I have personally learned a lot this past week. I learned that having a flu in the summer time is not particularly enjoyable, as if it is fun any other time of the year. Having a 102-degree temperature while the heat index is 110 degrees outside is especially most dreadful (in case you were wondering). I also learned something of even greater value. I learned about the fascinating role Christianity has played in the demise of slavery. In fact, the Christian worldview should most certainly be accredited with the removal of the practice despite financial woes held by anti-Abolitionists. Many critics have claimed that the Christian Bible does not go far enough in speaking out against the horrible practices of human slavery. What I have found demonstrates quite the opposite. I have found two particularly interesting ways that Christianity led to the demise of slavery.
Christianity revolutionized the way slaves were viewed.
Critics often focus on the New Testament writer’s lack of reform as it pertained to the issue of slavery. Yet, how were the New Testament writers supposed to bring reform when most of them held no offices? For those Christians who knew people of notoriety, those individuals held positions in Jewish life. Jews were under the authority of the Roman Empire. So, exactly how were they to bring reform to the Roman Empire? Even if they by chance knew someone high in the Roman monarchy, how would the notion that all were equal in the eyes of God settle with a monarch who sought to keep people in check under his jurisdictional authority? They couldn’t.
Nevertheless, the message found in the New Testament was revolutionary in Greco-Roman times. The apostle Paul notes that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13, ESV). Yes, it should be noted that slavery was much different in ancient times than it was in Colonial America. With this in mind, it is still inconceivable that Paul would exclaim that slaves held the same position as freedmen in the body of Christ. This was a revolutionary concept. God had saved a people that included individuals from all walks of life. For that reason, he could proclaim that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV). Equipped with a mindset of love for every person, later Christians would be led to destroy the very practice of slavery.
Christianity brought about the elimination of slavery’s practice.
Historian Rodney Starks writes the following:
“Although it has been fashionable to deny it, anti-slavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently ‘lost’ from history until recently. Finally, the abolition of New World slavery was initiated and achieved by Christian activists” (Starks 2004, 291).
Timothy Keller adds, “When the abolitionists finally had British society poised to abolish slavery in their empire, planters in the colonies foretold that emancipation would cost investors enormous sums and the prices of commodities would skyrocket catastrophically. This did not deter the Abolitionists in the House of Commons” (Keller 2008, 65).
Thus, to answer the skeptics, while Christian Scriptures addressed the problem of slavery it its own way, it was in fact the ethics that flows out of the Christian worldview that led to the demise of the slave trade! Christianity also holds the answer to another kind of slavery: the slavery to sin. Freedom from that slavery can be found in the love and atonement offered by Christ Jesus.
© July 25, 2016. Brian Chilton.
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Starks, Rodney. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.