Slavery exist in both the Old and the New Testament with God even regulating slavery in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:20-21, Deuteronomy 23:15) and St. Paul advocating for the freeing of slaves saying that Christians should receive them no longer as a slave but as a fellow brother in the Lord (Philemon 1:15-16), but what was the Early Church Fathers view on slavery? (this can be from 50 AD to 900 AD)

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.

Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.

Exodus 21:20-21

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee:

Deuteronomy 23:15

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

Philemon 1:15-16

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    It's not obvious that it's too broad. Both the Title and the Question ask essentially the same specific thing: "What was the early church's view on slavery?" and "what was the Early Church Fathers view on slavery?". The problem is that the rest of it provides biblical references to slavery without explicitly indicating that these are there to provide examples of the background and context that the Church would have been working with. Feb 9, 2023 at 14:47
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    The question seems valid. Just because he quoted Scriptures does not make it too broad. The body of the post reaffirms that of the question title.
    – Ken Graham
    Feb 9, 2023 at 15:04
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    This was closed because it is a duplicate of another question that itself has been closed? And even it it weren't, that question is quite different from this one. Feb 9, 2023 at 20:26
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    The word 'slavery' has unavoidable connotations with what is called 'Atlantic' or 'Euro-American' transportation of Africans to America and their maltreatment. The word 'slave' thus, in the English language, conjures up images of death in confined spaces, chains, whips, torture, death by overwork, rape, and worse. I suggest that the proper term, as used in scripture 'bond-servant' should be used rather than 'slave' in order to competently and academically study the history of the practice through the ages.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 10, 2023 at 11:29

2 Answers 2


What was the early church's view on slavery?

Before going on I would like to draw attention to the fact that slavery in the Scriptures may not always mean slavery in the sense that we understand it today!

“Slavery” in the Old Testament context does not mean what most people today, especially in America with the evils of slavery in its not-too-distant past, have in mind. There are at least three different ways to use the term.

  1. There is the “chattel slavery” that most people call to mind, which involves forcing people into service indefinitely, unwavering cruelty, and the reduction of people to mere property. Although this was common in the African-American slave trade (and gravely wrong), it’s not what the Old Testament describes.

  2. Old Testament slavery commonly refers to a process of indentured servitude that the poor and destitute (or those with enormous debts) would make use of temporarily. They could “sell themselves” as servants (“slaves”) to pay off a debt or obtain sustenance for themselves and their families in a time and place with no government welfare programs. Although this type of “slavery” is a hard thing to experience, it is not intrinsically wrong.

  3. Sometimes “slavery” refers to penal servitude in which where wrongdoers are punished with forced labor. This is also not wrong in itself (even today, some criminal punishments include “community service”), although depending on circumstances it may not always be prudent.

Does the Bible Support Slavery?

In the New Testament, St. Paul speaks about slavery, but falls short of condemning it.

St. Paul and slavery

In his letters to Christian communities, St. Paul described himself as a slave who belonged to Christ (see Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1), exhorted his listeners not to be slaves to sin (see Romans 6:15-23), and encouraged them to be slaves to one another (see Galatians 5:13). Paul even said that Christ took on the nature of a slave and became poor for our sake (see 2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:7).

His audience knew what it meant to be a slave—not surprising, since Christianity’s compassion for the lowly earned it the reputation of being a “slave religion.” The second-century pagan critic Celsus once described converts to the Church as “foolish and low individuals” like “slaves, and women, and children” (Origen, Against Celsus, 3.59).

However, this language in Paul’s letters does not mean that he endorsed slavery or that he thought it should be a part of God’s kingdom. To understand why this is the case, let’s look at the specific exhortations Paul gives to slaves, starting with one passage critics of the Bible often cite:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free (Eph. 6:5-8).

Slavery and the New Testament

Interesting to note that Pope St. Callixtus I (bishop of Rome 218–222 CE) had been a slave in his youth, thus showing that former slaves bared no social stigmas in the Early Church.

