As many as one third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. In a house church of 45 souls, 15 to 20 would probably have been slaves. There were five primary sources of slaves in the ancient Roman world: 1) captives of war, 2) offspring of slaves, 3) children discarded by their parents to die, 4) selling of self or family because of debt or bankruptcy, and 5) kidnapping of free persons by criminals and pirates.
Paul treated the slaves as full members and recipients of God’s promises and blessings. Paul taught Christian unity, not division (1 Cor. 12:13). We were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). With Christianity, there was no distinction between slave and free, all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Paul (and Christianity) never encouraged violence or rebellion as the answer to the social ills associated with the historical institution of slavery. Instead, Christianity encouraged a spiritual revolution of love toward one another. There were three major slave revolts experienced during the ancient Roman Empire. All three produced great suffering and death. The most well-known was the Spartacus Rebellion. After the defeat of Spartacus in 73 B.C., six thousand slaves were crucified. None of the slave rebellions advocated a general abolishment of all slavery.
Under the Roman institution of slavery, there was a real potential of emancipation sometime after the slave reached thirty years of age. There were some horrible slave jobs involving hard labor like in mining or rowing a galley on the Mediterranean Sea. However, slaves also worked in occupations like household management, teaching, business, and industry. Many slaves were allowed to own property. After a slave’s manumission, there were many examples of freedmen rising to prominent positions in the Roman Empire. Of course, there were also many examples of abuse and cruelty associated with slavery in the Roman Empire. However, again, it is clear that Paul did not encourage violence and rebellion against the institution of slavery.
When discussing slavery, Paul chose his words very carefully. He never wanted to be accused of inciting rebellion or criminality. First and foremost, Paul focused on serving God. At Colossians 3:22, Paul taught, “Slaves, obey those who are your human masters in everything, not with eye-service, as people pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” Paul taught us to do all of our work (jobs) as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23). Paul also taught, “Masters, grant your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). In summation, Paul taught that “whatever good thing each one does, he will receive this back from the Lord, whether slave or free” (Eph. 6:8).
It is interesting to note that Paul discouraged Christians from voluntarily becoming slaves. Many free laborers were impoverished, and they could improve their economic condition and economic security by becoming slaves. Some chose to sell themselves into slavery. Paul taught, “You were bought with a price, do not become slaves of people” (1 Cor. 7:23). If someone had the choice or opportunity to be free, he or she should choose freedom over slavery (1 Cor. 7:21). However, if someone was a slave when he or she was called to be a Christian, such a person was spiritually free in the Lord, and if someone was not a slave of men, he or she was the Lord’s slave (1 Cor. 7:22). Jesus Christ owns us; He is our Master. We must trust in His provision and generosity. In contrast, most humans are enslaved to their appetites (Rom. 16:18).
As to modern slavery, the British outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. Significantly, in 1807, President Thomas Jefferson also signed a law abolishing the transatlantic slave trade which became effective in 1808. The number of slaves transported to the United States was frozen at around 400,000. By the time of the Civil War, there were around 4 million slaves in the United States. Of course, slavery ended in the United States after the Civil War, which killed between 750,000 to 850,000 humans, while maiming many others. In 1834, without the necessity of a war, the British Parliament outlawed slavery in its Caribbean Islands that were a part of British Empire, freeing 776,000 slaves. Slavery continued in the Spanish colonies until 1880. Puerto Rico abolished slavery in 1873 (with a period of time for apprenticeships). Cuba abolished slavery in 1880. In 1888, Brazil became the last country to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere.
The British played the primary role in ending slavery in Africa. The British took control of many African governments that were thriving on slavery, and the British attempted to end slavery in Africa. In the 1870’s, British missionaries moved into Malawi with the hope of interdicting the Islamic slave trade at its source. In the 1890’s, the French conquered the Kingdom of Dahomey (located in Western Africa), which was a key hub and source for the African Slave Trade. When the French abolished slavery in Dahomey, they also ended the practice of human sacrifice. However, slavery persisted in many areas of Africa.
