Social Revolution: Neither Slave nor Free

The Kingdom Revolution #3

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28

Slavery in the Roman Empire

Slavery within the Roman Empire was not racially based. Slaves were primarily made up of people from conquered nations who were sold into the slave networks that supplied much of the labor that fueled the continued expansion of the empire. Piracy (through raiding and capturing) also added to the slave rolls. Claiming abandoned babies (unfortunately a rather common practice known as “exposure”) for the singular purpose of selling them (when of age) in the slave markets also contributed to the slave supply. And there were also generational slaves—the offspring of slaves who continued to belong to the house that owned their parents (slaves were by law not allowed to marry).

Slaves were a commodity within the Roman Empire. The empire depended upon the labor they provided to function. According to various estimates slaves made up approximately 30-35% of the population throughout the empire. They had no legal rights (until the latter stages of the empire—an important note); could not own prosperity; and belonged completely to their owners—considered nothing more than property by them. One historian noted:

Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak…Slaves were, for many of the Roman elite, a status symbol and, therefore, the more (and the more exotic) one had, the better, so that wealthy Romans very often appeared in public accompanied by an entourage of as many as 15 slaves. (Mark Cartwright; Slavery in the Roman World on the “Ancient History Encyclopedia” website.)

The circumstances of slaves varied according to their abilities and owners. Slaves who were educated and/or skilled in a craft would fare better than others. They would typically be owned by wealthier families in cities—serving as tutors or using their skills to earn money for their master (and even for themselves—slaves were allowed to earn money and could even purchase their own freedom, which was called “manumission”). Those without skills often would work in harsher conditions in rural areas on farms or used in brothels. The owners always dictated daily life for slaves—some could be kind; others could be cruel.

For the most part slaves accepted their lot in life in the Roman Empire. On occasion some would rebel. Perhaps the most famous such rebellion took place in 73 BC led by a gladiator slave named, Spartacus. It ended with the rebellion crushed by General Pompey; Spartacus dead; and 6000 of his fellow slaves rebels crucified along a 120 mile section of the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. Choosing between crucifixion and slavery—most chose slavery. Again the historian notes:

The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was, then, built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part. Regarded as no more than a commodity, any good treatment a slave received was largely only to preserve their value as a worker and as an asset in the case of future sale. No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases, the possibility of earning one’s freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one. (see above reference.)

Neither Slave Nor Free

It was into this culture that Paul spoke these words to the Galatian churches—and quite revolutionary words they were. It was nothing short of a social revolution. As noted, slaves were property—not people. The idea that there was no difference between slave and owner; that owner and slave were somehow equals; that they would sit down as brothers and sisters—was outrageously scandalous—socially in every way. The socio-economic gap between slave and owner within the Roman Empire was just too vast; too culturally entrenched; even too politically significant to be bridged, but yet here is Paul saying, that in Christ, it can be. To understand and accomplish this took an entirely new and revolutionary way of ordering things. It took the kingdom way.

Paul and Slavery

It is quite notable that the apostle Paul never called for the end of slavery or for the emancipation of slaves. Certainly he recognized its unjust, cruel, dehumanizing, and exploitative nature, yet he was not divinely directed to end it. How could his words to the Galatians be reconciled to this? How could there truly be no slave or free if slavery continued to exist? In answering this question the true revolutionary nature of the kingdom is revealed.

Much like Christ—whose teaching, while not overtly political, deeply subverted the cultural norms—Paul subverted the accepted slave/owner relationship. He does so by calling upon slaves to see their work for their owners as working for the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25), which was quite a revolutionary thought. Doing that would be a game-changer in that slaves would give full effort in their labor, not hold back, rebel, or steal from their owners (see also Titus 2:9-10). It would reorient the slave and redefine his purpose. His purpose now became a kingdom purpose. His owner now became someone to win for Christ and working for him as if he was working for the Lord was his venue to do it. This is why Paul concluded his Titus teaching to slaves by saying, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our savior attractive.” Slaves as evangelists to their owners? Subversive indeed. So much so that Paul could ask slaves to even reimagine themselves as free—free to serve God through the purchase price of the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).

Interestingly enough he also asked those who were free to reimagine themselves as slaves in the same text—their purchase price being one into slavery to serve the higher cause of Jesus. Christ is the great equalizer in this situation. God is not respecter of persons in this regard. Being clothed with him changes identities—that of Christian slave owner as well. Paul commanded them to not mistreat, be harsh or threaten their slaves, but to be fair and just—treating them kindly—while reminding them that they too have a Master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). And then there is the way he seeks to resolve the conflict between Onesimus, a runaway slave, and his Christian owner, Philemon. He appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother and reframes the value of Onesimus not in market terms, but in kingdom terms. If the institution of slavery was to change for the better within Rome or eventually end, this is the way it would. Not through rebellion would it happen. Rome would and did brutally crush those. It would change when slave owner and slave began relating to one another through the revolutionary teaching of the kingdom of God. Then and only then would everything change—and it did. While slavery did not end completely, slaves eventually gained more legal rights within the empire. Was this chance or did the growing influence of God’s kingdom have something to do with it? No where else would you see slave and owner sitting together as one—brought together in Christ Jesus. No longer wearing the clothes of a slave or owner, but of Christ.

“Class warfare” or “identity politics” only serve to heighten and further social divisions. The kingdom of God serves to help us overcome such social constraints and unite in the common cause of Christ; to understand that our value is not tied to our socio-economic status or political identity in our particular culture. If Christ can remake the slave/master relationship, there is no social barrier he cannot overcome. The kingdom is for all and welcomes all to unite in Christ.

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