Here is an icon of the Apostle Paul (Pavel), attributed to Andrey Rublev:

Paul is usually easily recognized by his beard and receding hairline, even without a title inscription.

The writings of Paul are the earliest in the New Testament.  In the letter to the Romans, Paul introduces himself like this, in almost all English versions (Romans 1:1):

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ….”

The Greek of the text, however, says:

Παῦλος, δοῦλος Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ….

Paulos, doulos Iesou Khristou….

“Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ….”

The euphemistic translation we are accustomed to in the KJV —  and almost every other English translation since William Tyndale in 1526 — makes it something of a shock to novices on reading the Greek New Testament when they discover that Paul is not simply saying “a servant” (which most readers do not interpret too literally in any case) — but he is actually saying “a slave.”  Paul describes himself as a slave of Jesus.  That is the real meaning of the Greek doulos.

An inquisitive reader might decide to check further, to see where else this term might be found in the New Testament, and again may get a shock to find it is used some 130 times — about 150 if one counts other forms of the word.

Some, no doubt, will just note this curious and unsettling fact and then move on, but the diligent person who investigates further will come to the disturbing realization that the New Testament is thoroughly pervaded by the notion and culture of slavery — so much so, in fact, that even the relationship of believer to Jesus is generally presented as that of slave (doulos) to master (kyrios/lord).

That in itself should not be surprising, given that slavery was the very foundation of Roman economy and society in the time of beginning and early Christianity.  In the Roman world, the number of slaves in the population was something like one in five — or in Rome itself, one in three.  What is surprising to many moderns is that nowhere in the New Testament is a clear statement found to the effect that slavery should be abolished.  Quite to the contrary, slaves are told in Ephesians 6:6:

Οἱ δοῦλοι, ὑπακούετε τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου ἐν ἁπλότητι τῆς καρδίας ὑμῶν ὡς τῷ χριστῷ,

“Slaves, obey your masters according to the flesh with fear and trembling in sincerity of your heart, as to Christ….”

And again in Colossians 3:22:

Οἱ δοῦλοι, ὑπακούετε κατὰ πάντα τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις, μὴ ἐν ὀφθαλμοδουλείαις ὡς ἀνθρωπάρεσκοι, ἀλλ’ ἐν ἁπλότητι καρδίας, φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν·

“Slaves [douloi], obey in all the masters [kyriois] according to the flesh, not in eye service [i.e. in appearance only], like pleasers of men, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.”

In other words, it is the “duty” of slaves — as Christians — to obey and fear their earthly masters.  That is the sum of New Testament teaching on the matter.

We find the same regarding a related Greek term — oiketes (οἰκέτης), for which the euphemistic but incorrect translation “servant” is also often used.  An oiketes was a slave too, but a particular kind of slave — one whose work was in the οἶκος/oikos — the house or home.  So when the New Testament book 1 Peter 2:18-20 addresses οἰκέται/oiketai (plural form of oiketos), it is advising house slaves:

“O House Slaves [οἰκέται], be subject in all fear to your masters [δεσπόταις/despotais], not only to the good and gentle, but also to the bad [σκολιοῖς /skoliois: literally “crooked,”]; this is indeed acceptable if anyone, for the sake of conscience toward God, endures sorrow — suffering unjustly.  Indeed what kind of credit is it if sinning and being beaten [κολαφιζόμενοι/kolaphizomenoi], you endure it?  But if you do good and are suffering and endure it, this is commendable before God.”

This basically acknowledges the right of masters to beat their house slaves, and the slave is obliged to endure it, whether the punishment is considered “just” or “unjust.”

When one points out the pervasive presence of slavery in the New Testament, it is common for people to say, “Yes, but look at the case of Paul and the runaway slave Onesimus.”

Well, tradition says Onesimus was a runaway slave, but that is not made clear in the letter of Paul called Philemon.  Instead, Paul refers to Onesimus as a brother to Philemon, telling Philemon to receive him

“Not now as a slave, but above a slave, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” [Philemon 1:16]

Nowhere in the letter does Paul actually refer to Onesimus directly as a slave.

It would have made sense for Paul to tell Philemon to take back a slave as a brother “in the Lord,” that is, a Christian, “spiritual” brother, but to say Onesimus is also brother to Philemon in the flesh appears to indicate a sibling relationship.  Perhaps there was a falling out between brothers, with Philemon treating Onesimus like a slave.

Whether or not that was the actual case (it is difficult to say, given the scanty information in the letter), Paul nowhere in this letter condemns the institution of slavery.  Nor, indeed, do we find a condemnation of the institution of slavery anywhere in the New Testament.  Instead we see the slave-master relationship as the fundamental paradigm — the model — for the relationship of Christians to Jesus.

Luke 17:7-9 has Jesus saying,

Τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν δοῦλον ἔχων ἀροτριῶντα ποιμαίνοντα, ὃς εἰσελθόντι ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Εὐθέως παρελθὼν ἀνάπεσε, 8ἀλλ’ οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω, καὶ περιζωσάμενος διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ

Which one of you, having a slave [doulon] plowing, or shepherding, on coming from the field will say to him “Now that you have come, recline at the table”; but won’t he say to him, “Prepare my supper, and having  girded yourself, serve me while I eat and drink, and after this, you will eat and drink”?

What we do find in the New Testament is the advocacy of what might be euphemistically called “benign slavery,” that is, not questioning or suggesting the abolition of slavery (something the New Testament never does) but rather advocating the “fair” treatment of slaves, as we find in Colossians 4:1, which actually (and again rather shockingly) uses slavery as the framework of Christian theology:

οἱ κύριοι, τὸ δίκαιον καὶ τὴν ἰσότητα τοῖς δούλοις παρέχεσθε, εἰδότες ὅτι καὶ ὑμεῖς ἔχετε κύριον ἐν οὐρανῷ.


 “Masters [kyrioi], that which is just and fair grant to your slaves [ doulois], seeing that you too have a master [kyrios] in heaven.”

Such a “scriptural” justification of slavery accounts for why slavery was not abolished in early  Christianity, but instead continued to be a part of it.  Slavery remained an important part of society in Eastern Orthodox Byzantium — and slavery persisted in Russian Orthodox culture until the abolition of serfdom through the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, under Tsar Alexander II.

One even finds slavery permitted in the Canons of the Eastern Orthodox Church (as in the Pedalion of Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain), which state, among other things, that a slave may not become a monk without the permission of his master, and that a slave who has been permitted to become a monk — but then leaves monastic life — must become a slave again.  It declares that some are born slaves (such as a child born to a slave mother), while others are made slaves as a result of being captured in war.

In short, slavery was an accepted institution in Eastern Orthodoxy.  That does not mean there was not the occasional exception in opposition.  The strongest of these was likely Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394 — see his Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes), who some call the “first abolitionist.”  His contemporaries Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, by contrast, held that slavery was the result of sin and thus was a natural part of  the human condition — essentially blaming slaves themselves for their enslavement (“It’s your own fault”), as did St. Augustine.   But neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Latin Christianity took Gregory of Nyssa’s condemnations to heart, which is why the institution of slavery in Christianity lasted into relatively recent times.

Needless to say, it was little comfort to the centuries of Christian slaves in Eastern Orthodox society to be told that while they might be in bondage “in the flesh,” in the “spirit” they were free.  It was hardly a meaningful distinction to a human whose life was lived as a legal piece of property to another Christian.