The Chinese did not abolish slavery until 1906, but the law did not become effective until January 31, 1910. In Korea slavery was abolished in 1894, but it was still practiced until the 1930s. Some parts of Africa and the Islamic world retained slavery until after World War I. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations placed an emphasis on ending the practice of slavery. Slavery was not abolished in the African countries of Liberia and Ethiopia until the 1930s. Slavery persisted in Saudi Arabia until the 1960s. In 1962, slavery was finally outlawed on the Arabian Peninsula. However, even now, slavery continues to exist in activities like the international sex trade and other nongovernmental relationships (with perhaps the exception of places like North Korea and China’s persecution of the Uyghurs).
Around twelve million Uyghurs (predominantly Muslim) live in China. More than one million Uyghurs have been imprisoned in Chinese government reeducation camps. The Uyghurs have been subject to torture, forced labor, and involuntary sterilization. The United States and others have accused the Chinese of genocide. To date, I am not aware of any American politician who has suggested that the United States should go to war against China over the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs. However, on the other hand, the United States has pledged to provide military support and aid to Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China. Personally, I agree with this distinction.
Most of our readers remember Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon was most likely a wealthy benefactor of Paul and Christianity. Philemon hosted a church in his home in Colossae (located in present-day western Turkey). Around AD 60 to 61, Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, fled from Colossae and traveled to Rome where Paul was in custody during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. At some point, Philemon became a Christian and sought Paul’s ministry and fellowship in Rome. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul referred to Onesimus as a “faithful and beloved brother” (Col. 4:9). In his imprisonment, Paul became very fond of Onesimus’ support and friendship (Philem. 1:10-12). On the other hand, Paul considered Philemon to also be a good friend and a faithful, loving Christian (Philem. 1:1, 5). The hearts of the saints had been refreshed through Philemon (Philem. 1:7). Interceding on behalf of Onesimus, Paul did not want to appear to be domineering over Philemon. Paul wanted to appeal to Philemon’s conscience. Paul wanted Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus.
Paul did not order Philemon to free Onesimus (Philem. 1:8-9). Paul wanted Philemon to accept Onesimus back as “more than a slave,” [in fact] as “a beloved brother” (Philem. 1:16). If Onesimus owed any money or damages to Philemon, Paul told Philemon to “charge it to my account” and “I will repay it” (Philem. 1:18, 19). And then speaking of Paul’s message of the Gospel, Paul reminded Philemon that “you owe to me your very own self as well” (Philem. 1:19). Then Paul told Philemon that Paul had the utmost confidence in Philemon’s obedience. Paul told Philemon, “I know that you will do even more than what I say” (Philem. 1:21). Did the “even more than what I say” include Onesimus’ ultimate manumission? We do not know for sure. Paul wanted to appeal to the conscience of his good friend. Finally, Paul said, “At the same time also prepare me a guest room, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you” (Philem. 1:22). Paul anticipated being released from his first Roman imprisonment, and he anticipated traveling to Colossae where he would stay with Philemon and enjoy fellowship with both Philemon and Onesimus, and the congregation that met in Philemon’s home. In doing God’s will, it is often best and most wise to appeal to another’s conscience rather than seeking to force their compliance. Paul explained that such a strategy was most consistent with practicing love toward one’s neighbor (Philem. 1:9, 14). By doing so, the reconciliation will be more fruitful and lasting.
 Arnold, Clinton. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, Vol 3. Zondervan Academic, 2002, p. 335.
 Ibid, p. 451.
 Ibid, p. 335.
 Ibid. p. 356.
 Ibid, p. 335.
 Ibid, p. 335.
 Ibid, p. 335.
 Ibid, p. 535.
 Ibid, p. 335.
 Hellie, Richard, Primary Contributor. “Slavery: Historical Survey.” Britannica.Com, 24 Feb. 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/slavery-sociology/Historical-survey
 Maizland, Lindsay. Council on Foreign Relations. 22 Sept. 2022.