One has to remember that the Early Church was living in a different set of realities that we do not deal with in our modern times, thanks be to God. For the Church to openly speak out against to the established authority would bring down the wrath of the established government (Rome) even more violently than ever. The Church and the Early Church Fathers understood this all to well.

The Church and Roman slavery

In the Christian cemeteries there is no difference between the tombs of slaves and those of the free. The inscriptions on pagan sepulchres — whether the columbarium common to all the servants of one household, or the burial plot of a funerary collegium of slaves or freedmen, or isolated tombs — always indicate the servile condition. In Christian epitaphs it is hardly ever to be seen ("Bull. di archeol. christiana", 1866, p. 24), though slaves formed a considerable part of the Christian population. Sometimes we find a slave honoured with a more pretentious sepulchre than others of the faithful, like that of Ampliatus in the cemetery of Domitilla ("Bull. di archeol. christ.", 1881, pp. 57-54, and pl. III, IV). This is particularly so in the case of slaves who were martyrs: the ashes of two slaves, Protus and Hyacinthus, burned alive in the Valerian persecution, had been wrapped in a winding-sheet of gold tissue (ibid., 1894, p. 28). Martyrdom eloquently manifests the religious equality of the slave: he displays as much firmness before the menaces of the persecutor as does the free man. Sometimes it is not for the Faith alone that a slave woman dies, but for the faith and chastity equally threatened — "pro fide et castitate occisa est" ("Acta S. Dulae" in Acta SS., III March, p. 552). Beautiful assertions of this moral freedom are found in the accounts of the martyrdoms of the slaves Ariadne, Blandina, Evelpistus, Potamienna, Felicitas, Sabina, Vitalis, Porphyrus, and many others (see Allard, "Dix leçons sur le martyre", 4th ed., pp. 155-- 64). The Church made the enfranchisement of the slave an act of disinterested charity. Pagan masters usually sold him his liberty for his market value, on receipt of his painfully amassed savings (Cicero, "Philipp. VIII", xi; Seneca "Ep. lxxx"); true Christians gave it to him as an alms. Sometimes the Church redeemed slaves out of its common resources (St. Ignatius, "Polyc.", 4; Apos. Const., IV, iii). Heroic Christians are known to have sold themselves into slavery to deliver slaves (St. Clement, "Cor.", 4; "Vita S. Joannis Eleemosynarii" in Acts SS., Jan., II, p. 506). Many enfranchised all the slaves they had. In pagan antiquity wholesale enfranchisements are frequent, but they never include all the owner's slaves, and they are always by testamentary disposition — that is when the owner cannot be impoverished by his own bounty, (Justinian, "Inst.", I, vii; "Cod. Just.", VII, iii, 1). Only Christians enfranchised all their slaves in the owner's lifetime, thus effectually despoiling themselves a considerable part of their fortune (see Allard, "Les esclaves chrétiens", 4th ed., p. 338). At the beginning of the fifth century, a Roman millionaire, St. Melania, gratuitously granted liberty to so many thousand of slaves that her biographer declares himself unable to give their exact number (Vita S. Melaniae, xxxiv). Palladius mentions eight thousand slaves freed (Hist. Lausiaca, cxix), which, taking the average price of a slave as about $100, would represent a value of $800,000 [1913 dollars]. But Palladius wrote before 406, which was long before Melania had completely exhausted her immense fortune in acts of liberality of all kinds (Rampolla, "S. Melania Giuniore", 1905, p. 221).

