Paul the Apostle has been sent by God to visit us in our dark times. He has appeared at a 21st century university and, with his friend Professor Don, is answering questions in a university forum.
Walter: (A student of political science) One of the things I’ve been most confused about, Paul, is your stance on slavery in your writings. You seem to affirm the institution in many ways. You tell slaves to obey their masters, and the slave Onesimus was commanded by you to return to his master, Philemon, and all you gave was a letter asking Philemon not to kill Onesimus. Shouldn’t you have told the masters to set their slaves free?
Paul: Well, I could have, of course, but it would have been pretty difficult, not to mention illegal. We Christians had enough trouble without an emancipation morality. Certainly we would have encouraged such legislation to be passed in the Roman Senate, but it was not our place…
Walter: And why not? After all, there were many Christian masters. Why not just have those Christian masters set the slaves free? You wouldn’t have had to change the world, just the church.
Paul: Well, frankly, I didn’t pursue this because slavery, in and of itself is not immoral…
Josh: (A student of African American history, Interrupting) That’s it! I cannot believe this! Are you speaking for the whole Christian church, saying that slavery is MORAL? What kind of white suppression have you bought into?
Paul: WHITE suppression? Let me tell you, the earliest slavemasters were people of color—Egyptians, Ethiopians. And slavery was something that was a common practice all throughout the ancient world, including among God’s people, Israel. God, in his law, never opposed slavery, but he limited the use of it.
Walter: Well, God in the law also didn’t speak about child or wife abuse, but you wouldn’t say that such practices were acceptable, would you?
Paul: No. And, in fact, I wrote against child and wife abuse. Such is in opposition to Jesus teaching of humble, gentle leadership.
Walter: Quite right. But shouldn’t slavery be as well? It is treating people as property, instead of persons. Certainly slavery, of all things, is inherently immoral.
Paul: Well, actually it is not.
Josh: I can’t believe this!
Paul: I know it seems very upsetting to you now, but the slavery you studied in school is not the slavery of ancient times. For one thing, it had nothing to do with race.
Josh: Like I believe that!
Paul: No, really, it didn’t. Slaves were obtained in two ways, primarily—capturing of enemies in warfare and the selling of a person to pay off debt. While the modern answers to POWs and debt are much more merciful—temporary containment and bad credit reports—those options were not considered in the ancient world. The only alternative to slavery after being captured was death. The only option to slavery if you had too much debt was life imprisonment. Every race, nation and tongue owned slaves and every race, nation and tongue had slaves of their people. And people would enslave others of their own race and nation, if the slave owed a debt he could not pay.
Walter: Of course, it was not that simple. Often a man would sell his children or wives into slavery for work or prostitution if they were in debt, and he got off scott free.
Paul: As often happens in your society as well, among immigrants.
Walter: But we are trying to stop that system because slavery is inherently immoral.
Paul: No, because that form of slavery is an abomination. Did you know that God would destroy nations—ANY nation, not just Israel—if they would enslave a whole people based on their difference, such as race or nationality? You can read it in the first part of the prophet Amos. That is one difference between the slavery that you are used to and ancient slavery. To enslave people based on their race is inherently immoral. I can see in the contemporary world that slavery IS inherently evil, but in the ancient world it was not so.
Walter: I never would have seen you as a situational ethicist, Paul.
Paul: I am not. What God says is what is true. What God determines is evil, is evil. But even as Abraham could marry his half sister and the nation I grew up in would have considered such an abomination, even so you have had a different historical context than I. For you, slavery is immoral because your world has declared it so. In my world, slavery can be immoral, and often was, but it did not have to be.
Josh: In what way could slavery be moral? How could the buying and selling of people as property be a positive thing?
Paul: Well, for instance, the system in the law allowed the eradication of debt. Every seven years, all slaves were freed and all debts were cancelled. Perpetual debt could be something that your world might think of as moral, but we did not. Yes, you had to work for a master for up to seven years, but then you were freed.
Walter: That is, if the slave was Israelite. If the slave was of another nation, then the slavery could be perpetual.
Paul: Yes, it could, but if the slave became Jewish, then we would set them free.
Josh: So, it was racial prejudice!
Paul: Well, no. Religious prejudice, certainly, but we had no apologies for that.
Josh: But what I don’t understand is your attitude that slaves should be all submissive and working hard for their “massahs”. Why couldn’t you have told the masters to treat the slaves like brothers.
Paul: I did. In fact, sir (speaking to Walter), you misparaphrased me in your summary of my letter to Philemon. I did not suggest to Philemon that he not kill Onesimus—I commanded him to take him back without any punishment, under my authority as an apostle. The wording is subtle, because of my desire not to disrespect Philemon, but there was no way for him to wiggle out of my “suggestion”. And I commanded him to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not as a slave. And this was my command to all masters. When masters and slaves were in the community of God, they were treated as equals, except that some masters were hosts of the church. But slaves were often leaders in the church above their masters. Slaves were given the Holy Spirit on their own basis, not on the basis of their freedom. In fact, one of the greatest prophets of the end of the first century, Hermas, was a slave—his book almost became a part of the New Testament, as I understand. I encouraged slaves to be set free, if they could. We had a system to work with, but we encouraged freedom as much as we could.
Josh: But why command the slaves to be submissive? Doesn’t that just encourage the masters to take matters in their own hands?
Paul: Not if the whole church was following the example of Jesus. Jesus, when he was a leader, acted as a slave and did the work of a slave, submitting to all. Even so, all masters needed to follow that example. Jesus, when he was captured, submitted to his authorities, even though they were evil and unjust. Even so, all slaves should follow that example.
Josh: It seems to me to just set up a system of exploitation.
Paul: In some cases, that is true. To be submissive is to tempt the leader to abuse the privilege, and their slaves. But the Christian always has this in mind: God is there to protect the innocent who are abused. Thus, the Christian masters would do everything they could to prevent their own oppression because they wouldn’t want to be judged by God. And the slaves could be confident in their submission, knowing that God would avenge any abuse put on them. You could say that the system was abusive, but in faith we knew that justice would be done—not in this system, in this world, but on judgment day. One of the distinctives of Christians is that they always kept God’s judgment in mind, and they were constantly encouraged to be prepared for it.
Josh: So slaves could be submissive because it was possibly the downfall of their masters?
Paul: (Considering) That would certainly be the thoughts of some slaves, especially under abusive masters. They would remain submissive to their masters so that they would be innocent, and their masters would be guilty before the Great Judge.
Josh: Well, Christianity is a bit more subversive than I thought.
Paul: I’m not so sure about Christianity over the past 1500 years, but certainly Jesus was subversive. And we are followers of Him, a part of his subversive kingdom.
Walter: And, if what you say is true, the early church was more involved in freedom of slaves than I thought. But still, why not have that freedom go outside the church? Why limit it to just inside the church doors?
Paul: Well, we didn’t actually have doors or church buildings for that matter—but that’s not important. The real issue is that we were expecting the world-wide freedom to take place when Jesus arrived. Frankly, we were outcast, disenfranchised as a group. It wasn’t our authority to change the human structures, but to offer people freedom from spiritual bondage. We declared freedom from all bondages, but it was God’s place to make it happen. And we have every confidence that God will. It is great that some freedoms were accomplished though human mechanism. But true freedom will only be accomplished through Jesus’ return.