today, &hrist reveals a better way, and &hristians are in the vanguard of respect and freedom for all people. The world changer, "esus &hrist, once said, "-f you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will $now the truth, and the truth will set you free... -f the 'on sets you free, you will be free indeed" 0"ohn E5823. "esus was tal$ing first of all about being freed from slavery to sin. ;o you trust "esus as your 'avior and repent of your sins: That's what we all need most of all5 liberation from the guilt, shame, and bondage of the evil within us, and freedom to live in the %oy of forgiveness and eternal life. (nd that's not all. #hen &hrist sets individuals free from sin, the impact ripples throughout entire societies and nations. #herever people trust in "esus for and ta$e to heart his words, "You have only one Master and you are all brothers," slavery shrivels and discrimination dies.

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