Slaves and Other Brothers

March 2, 2018

57.PHILEMON.1

The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.

First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.

Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.

So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?

Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!

“ As a Dear Brother”

Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.

In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.

Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.

So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!

On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.

This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:

Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)

Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?

Will We?

Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:

  • Forgiveness
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Equality

These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.

This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.

Advertisements

End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018

Jtemple

In Mark 13 we find Jesus in Jerusalem having just left the Jewish temple with a group of his disciples. This temple—marvelous in scope and structure—was the pride of the Jewish nation having been fabulously rebuilt by Herod the Great beginning around 19-20 BC (and not finally completed until 65 AD). Some of the disciples noted its size and magnificence (perhaps with an eye toward ruling from it with Jesus?). To this Jesus replied, “Do you all see these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” This statement sparked their curiosity. So later four of them approached him privately to find out more information. They asked, “Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus provides them a lengthy answer—an answer that even now continues to be widely and variously interpreted.

Many take these words of Christ as a vision for end times and certainly Jesus uses eschatological language, but there also seems to be more going on than just that. He says at one point, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vs. 30). If he was speaking exclusively about end times, then how does this statement fit into that context? Obviously, we are still here and still waiting for his return. So, just what is he saying? Is it about the end times or something else?

Another Perspective

Mark wrote his account of the life of Christ around 65-66 AD. Let’s consider another perspective from someone who shared this same story a few years after Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel in the early 70s AD. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the disciple’s query to Jesus. He records it this way:

Tell us, they said, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3; Luke also gives his account in Luke 21.)

There is a nuance here in Matthew not obviously present in Mark. Matthew’s account seems to indicate that, yes, actually there is something else going on here. The same eschatological language is present indicating an “end of the age” conversation, but also there is something more immediate to consider, that is, when these huge stones are going to be turned upside down (along with any possible signs connected to either event).

So, as Matthew indicates, Jesus actually answered separate questions. The first is all about the temple stones being overturned and if any signs were to accompany that. The second is about end times. Why Matthew offers this slightly clearer account has to do with timing. He wrote his gospel after the first event—the destruction of the Jewish temple—had occurred. Mark wrote his before.

“The Abomination that Causes Desolation”

Politically, Israel had long been a hotbed of rebellion against Roman rule. Jewish terrorists or zealots continued to be a thorn in the side of Pax Romana. This led to an explosive confrontation during the sixth decade of the first century. In 66 AD the Jewish nation was in full revolt against Rome and managed to vanquish the Roman presence from the temple and make other small gains. Emboldened by these limited victories they continued to openly defy Rome. Eventually Rome had enough. Under General Titus troops were sent to crush the rebellion and crush it they did as brutally as possible. One of their targets was the Jewish temple—not only the pride and symbol of Jewish patriotism but one of the strongholds of the résistance. After they finished demolishing it in 70 AD, not one stone was left standing on the other—just as Jesus had foretold. In all of this destruction, chaos rampaged through Jerusalem. Jews savagely turned on Jews. Horrific events unfolded. It has been estimated that over one million died during this period. It indeed was an “abomination that causes desolation” as Jesus had said.

This is what happened before that generation passed away—about 40 years after Jesus spoke the words. Luke phrased it this way: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This then explains and puts into context his statements within the text such as “flee to the mountains;” don’t “enter the house to take anything out;” how “dreadful” it would be for “pregnant women or nursing mothers;” or “pray that this will not take place in winter.” If it were truly end times, why would any of that even matter?

As for signs of this impending doom, he shared several—wars and rumors of wars, persecutions; false prophets and the gospel being preached to the “world” (which according to Paul in Colossians 1:23 had occurred prior to 70 AD). He uses figurative language of judgment (Mark 13:24-27) to illustrate the total devastation that was to come for the Jewish people and nation. In fact, this was God’s judgment upon them. Never again would they have a temple. Never again would they be his exclusively chosen nation.

The End

After this discourse, Jesus responds to their other question about end times. About “that day” no one knows except the Father in heaven. There are no signs to foreshadow it. Matthew has Jesus speaking about it in terms of Noah’s flood. Everything will be as it usually is. He leaves his disciples (and us) with a warning—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Separate questions and separate answers. It is about the end times, but it is also about something else.

Other Viewpoints

But as might be expected, not everyone interprets this text the same way. Variations abound. One of the most interesting is called “preterism.” Full (or hyper) preterism interprets Mark’s story (along with all of Revelation and NT prophecy) as totally being fulfilled within the 70 AD time frame—including the second coming of Jesus. According to this view, he literally came during this judgment of Israel. What yet remains is the final coming of Christ and eternal judgment.

