Early Christian slavery: between theology and practice

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Slavery had a significant influence on early Christian thought, mainly because slavery was a widespread institution in the ancient world during the time when Christianity arose. The teachings of Jesus and the early Christian leaders had to grapple with the reality of slavery and its moral implications. One famous example of how slavery shaped early Christian thought is in the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul, one of the most influential figures in early Christianity, addressed the issue of slavery in several of his letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:21–23; Gal. 3:28, 4:1–3; Deutero-Pauline texts also include: Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22–4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Tit. 2:9–10; see Harrill 2005; Byron 2008), especially in his Letter to Philemon. In this letter, Paul writes to Philemon, a Christian slave owner, on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, who for some reason left his master, came to Paul and became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. The reasons why Onesimus left Philemon is an issue that has provoked much debate in research (see, among others, Tolmie 2021, 2010a, 2010b; Callahan 1993, 1995; Mitchell 1995; Arzt-Grabner 2004; Harrill 1999; Nicklas 2008).

Paul’s approach to the situation illustrates some important aspects of slavery in the early church. Instead of directly condemning slavery as an institution, he appeals to Philemon on the basis of Christian brotherhood and love. Paul encourages Philemon to welcome Onesimus back, not primarily as a slave, but as a brother in Christ, appealing to the idea of mutual love and acceptance within the Christian community. He writes in Philemon 15–16 (NRSV): “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” While Paul does not explicitly call for the abolition of slavery, his approach suggests a transformation in the way slaves and slave owners should relate to each other within the context of their shared faith. The acceptance of Onesimus as a “brother” implies that Philemon had to fully include him in the faith community of his home. But Onesimus remained a slave, and his experience as a slave and “brother” could not have been simple or easy under any circumstances. This example illustrates how early Christian thought, even in the first century, grappled with the institution of slavery, trying to manage its complexity within the socio-cultural context of the time, while also trying to understand the principles to promote justice, compassion and equality rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

Complexities such as the above example from the Letter to Philemon, as well as many other examples that I will not mention now (but Harrill 2005 provides a thorough examination in this regard), show that there were aspects of early Christian thought that could be seen as accommodating of the institution of slavery, unintentional or not. One such aspect was the emphasis on obedience and submission to authority figures, which could be extended to justify the submission of slaves to their masters. In some cases, early Christian writers encouraged obedience to secular authorities and societal norms, including the institution of slavery. They believed that Christians should maintain order and stability within society by conforming to existing structures of authority, which included the relationship between slaves and their masters. Although these passages do not expressly endorse slavery, they reflect the social context of the time and attempt to regulate the behaviour of both slaves and masters within the existing framework of slavery. Some early Christian thinkers also used such passages to argue for the acceptance of slavery as a social reality, rather than challenging its legitimacy.

This article argues that early Christian thought was fundamentally shaped by the ideas and practices of slavery. While most Christian churches today would completely denounce the abhorrent enslavement practices we see in the ancient world, the early church was quite ambivalent about slavery. We do not find one uniform response for or against slavery from early Christianity. The early Christians never fully advocated the abolition of slavery; yet, when we read the sources, we cannot help but perceive a degree of uneasiness, especially regarding the more violent and oppressive manifestations of slavery. The aim of this article is therefore to examine how slavery appears and functions in early Christian theology, and to ask how it shaped early Christian slavery practices, mainly focused on the treatment of slaves.

Thus, does theology affect practice and behaviour? This, of course, is a question that could never simply have a “yes” or “no” answer in a nuanced and critical scientific study of slavery in early Christianity. The aim of this study was to look at the relationship between the early Christian theologising of slavery and its possible effects on Christian practices of slavery. In the first instance, we have noted that in Christian theology slavery was rarely conceptualised as sinful. We might have some exceptions like the Eustathians, Marcionites and Gregory of Nyssa, but the evidence surrounding these groups and individual in relation to slavery is fragmentary and complex at best. In fact, mainstream Christian thought conceived of slavery as the result of sin and as an aid to stop people from sinning more. This is also why Aristotelian natural slavery seems so out of place in Christian theology and ethics. This aspect of slavery in Christian theology is indeed clearly translated into practice in that most Christians, from what we might deduce from the ancient sources, owned slaves. Whether this was because of mere custom/culture or theology is not easy to ascertain (the former might be more likely), but the fact that slavery is never explicitly labelled a sin would have entrenched slavery in early Christian domestic practices.

Moreover, it was expected that slaves should be disciplined and punished accordingly, but also in moderation, as God also disciplines and punishes his slaves. In this regard we see the metaphor of slavery meeting the practice of slavery – there were earthly slaves and masters, but all had to acknowledge God as the heavenly master. But this metaphorisation of slavery could only have complicated roles between Christian slaves and masters, as we see in the case, for instance, of Onesimus and Philemon in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. The fact that Christian theology relied on Platonic concepts of body and soul, of which the dynamics were described in doulological terms, further affirmed the validity of slavery. Although slavery is not sinful, it has the capacity to engender sin, such as loss of control in anger when punishing a slave or in the sexual abuse of slaves. Christian writers were clearly outspoken about this. Moreover, while Christians were allowed to own slaves, it was expected that slave numbers should not be excessive. Slaves were to be used for only the most basic (and possibly shameful) tasks. Here we see Christian theologising about slavery intersecting with Christian views about the renunciation of wealth, which was deeply embedded in the monastic movement.

In conclusion, we might thus delineate three horizons of slavery between theology and practice. First, we have the divine dimension in which we have God as the ultimate ruling master, with all humanity as his slaves. Some figures, like monks and ascetics, especially seemed to have embraced this role and identity. Then we have the psychic dimension in which the dynamics between body and soul are structured according to the precepts of slavery. The soul needs to rule and enslave the body – literally break it in like a slave – in order to be virtuous. Then, finally, we have the horizon of institutional slavery in which certain persons ruled over others in the most pervasive way – by means of ownership. These three horizons constantly overlap in Christian thought, and they influence and shape one another in diverse and complex ways.

Keywords: Christian ethics; early Christianity; monasticism; patristics; slavery



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