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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Slavery in the New Testament, Part 2: Seeds of Abolition

Dandelion seeds blowing from a half-full dandelion head against a brown background

Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, Beloved, is set after her main character, Sethe, has killed her infant daughter. Before the American Civil War, Sethe had escaped north to Ohio from enslavement in the South. When U.S. marshals tracked her down to return her to the plantation, Sethe killed her youngest rather than have her endure the evils of slavery. (Morrison's story is based on actual events from the life of Margaret Garner.)

The U.S. marshals acted under authority of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed southerners to pursue escaped slaves in free states and required those in free states to assist their efforts. The law was controversial in the north and became a catalyst for the Civil War.

Those who argued in favor of the law sometimes supported their case with Paul's New Testament letter to Philemon. The letter portrays Paul returning an enslaved person, Onesimus, to his enslaver, Philemon. Supporters of the law concluded Onesimus was a fugitive, and that Paul's example showed the right thing to do with such slaves: send them back to their masters.

This reading of Philemon places it among four passages in Paul's letters that seem to advocate slavery: Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Titus 2:9. In these problem passages, Paul (or someone writing from within his school of thought) directs slaves to obey their masters. The passages rightly rankle readers of the Bible.

However, they're not the whole picture. Paul also penned four, maybe five, passages best read as supporting freedom from slavery. His letter to Philemon is one of them, notwithstanding the deeply flawed reading I noted above. Thus, Paul's legacy on slavery is more complicated than most assume. Indeed, when properly considered together, I think Pauline teachings do not advocate slavery.

In this post, the second in a series on the New Testament and slavery, I'll take up the liberating passages in Paul's letters. They'll serve as critical ballast when interpreting the problem passages in my third and final post. My first post in the series illuminates the wider biblical context of Paul's teachings, namely the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible and the liberating aims of Jesus's ministry. The problem passages must also be read in this widest of contexts.

Philemon: "No Longer as a Slave"

As I've argued in other posts (e.g., here and especially here), the pro-slavery reading of Philemon gets the letter catastrophically wrong: it's actually a request that Philemon free Onesimus. In verses 15 and 16, Paul writes,

Perhaps this is the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you [Philemon] for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother... (NRSVUE)

Some interpreters suggest Paul meant "no longer merely as a slave," which would imply Onesimus was to remain enslaved but also be treated as a brother in Christ. On this reading, the Christian sibling relationship Paul advocates is compatible with the enslaver-enslaved relationship.

However, as Stephen E. Young argues in Our Brother Beloved, nothing in the underlying Greek text indicates this sense of "merely" (pp. 125-128). Moreover, the idea that the enslaver-enslaved relationship is compatible with Christian sibling-hood defies the entire point of Paul's letter, which is to contrast the equal-status relationships required in the church with the hierarchy of Roman society.

The best reading of vv. 15-16 is that Onesimus is no longer to occupy the role of slave and Philemon is to give up treating him as such. Philemon is to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul (v. 17), i.e., to treat him as a co-equal brother in Christ.

But Paul doesn't stop there. Later in the letter (v. 21), he writes, "Confident of your [Philemon's] obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask." As I've said, in vv. 15-17 Paul asks Philemon to jettison his hierarchical relation to Onesimus in favor of brotherhood. Now, in v. 21, he expresses confidence Philemon will do more than that.

What "more" does Paul mean? Though it's not totally clear, some scholars think the "more" is legal manumission, and I agree. If so, Paul's letter is a request that Philemon liberate Onesimus both practically and legally. Given this reading, Philemon is truly emancipatory: it's the only New Testament instance when a writer advocates for the freedom of a particular slave.

Galatians 3:26-28, 1 Corinthians 12:13, and Colossians 3:11: "No Longer Slave or Free"

The most famous emancipatory passage in Paul's letters is Galatians 3:26-28:

...for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (NRSVUE)

Here, Paul claims that, in Christ, there is "no longer slave or free"—or, as the NIV puts it, "neither slave nor free", which I took as the title of my novel. Differences in social status, says Paul, which so often divide us, should not hold for the company of the baptized. Status within the church should be equal: all are brothers and sisters, children of the one God.