To further extrapolate, there is also a partial preterist viewpoint—which includes almost everyone else. This approach understands some of Mark 13 to apply to 70 AD, but not all. Partial preterists interpret the book of Revelation differently also—taking a-millennial, pre-millennial and post-millennial stances. With “end times” understanding, it can get complicated! The best advice is Christ’s: Always be alert and be ready!


Being a Kingdom Citizen

December 15, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #12

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

The context from which the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 originate is crucial in understanding the text. Overall, he continues with the practical application of his theological presentation in the first eleven chapters. That presentation demonstrated unequivocally God’s eternal will in giving the non-Jews the same access to his blessings the Jew enjoyed for generations. It was no longer about genealogy or racial pedigree. It was now about Jesus and in him all are saved. Therefore the infighting; the prejudice; the judging; should stop and each should learn to accept the other in Christ. He is the transforming agent. Learn to view yourself as “living sacrifices” to God through him. Embrace the transformation as kingdom revolutionaries. Forget about the old and embrace the newness Jesus offers. Live daily as citizens of the kingdom!

That concept—citizens of the kingdom—is definitely in play in the Romans 13 text. Beyond the overall context of this letter, there is another to consider that was a major contributor to the strained situation in the Roman churches. This was the civil disobedience evident among parts of the Jewish community in Rome. It had earlier created the banishment of the Jewish population of Rome under Emperor Claudius in 49 A.D. (in which Apulia and Priscilla were caught up- Acts 18:1-2.). Knowing this and the damage it caused the Jews, Paul realized that this type of rebellion against established government would be counterproductive to spreading the gospel and to the reputation of Christians within a community. He did not want the church to get caught up in such civil unrest. This was not the kind of revolution Paul envisioned or desired for Christ followers.

A Kingdom View of Government

So he lays out how the kingdom revolution looks lived out within the parameters of the Roman governmental system. At this point in history Rome was an Empire, not a republic. It was not a democracy. Citizens had some rights (such as Paul). Non-citizens did not. It was not a representative government. No elections (as we understand them) were held. Justice could be fair, but it also could be brutal. Quite often rebellions broke out to challenge the “Pax Romana” in oppressed areas within the Empire. Some groups like the Zealots thought it was their birthright to overthrow Roman rule. Paul’s presents quite a different (and revolutionary) alternative in Romans 13:1-7. It is primarily about being a citizen of the kingdom first. Nations come and go. Governments change. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom enables a different perspective about governments and empowers the revolutionary values of the kingdom to be lived out effectively within any type of governmental system. From the text we learn:

  • A positive picture of government. It is to be seen as established by God for the purposes of punishing wrongdoers and as such it serves God’s purposes.
  • Rebelling against the God-ordained government equals rebelling against God and brings about a judgment.
  • “Everyone” is to submit to the governmental powers and not be in rebellion against them. Considering their context this was wise advice because Rome could and did act swiftly to eradicate rebellious and subversive activity (think Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) The Christian’s responsibility within their governmental context is to “do what is right” – not just for fear of punishment but because it is the right thing to do (“conscience”- vs. 5)
  • Doing what is right includes paying the various taxes required by government and paying your debts.

This is all connected back to the previous verses about doing what is “right.” Couple this with other NT texts (Mathew 22:21; John 18:36; 1 Timothy 2:1-3: 1 Peter 2:13-17) and it is clear. Citizens of the kingdom do not take up arms and rebel against earthly governments (even if they can be unjust and cruel—like Rome). That is not the revolution to which we are called. Instead our revolution involves doing the unexpected in this situation—submitting; obeying the laws; living quiet lives, but in so doing upending the injustice and revolutionizing our communities anyway.

Love is What Fuels the Revolution

It is not through swords, spears, bullets or ballots that Christ’s revolution triumphs. It is through the “continuing debt to love one another” lived out within the citizens of the kingdom (Romans 13:11-14). It is our debt to our world. All of the commands are good—to be embraced and practiced, but it is love that truly demonstrates the presence of God in us. Living out God’s love is the power that fuels the revolution and it will (and did in Rome’s case) transform even nations. Nations know how to handle hostile rebellions, but they do not know what to do with cheeks turned and love returned for hate. Evil is not used to good in reply. The revolution of God is weaponized through love. The essence of that is Christ on the cross. If we can capture that kind of love—even in our small doses—we will revolutionize our worlds.

Paul understood this perfectly, so he urges immediate action. The hour had come for the Romans to wake up; stop all of the unproductive bickering; the sin that continued to hinder them and recognize the time for revolutionary action was at hand! Darkness needed light shining within it!

