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From Slaves to Brothers

By David Feddes

Two thousand years ago, over half the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Then along came somebody who told his followers, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers.” The man who said this didn’t start a slave revolt. He didn’t change society overnight. But Jesus was good news for slaves.

Wherever Jesus’ influence spread, the lowly were lifted up and the institution of slavery was weakened. Jesus has been a world changer in many ways, and this is surely true in the area of freedom and dignity. Millions of people who now enjoy freedom might still be slaves if not for Christ’s impact on the world. Slavery was ingrained in the cultures of Europe, Asia, Africa, among natives in North and South America—just about everywhere on Earth. But in culture after culture, slavery wilted and shriveled away when the gospel of Christ took root and grew.

Not everyone who claimed to follow Jesus took his message to heart. Some tried to defend slavery in God’s name and insisted on their own superiority over others, rather than regarding them as members of the same family in Christ. But wherever Jesus’ followers faithfully regarded Jesus as their only true Master and each other as brothers and sisters, things changed. Slaves no longer saw themselves as nobodies, and slave owners no longer saw their slaves as property. When slaves gained true human dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of their masters, the entire relationship of master and slave was sure to change, and the acceptability of slavery was sure to fade.

The apostle Paul was one of the earliest, most effective messengers for Jesus. In city after city, Paul preached the gospel of eternal life through Christ, and Paul wrote letters under Christ’s direction that are a big part of the Bible. One of Paul’s letters was written to Philemon, a man Paul had led to faith in Jesus. Philemon had owned a slave, Onesimus. This slave stole from Philemon and ran off to another city. There Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian. Paul loved him like a son but sent him back to his master, Philemon, whom Paul also loved. Paul sent Philemon a letter of advice about what to do with Onesimus.

In the Roman Empire, a runaway slave could be punished with death. But that would not happen to this runaway. Paul told Philemon to accept his former slave back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 16). Philemon took Paul’s advice and preserved the letter so that others could read it as part of the Word of God and experience its impact. Paul’s advice to see someone not as a slave but as a dear brother echoed Jesus’ principle, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers.”

Did Paul Support Slavery?

People sometimes charge that the Bible, especially Paul’s letters, supported slavery and oppression. After all, in two of Paul’s letters to churches, he wrote, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22). Many church members were slaves and needed God’s guidance on how to deal with their situation. What if Paul had told them to rebel or run away? What would have happened? Countless Christian slaves would have been killed, and the Roman Empire would have persecuted Christians more fiercely than ever. So rather than trying to abolish slavery on the spot, Paul told slaves to obey.

Does that mean Paul supported slavery? Not at all. He spoke of “slave traders” as “ungodly and sinful” (1 Timothy 1:9-10). He told slaves, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21). If slaves were offered freedom, they should accept, and if they could buy their freedom, they should do it.

Meanwhile, those who remained in slavery were instructed to do their work well, not just to please their earthly masters but to please Christ. Work “like slaves of Christ,” Paul said, “because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (Ephesians 6:6, 8).

Slaves weren’t the only ones Paul instructed. He also addressed masters who had become Christians. He told them not to threaten slaves (Ephesians 6:9). Instead, Paul ordered, “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1). Now, what would happen if Christian masters regarded slaves as brothers instead of property? What would happen if masters paid fair wages and did not threaten slaves or force them to be employed against their will? The bondage would no longer exist. And that’s what happened as the Spirit of Christ worked in people’s lives.

But what about Christian slaves with non-Christian masters? Should they feel sorry for themselves and hate their masters? No, Paul taught them to care more about the salvation of their masters than about their own slavery. It would be far worse for a non-Christian master to suffer in hell forever than for a Christian slave to endure a few bad years. Christian slaves, said Paul, should be cooperative and “show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:9-10). The main concern was not just social and political equality but to lead people to salvation and make them brothers and sisters in God’s family.

Paul urged Christian slaves to focus more on the privilege of belonging to Christ than on the problem of being in slavery.

“Were you a slave when you were called?” said Paul. “Don’t let it trouble you–although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:21-24).

Anyone bought by Jesus’ blood and treasured by God could not think of himself as merely a slave and a nobody. He wasn’t just somebody’s slave; he was a child of the King of the universe. Paul himself was often mistreated and spent a lot of time in prison for his faith, but even in chains he lived in the freedom of Christ, and he wanted others to have this same Christian freedom, even in hard situations.

In those first decades after Christ’s coming, economic, social, and racial status counted for very little in the church. What counted most was being loved by God and adopted as his children. As Paul put it, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither … slave nor free … for you are all one in Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 3:28). “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether … slave or free” (1 Corinthians 12:13). These weren’t just Paul’s own thoughts. They were revealed by God and mirrored the mind of Christ. Jesus didn’t overthrow institutions with violence; he transformed relationships with truth and love

Greatness in Serving

By faith in Jesus, a slave could become a prince in God’s kingdom. Even if the world around him treated him as a slave, he knew himself to be much more than that. The Bible says, “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position” (James 1:9). The honor of being God’s child and a citizen of heaven gave joy and dignity to even the lowliest slave. As the church grew, the Christian brotherhood and respect for people of every social class had a transforming effect not just on individuals but on entire civilizations.

