The story of slavery in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament is a complicated one. Many have asked why the early church didn't universally denounce slavery, but the characteristics of slavery were not universal enough to allow for such a simple, sweeping response. Slavery in New Testament times had shades of early American chattel slavery, modern sex trafficking, Old Testament debt bondage, and even apprenticeships and internships. Some slaves were kidnapped, and other slaves owned slaves of their own. Some worked at hard labor their whole lives while others became business partners with their owners. These individual situations call for individual judgments.
Source of slaves
Slavery in the Roman Empire was not based on ethnicity or color, although ethnicity did play a role in determining what a slave might do. Greeks and Egyptians tended to be better educated while Europeans were valued more for strength and stamina. Most valued were Greeks, who were already educated in medicine or teaching, or any slave who could cook.
- Most slaves were foreigners defeated in war. Enslaving them was an alternative to killing them outright or letting them go free to cause problems later.
- In times of hardship, it wasn't uncommon for a family to abandon a newborn baby. There were no social services or ministries to care for them, and many of these babies were "rescued" and sold into slavery.
- A child born to slaves was automatically a slave. But if the parents were freed slaves, their children had all the rights of a Roman citizen.
- An impoverished family could also sell a child as a slave to raise money for the rest of the family. Often, the transaction would benefit the child, as well, as he would be in a more financially secure household.
- If someone had an extensive amount of debt but no children to sell, he or she could be taken into debt bondage and forced to work off what was owed.
- It was also possible for someone to sell himself into slavery. An ambitious man with few connections could gain access to education and the contacts necessary to be successful once he earned his freedom.
Types of slaves
Slavery in New Testament times could involve anything from manual labor under harsh conditions to a nine-to-five job with little oversight. Many slaves were abused, but others were treated almost like family.
Mining: The Roman Empire needed resources and used slaves to obtain them. The lowest rural slave was probably kidnapped or taken in war and had very little education. Conditions were horrible. Release was not an option. The slave was owned as chattel by the state with no personal interaction with his master and no way to gain favor.
Agriculture: Conditions for slaves working in agriculture depended on the wealth of their owners. A wealthy owner might own hundreds or thousands of agriculture slaves. The slaves lived in communal houses, led by a higher-ranking slave or freeman, and were often branded for identification. Their job was to work the fields, and, although their conditions were better than those for a mining slave, agriculture slaves were still chattel with little chance for release.
An agriculture slave owned by a middle-class family was generally better off. He had more chances to earn a little money on the side and, if not released, could hope to attain a status similar to sharecropper, in which he worked the owner's land and paid a portion of the harvest to the owner. Some of these slaves would have been purchased from a slave trader, but others would have sold themselves for material support or to pay off a debt.
Prostitutes and Gladiators: Women in the sex trade and men chosen to fight to the death lived in the worst urban conditions. Their lives were short and brutal. They were owned as chattel and, like miners, were often kidnapped by slave traders or through war. Chance for release was negligible.
Tradesmen: The Roman upper class was too good for actual work, but they still needed shoes, weapons, furniture, and the like. Many tradesmen were technically slaves, and many more were freemen who had been released from slavery but continued on in their former owners' shops. Tradesmen often had a great deal of autonomy, as their owners had better things to do than monitor all their investments, and records from Pompeii show that even women held management positions. There was a good chance a tradesman would be released and, as mentioned, continue to work as a freeman with pay. Many down-and-out Romans sold themselves into slavery for the purpose of receiving room and board while learning a trade.
Domestics: The vast majority of urban slaves were domestics who lived in their master's house and had regular interaction with the family. Domestic slaves were needed to cook, clean, sew, garden, care for the horses, carry litters, teach the children, and even provide musical entertainment for guests. Treatment varied depending on the personality of the owner; some slaves were undoubtedly abused, while others were released and married into the family.
White collar: The rich Romans had no more time for paperwork than they did for carpentry. Many enterprising young men sold themselves to important families for the purpose of learning accounting, medicine, or politics. These slaves could generally trust to be freed after a time and allowed to continue their career. A freed slave could hold almost any position besides elected office, and their freeborn children could rise as high as their ambition could take them. Their position in society was a strange one; the established families looked down on them as nouveau riche, but also lauded them to their own slaves as an example of the rewards to be had if they worked hard.
What does the Bible say about slavery in the New Testament?
The Bible does not categorically condemn debt bondage. In fact, in the Old Testament it was regulated as a type of welfare. The New Testament speaks more about exhibiting Christian character within the context of slavery.
