A favorite teaching practice of many rabbis was the art of allegory. All of the most famous rabbis were masters of this practice, and of course Jesus and Paul are no exceptions. Paul used this technique often in his letters and knowing this is important to interpretation. However, what happens when a master like Paul blends solid teaching about salvation and an allegory that would make perfect sense to his original audience? We miss it, that’s what. Let’s look at something that could possibly be underlying Paul’s teachings on slavery.
Slavery is discussed quite openly in Paul’s letters, and it’s something he doesn’t mind using as allegory. First it’s important to realize that slavery in the ancient world was absolutely nothing like the American experience of slavery. If you are American, when you come to slavery texts, you immediately think about how American slavery went down and this colors your reading of it. We ask questions like, “Why didn’t Paul flat-out outlaw slavery?” The answer is: it wasn’t always a terrible thing in the ancient world. Yes, it is true that slavery is wrong. In the ancient Roman world slaves as were thought of as “living property” and had zero control over their lives. However, if you approach this form a 21st century (or even a 19th century!) perspective, you miss the picture. In the ancient world, slaves were generally (there’s always exceptions) treated well. They had food to eat, places to stay, honorable work to do, and (maybe most important of all) protection. Slavery was also not typically a lifetime predicament, and it was not unusual for freed slaves to stay and work for their former masters.1
Read now the words of Paul, as he discusses slavery to sin:
16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Paul talks to the church at Rome about offering yourselves to someone as a slave as if it was a common practice. I find it interesting, therefore, that “some Roman Christians even sold themselves into temporary slavery in order to raise money for the poor in the church.”2 This allows some of Paul’s writings regarding being “Slaves of Righteousness” or “Slaves of Christ” to take on new meaning. I do not contend that Paul had in mind this one thing (Christians selling themselves into temporary slavery) when he wrote the above passage, but it may have at least crossed his mind, given his language about offering yourself to someone as a slave.
Slaves were owned by the rich, those in the highest ranks of Roman society (Equestrian and Senatorial). In the first century, as Christianity began to spread, it took the longest to reach these upper echelons of society – those who had the most the lose by a change in the status quo. By the late first century there were some in the higher strata of Roman society who had given their lives to Christ, but most of them were women, as Lampe puts it, “the higher we rise in the Roman social strata, the more Christian women and the fewer men we encounter.”3 This means that there were wealthy Christian women within the church who owned slaves.4
This may have been at least part of the reason behind Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters in the Ephesian church:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Those who had sold themselves into temporary slavery in order to raise money for the poor of the church may have felt they were not truly slaves, and therefore felt the rules didn’t apply. Those selling themselves may have been doing so to the wealthy and socially high-ranking Christian women and it’s possible they felt that since their masters were also Christians that somehow they did not have to do a slave’s work. Paul reassures these slaves: this slavery is slavery for Christ, therefore remember to obey your master and work diligently (James’ paraphrase).
Finally, I am overcome with amazement that early Christians would sell themselves into slavery in order to raise money for the poor of the church! The lengths they would go to in order to help each other astounds me. When was the last time I did anything out of my comfort zone (read: extreme) for a poor member of my community? Maybe it’s time that changes.
Peace to you,
1. Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 59-61. (What is written above is a summary of a large amount of a material not just found in pages 59-61, since slavery is mentioned throughout the book)
2. Lampe, Peter. “Early Christians in the City of Rome.” Christians as Religious Minority in a Multicultural City, 24.
3. Ibid, 23.
4. To be fair, it has been noted in ancient sources that some slaves also had their own slaves, so it wasn’t only the rich, but it usually was the more well-off people who could afford to take care of the costs associated with having another person (or family) under your roof).