A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6. 5) The abolition of slavery.
A third point in alleviation of the New Testament’s position is that by that time the legal status of slaves was beginning to be eased and showed signs of further improvement to come. ‘Sweeping humanitarian changes had been introduced into the Roman world by the first century AD, which led to radically improved treatment of slaves.’ Steadily they were granted many of the legal rights enjoyed by free people, including the right to marry and have a family, and the right to own property. ‘In AD 20 a decree of the Senate specified that slave criminals were to be tried in the same way as free men.’ Several emperors introduced liberalizing measures. ‘Claudius c. AD 50 enacted that sick slaves who were deserted by their masters should be free if they recovered. Under Vespasian c. 75 a female slave could under certain circumstances obtain her freedom if prostituted by her master, Domitian c. 90 forbade the mutilation of slaves. Hadrian early in the second century refused to countenance the sale of slaves for immoral or gladiatorial purposes, and may have forbidden the execution of slaves by their masters.’
So more humane legislation was already being introduced in the Empire at the time when the gospel arrived to accelerate and extend the process. Nevertheless we Christians cannot escape a sense of shame that slavery and the slave trade were tolerated for so long, especially later in the European colonies. Both should have been abolished centuries before they were. And the best Christian minds recognized this. Calvin, for example, in the middle of the sixteenth century attributed slavery to original sin. He deduced it to be ‘a thing totally against all the order of nature’ that human beings fashioned after the image of God’ should ever be ‘put to such reproach’.
While we cannot defend the indolence or cowardice of two further Christian centuries which saw this social evil but failed to eradicate it, we can at the same time rejoice that the gospel immediately began even in the first century to undermine the institution; it lit a fuse which at long last led to the explosion which destroyed it. This brings us back to Paul’s Ephesian letter and to the transformed slave-master relationship which he described. Three aspects of it may be mentioned.
The first is equality. Of course nobody could imagine that in culture or in law, masters and slaves were equal. Quite patently they were not, since the one owned the other. Nevertheless, they were equal before God, because they had the same Lord and judge, who showed no partiality between them (verse 9). Roman law was still in certain respects discriminatory; heavenly justice was not. Paul reminded both slaves and masters of this fact. For this was the theological foundation on which he built his doctrine of equality. Slaves were to give their earthly masters good service with a good will, as if to their heavenly Master, *knowing that* he would honour and reward them. Masters were not to threaten but to respect their slaves, *knowing that* they had the same Master in heaven. Thus it was their shared knowledge of the lordship and the judgment of Jesus Christ which made them equal. If they remembered that Jesus was their common Lord now and would one day be their common judge, their whole attitude to one another would change.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians: Being a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.