Even though we have seen public demonstrations against those individuals and institutions that have benefited in the past from the slave trade, slavery remains an ugly feature of most societies in the 21st century.2 The institution of slavery has featured in many civilizations,3 some dating back into antiquity, including the Roman Empire, where it was an integral part of the Roman way of life. It has been estimated that a quarter of the people living under Roman rule were slaves, and the historian Finly once observed, that ‘Romans could not imagine a civilized existence to be possible’ without slaves.4 While this does not justify any form of slavery, which remains an unacceptable human institution, there was a vast difference between slavery in the ancient world and later periods in history, especially in America. As Malina and Pinch state, ‘Ancient slavery was not based on race, for example, one could become a slave by being born into slavery, being captured in war, falling into debt, selling oneself [or family members] into slavery’.5 In fact, slaves in the Roman Empire could obtain freedom much more quickly than in later periods of history and many were well educated, often holding important positions within a Roman household. This, then, was the world of the New Testament where Christianity flourished despite Roman imperialism and a slave economy.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves what is a metaphor? A metaphor is by its very nature a literary technique or an aid to the perception of a truth - it helps us to ‘get a handle’ on a truth. But always beyond the metaphor there lies a reality that is, critically, far more important than the metaphor. Using metaphors, therefore, enables Paul to point us beyond the physical to that which is spiritual and of eternal value, 2 Cor. 4. 18.
Paul’s use of the noun ‘slave’, doulos, both literally6 and metaphorically7throughout his letters is not without significance. He lived in a world where slavery was not only a fact of life but many of his fellow believers were either slave owners or slaves.8 Paul’s letter to Philemon is perhaps the classic example of such a relationship. The power of ownership in a Roman household meant that slaves were part of the property rights of the head of the household. Slaves could be bought and sold with impunity, but frequently the slave was put in a position of authority over the master’s household and would reflect his status and authority. The release of a slave or manumission was also a common feature in Paul’s world and both the institution of slavery and manumission provided Paul with two significant metaphors that he uses to provide us with positive Christian teaching in this context.
Paul uses the metaphor of the slave-market in Romans chapter 6 verses 15 to 23, where he compares the Christian life before and after conversion. Before conversion, and irrespective of ethnicity, Rom. 3. 9, we were, by nature, not only in service to sin, 5. 21; 6. 6, 12, but were slaves of sin; we could not exercise freedom, and sin was our legal master, v. 14. Whatever our master required of us, we complied with and had no power to resist. We were unable to free ourselves or buy our way out of this state of bondage. But, as believers, we have been set free in Christ, we therefore no longer place ourselves at the disposal of sin, v. 16. The consequence of serving a new master means that we now place ourselves at the disposal of righteousness, v. 16. As Cranfield writes, ‘The Roman Christians have been freed from the slavery of sin and made slaves of God; and they must act accordingly and not try to combine incompatibles’.9This idea of being slaves to God, however, should not be understood as meaning that we now serve God slavishly or that we slave for Him. In fact, the freedom from the tyranny of sin that we now enjoy in Christ means that instead of serving God as slaves, we now serve as sons in a filial relationship with Him through Christ.10 Paul also makes it quite clear that the result of bondage to sin is death, vv. 21, 23; Jas. 1. 15, but our slavery to God means the beginning of holiness in our lives and ultimately eternal life, Rom. 6. 22.
Depending on a slave’s circumstances, there was even the possibility of earning money in some Roman households. The Roman philosopher Seneca records the following comment in this context, ‘He is but a slave; his wage is five measures of grain and five denarii’.11Paul sees this analogy when he states that not only were we slaves to and of sin in our unregenerate state but the ultimate wage that sin paid to us was death, v. 23.