Primitive Christianity did not attack slavery directly; but it acted as though slavery did not exist. By inspiring the best of its children with this heroic charity, examples of which have been given above, it remotely prepared the way for the abolition of slavery. To reproach the Church of the first ages with not having condemned slavery in principle, and with having tolerated it in fact, is to blame it for not having let loose a frightful revolution, in which, perhaps, all civilization would have perished with Roman society. But to say, with Ciccotti (Il tramonto della schiavitù, Fr. tr., 1910, pp. 18, 20), that primitive Christianity had not even "an embryonic vision" of a society in which there should be no slavery, to say that the Fathers of the Church did not feel "the horror of slavery", is to display either strange ignorance or singular unfairness. In St. Gregory of Nyssa (In Ecclesiastem, hom. iv) the most energetic and absolute reprobation of slavery may be found; and again in numerous passages of St. John Chrysostom's discourse we have the picture of a society without slaves - a society composed only of free workers, an ideal portrait of which he traces with the most eloquent insistence (see the texts cited in Allard, ''Les esclaves chrétiens", p. 416-23).

After the liberation of the Church from the Roman persecutions, St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke out against the institution of slavery in a way that none had before, vilifying it as incompatible with Christianity.

In the late fourth century a lone Christian voice spoke out against the oppressive institution of slavery in a way that none had before. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394), one of the Cappadocian Fathers, laid out a line of reasoning vilifying the institution as incompatible with Christianity in his fourth homily on Ecclesiastes. It is considered the “first truly ‘anti-slavery’ text of the patristic age.”

His words seemed not to have had much affect on the Church at the time, however. In fact, it took until nearly 1,500 years after Gregory’s death for the Christian faithful to take an unequivocal stance against slavery, and even then American Christians continued to turn a blind eye to the suffering of slaves and to the incompatibility of slavery with the message of the Bible. This raises a deluge of questions. What was the sociocultural context in which Gregory of Nyssa formed his critique of slavery? How did the culture of fourth-century Cappadocia work to ensnare nearly everyone in the grasp of slavery? What was it about Gregory that enabled him to rise above the status quo? How did a slave society transform into a culture of racism? What are the consequences of that transformation? What can we learn from Gregory, and how do we see beyond the veil of oppression?

Gregory vigorously attacked slavery as an institution. In his homily, he lays out a complex philosophical argument based on the premise that masters and slaves are equal in the eyes of God. This premise was already generally accepted by Christians. Both slaves and masters were understood by Christian intellectuals to have the same human nature. Gregory, however, follows the argument farther than most of his contemporary intellectuals did. If slaves and masters are both equally human, then the practice of one human enslaving another is immoral in the eyes of God.

You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and you make laws opposed to God and contrary to His natural law. For you have subjected one who was made precisely to be lord of the earth, and whom the Creator intended to be a ruler, to the yoke of slavery, in resistance to and rejection of His divine precept. ...How is it that you disregard the animals which have been subjected to you as slaves under your hand, and that you should act against a free nature, bringing down one who is of the same nature of yourself, to the level of four-footed beasts or inferior creatures...?

Gregory’s position on slavery is especially surprising given his cultural context. Gregory of Nyssa, his older brother Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-399), and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 325-389) formed a group of intellectuals known as the Cappadocian Fathers. Together, their theological teachings and scholarship helped define Christian doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity, challenged Arianism (the concept that the Son was of different substance from and inferior to the Father), and contributed to the authorship of the Nicene Creed. Gregory of Nyssa’s ideas on slavery differed, however, from those of the other two Cappadocian Fathers.

Both Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea considered slavery an unfortunate part of human existence. Gregory of Nazianzus reasoned that slavery was nothing more than an unfortunate “sinful distinction”—it came about as a result of sin and therefore is one aspect of the human condition. Basil, on the other hand, came to a different conclusion. He argued that all humans share the same basic human nature, but unlike Gregory of Nazianzus, he believed that slavery was good for slaves because of their inferiority. Slaves, in other words, are inferior in intelligence and should be grateful for their enslavement to those of superior wisdom because they could not otherwise survive. This is a position that Augustine (c. 354-430) advocated in City of God (19.15).

