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How the Church Undermined Slavery

"As Christianity declines in the West, the old pagan ideas of the powerful or government owning people’s bodies are coming back. It’s our job to resist that..."

I want to ask a dumb question. Who owns your body? This is both a dumb question and a question relevant to today and to many people because it has had a real impact on their lives in recent years. It is a dumb question because the answer is obvious, each and every one of us immediately thinks, “I do, I own my own body.” But it is a relevant question because the beast of the state just reared its head and sought to undermine what you thought was a basic human right and dignity. You thought you owned your body, they tried to claw back some of that ownership from you.

It was once the basic reality of the world that most people did not own their own bodies. Some very powerful citizens of powerful nations did, and perhaps certain members of roaming tribes, but many others did not have this freedom. The most extreme form of this was slavery. In the ancient world it was common, no, it was expected for a man or woman of any means to have servants and slaves. The bodies of these slavers were owned by their masters who in many cases could do with them as they pleased. It was Christianity that changed this. But how?   

The Origin of Slavery

The Bible teaches that God created mankind to rule the world, man and woman together as kings and queens. Slavery began when the evil one usurped this role by deceiving Adam and Eve in the garden. Paul tells us that the devil captured this world, “and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). Slavery became a force in this world because it comes from the influence of the evil one in this world. But the Bible tells us more than this, as well.

An Uncomfortable Truth

Those who know their Bibles well, know the uncomfortable truth that the Old Testament and the New Testament do not condemn slavery, as we would today. This is uncomfortable, but let us consider for a moment what the New Testament actually says because it will reveal something powerful to us.

Jesus acknowledged the existence of slaves, and structured many of his parables and teachings around the reality of their lives,

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” (Matt. 10:24-25)

“And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’” (Matt. 13:27-28)

The word used here for servant, and in many other passages in the New Testament, is ‘doulos’, which means a servant who is a slave. Jesus acknowledges slavery without blushing.

Paul even convinced a youth, Onesimus, to go back to his slave master,

“I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Phil. 1:12-16)

The word bondservant here is also “doulos” which means, as we noted, a servant who is a slave.

So, Jesus recognized the existence of slavery. Paul encouraged a slave to go home, and he also commands slaves to obey their masters. If this is the case, how did we get to a position where slavery is rightly condemned by Christians and non-Christians alike today? How did we get to a situation where Christians fought to end slavery across the world? And remember it was only the Christian West that did this. What happened?

Redemption

The answer is simple because we serve a Lord and Master, who made himself a slave on our behalf, to redeem all who would believe in him, “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).  

In Ancient Rome, crucifixion was a slave’s death, citizens were often killed by beheading. Because they were occupied by Rome, the Jewish people, who were not fortunate enough to have Roman citizenship, were nothing more than legal slaves in Jesus’ day. Therefore, Jesus became a slave, literally, so that he could redeem humanity from sin, death and the devil. Jesus became a slave to break the hold of slavery on the world.

This had a profound impact on how the Church viewed slaves, as we saw in Philemon, Paul is, already early in Church history, telling a Christian slave master to receive his slave back as a brother instead. But we also see that Paul was willing to put his own money on the line to obtain relief for Onesimus, “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” (Phil. 1:17-19). Paul was willing to pay the account of a slave to protect him, because it’s what Jesus would do.

Though the New Testament did not say Christians could not own slaves, it does condemn manstealing as a terrible sin (1 Tim. 1:10) as did the Old Testament and as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Christians looked at their Christian slaves and thought, “how can I be so arrogant as to own another man or woman, who is a slave of Christ just as I am?” After all, Paul says this, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

This idea that the believer is bought with a price, the blood of Christ, started to impact Christians, who realized they should not have authority over the body of another person that belonged to Jesus. Paul directly relates this idea to slavery himself,

“22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” (1 Cor. 7:22)

If the believer’s body is bought with a price? Then how can one Christian claim ownership of another Christian’s body? How can we claim to own that which is not ours, but is Christ’s? Christians who were not slaves were free to resist becoming the slaves of men. Resistance against slavery had begun, and it began with the cross of Jesus Christ.

More than that, Jesus became a slave so that he could ransom people from the power and slavery of the devil. Slavery originates with the devil’s enslavement of humanity. Christians came to the conclusion that if we are going to be like our Lord, should we not seek to redeem people from slavery too?

This is why the early Church started redeeming people from slavery. This is why they nearly abolished slavery in Christendom in the medieval era. This is why Constantine passed a law saying it was illegal to brand the faces of slaves, because their faces contained the image of God. This is why anti-slavery ideas grew and spread through Christendom.

Redemption, that is buying us from slavery, what Jesus did for us, became what Christians did for others. It became part of Christian culture to purchase slaves out of bondage because you can’t get a more Christlike act than this.

Because of Christian charity, this ended up having an effect on unbelievers as well. This antislavery stance spread through Christendom, and all who were citizens of Christendom benefitted from it. The English navy even started boarding the slave ships of foreign countries to stop their barbarity.

Conclusion

Sadly, slavery is still here today. There are more slaves in the world than there were in Wilberforce’s day, many countries still allow it, even encourage it. In the West, in recent years governments have sought to try and reverse the work of the Church and claim ownership over people’s bodies again. And to my frustration so few in the Church leadership have spoken out against such an evil rising in our day.

As Christians, we must do what we can to oppose these efforts to continue or bring back slavery, because we should leave at least as good a legacy to our descendants, as our Christian ancestors left for us. We serve a Lord who redeemed all who believe in him from slavery. We have a responsibility to be a redeeming people who undermine slavery everywhere we see it, as well.

As Christianity declines in the West, the old pagan ideas of the powerful or government owning people’s bodies are coming back. It’s our job to resist that, as Paul said, “23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” This is a command.

It is getting closer to Christmas, and many of you will start singing Christmas carols. Many of you will sing, O Holy Night, which tells all people, including kings, to bend the knee to Jesus. But it also says this,

“Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother
And in his name all oppression shall cease.”

This is our Christian legacy. This is the legacy of Christmas. May the Church remember itself again, and advocate against the government’s attempts to claim people’s bodies again.