How did Christianity play a part in slavery?

I am afraid that this is a fairly complicated issue. The simple
answer is that true Christianity never condoned or supported slavery in
any way. However, such a statement deserves an honest treatment of
history as well as exegesis of the relevant biblical passages.

The fact is that the practice of slavery is not absolutely and
directly condemned by the New Testament. Rather than command the owners
of slaves to free their slaves, Paul commanded them to treat them
humanely. “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair,
because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians
4:1). Paul urged Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, but did not command
it. A slave owner in the time of the Roman Empire who became a disciple
of Jesus would treat their slaves justly and humanely. Historically, we
know that most Christians freed their slaves. Clearly, this would be the
most obvious way to apply the principle in Colossians 4:1. It has been
argued that being slave or free is not key to salvation. In the context
of the Roman world, if the New Testament had completely outlawed slavery,
it would have created a level of reaction which could have slowed the
spread of salvation in the Roman/Greek world. Perhaps this will explain
the fact that although New Testament principles obviously speak against
slavery in all of its forms, it does not outright command its abolition.

Historically, evangelical Christianity is the root of the move to
abolish slavery world-wide. Again, this should not surprise us. If there
ever were a book which speaks against all the abuses of slavery it is the
Bible. If it were not for Christianity and the influence of the life and
ministry of Jesus Christ, there is no doubt that slavery would still be a
world-wide phenomenon.

Having said this, it is shameful but true that some have in the
past abused the Bible to actually support slavery. Passages have been
taken out of context to imply that slavery is a natural state for certain
depraved individuals. Greedy and arrogant people have made claims such as
that African tribes are the children Ham and are therefore under some sort
of curse. Such outrageous claims deserve their place in the trash heap.
The Bible teaches us to “in humility consider others better than
yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3). Jesus taught that we should do to others
as we would have them do to us. He certainly did not qualify that by
saying we should treat others as we would be treated, unless they are of a
different race or economic status. To teach otherwise is blasphemy!
James 2:1-11 teaches in the strongest terms that all forms of bias and
prejudice based on economic or any other status is a sin, implying that
those who do so forfeit their salvation.

To summarize, although the New Testament does not absolutely and
categorically command people who are already immersed in a world dominated
by slavery to immediately give up the practice completely, the Bible is
absolutely saturated with teachings which make it clear that God hates
slavery in all of its forms. No wonder that despite the shameful fact
that some Christians have hypocritically used the Bible to support the
practice, belief in Jesus Christ is what historically led to the
world-wide condemnation of slavery today.

John Oakes

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