- Slaves are not supposed to stay in the master's house forever (John 8:35)
- Slavery is not ideal, and "if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity" (1 Corinthians 7:21-24)
- Being a slave has no bearing on salvation or the spiritual state of a person before God (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28)
- Slaves are to respect the world's system of authority while knowing that God is the only true authority (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-24)
- Masters are also to keep in mind that their position in Christ is no different from that of their slaves; they themselves are slaves to God (Ephesians 6:9)
- Christian slaves are authorized to act on conscience if their master commands them to do something wrong, but they need to humbly accept the punishment for their justified rebellion, just as Jesus did (1 Peter 2:19-20)
Indirectly, the New Testament has even more to say about slavery:
- Kidnapping is a serious offense (1 Timothy 1:8-10)
- Giving to the poor (which would prevent debt-bondage) is promoted (Matthew 6:2-3; 19:21; 26:11; Luke 14:13)
- The church is responsible for giving to the poor (Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10)
- Widows and orphans are to be supported, not owned (James 1:27)
Slavery as a metaphor
Several places in the New Testament, slavery is a metaphor for a more honorable position.
- Prophets (Matthew 21:33-41)
- Believers awaiting the Lord's return (Matthew 24:45-51)
- Ministry workers (Matthew 25:14-30)
- Evangelists (Luke 14:16-24)
- Obedient Christ-followers (Luke 17:7-10)
Is slavery sin?
This is a difficult question because of the different facets of slavery.
- Kidnapping and selling and/or maliciously restricting the movements of another is wrong.
- Leasing another's labor for a set period of time in return for support and monetary compensation doesn't fit the modern understanding of slavery, although it was called slavery in New Testament times.
- Raising an abandoned child with the intent that he will work without compensation is not biblical.
- Taking on an older child or adult who promises future work as compensation for training isn't slavery unless the provider refuses to let him go once the debt is fulfilled or calculates unfair wages for the work.
- Abusing anyone by beating, emotional manipulation, or withholding necessary food and care is sin.
- Assuming that any person can own the humanity of another is misguided; actually doing so is evil.
- Selling a child for money to support the rest of the family is not right; arranging fostering for the purpose of support and/or training for the child might be.
- Demanding absolute obedience is wrong; acknowledging that everyone is under the authority of God is right.
Why doesn't the New Testament directly condemn slavery?
Even though not all of the slavery in the Roman Empire was evil (and some was more beneficial to the slave than to the master), why doesn't the New Testament take a stronger stand against slavery?
- Many of the slaves were young children or old and infirm. Freedom for them would have meant exposure to the elements and likely death since there was no support for freed slaves except that which Christians later provided.
- Many slaves didn't want to leave. They were there for a purpose, and the training, prestige, personal effects, and opportunities they received far outweighed any pay they could earn as freemen.
- Estimates vary, but up to 30 percent of the urban Roman populace were slaves. The immediate release of that many people with nowhere to go, combined with the sudden cessation of so much work, would have been socially and politically catastrophic. Millions likely would have starved, in part because the newly freed slaves wouldn't be able to feed themselves, and in part because most of the farmland was tended by slaves. The Roman Empire was dependent upon slavery for its very survival. Eventually, as the Roman Empire declined and fewer slaves were taken by military conquest, slavery morphed into serfdom where the poor did as much or more work for very little pay and even less support from the ruling class.
Why didn't Paul push Philemon to free Onesimus?
There are a couple of reasons why Paul may not have tried to help Onesimus escape from his master Philemon. One is that Roman law dictated that harboring a runaway slave for more than twenty days was punishable by labor in the mines or crucifixion. The Roman Empire had several alternatives for an abused slave to receive justice, and running away wasn't usually necessary. In restoring the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, Paul planted the seeds of freedom: he emphasizes love (verse 9); he calls Onesimus "my child" (verse 10) and "my very heart" (verse 12); he points out that Onesimus is "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother" (verse 16 NIV); and he tells Philemon to "receive him as you would receive me" (verse 17). Everything that Paul writes to Philemon counteracts the cultural acceptance of slavery. Also, personal autonomy is not the point of the Christian life. Mutual submission through the love of Christ is far more important. The demonstration of brotherly love between servant and master would trump Onesimus's freedom.
The Christian response
In later years Christians went to great lengths to free slaves—sometimes even selling themselves into slavery to raise the money to free others. Christians have been at the forefront of modern abolition movements, from William Wilberforce's efforts to the International Justice Mission. The expectations God has of His followers regarding slavery have never changed: support the poor to keep them out of slavery, ensure fair and generous treatment of slaves, and proclaim liberty for the captives and freedom to prisoners.
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