The question that then arises is how have we been freed from the tyrannical slavery of sin? How have we changed or exchanged masters? In the Greco-Roman world, a slave became the possession of a new master either by inheritance, because the former master had died, or by being sold on the open market. Paul uses the language of both when he describes our change of ownership. This interchange of masters took place when a ransom price was paid for us by Christ through His death upon the cross.12 Through Christ we have become dead to the tyranny of sin and been transferred into God’s ownership.13 We were purchased from the slave market of sin by being ‘bought with [or at] a price’, 1 Cor. 6. 20; 7. 23. Slaves were often branded to identify ownership, and we too have been marked out as belonging to Christ. Metaphorically, Paul argues that the brand marks, stigmata, or scars that he acquired as a Christian, Acts 14. 19; 2 Cor. 11. 25, confirmed that he belonged to Christ. These were to be contrasted with the old covenant marks of Jewish circumcision, which were now redundant, Gal. 6. 17.
The metaphor of manumission, or the release of the slave by a ransom payment, is then applied by Paul to our freedom in Christ. The manumitting of slaves was common in the ancient world so this principle would have been well understood by the recipients of Paul’s letters.14 Since the price for our release has been paid, 1 Cor. 6. 20, we are now called to freedom in Christ, Gal. 5. 1, 13; Jas. 1. 25. This means in practice that we are expressly forbidden to be under a yoke of bondage again,15 but to exercise liberty in Christ. As Paul reminded the Galatians, this liberty is not to be confused with licence, Gal. 5. 13-18. The evidential proof of this liberty in Christ would be seen in bearing the fruit of the Spirit, the produce of an inherent energy of a living organism.16 There is no prohibition (law) from God to prevent this abundant harvest - Gal. 5. 23!
When our Lord raised Lazarus from the dead, He told those around the tomb to ‘Loose him and let him go’, John 11. 44. Such is now our freedom in Christ!
‘Make me a captive, Lord,
and then I shall be free;
force me to render up my sword,
and I shall conqueror be’.
The act of freeing slaves by their owners was termed ‘manumission’ from the Latin word meaning to free a slave. Manumission is a legal release from slavery where slavery is permitted by law. This is contrasted with the term ‘emancipation’ which is the act of releasing slaves after slavery has been abolished.
Although the government introduced the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, the recent publicity surrounding the trafficking of Mo Farah shows that it remains an unacceptable part of UK society.
According to Wayne Meeks, ‘the literature on ancient slavery is enormous’ [The First Urban Christians, f.67 on page 20].
M. I. Finly, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, Brent Shaw, 1980.
Bruce Malina and John Pinch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, Fortress Press, pg. 397. The Hebrew maid who gave such good advice to Naaman, became a slave in Syria following one of their military incursions into Israel, 2 Kgs. 5. 2.
He uses the word literally of slaves in various letters throughout the New Testament, e.g., 1 Cor. 7. 21-23; Gal. 3. 28; Phil. 2. 7; Col. 3. 11, 22; 4. 1.
Metaphorically, among other texts, in Rom. 6. 16, 17; 7. 6; Gal. 4. 7-9, 25; 1 Thess. 1. 9; Titus 3. 3.
Eph. 6. 5-9; Col. 3. 22 - 4. 1, cp. 1 Pet. 2. 18-25. ‘God provided laws and judgments to monitor the institution of slavery. Still more dignity accrues to the status of being a slave in NT times if we consider the ‘household duties’ passages of Ephesians 5. 21-6. 9 and Colossians 3. 18-4. 1, where the very placement of slaves in lists with other family members suggests that their status was that of members of the household’. Leland Ryken, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, 1998, pg. 797.
C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans, The International Critical Commentary, Volume 1 I-VIII, T & T Clarke, pg. 321.
Rom. 8. 14, 15; Gal. 4. 7; 1 John 3. 1.
Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 80(7). In an earlier epistle he had argued that slaves and the free born are ultimately equal (47. 10). Paul, however, reflects the spiritual significance of this equality in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 verse 22.
Mark 10. 45; Eph. 1. 7; 1 Cor. 15. 3.
Rom. 6. 6, 7, 11-13; 7. 1; Col. 1. 13.
See the comments of Adolf Deissmann at pp. 323-325 (Light from the Ancient East).
Gal. 5. 1; 1 Cor. 7. 23; 1 Tim. 6. 1.
‘Like the Grapes of Eshcol carried by the spies; it is the produce of another land borne from across the seas’, Harold St. John (in Robert Lee, The Outlined Galatians, Pickering and Inglis, pg. iv).