A Commentary by John Stott

Ephesians 6. 5). The abolition of slavery.

The new relationship which Jesus Christ made possible between slave and slave-owner was something new and beautiful. Understandably, however, it has seemed to many critics an inadequate Christian response to an unmitigated evil. Did the gospel offer no more radical solution to slavery than an adjustment of personal relationships? Even if Paul held back from inciting slaves to rise up against their owners and seize their freedom (as some hotheads wish he had), why did he not at least command slave-owners to emancipate their slaves? Why are the New Testament writers so feeble and mealy-mouthed, instead of condemning slavery outright for the horribly inhuman thing it was?

In whatever way we Christians seek to defend ourselves and our faith against such criticism, it must never be by condoning slavery. For if the New Testament does not explicitly condemn slavery, it does not condone it either. Although there have been varying degrees of degradation in slavery at different times and places, and although Afro-American slavery was worse than Roman, Roman than Greek and Greek than Hebrew, yet the Christian conscience must condemn slavery in every form. Its evil lies neither in the servitude it involves (for Jesus voluntarily made himself a slave of others, e.g. Phil.2:7; John 13:14-16, and so did the apostle Paul, e.g. 1 Cor.9:19;2 Cor.4:5), nor even the element of compulsion, but rather in the ownership of one human being of others which degrades them to subhuman goods to be used, exploited and traded, and in the cruelty with often accompanied this. This being so, we again ask why the New Testament did not call for its abolition.

The first answer is the pragmatic one, namely that Christians were at first an insignificant group in the Empire. Their religion was itself still unlawful, and they were politically powerless. Besides, slavery was at that time an indispensable part of the fabric of Roman society. In most cities there were many times more slaves than free people. It would therefore have been impossible to abolish slavery at a single stroke without the complete disintegration of society. Even if Christians had liberated their slaves, they would have condemned most of them to unemployment and penury. As G.B.Caird has put it, ‘Ancient society was economically as dependent on slavery as modern society is on machinery, and anyone proposing its abolition could only be regarded as a seditious fanatic.’ It had to be tolerated a while longer (although, to be sure, that ‘while longer’ lasted much, much too long) as a symptom of what Christians called ‘this present evil age’.

There is a second reason why we do not find in the New Testament stronger expressions of indignation at the system. ‘The lack in antiquity of any deep abhorrence of slavery as a social and economic evil may be explained in part’, writes W.L.Westermann, by this fact that ‘the change of legal status out of slavery into liberty by way of manumission was …constant and easy…’ ‘The apostle’s attitude is best explained by the unique way in which the Romans of the first century AD treated their slaves, and released them in great numbers.’ According to the results of Tenney Frank’s research, between 81 and 49 BC 500,000 Roman slaves were freed. So ‘The Roman slave, far from living in perpetual servitude, could look forward to a day of opportunity. It became the common practice of the Romans to free their slaves and then establish them in a trade or profession. Many times the former slave became wealthier that his patron.’ This evidence helps to explain both Paul’s advice to Corinthian slaves, if they could gain their freedom, to seize the opportunity to do so, and his strong hint to Philemon that he should release Onesimus (1 Cor.7:21; Phlm. 16).

Tomorrow: 5). The abolition of slavery.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.