Paul illustrates the point with three vivid pairs, the most marked contrasts of social status within Roman society: that between Jews and Greeks (or non-Jews), slaves and free people, and men and women. Even these most extreme differences in social status, says Paul, should not prevail in the church, not to mention more minor ones.

Despite the somewhat abstract nature of Paul's claim, it does have practical implications. If slaves are equal in status to free people, what could possibly justify continued master-slave roles within the church? Hierarchy is built into those roles; one cannot abolish the status difference without abolishing the roles.

Some disagree. According to a conservative reading, Galatians 3:26-28 does not demand change in social practice. Just as distinctions between Jew and Greek, and male and female would remain in the church, so the distinction between slave and free could remain. On this reading, slaves in the church would have status equal to free people, but such status would remain compatible with their role as slaves.

There is some truth to the conservative view. Consider a Christian slave whose master was outside the Christian community. In such cases, the church might have no power to end the master-slave relationship. Nevertheless, Galatians 3:26-28 would still insist such a slave has status equal to a free person in the church. In those cases, the role of slave would be compatible with status equality, but only because manumission would not be possible at that time.

The conservative reading fails badly for the case where slave and master both belong to the church (like in Philemon). The idea that such cases demand no social change ignores the way early church practices did, in fact, change to reflect Galatians 3:26-28. In particular, Jews in the early church began eating with non-Jews and eating "unclean" foods, both of which Torah proscribed. Similarly, at a certain point circumcision was not required of non-Jews to become followers of Christ. These are clear examples of social change reflecting the "no longer Jew or Greek" pair in Galatians 3:28. But if social practices obviously changed with respect to one of the pairs, why not think the others also had social implications?

My point is reinforced by the role of the Galatians passage in the early church. Notice that the pronouns in the passage are second-person plural ("you" and "your"). In the verses immediately surrounding Galatians 3:26-29, Paul uses first-person plural pronouns ("we" and "our"). Additionally, Paul's mention of "baptism" in verse 27 appears out of nowhere: he doesn't mention baptism at all in the prior or following verses.

Together, these textual details suggest Paul has dropped a saying or formula from elsewhere into his letter that his first readers knew well. Many scholars believe it to be the baptismal formula of the early church—i.e., what a church leader might recite as someone was baptized.

Insofar as baptism marked the moment someone joined the church, the verses seem to have been foundational to how the early church understood itself. The fact Paul repeats a version of the Galatian formula in two other letters—1 Corinthians (12:13) and Colossians (3:11)—reinforces its apparent importance and familiarity in the early church.

Given this foundational role of Galatians 3:26-28 as a baptismal formula and its documented social implications for the early church, it won't do to suggest the verses entailed no change in practice. Rather, the best reading is that the passage (along with 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Colossians 3:11) demands elimination of any status hierarchy in the church and with it (whenever possible) the master-slave relationship.

Seeds of Abolition

Sadly, neither Philemon nor the Galatians passage advocate the abolition of slavery as an institution in society at large. In Philemon, Paul campaigns for the freedom of a particular slave (Onesimus) from a particular enslaver (Philemon). However, he grounds his campaign in the coequal status of brothers and sisters in the church: Philemon should free Onesimus because the hierarchy of slave and master is incompatible with Christian sibling-hood. Thus Philemon does, at least, imply slavery should be abolished within the church.

In the Galatians passage, Paul cites a baptismal formula that gets at these same grounds. The formula states that master-slave hierarchy has no place in the church since the baptized "are all children of God through faith", i.e., brothers and sisters in Christ. To its ancient readers, the passage implied abolition within the church (to the extent possible), since one cannot eliminate status difference without eliminating the master-slave relation.

Though Paul doesn't directly advocate dismantling the entire institution of slavery in the passages I've examined, I think they do contain the seeds of its abolition. They surely imply abolition within the church, as I've noted. And, since Christians hold that ethical norms for the church are correct for all God's creation, the logic of the passages demands abolition wherever slavery occurs.

1 Corinthians 7:20-24?

Some might point to 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 as one further emancipatory passage in Paul's writings. However, I don't think it fits alongside Philemon and Galatians. Rather, I think it fits better with a discussion of the problem passages noted above (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Titus 2:9). For this reason, I'll take it up in my third and final post where I engage those passages directly.

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