Did Paul Liberate Slaves? No. Why Not?

Did Paul Liberate Slaves? No. Why Not? April 10, 2017

The answer to the first question is a firm No. Paul not only embraced “slavery/servant” language as a metaphor for the Christian’s relationship to God — who today would say you are “slave” to God to someone released from trafficking? — but Paul simply told slaves to obey their masters and masters to treat their slaves fairly. Anyone who deeply believed in emancipation or who thought slavery was immoral would not say those things and would become sensitive to slavery as a a metaphor. The answer is no.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 10.47.16 AMThe second question is also deserving of consideration. In Paul Behaving Badly, Randy Richards and Brandon O’Brien examine this question too. A few observations, beginning with this: Paul is often accused of not getting this one right and that history has shown him wrong.

In modern times, nearly the worst indictment critics can level at a position or movement is to say that it is on “the wrong side of history.” Critics of Paul argue that because he never advocated for abolition or the civil rights of slaves, Paul and the Christian church he founded are on the wrong side of history. 93

Far too often we appeal to pragmatics and Paul’s limitations, but we sometimes do so with the notion that Paul actually penetrated deeper than the did on this question:

To begin with, in Pauls generation the Christian church didn’t have the social clout to end Roman slavery. … What was within their power was to love one another within those social systems with such pure and godly love that it gutted those systems of their power to oppress. … but it amounts to asking why Paul didn’t invent an entirely new economic system for the Roman Empire.

This lets Paul off the hook a little too easily, and this one can at times let us off the hook a little easily:

We have more options available to us today. While we tsk, tsk at Paul for not doing more to improve the plight of slaves with his limited options, we might ask if we ourselves have leveraged the greater resources at our disposal to advocate for the migrant worker, house the refugee or rescue the victims of human trafficking. 94

This is where I would begin on this discussion and in my Philemon commentary coming out this Fall I will do so.

Additionally, this critique ignores the radical new relationships Paul called believers to forge within existing systems.

Paul, they are right, did not begin with a vision for the Roman Empire but with a vision for the church and its fellowship. He called then for a church of siblings — brothers and sisters — that in that context relativized status.

But, I ask you, did he do the following?

Paul clearly planted seeds that flourished into abolition centuries after his death. If the church failed to water and cultivate these seeds, and it did, Paul is not to blame. Paul’s language about slaves seems woefully behind the times. But that’s easy for us to say on this side of history. To those of us who are further along in history, the people behind us will always appear “behind the times.” … When you get to Z, it’s easy to look back at Y and think that Y looks restrictive. But we have to look back historically and remember that Y is what got us from X to Z in the first place. We feel like Paul was behind the times because we have closed the discussion on slavery. That issue is an issue of the past, and Paul’s arguments are a relic of the past.

They return to the metaphor of slavery for us today:

While the world advocates for social ascension, the gospel calls us to follow Christ in downward mobility.

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