Revolutionary Clothing

He moves from one metaphor to another—and a fitting one to close our study. “Rather clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” This brings us full circle back to Galatians 3:26-28. It gets back to identity. Not Jew, not Gentile, not male, nor female, not slave, not free, not black, not white, not Republican, not Democrat, not even American—our primary identity is in Christ. We wear his clothes. We reflect his values. Our citizenship is first and foremost in his kingdom. We seek it first. As a result we are transformed into disciples who follow his unorthodox and revolutionary teachings—turn the other cheek, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, take the loss, be wronged, go the extra mile, etc. We understand how “blessed be” is this approach. We also understand how subversively revolutionary and incredibly powerful it is. It changed the world once and it will again and again as we live it out.

Perhaps we need to freshen up our kingdom wardrobe and do some waking up of our own. “Because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Have no doubt about it. There is a revolution going on!


Closing the Gender Gap

October 5, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #4

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

Women in the Roman World

During much of the first century Roman world, which is the context of the New Testament, women were in no way considered equal to men and were regulated to certain well-defined roles. There were variations within this system due to social standing, wealth and other factors, but for the most part in the Roman culture the woman’s main role was to marry (usually very young), have numerous children (due to the high infant mortality rate), and take care of the home. Women from lower classes quite frequently held jobs outside of the home (in such areas as agriculture, markets,  crafts; as midwives and as wet-nurses, etc.), but were otherwise still very limited within the Roman culture.

Perhaps the best way to frame the existing gender gap is to understand the established Roman family system. Family units—wives, children, slaves—were headed by the most senior male within the family (the paterfamilias). He had all legal rights over his daughters until they were married (again often at an early age and often in an arranged marriage). Girls growing up in this system (among the more elite) would be given an education, but were always under the control of a male. After she married the control shifted to her husband. A proper Roman woman would busy herself with the details of her home, her children, spend her time weaving clothes for the family and taking care of the family needs. Even her name indicated her unequal status to men. It was the common practice that a daughter took her father’s name and feminized it. While legally should could inherit property, she would have to always have a male representing her interests in it. It was truly a heavily male-oriented culture. One writer bluntly states:

Roman women didn’t get equal rights with men. Roman law continued to insist that women could not be emperors, or be in the Roman Senate, or govern a province, or join the army. Men could beat or rape their wives, just as they beat and raped their slaves. A Roman woman could divorce her husband, but generally he kept the children. Women who were Slaves were frequently physically and sexually abused, and often saw their children killed or sold away from them. (From Women in Ancient Rome by K.E. Carr) 

Another historian notes:

A dichotomy existed within the lives of Roman women. They did have some personal freedoms, but they had little chance for individuality or personal choice. They were under the constant supervision of their fathers, male relatives, and husbands, who regularly kissed them on the mouth to find out if they had drunk wine. Drinking wine was strictly forbidden for Roman women and they could be punished by death. In Memorable Deeds and Sayings from the first century AD, Maximus tells us how Egnatius Metellus beat his wife to death for drinking wine. It was believed that wine caused women to have adulterous relationships, which were very common since so many marriages took place for political or economic reasons, not for love or passion. Women found to have committed adultery could be put to death by their fathers or guardians. Women often married men who were much older than themselves. They married whoever they were told to. (from Ancient Roman Women: A Look at their Lives by Moya K. Mason)

These two quotes, then demonstrate how, in general, women were viewed and treated in Paul’s context when he wrote the Galatian letter. To be fair there were exceptions to this (women with three children and freedwomen with four children had expanded legal rights for instance) and at the close of the first century a notable change within the empire occurred granting women heretofore unprecedented rights (coincidence?)

All One in Christ Jesus

So to those who first heard these words of Paul, they had to sound quite radical and revolutionary. Nowhere else within that context would they had been spoken. Religiously, women within Rome did participate and occasionally even lead certain rites and rituals (Vestal Virgins for instance—serving the Roman goddess, Vesta), but in no way were they considered equal with men. Jewish women, in general, enjoyed a slightly more elevated position within their culture, but again, theirs was also a male-dominated existence. The idea then that there is neither male nor female was then quite shocking!

Meaning and Practice

Obviously Paul was not suggesting some type of absence or denial of gender or gender roles. Just as with the other relationships he addresses in our Galatian text, the idea put forth is that in the kingdom everyone is elevated equally through Christ and by the grace of God. Male and female, therefore, in God’s kingdom all have equal status; equal access to the blessings and rewards of the kingdom; they are equally valued and needed within the kingdom; and they should be treated with mutual respect and honor. In God’s kingdom women are in no way inferior to men and should not be treated as such. Jesus died to make it so.

This high value of women is noted throughout the New Testament and within the church. Note Paul’s specific mention of many women within the churches in his letters (in Romans 16 for instance). This kind of recognition and praise was most uncommon.