In classical culture during the early years of Christianity, more than half the people were slaves, and the upper-class people of the Roman Empire looked down on the slaves. Politicians and intellectuals thought along the lines of the famous philosopher Aristotle, who said that slavery was good because “the master gained a worker, and the slave came under the guidance of a superior, reasonable being.” According to Aristotle, “a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore there can be no friendship with a slave as a slave.”

The Christian church was different. Masters who became Christians were taught to see their slaves as dear brothers. Slaves were loved and treasured as valuable members of the church. Slaves worshiped beside nobles. Slaves received the same baptism as the rich. Slaves ate at the same table of the Lord’s Supper as the powerful. Some who were slaves in society became leaders in the church. One former slave, Callistus, even became bishop of Rome. The church, whenever it was faithful to Jesus, was loving, liberating, and uplifting for people no matter what level of society they came from.

What a contrast between the church and the culture around it! No wonder so many slaves were attracted to Christ and to his church. And still today, any factory worker or farmhand or burger flipper or cubicle dweller who feels like a slave or a nobody finds out that in the church of Jesus Christ everybody matters.

Jesus taught that there’s no greatness in being bossy and looking down on others, and there‘s no shame in working hard to serve others. Jesus defined the difference between the class-conscious world and the Christian attitude when he said,

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus taught that a slave whose work accomplished something useful was greater than a proud, spoiled ruler who did nothing but order others around. Jesus set the pattern not just by his words but by his example. Though he was king of heaven, he made himself a servant to the needs of people who needed salvation. If the Lord of the universe could serve so humbly, his followers could see humble service as a glorious thing.

Setting Slaves Free

As more and more people became Christians and accepted this mindset, slaves gained status and dignity in the church, and many wealthy Christians freed their slaves. When Jesus taught, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers,” and when he taught the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), Jesus planted the seeds for setting slaves free. When a slave owner became a Christian, learned the Golden Rule, and regarded others as brothers, how could he keep slaves in bondage against their will? Historians point out that in the second and third century after Jesus’ coming, the act of setting slaves free was more frequent in urban households led by Christians than anywhere else. The official act of liberation usually took place in church with a bishop looking on.

John Chrysostom was the world’s foremost Christian preacher in the mid-300’s. By that time Christianity was so widespread that some people went to church even if they weren’t truly devoted to Christ. Among the churchgoers were upper-class people who owned huge numbers of slaves. Some said slavery was necessary for society and good for the slaves themselves. Chrysostom fired back that it was pride and selfishness, not concern for humanity, that moved them to have slaves. They were too proud to do honest work and too proud to see all people as their equals before God.

Chrysostom pointed out that God gave us hands and feet so that we could do our own work without making servants do it all for us. He said that if God wanted people to have slaves, he would have created a slave for Adam. Slavery came into the world as an accursed effect of sin, said Chrysostom, “but when Christ came, He put an end also to this.” Chrysostom insisted that slaves should never be whipped or put in chains. In fact, he said there was really only one way to own slaves in a Christian way. “Buy a slave,” said Chrysostom, “train him in a skill to earn his own living, and then set him free.”

Around the year 400, a British teenager named Patricius was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to the pagan chief of an Irish tribe. It was one of the great turning points in history. After six years of slavery, Patricius gained his freedom. He could have stayed in Britain, but the young man was so devoted to Christ and cared so much about the land that had enslaved him that he returned to Ireland as a missionary. There Patricius led thousands of Irish people to Christ and became known to history as St. Patrick. Having once been a slave himself, Patrick condemned all forms of slavery and taught the new Irish Christians to set slaves free.

Not all Christians and church officials set slaves free. Some still had slaves and defended slavery. Their thinking was shaped more by the world than by God’s Word. But the biblical principle of seeing people not as slaves but as brothers had an effect that kept growing. Professor Alvin Schmidt writes, “For several centuries bishops and councils recommended the redemption of captive slaves, and for five centuries the Trinitarian monks redeemed Christian slaves from Moorish servitude. By the twelfth century slaves in Europe were rare, and by the fourteenth-century slavery was almost unknown on the Continent.”

Slavery Revived and Abolished

Sad to say, societies influenced by Christianity sometimes fall backward and squander the gains of Christian civilization. For instance, abortion and killing of newborns were common in the Roman Empire and then faded under the influence of Christianity, only to reappear centuries later when people abandoned Christian teaching for pagan practices. In a similar way, slavery faded under Christianity’s influence, then made a comeback centuries later when powerful people put finances ahead of Christ. In the 1600s the powers of Europe decided that their colonies could prosper by using slaves, most of them obtained in Africa.