Gregory of Nyssa and the Culture of Oppression


The early church of the first century had no "view" on slavery, any more than it had a "view" on crucifixion. The Roman empire of the day practiced both. They were facts that were part and parcel of society.

Despite the horrors of crucifixion and how that had impacted on Jesus Christ, Christians did not protest against the barbaric practice. Despite any abuses and miseries seen in the practice of slavery, Christians did not protest against it. The reference to what Paul said in his letter to the Christian slave-owner, Philemon, had nothing to do with calling Christians to free their slaves. As that letter was written as part of his "prison epistles", it can be dated to around A.D. 60, so this answer deals with that time period.

This commentary below deals with the way modern attitudes have caused many Christians to suppose that Paul was the first 'abolitionist':

"What? Paul the morning star of emancipation from slavery in this world? He was no such thing, and such ignorant drivelling is nothing but the wresting of scripture. ... I have opened the first verses at length to show the proper sphere to which the Epistle of Paul to Philemon applies, and outside of which it has nothing to say.

All the speech of this letter sounds within the walls of salvation, that is, within the church or assembly of the living God, the congregation of the saints. The epistle has nothing to say to the world, from which the ecclesia - by definition - has been called out." Philemon, p 54, John Metcalfe, 1995

Paul's letter was not to Christians in general - it was addressed to the Christian man, Philemon, and was an appeal to that one man to receive back this one slave, Onesimus, and to accept him back into his household without retribution for his having run away. A runaway slave in the Roman empire could have been put to death, if found. Onesimus had travelled well one and a half thousand miles to put so great a distance between himself and his master that there should be no fear of such a punishment. He got to Rome, where Paul was under house-arrest, awaiting trial, and met Paul, who explained the gospel to him. Onesimus was converted to faith in Christ. When Paul learned that he'd run away from Philemon, he would be staggered, because Paul had earlier done the same with Philemon becoming a Christian - Paul's brother in Christ. Now Onesimus was likewise Paul's brother in Christ, and Paul sent him back to his master with a letter that would cause Philemon to drop all ideas of retribution. Why, Paul even offered to pay money for any debt / damage / loss the runaway slave owed.

Paul appealed to Philemon to see Onesimus as a Christian, and - as Christ had forgiven him - to forgive the slave. Yet there is not even a hint that the slave should then become a free man from the legal standing of Roman law. Maybe Philemon did offer Onesimus such freedom, but maybe the slave chose to remain permanently in the household, now that his attitude had been transformed by grace, as had his master's. We do not know. There is nothing in the New Testament to even give a hint of that. And Paul said not a word about it. All he sought was for harmony to come out of a previously broken relationship, by sending the slave back. The fact that Onesimus made that huge journey again, with Paul's letter, shows the slave's confidence that all would be well when he returned and sought his master's forgiveness.

My answer is that the slavery of the Roman empire was not an issue that roused Christians to start freeing their own slaves, let alone seeking the end to it across the empire. If they did free their own slaves, nothing is said in the New Testament about that. On the contrary, Paul urged new Christians to remain in the station they were in when called to faith:

"Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, and remain as you were when God first called you... Are you a slave? Don't let that worry you, but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And when you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ." 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 NLT

Philemon was a free man when called by the Lord (through Paul's ministry of the gospel). He then became a slave of Christ.

Onesimus was a runaway slave when called by the Lord (through Paul's ministry of the gospel). He then became free in Christ.

Paul's letter showed that clearly. Both men were to see each other like that, so that physical slavery would make no difference to their new, Christian relationship.

That is why Paul could also write in Colossians 3:11 that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Christians are all "one" in Christ Jesus. Of course they remain either Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female! It is their relationships one to the others, in Christ, that have permanently changed, due to their new relationship of being accepted in Christ.

Whenever the church started seeking to change the status quo regarding slavery, it was never during the first century, nor is mention made of that until a very long time thereafter. Perhaps someone can come up with a documented date, but I cannot suggest one.