Slavery in Bible Times
by David Meager
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he urges Philemon to receive back the runaway slave Onesimus as a brother (v16), but Paul does not command him to be released from slavery.
The early church teaching on slavery.
Not surprisingly, the early church followed New Testament teaching on slavery, below are some quotes from some early church fathers.
‘You will not issue orders with bitterness to your maidservant or your man-servant, who trust in the same God.’ Barnabas c 70-130.
‘Let them not long to be set free at the communal expense. Otherwise, they may be found to be slaves to their own desires.’ Ignatius c.105
To servants and masters:
‘Servants, when they have believed, should serve their fleshly masters the better. In the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, it says: “Servants, obey your fleshly masters with fear and trembling.”…
Moreover, masters should be the more gentle. Also in the same place, it says: “And you masters, do the same things to them, forbearing anger.” Cyprian c.250.
However, they asserted the dignity and equality of each other in God’s sight even though slaves: ‘If any Christians have male or female slaves or children and persuade them to become Christians, they are to call them brothers, without any distinction.’ Aristides c.125
‘Domestic servants, too, are to be treated like ourselves. For they are human beings, as we are.
God is the same to free and slave.’ Clement of Alexandria c.195.
Christians even willingly offered themselves up as slaves to help other Christians: ‘We know many among ourselves who have given themselves up to slavery, in order that they could ransom others. Many others have surrendered themselves to slavery, so that with the price that they received for themselves, they might provide food for others’. Clement of Rome. c.96
Throughout biblical times slavery was a common practice. The bible does not condemn slavery but has clear teaching on how slaves should be treated, which was often counter-cultural to the practices of surrounding nations. Biblical slavery amongst Jews was often an act of mercy to provide for the poor rather than an act of exploitation. The bible condemns the abuse of slaves and the forced enslavement of people and slaves were to be treated well in both Old and New
---David Meager is a member of the Church Society staff team.
The next article will look at the history of slavery since the early church, the founding of the slave trade in the Americas, the abolitionist movement, and slavery today.
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