Now, enslavement was nothing new for Africans. Most African societies had slaves and even regarded slaves as a unit of money. Yale scholar Lamin Sanneh was born in West Africa and is an expert on the history of slavery in Africa. He says that slavery “was part and parcel of the African value system.” The buying and selling of tribal slaves attracted merchants from the Arab world, and Arab Muslims had a booming slave trade in Africa for at least 700 years before Europeans decided they could profit from it. Most Africans slaves were sold into slavery by their fellow Africans. Over four million African slaves were exported to Islamic countries even before America was discovered.

The enslavement of Africans was not started by Europe and its American colonies, but they got into the business, and their responsibility is especially heavy because they should have known better. They had the gospel and the heritage of centuries in which slavery had almost vanished under Christian influence. Many Europeans and Americans got into the African slave trade simply because there was money to be made.

But there were always Christians who resisted this. “Christ died for all,” said Quaker Christian George Fox, “for the blacks as much as for you that are called whites.” George Whitefield, the greatest American preacher of the 1700s (and perhaps any era) told whites to think of slave children as equal to their own. “Think your children are in any way better by nature than poor Negroes? No! In no way!” thundered Whitefield. In 1774, evangelist John Wesley thundered against the slave traders, “Do you never feel another person’s pain? Have you no sympathy?” That was Wesley’s way of applying Jesus’ statement, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In 1787, a small group of Christians began a public campaign against British involvement in the African slave trade. William Wilberforce, a devout follower of Jesus and a talented member of parliament, led the effort, and a few decades later, Britain at last outlawed the slave trade in all British territories.

Many politicians and business leaders fought fiercely to keep the slave trade going. One objection was that opposition to slavery was motivated by religion. “Things have come to a pretty pass,” griped Lord  Melbourne, “when religion is allowed to invade public life.” In America, a pro-slavery congressman had a similar complaint about mixing religion and politics, snarling that Christians claimed to understand human rights better than the rest of the world. Today we hear similar complaints against Christians who value unborn babies and oppose abortion, human cloning, and destruction of embryos for research. “Don’t mix religion and politics”–that’s a frequent refrain among people who ignore the Bible and Christian history in order to treat fellow humans as property instead of as people.

In any case, Christianity was too strong in England and in America for slavery to prevail. In England, the slave trade was outlawed, and by the mid-1800s the anti-slavery movement in America was growing strong, often led by Christian preachers and Christian authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Slavery would probably have ended eventually in America, even without the Civil War, but that conflict brought American slavery to a decisive end.

Slave Power

Meanwhile, as white people in Britain and the United States argued over slavery, what were the slaves themselves doing? Many were becoming Christians. They heard biblical truths about freedom, dignity, loosing chains of oppression, and being God’s children, and they found comfort and courage. Sojourner Truth spoke of the sorrow of slavery and the comfort of Christ when she said, “I have borne thirteen children and seem ’em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard.” Their masters might treat them as inferior, but the Word of God told them that all men are equal in Christ. Many slaves believed truth of God, not the falsehood of their masters. Faith in Christ comforted the distressed, and church life provided a setting where slaves used talents and leadership skills, which they would go on to apply in other areas of life beyond the church. They became people of strength and dignity, and nothing empowered them more than their churches and the good news of new life in Jesus Christ.

And how did Africa itself start moving beyond slavery? Professor Lamin Sanneh tells the gripping story of what happened in the 1800s after some former American slaves went back to the land of their roots and brought Christianity to many who were still slaves in Africa. Earlier mission efforts in Africa had focused on a top-down approach of converting the chiefs in order to Christianize the rest of the tribe. But the former slaves worked from the bottom up, teaching slaves and former slaves in various African nations about Christ. They showed them the Christian structure for families. They empowered the people at the bottom level of society by educational efforts and societies to help the poor. As a result, slavery became less common in Africa.

Before that, says Dr. Sanneh, slavery was ingrained in African society. Nothing could change it—except the “moral crisis” which came about as the former slaves taught others the dignity of every individual before God. In the words of Sanneh, “African captives themselves took to this kind of religion with gusto. They embraced it. You can see why: in their own societies, once a slave always a slave. You always carried with you this stigma. This doctrine said that the stigma is dissolved in the blood of Christ.” Once again Bible’s words were confirmed: “There is neither slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In more recent times, slavery was revived for a time in nations that idolized government instead of following Christ. Nazi concentration camps and communist labor camps enslaved millions. Even today in some parts of the world, people work under harsh conditions for barely enough pay to buy food. Some brutal rulers allow their own forces to enslave their enemies. And still today, Christ reveals a better way, and Christians are in the vanguard of respect and freedom for all people.

The world changer, Jesus Christ, once said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Jesus was talking first of all about being freed from slavery to sin. Do you trust Jesus as your Savior and repent of your sins? That’s what we all need most of all: liberation from the guilt, shame, and bondage of the evil within us, and freedom to live in the joy of forgiveness and eternal life. And that’s not all. When Christ sets individuals free from sin, the impact ripples throughout entire societies and nations. Wherever people trust in Jesus for and take to heart his words, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers,” slavery shrivels and discrimination dies.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.