Slavery in the Bible
Categories: Early Christian Church, Paul, The Bible
Why didn't Paul and the early Church do more to abolish slavery? After all, it was Paul who said repeatedly that all were equal in Christ. Yet, it appears that he at least condoned slavery – a system whereby people of power had dominion over weaker individuals. It's as though God, Himself, established and sanctioned this world order.
It is true that slavery was an integral part of the first century. On the one hand, Paul did preach a new world order. He frequently used slave/servant language to explain his relation to Christ. He also preached the Spirit of the law, not just the letter.In 1 Corinthians, he writes, God chose the foolish things, the weak, the low, the despised, the things that are not. (See 1:27ff) If anything, Paul's goal here was to reduce those class divisions in the house church, but the need to have this discussion only reinforces the claim that all class divisions were present in the community.
Later, when Paul uses the analogy of the body, he argues that it takes all the members to make the body work. All the different parts have to cooperate. There is unity in diversity. Paul continues by saying those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable to the body. It's not that they're nice to have around, that they're tolerated; they are indispensable, essential, and absolutely necessary. He even takes it one step further by saying the parts of the body that we think are less honorable, we actually treat with more care. And parts that we think are unpresentable, we treat with special modesty. He goes on to say that God has bestowed more honor on those dishonorable parts. God has given honor to those who didn't have it. And if this is God's design, how can they be ignoring that and thinking only of themselves? There is no room for rivalry.
But it is also true that Paul does not directly command Philemon to release Onesimus. In fact, scholars think that by speaking of God and praising Philemon's good qualities, he is trying to cajole him into agreement. He essentially accepts the premise that Philemon owns the right to his slave. Despite Paul's desire to keep him, Paul sends him back to his rightful master, making Paul a good law-abiding Roman citizen. Though the letter is short, there is no opportunity for Onesimus to express his thoughts or opinions about the matter. The issue is between Paul and Philemon. Moreover, this letter addresses one specific situation and says nothing about the larger picture.
In his defense, one needs to understand the world of the first century. It was never Paul's intent to reform the structures and institutions that undergirded Roman society. His larger goal was to spread Christianity, not to openly oppose the Roman army. He was interested in building communities of churches based on the gospel of Jesus. That ministry kept him very busy and he, no doubt, did not engage in analytical thought on the shortcomings of society or a better social order. The Christian community was miniscule and novel, compared to Roman religions. As it was, they were oftentimes persecuted or under suspicion for their beliefs. It would not have worked to his advantage to take on all of Roman society. By leading respectable and quiet lives, he hoped Christianity would be respected enough to allow him to expand the gospel even further.
Ultimately, Paul probably believed that only God could intervene in creating a new world. Early on, it seemed that he expected that to happen soon. His early letters talk about the Parousia as though it were imminent. Therefore, he did not need to waste his time working on problems that would be solved by God's intervention. Furthermore, as evidenced by his remarks to Philemon, he expected the gospel message to be highly influential in determining the outcome. Considering that he was also a prisoner and highly limited in his options, this was his best shot.