A common objection to Christianity is that the Bible does not condemn slavery. This shows, so the allegation goes, that the Bible is not a trustworthy guide to moral issues.
|Roman slavery was not white-on-black|
The surface of things
On the surface this allegation seems to carry weight. The apostle Paul encourages slaves to obey their masters - not to revolt. And he tells masters to care for their slaves - not release them. On one occasion he sent a newly converted run-away slave, Onesimus, back to his master, and encouraged his owner, Philemon, to receive him back - not to release him.
How do we explain this attitude to slavery?
The setting - Roman slavery
Around 30-40% of the Roman Empire, by some estimates, were slaves. Slavery in the first century was not white-on-black slavery. Anyone could end up a slave. You could become a slave through war, as the bounty of war. You could make yourself a slave to escape poverty - in which case slavery was the only option for living.
Slavery was part of the social setting and economy of the Roman Empire. If the preachers of the Gospel had preached "end slavery" they would have initiated a revolution that could have taken the lives of countless thousands, if not millions. After Spartacus unsuccessfully rebelled against the empire, 6000 slave-rebels were crucified as Rome's way of saying to slaves "Don't rebel". Encouraging a revolt would have stained the Gospel with the blood of a thousand slain.
Furthermore, the Gospel's primary purpose and message is not to change a man's outward circumstances but to put him or her right with God. The Social Gospel and the Liberation Gospel are both great distortions of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not that the Gospel in unconcerned about social issues, it's rather that Kingdom issues come first - and when they do, practical solutions to social issues follow.
The Gospel's instructions to believing slaves and masters would instantly end all the abuses of slavery and lead to harmonious and redeem the institution from the inside out. If Christian masters and slaves obeyed the apostle Paul, the slave-master relationships would become a friendly partnership and may even lead to freedom.
After saying that, the Gospel sowed all the seeds of slavery's ultimate demise.
Three seeds of Slavery's Destruction
(1) The Gospel rubbished words like "slavery" by using them to describe our old lives under Satan's power. No longer could those words be used in a positive way. And words like "freedom" were exalted by using them to describe a believer's new freedom from death and hell and sin and Satan.
(2) The Gospel raised the standing of all people, by insisting all human beings were made in the image of God. In fact one of the very first known sermons against slavery, preached by a Gregory of Nissa, sometime at the end of the 300s took up this very theme and rebuked those who bought and sold people made in the infinitely precious image of God.
(3) The Gospel taught that in Christ there is no slave or free. The Gospel taught that everyone who comes to Christ is on the same plane in God's eyes, all are his children. "In Christ there is no slave nor free."
|Plant an acorn one metre away...|
The gentle Gospel chose the latter path rather than the former. The Gospel Oak spread out roots which utterly and totally destroyed the institution of slavery.