Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 4, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 12: Slavery)

Previously, I have argued that the Apostles’ instructions for wifely submission were a cultural accommodation to facilitate the propagation of the gospel.  As we’ve examined the New Testament texts relating to women, we’ve seen that they are frequently accompanied by an admonition for slaves to obey their masters.  Most Christians today would agree that these texts should not be construed to mean that God condones the enslavement of persons.  But they would have difficulty explaining why the practice was not condemned outright prior to the close of the canon of Scripture, or why many 19th century Americans felt it was their Christian duty to help slaves escape to freedom in spite of  the Apostles’ instsructions.  If we struggle to understand the contextual rationale, and rely instead upon the hindsight that history affords, it may be difficult to see how the admonitions to wives fall into the same category.  Today we’ll look at the Roman economy and discover that the accommodation of slavery should be understood more as a concession to the ambient culture for the sake of the propagation of the gospel, rather than a permanent blueprint for employer-employee relations.

The extent of slave labor in the Roman economy was staggering.  In the first century, slaves accounted for one-third to one-half the population of the Roman Empire.  Those kinds of numbers beg the question, “Why would they remain enslaved instead of staging a revolt?”  For American readers, the word “slavery” brings to mind the system of lifelong forced labor of the 19th century American South.  The Roman system differs in some important respects.  First, slavery was not based on race.  An escaped American slave, by virtue of his skin color, was immediately identifiable.  His limited skill set and lack of capital were obstacles to earning a living.   In the Roman Empire, however, just about anyone could become enslaved:  prisoners of war, criminals, debtors, abandoned children, and even social climbers.  Many people voluntarily sold themselves into slavery in order to secure a dependable source of food and shelter, or to obtain Roman citizenship upon manumission.  Some preferred the security of serving as a slave in a wealthy household to the poverty that awaited most free persons.  When they concluded their term of servitude, they chose to remain with their master as bondservants over manumission.

Roman slave owners walked a fine line between maintaining control and inciting revolt.  Slaves represented enough manpower to stage a successful revolt and the owners knew it.  On the one hand, masters could brutally punish slaves without much fear of retribution.  If a slave owner was murdered, for example, all the slaves in his household were tortured and executed for their failure to come to the aid of their master.  On the other hand, owners recognized that slaves who were well cared for and given a system of incentives for good performance were of greater economic value to the household.  This approach was not without risk, however:  an escaped slave could have easily blended in with the population in any of the many cities or villages across the empire, and could make off with sufficient household assets to both finance their flight and setup housekeeping and a means of earning a livelihood in their new home. This is probably what Onesimus had done (Phlm 1:18).

We have ample textual evidence that the Apostles were more concerned with the propagation of the gospel than with justice (1 Cor 6:7, 1 Pet 2:19-20) or Christian freedom (Acts 16:3, 1 Cor 9:22).  In light of its enormous economic impact and the precarious position of the Empire, we can understand why Paul and the other New Testament writers did not use their influence to speak out more forcefully against the institution of slavery.  To advocate for its wholesale dissolution would have disrupted the Roman social order to the point that the Gospel would no longer have a hearing anywhere in the empire.  As with patriarchy, slavery was an extremely important and touchy subject in the Roman Empire.  Managing the slave population was a continual exercise in teetering on the knife-edge between anarchy and social order.



  1. There are all kinds of study Bibles out there…I just wish there was a “Contextual” Bible, which includes these kinds of historical and contextual backgrounds. Imagine! Readers being able to understand the social structures and the circumstances, which the authors were addressing!

  2. I believe that the symbol of ‘servanthood’, that has been a precious symbol of peoples faithfulness to God/Jesus, has been hi-jacked and misused by those in leadership positions.

    We have to be honest and admit that women like slaves, are two special groups that the message of suffering/servanthood/bearing one’s cross/domestic service, etc. has been particularly directed. Now, when we talk about ‘Servanthood’ for Men the definition begans to move away from suffering, submission, bearing burdens and into responsible, loving leadership.

    ONe example of a short catechisim, which was taught to slaves:

    Q. Who made you?
    A. God made me.
    Q. Why did God make you?
    A. To serve my earthly master.

    Women have been exhorted to enter the same destiny of the slaves in respect to HOW they (women) serve. It is our “special roles’ and our ‘special nature’ that demands self-sacrifice, self-denial and self-suffering…………this is how we (women) serve. Unlike men, women can suffer with Christ in His humiliation, but are doomed to be unlike Him in respect to His power, authority or exaltation………..that belongs to men alone.

    • Interesting observation, Terri. The “servant leadership” model is from the management literature of the ’70s and ’80s…presumably another side effect of churches adopting a business/corporate model. Fortunately, our destiny is in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, so we are anything but doomed!

  3. What I mean when I used the word ‘doomed’ was that as women we cannot represent Christ in his power, authority or exaltation………or that is what we have been led to believe.

  4. Later this week I’ll be making the case that when Christ delegated His power and authority, it was not for the purpose of utilizing it on other people…so stay tuned! As far as exaltation goes, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11

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