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.
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.
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.
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