The discussion of slavery and Christianity is a difficult and sensitive issue. I don’t have the time or space to go into all the details here, but one resource that is helpful in this area is Clinton Arnold’s commentary on Ephesians, specifically his essay in it called, “The Distinctive Features of Roman-Era Slavery” (pp. 419-422). This essay comes under his commentary on Ephesians 6:5.
Arnold’s main point is that slavery in the Greco-Roman 1st century was quite different than slavery in the 19th century southern United States. Here are his five points showing the differences (I’ve summarized them).
In the Roman-era slavery,
1) Racial factors played no role. Slavery in America was primarily based on racial factors. However, Roman-era slavery had nothing to do with race or a particular people group. Roman slaves were of virtually every race of people in the Mediterranean region and involved people from every country.
2) Many slaves could reasonably expect to be emancipated during their lifetime. A great number of slaves could expect to be released by the time they were thirty years old. In fact, so many were being released from their servitude in the early first century AD that Caesar Augustus declared thirty years old to be the minimum age for emancipation and then limited how many were freed each year. Sometimes, owners paid their slaves a reward (a peculium), which was commonly used by the slaves to purchase their freedom. Slavery in the United States, however, typically had no hope for manumission and freedom.
3) Many slaves worked in a variety of specialized and responsible positions. Some slaves were consigned to hard labor, but many others served as teachers, writers, accountants, secretaries, etc. African slaves, however, were seldom entrusted with responsible positions nor did they have the training for any skilled jobs.
4) Many slaves received education and training in specialist skills. In the Roman world, many slaves were educated and trained in certain skills, which would benefit both the slave and the owner. Sometimes, owners viewed this as a business strategy – to train slaves and motivate them to high quality workmanship by holding out the prospect of freedom after a specified time. Slaves in America, however, typically did not receive extensive education and training.
5) Freed slaves often became Roman citizens and developed a client relationship to their former masters. It was the common practice for a freed slave to gain Roman citizenship. Often, their former master would become their patron, making their transition into freedom a bit easier. African slaves in the United States, however, were typically not freed and given a patron status.
Arnold is not saying that slavery in the Roman era was a bed of roses: “Although we can point to some features that make it appear better than slavery in the Antebellum South of the United States, it still involved the coercive ownership of another person.” Slaves in the apostle Paul’s day didn’t have legal rights, could not own property, and often were not permitted to marry and have a family. The main point Arnold is making is this: slavery in Paul’s day was quite different than slavery in the 19th century United States. Though this thesis doesn’t resolve all the difficulties in this topic, it is helpful to remember as it will keep us from anachronism and historical errors.