Owen Higgs reviews Paul’s writings to consider why he does not condemn institutionalized slavery in a way we in a later millennium might hope for and why the Gospel took precedence over all justice issues

‘Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.’ [2 Cor. 11.24ff].

The witness of Paul

Yes, but what did St Paul do about slavery? One of the fashionable criticisms of Paul is that he was too accepting and too uncritical of slavery as an institution. This makes him the example of how after Jesus had returned to the Father, the Church compromised with society and either supported or accepted social injustice. Then, the story goes, in the nineteenth century, despite resistance from traditionalists, modern churchmen, open to the Spirit and the spirit of the age, saw that the Church had got slavery wrong and had it abolished. And because slavery is undeniably wrong, its case history has become the unanswerable proof that, under the guidance of the Spirit or human reason, the Church must reverse its scriptural but socially-conditioned teaching on other justice questions, especially the ordination of women.

Now, if it can be shown that under the influence of society at large the official teaching and practice of the Church has been unjust, this has to be taken seriously. And it has to be the ‘official’ teaching and practice of the Church – what individual Christians do or do together cannot be taken as the norm, otherwise we would have to say Christianity is in favour of sin.

It remains, of course, that individual instances of alleged injustice need to be looked at on their own merits. But we also have to ask whether in fact the Church did get slavery wrong, and if so, why.

A key assertion here is that St Paul has a lot to answer for. Is this fair? In his magisterial review of Paul’s teaching, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Professor James M.G. Dunn, not I think a member of FiF, sets out a defence of Paul’s treatment of slaves and slavery. Professor Dunn represents a significant scholarly consensus and what he says about St Paul carries authority.

First century society

He begins by describing some of the key features of slavery as Paul would have known it. First, in Paul’s day slavery was not a moral issue but a matter of economics. We do not see it like that today, but people did then, and, to develop Professor Dunn’s argument, we should judge Paul against the standards of his time. After all, an understanding and respect for other cultures is one of the defences against the inhumanity which looks down on different cultures and racial types and which uses that position of moral and cultural superiority to justify slavery.

Secondly, slavery was such an important part of the ancient world that economies could not have functioned without it. This is not to justify slavery, but to quote Professor Dunn, ‘a responsible challenge to slavery would have required a complete reworking of the economic system and a complete rethinking of social structures, which was scarcely thinkable at the time, except in idealistic or archaic terms.’

Thirdly, though the Greek ideal of freedom was opposed to slavery, in practice the divide between slave and free was not clear cut. Greek law restricted a freedman’s employment and movement. A freedman might be worse off than a slave if he had to find his own living. And amongst slaves social position varied greatly – the slave of a rich man might be educated and given wide responsibilities, advantages denied an ordinary labourer, be he slave or free.

Indeed, though this takes us beyond Professor Dunn’s remit, slaves had a degree of freedom and influence which we might not have expected. Christian slaves who had been kidnapped were to be amongst the Church’s most successful missionaries. This is shown in the Life of Patrick, when Irish princes say they do not want Christian slaves in Ireland in case they converted the country and upset the established order.

So, on the basis of this complex social background, Professor Dunn argues that we should not be surprised, and, we might add, be offended if Paul’s attitude to slavery is ‘ambivalent.’ This is what he finds in the three key texts where Paul refers to slavery.

The crucial texts

First and most important is 1 Cor. 7.20-4. Here Paul writes that slaves should not be troubled about their status, though if they can take advantage of freedom they should. What matters more is their relationship with the Lord. In the Lord the slave is a free man, though a slave to Christ (and, we might add, if a slave to Christ then with no rights before God – there is no right to ordination, male or female). This relativizes all social relations, and, though Professor Dunn does not make the point, it is an advance on Seneca, the contemporary of Paul, who held the most humane views on slavery amongst pagans.

In the Letter to Philemon, it is not clear that Paul expected Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, so we cannot say Paul took an active stance against slavery. Rather, the letter tries to reconcile the two men, making clear that their relationship of master and slave has become one of brother, and brother in the Lord.

The third text is Col. 3.18-4.1. The essential point is the same – social hierarchies are relativized in the Lord. But here Paul addresses slaves themselves and he is also concerned that the Church does not scandalize society. These two latter points are important and raise issues not here addressed by Professor Dunn – clearly he thinks he has done enough to show that Paul was humane and responsible by the standards of his day.

Taking those two extra points in order, it is typical that Paul addresses slaves directly and talks to them as to equals. He puts brotherhood in the Lord into action, which may be why slaves made up a good proportion of the church in Corinth.

The second point is Paul’s concern not to scandalize society. For some critics this is the point where the Church is seduced into bourgeois respectability, but it is possible to be more understanding of these early Christian ‘scum of the earth.’ Christianity was not a licensed religion so its followers might be prosecuted at any time. There were few Christians and their roots were not deep. They were fighting on enough fronts as it was, without risking further persecution, and they needed those breathing spaces from persecution in which the Church in Acts grew.

The power of the Gospel

Perhaps this is the nub of the matter -was St Paul wrong to have put the growth of the Churchbefore contemporary social ills? Was it enough, as Professor Dunn argues, that he went beyond the most enlightened pagan and Jewish thinkers of his day to relativize social relationships in Christ, or should he have condemned slavery outright?

To answer those questions we should ask what we could expect from Paul. If he had tried direct action was he likely to have succeeded? At the end of the fourth century St John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople provides an example of someone who certainly tried direct action. He tirelessly raised money for the poor, and he publicly and vehemently criticised the extravagance of the rich, but he did not attack the institution of slavery, because he knew slaves often lived better than the urban poor. These attacks on social evil lost him the support of the Empress and his enemies forced him into exile.

The story of St John Chrysostom supports Professor Dunn’s argument that it would have been irresponsible for Paul to have tried to abolish slavery. But if direct action was not on, should he have made the ideological leap which nobody else did in his time and condemned institutionalized slavery? Perhaps those of his critics who have developed a critique of society more radical than anybody else living should speak up at this point.

Or should Paul have spent less time on the Gospel and more on social issues? Like Jesus his master, who did nothing for slaves, other than die to free them from sin and death, it is clear that St Paul, while caring for the physical needs of his fellow man [see 2 Cor. 8-9, Gal. 2.10], believed that at all times and in all situations it is essential that human beings know their God and salvation through his Son. This was not mere theory, our opening verses show how in Paul’s own life the cross of Christ came first, even before life or health.

If his work to proclaim the Gospel gave him no time to develop our notions of a just society, perhaps it is Paul’s life’s witness that the man without God is the real slave. And when this is forgotten, when we think God comes second to bread and social order, is there not a danger that we risk making God a marginal figure, a plaything for the leisured middle classes who can afford him? Or, to put it another way, is the real scandal of St Paul, not that he did not attack the institution of slavery but that he taught we are slaves of Christ?