Summary: Part 3 focuses on slavery in Rome.
A Slave For Christ Part 3
(Inspired by the book: “A Better Freedom” by Michael Card)
In my message last week I shared with you information about slavery in the Old Testament. This week we will begin our examination of slavery in the New Testament (NT). I will spend the remainder of this series focused on the NT examples of slavery and how it impacts what we read in the Scriptures and how it changes some of our interpretation of what we read. While the social institution of slavery is found in all cultures in the NT there were varying legal traditions depending on the culture as to how the slaves were treated. Although slavery existed in most societies from as far back as records have been found, there have been only five genuine slave-societies; two of them were Greece and Rome. The Greeks and Romans, apparently independently, transformed slavery into something new and wholly original in world history. Basically they developed an institutionalized system of large-scale employment of slave labor in both the countryside and the cities. This is something we will need to remember and consider as it directly impacts some of what we read in the NT letters. Before I go any further, I want to make this statement as some have questioned why Paul did not address slavery more fully in his writings. No NT writer commented on the origin of slavery as an institution or sought to justify human beings owning other human beings. Augustine, however, claimed that the institution of slavery was part of the punishment for Adam’s sin. Here is what Augustine, a bishop who lived in the 4th century in the Roman Africa Province, said about slavery in De civitate Dei:
“The first cause of servitude, therefore, is sin, by which man was placed under man in a condition of bondage: a condition which can come about only by the judgment of God, in Whom there is no injustice.” He went on to day that “By nature then, in the condition in which God first created man, no man is slave either of another man or of sin. But it is also true that servitude itself is ordained as a punishment by that law which enjoins the preservation of the order of nature and forbids its disruption. For if nothing had been done in violation of that law, there would have been no need for the discipline of servitude as a punishment. The apostle therefore admonishes servants to be obedient to their maters, and to serve them loyally and with a good will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they can at least make their own slavery to some extent free (Eph. 6:5).”
While I can understand Augustine’s point that slavery came about because of sin, I do not think that it justifies the slavery in the natural sense. When Adam and Eve sinned, yes they became slaves to sin. All who were born after them (or through them) were born into sin and had a sin nature. This is the same as if a freed man became a slave and was given a wife that belonged to the master. The children born to that man would be born into slavery not ever knowing what it would be like to be free. Because of Adam’s and Eve’s sin, we were born with a sin nature – or slaves to sin, but we have already been purchased back by the blood of Christ. This is why we do not have to live in sin because we are no longer slaves to it, we have been freed. I will go deeper into this later in the series. But let me get back on track.
Although we are told of several ways in the Old Testament as to how someone became a slave, in the NT there isn’t any mention of how persons became slaves. We do know however that slavery was present and we have references to some of the actual slaves. Prior to the 1st century A.D., the chief means by which persons were enslaved were they were captured in war or kidnapped by pirates. Stealing persons and selling them into slavery had been practiced in the ancient Near East for many centuries. First Timothy 1:10 records the following: “And immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.” The term translated as “kidnapper” in this verse actually means “slave trader” and appears in a traditional list of vices indicating that knowledge of this practice could be assumed in the late 1st century A.D. even though the establishment of law and order in the empire had greatly reduced it by the middle of the 1st century B.C. After the great wars stopped, the primary source for slaves came through breeding which included the slaves mentioned in the NT.