Gifted women are named throughout the New Testament (Phoebe, who was a deaconess—Romans 16:1-2; Phillip’s prophetic daughters—Acts 21:9; Dorcas the dressmaker—Acts 9:36-43; Priscilla, co-teacher of the gospel with her husband—Acts 18; Eunice and Lois, Timothy’s mother and grandmother—2 Timothy 1:5). And while men were given the overall headship and spiritual leadership within the home and the church (Ephesians 5:22-23; 1 Corinthians 11:3), along with that is a rather revolutionary idea that within the home there is a mutual submission also practiced (Ephesians 5:21); that men are to love their wives just as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25) and as he loves himself, showing her respect (Ephesians 5:33). Beyond the home, Paul also indicates that women used their giftedness within the church—women praying and prophesying within the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).

As we process this teaching—at a point and place in which women have historically unprecedented rights and equality—they likely do not resonate as strongly as they did within the first century. Women then hearing a message of equality; of respectful treatment; of a place that valued her gifts; had to wonder if it were true. For men hearing the message it was nothing short of scandal. But it was a message flowing directly out of the grace, love and mercy of God; a message of how different his kingdom was from any other; a message, again, that eventually changed an empire.

For anyone paying attention though, it is not that shocking. Look no further than Christ’s incredible treatment and acceptance of women within his ministry. He truly is the great equalizer. Only through him could this happen—neither male nor female. Remember the overarching goal is unity in him. He bridges the gap between slave and free; he overcomes the hostility between Jew and Greek. He closes the gender gap. In his kingdom all are welcome and all are equal. Everyone has a place. Everyone has a gift. Everyone is needed. It is the revolution of the kingdom—a revolution still ongoing.

Let’s just be sure we are among the revolutionaries in advancing the kingdom in every way and all of the blessings within it available to everyone.


Four Ways to Protest–Kingdom Style

September 25, 2017

 

protest clip

Jesus was not overtly political, but his teachings were dangerously subversive to existing cultural, social and political norms. His enemies easily recognized it—so much so they colluded to kill him.

He leaves then a legacy of protest in the form of his kingdom teachings. It is not, however about taking knees, political posturing, engaging in social media warfare, patriotism or lack thereof.

What he taught was radical, revolutionary, and scandalous even—it eventually changed an empire.

Want to protest? Want to really make a kingdom difference? Really want to change the world for the better and shake power bases to their core? Forget about boycotting. Try this:

  • Identify first with the kingdom. Not with a sports team; not with a political party; not even a nation—with the kingdom of God. Seek it first. Treasure above all else citizenship in the kingdom for which Christ died. Put behind you the old way of identification and be made completely new in your thinking—new goals, new priorities, new ways to relate to others. Let go of the anger and replace it with grace. Let go of the bitterness and let grace abound. Protest loudly through the quiet gentleness and mercy of Christ.
  • Love your enemies. Really. Stop yelling at them—if even on social media. Stop escalating the fury. Just stop. Step back. Turn the other cheek. Pray for those who you dislike. Disarm those who oppose  you with the love and compassion of God. It is a quite subversive and potentially transformational protest. Jesus did it willingly on the cross and it changed the world forever.
  • Go the extra mile. Jesus meant it literally when he spoke it. He still does. Don’t return evil for evil; shout for shout; anger for anger; or hate for hate. Give back what is completely unexpected and then some—an extra mile’s worth of blessings. Protest the kingdom way and do it willingly, joyfully, in the name of Jesus and for his sake—making the teaching about Christ that much more attractive in the process.
  • Be faithful unto death. Don’t ever quit protesting. Don’t give up. Be salt and light. Don’t grow discouraged. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom trumps all! The Spirit of God empowers. Our life here is but a vapor. Bigger and better things are in store. It does not matter our nationality; the colors of our flags; what political party is in power; Jesus just wants to find faith when he comes. And faith is the victory!

The original kingdom protesters changed an entire, brutal, ungodly empire without political power, social media, ballots or bullets. They were the poor, the meek, the pure, the persecuted, the hungry and the thirsty who stood up to tyranny, injustice, sin, corruption, persecution, hatred, bigotry, and hardship of every kind by simply faithfully living out the kingdom of God. It was a protest of the humble and helpless that was empowered by the scandal of a cross. It was the protest of the kingdom and it changed everything.

Could that happen again?

(Bible verses referenced include: Matthew 5-7; Luke 18:10; Ephesians 4:20-5:1; Philippians 3:20; Titus 2:9-10; James 4:14; Revelation 2:10; 21:1-4)

 


Social Revolution: Neither Slave nor Free

September 25, 2017

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.