Today, when we read Colossians 3:22-4:1 in the Bible, it’s certainly shocking for us to read, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” yet when Paul wrote this letter in the first century, it would have been shocking for a totally different reason concerning slavery:
“Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (3:25-4:1)
In this passage, Paul puts the slave and slave master on equal grounds before God! To the first century Romans, this would've been scandalous.
Despite this, critics of Christianity often complain that the New Testament writers didn’t go far enough: Why didn’t they tell slaves to revolt? Why didn’t they tell Christian slave-owners to free their slaves?
Understanding the historical context will give us insight into answering these questions.
Slavery was all-pervasive throughout the ancient Roman Empire (and all of the ancient world). The economy, culture, and the very structure of Roman society were built upon it. An estimated 85-90% of the inhabitants of Rome and the Italian peninsula were slaves or former slaves in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD . By the time of Christ, slaves made up well over half of the Roman population .
Secondly, the Greek word “doulos,” which is often translated “slave” in English Bibles, covers a wide spectrum of types of master/servant relationships in the Greco-Roman world. If you look at an assortment of English translations of the Bible, you’ll see “doulos” is sometimes translated “slave” and sometimes translated “servant.”
In fact, it’s well-documented that the scholars who created the ESV translation found accurately translating this word into English challenging and chose to translate it as “bondservant,” since “slavery” in Rome was often closer to indentured servanthood. Most study Bibles and Bibles with footnotes point this spectrum of meaning out in verses where “doulos” appears.
So, when we "slave" in an English Bible, it doesn't particularly means "slave" in the way modern Americans think of slavery.
American slavery and Roman slavery were very different. Yet, when we see the word “slave” in our English Bibles, we immediately import our modern, western ideas into that word. First of all, Roman slavery was not race-based like American slavery; anyone could be a slave.
Further, Roman slaves often had considerable freedom and could accumulate wealth and power even as a slave. Often, Roman slaves were more educated than their masters. Many slaves eventually gained their freedom and would start their own businesses with the experience and money they gained when working under their master. Other former slaves stayed in their master’s household and continued to work there once freed.
But we shouldn’t sugar-coat things either; many Roman slaves lived lives just as harsh and miserable as American slaves. Many became slaves by being born into slavery or captives of war. The harshest work was often given to criminals since the Romans didn’t have prisons; essentially, criminals were worked to death as slaves. The gladiators were slaves who were forced to fight for the entertainment of the masses (but could also live like celebrities - if they survived).
Yet, it’s interesting to note, that selling yourself into slavery due to debt was one of the most common ways Romans became slaves.
Though many benefited from the slave/master relationship, the Romans could legally treat their slaves with extreme cruelty - especially runaway slaves. Runaway slaves were often branded on the forehead with letters representing “fugitive” in Latin. Since such a mass part of the Roman population were slaves, they had a genius way of discouraging revolt: If a slave master was found murdered, all of that master’s slaves would be put to death. Yes, all of them! This wasn’t a common practice, but there is historic evidence of a master being murdered, and though no evidence pointed towards any of his slaves doing it, 400 of his slaves were killed.
One of the best-known slave uprisings in ancient Rome lasted 3 years, the one partly led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator-slave. Spartacus with about 70 other slaves escaped from a gladiator training school and raised an army as large as 120,000 slaves at the rebellion’s pinnacle. The slave armies were able to give the Roman armies a run for their money for a short time before being defeated in 71 BC. Spartacus likely died in the battle, but the 6,000 captured slaves who survived didn’t live much longer after that. Yes, the Roman legions crucified them – all 6,000 of them – lining the Appian Way from Rome to Capua.
Here’s the thing: there is no known historical evidence of any Romans ever speaking up to abolish slavery. Many former Roman slaves, once free, would acquire for themselves their own slaves. Even uprisings, like the one led by Spartacus, never had a goal of abolishing slavery.
Sociologist Rodney Stark writes in his book The Triumph of Christianity,
“All classical societies were slave societies – both Plato and Aristotle were slave-owners, as were most free residents of Greek city-states. In fact, all known societies above the very primitive level have been slave societies – even many of the Northwest American Indian tribes had slaves long before Columbus’s voyage. Amid this universal slavery, only one civilization ever rejected human bondage: Christendom.”
In 1 Timothy 1:10, in a list of the “ungodly and sinners,” the Apostle Paul includes ”enslavers.” The original Greek word means those who capture people and sell them into slavery. Later, in 6:2, Paul refers to Christian slaves and Christian masters as “brothers.”
1 Corinthians 7:21-23, Paul tells slaves if they have an opportunity to gain their freedom to take it and to not sell themselves into slavery in.
Speaking of the church, Paul writes in Colossians 3:11, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” He makes similar comments about slaves in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 and Galatians 3:26-29.
Finally, the “book” of Philemon in the New Testament is actually a short letter written by Paul to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul states that since he is an Apostle of Christ, he can command Philemon “to do what is required,” but he knows Philemon will do the right thing of his own free will. He goes on to tell Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a “beloved brother” and to “receive him as you would receive me.”
Back to our questions:
Why didn’t the New Testament writers tell slaves to revolt?
Based on the historical evidence, revolt would have been futile.
With this, we must remember Christ’s Kingdom is one where Christ’s followers are commanded to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matt. 5:44), and when Christ chose metaphors to describe his Kingdom, he didn’t describe it as a sledge hammer or battle axe, but as a mustard seed in a garden and yeast in flour (Matt. 13:31-33).
Why didn’t the New Testament writers tell Christian slave masters to free their slaves?
Based on the biblical evidence, did they need to? If you tell a slave master that his slaves are his brothers, do you really need to also say that he ought not own his brother as property?
As Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written in 1845, famously documents, people who called themselves Christians certainly supported American slavery, and some no doubt used verses like Colossians 3:22 out of context to justify slavery.
But in another book, For the Glory of God, sociologist Rodney Stark writes,
“[O]nly in the West did significant moral opposition ever arise and lead to abolition, [and except for some Jewish sects,] Christian theology was unique in eventually developing an abolitionist perspective… The larger point is that the abolitionists, whether popes or evangelists, spoke almost exclusively in the language of Christian faith. And although many Southern clergy proposed theological defenses of slavery, pro-slavery rhetoric was overwhelmingly secular — references were made to ‘liberty’ and ‘states’ rights,’ not to ‘sin’ or ‘salvation.'”
Steven J. Keillor in his book This Rebellious House states,
“Where [Christian] doctrine and economics conflicted, the [plantation owners] insisted that the church back down.”
If you want to read more about slavery and the Bible, I have several articles on my personal blog.
 Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate by Benjamin Reaoch.
 Seven Truths That Changed the World by Kenneth Richard Samples.