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I want to share this quotation to follow up my previous article “Equality” in Paul’s Letters. This quotation shows that some Christians in the very early church regarded and treated slaves as equals, and sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to secure their freedom.

Paul taught a modification of the relationship between master and slave, based on Christian love and a sense that we are all slaves for Christ.  He admonished Philemon to greet his slave no longer as a slave, but as a brother (Philem. 1:15–16). Following Paul’s teaching, the early Church recognized no status difference between slave and master. All persons were to be seated together. The word slave, although extremely common among the grave of non-Christians is never used in inscriptions in the Christian burials in the catacombs. Slaves were permitted to hold office, even that of bishop and pope.[1]

According to Ignatius, a second-century bishop, church funds were used to buy freedom for a number of slave (Apostolic Constitutions 4.9 [cf. Ignatius’ Letter to Polycarp 4.3]). Some Christians even surrendered their freedom to ransom others from slavery (1 Clement 55). Marriage among slaves was protected, and non-Christians were urged to free their slaves or allow them to purchase their own freedom.

Clement wrote, “Slaves are men like ourselves,” and Lactantius added, “Slaves are not slaves to us; we deem them brothers after the spirit, in religion, fellow-servants.” Ambrose argued that a slave might be superior to his master in character and Augustine believed that God does not approve of slavery (as opposed to Aristotle’s view that slavery is natural).
John T. Bristow, from What Paul really said about Women (New York: HarperOne, 1991), 120, fn 2.
(Dr Bristow is a Disciples of Christ Pastor in Seattle, Washington.)

As many as one-third of people living in first-century Greco-Roman society were slaves. Slavery was a deeply entrenched cultural institution.[2] Yet many of the earliest Christian congregations took seriously the apostles’ teachings on equality and their warnings against favouritism, and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they applied these principles even though it went very much against the prevailing culture.

Why has the rest of the church been so abysmally slow in accepting and realising that all people are essentially equal regardless of whether these people are of a different race or ethnic group, or are slaves or from a poorer socio-economic group, or are female? The church should be at the forefront of promoting the equality and liberty of all humankind. We should be promoting and demnstrating a truly casteless Christianity.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:26–28 (NIV 2011)


[1] As mentioned in my previous article, it seems that Onesimus, a slave who belonged to Philemon, may have become bishop (supervisor) of the church at Ephesus. Ignatius mentions a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus in his letter to the Ephesians 1:3Callistus, the bishop of Rome in circa 217–222, had been a slave.
In his letter to the emperor Trajan in around 111–113, Pliny (governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor) wrote that he had tortured and interrogated two Christian slave women. He writes that these women were called “ministers” (Latin: ministrae) (Pliny the Younger, Epistle to Trajan 10:96). These slave women may even have been leaders in their Christian community. More on Pliny’s statement, here.

[2] Slavery in first-century Greco-Roman culture was different to Anglo-American slavery in the 17th–19th centuries. For example, it was not uncommon for slaves in Roman times to be freed.

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Image Credit

An Indian woman at work. In many countries today the conditions of indentured workers are akin to slavery. (Image via Pixabay)

Explore more

Equality” In Paul’s Letters
The Holy Spirit and Equality in Acts
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church
The Household Codes are about Power, not Gender
Race and Gender Discrimination in the Church
Complementarians Divide the Church
A Thrill of Hope: Jesus’ First and Second Advents

2 thoughts on “The Early Church and Slavery

  1. It is unlikely that the slave Onesimus belonging to Philemon was the Bishop named by Ignatius, because the earlier Onesimus would probably be dead by then. Quite some time had passed between the two instances.

    1. The letter to Philemon was written around 61 AD. The letters of Ignatius’ were probably written shortly before 110 AD.

      If Philemon’s slave Onesimus was in his 20s in the 60s, he would have been in his late 60s or 70s when Ignatius mentioned that the bishop of Ephesus was a man named Onesimus. The maths works.

      Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was himself in his 70s when he died circa 110. However, even if it is a different Onesimus, the name is a slave name. A slave became a bishop. And this was not an isolated case.

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