Slavery & the Bible (Part 8) Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves?

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Read Part 7: Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

TWO LAST BIG QUESTIONS

So, we’ve spent the last few articles exploring the New Testament response to slavery. Before we move on to the Old Testament, there are two last, big closing questions we need to answer:

#1 – Why didn’t Jesus or the writers of the New Testament simply tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

#2 – Did it work? — Meaning, did the New Testament response to slavery effectively fight against slavery?

 

Roman_collared_slaves_-_Ashmolean_Museum

RESPONSE TO BIG CLOSING QUESTION #1

Why didn’t Jesus or the writers of the New Testament tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

Slavery was so prominent in the Roman Empire we can be fairly certain that many of the first people to become Christians were slave-owners. So, why didn’t Jesus ever say or his first followers ever write in the New Testament something like, “Hey, if you’re a slave-owner who is now following Christ, free your slaves”?

First Timothy 6:1-2 reads, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves, servants, “doulos”] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.

We’ve already discussed 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and also how doulos has a wide range of meanings, so we can’t be certain Paul is addressing true slavery here and not something like a worker under contract or an indentured servant. But, for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume doulos means slave here — as in true owning-another-person-as-property slavery. If this is the case, then here in 1 Timothy 6, Paul confirms that there were Christian slave-owners.

So, why didn’t Jesus or the Apostles who wrote the New Testament simply tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

The short answer: They didn’t have to.

Think of it this way: In Ephesians 5:28-29, Paul clearly tells Christian husbands to love their wives. In fact, he says they should love their wives like Christ loves the church. Don’t forget, Christ died to create his church. Now, if Paul says this, does he also have to say, “Oh yeah, don’t beat your wives either”? In the same way, the Bible tells us we’re all made in God’s image and we have inherent eternal worth to God. In fact, God became a man and then died for us all – man, woman, Jew, gentile, slave, freeman – so we could spend eternity with him. Considering this, do the Bible’s writers really have to specifically tell us, “Oh yeah, don’t own someone else like a piece of property”?

PHILEMON.1

 

The longer Answer:

Both the New and Old Testaments are saturated with teachings that run counter to the mindset that would condone slavery (as we saw in earlier articles). If one is truly following Christ, they will reach the logical conclusion that the literal ownership of another image-bearer of God is against God’s design.

To hammer this home, there is actually one more section of the New Testament we haven’t looked at yet that has something else to teach us about slavery. It’s another letter by Paul, which we call the Book of Philemon.

Philemon is actually a very short letter written by the Apostle Paul to a Christian named Philemon. Based on the context of the letter, it appears that the letter was delivered from Paul to Philemon by Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. After running away, Onesimus had become a Christian, and one way or another, ended up meeting Paul. As we discussed before, the life of a runaway slave was bleak; the Roman Empire stretched far and wide, and runaway slaves were dealt with harshly.

Instead of telling Onesimus to continue to run, Paul sends him back to Philemon. Interestingly, in his letter, Paul points out that he’s one of Jesus’ apostles so he could easily use his place of authority to command Philemon, a Christian, to “do what is required” – to do the right thing – but he goes on to say “for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” to welcome back Onesimus not as a fugitive runaway slave and “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” Paul is saying: I’m not going to force you to do what is right because I know you’ll freely do the right thing, which is to treat Onesimus as your brother.

Now, someone may still gripe and say, Paul still didn’t tell him to free Onesimus! But let me ask the obvious question: If Paul tells Philemon to love Onesimus like a brother, does he really have to say that he should free him? I don’t think so.

Why didn’t the writers of the New Testament explicitly tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?

They didn’t have to.

Benjamin Reaoch writes in Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate, “[Paul] does not attack the institution of slavery. But something even deeper and more radical is happening here. In Christ, slaves and masters become brothers.”

NEXTThe Christian Response to Slavery: Did it Work? What history tells us.

Read Part 1: Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

Read Part 2: Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

Read Part 3: American Slavery & Bearing God’s Image

Read Part 4: Slavery Ain’t Always Slavery: The New Testament & Roman Slavery

Read Part 5: Roman Slavery & the Lack of Christian Revolt

Read Part 6: The New Testament Response & Problem Verses

Read Part 7: Another Type of Slavery & Freedom in the New Testament

Check out Who Jesus Ain’t and other books by GFTM here.

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2 thoughts on “Slavery & the Bible (Part 8) Why Didn’t Jesus Free the Slaves?

  1. Pingback: Slavery & the Bible (Part 9) Did Christianity End Slavery? What History Tells Us. | god from the machine

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