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Tuesday Time Travel: Slavery and Submission in the Roman Empire and the Bible

“Slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are crooked.” 1 Peter 2:18

Captives of War
Captives of War Led in Triumph: a Scale Model

There is no doubt that slavery was commonplace in the Roman Empire. It was an intricate part of the societal structure, and something with which people living in the first century were well acquainted. It is of little surprise, then, that the subject of slavery appears often in the New Testament. For this reason, it is essential to understand what the institution of slavery looked like in the Roman Empire when attempting to study the New Testament.

Why so Many Slaves?

As Roman control was militarily extended to new territories, the inhabitants of conquered cities would become part of a vast slave supply.

Slaves might also include those taken by force (kidnapped), bankrupt debtors, criminals, abandoned children, and children born to slaves.

Slaves were used for a wide range of work including construction, janitorial services, various domestic services, farming, fighting (as gladiators), and prostitution. Slaves were also used in “white-collar” work involving administration and accounting. Some slaves had business experience prior to enslavement and their masters would happily employ such skills.

Depiction of Construction Workers
Modern Depiction of Ancient Construction Workers

Treatment of Slaves in the Roman Empire

The abuse a slave might suffer was largely dependent on the temperament of the master. Slaves held the status of private property and possessed no legal rights. It is not hard to understand why physical and sexual abuse was relatively common. Without legal rights and significant societal status, justice (as we understand it) was hard to come by in the Roman Empire.

Mistreatment might range from mild flogging to the separation of a family (by selling) or extreme forms of punishment (such as crucifixion). One famous account given by Tacitus tells of the crucifixion of 400 slaves of a household for one slave’s crime (A.D. 61). “Ancient custom required that the whole slave-establishment which had dwelt under the same roof should be dragged to execution…” (Annals 14.42). Granted, such extreme collective punishment was condemned by some. But in this case, the execution was carried out.

The Context of 1 Peter Reiterated

Roman Slaves Appeared Smaller in Ancient Roman Depictions
Roman Slaves were Construed Disproportionately Smaller in Ancient Roman Depictions

As I (unintentionally) work backward in the text from last week, notice again the context of 1 Peter 2:11-3:7. Recall what I set forth a week ago:

In 2:11-12, Peter has applied the metaphor of ‘aliens’ and ’strangers’ once again to his audience (cf. 1 Peter 1:1, 17). He exhorts them to “keep their behavior excellent among the nations” in order that God might be glorified “in the day of visitation.” In the greater context of 1 Peter, this is most likely a reference to the potential that some of these unbelivers will be saved and glorify God when Christ returns in judgment.

Peter then commands submission in the context of three social structures, all of which are significant in the Roman Empire: (1) Civil Authorities (2:13-17); (2) Slave-masters (2:18-20); (3) Husbands (3:1-6). The principle apparent in each section is submission even when the authority is in some sense abusing its powers. The ultimate goal in enduring such abuse is Gospel-witness (2:12; 3:1, 15).

Within this discussion, Peter exalts Christ as the primary example of an ‘alien-stranger’ living in submission (2:21-25). Christ did not retaliate while enduring such unjust abuse. Rather, He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (2:23). Peter seems to call his audience to do the same.

Peter’s Command to Submit, Even to Crooked Masters

In 1 Peter 2:18, slaves are commanded to submit, even to crooked masters. The word translated “slave” or “servant” here is οἰκέτης. It can refer to “household-slaves” in particular, but it probably refers more generically to “slaves” here (cf. BDAG). In the immediate context, the reason given for patiently enduring unjust treatment is that it “finds favor with God” (2:19, 20). Peter asks a rhetorical question: “What credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?” The answer: no credit. Retaliating will discredit the one suffering abuse, especially as it relates to Gospel-witness. Peter calls for patient endurance instead, even in the midst of suffering.


Obviously, Peter is not condoning the use of abusive power by authorities. But as his readers are undergoing mistreatment and without legal recourse, Peter outlines the manner in which they are to respond: submissive obedience. Such a response is not characterized by weakness and frailty, but as I mentioned last week:

…Enduring mistreatment is an intentional decision by a believer to sacrifice temporary wellbeing for the sake of others, to be a witness of “the hope that is in you” (3:15), a hope of unfading inheritance (1:4). After all, Peter affirms that believers have a “Shepherd and Guardian” of their souls (2:25), a “faithful Creator” to whom they should “entrust their souls” (4:19), just as a suffering Christ “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (2:23).

Such an attitude requires extreme faith that what Peter affirms is true: We are alien-sojourners in a foreign land, and our inheritance is reserved elsewhere, namely heaven. How do you think his readers handled these commands? What about those slaves who unfortunately faced cruel masters? I would suggest that God’s priority (obedience and Gospel-witness at any cost) is too often not our priority (self-preservation at any cost).

11 Responses to Tuesday Time Travel: Slavery and Submission in the Roman Empire and the Bible

  1. these are great thoughts; the principles set forth in 1 peter certainly go against our natural tendencies; i wish some of these new empirical-critical NT scholars (specifically the ones arguing that the NT is a blatant ANTI-empire document) could grasp that it’s not always about the church’s well-being.

    to change directions a bit, i think the difficulty in expounding on the relationship between church & empire comes when it’s a different group, a third party, that is experiencing the empire’s abuse. the church must persevere, keep godliness, & bear witness through such times, but what should the church do about a different group that is under the empire’s heel? that’s a question i think about a lot.

    anywho, good thoughts

    • Yes, I remain skeptical of the anti-empire scholarship. I think much of this scholarship is reading too much into the text.

      The second issue you bring up is interesting. It seems to me that those who emphasize the need for social justice heavily emphasize the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels (and rightly so). I understand this, but I must consider the fact that I’m not the Messiah–I don’t have the ability to call the weary and heavy-laden to myself. What can I do? I can call the weary and heavy-laden to the Messiah. As I reflect on the NT as a whole, I think ultimate social justice is yet future and only available via redemption. Even the justice called for by God in the nation of Israel was never fully realized. Even so, I should be very clear: I still believe there is biblical precedent for providing for the needs of the down-trodden. At the same time, I think the most pressing concern has to do with everlasting provisions.

  2. Self preservation at ALL cost is our priority as we are addicted to this life and will spend piles of money to make sure it lasts just a few hours longer. We won’t give our life to the gospel like we give our resources for our lives. The American Dream is opposite to the vision of Peter. When we wake up, we are going to discover that it was a nightmare. Thanks for the post. — Steve

  3. alright, i woke up thinking about these sorts of things again & decided to kick the dead horse one more time:

    let’s say the gospel & eternal things are our first priority (and i truly feel that way). let’s consider that to be a given. with that, does the church have ANY responsibility to act or speak when it witnesses the empire abusing or oppressing a third party? i sort of let you off the hook when you’re answer was basically that eternal things are the priority lol. i think bonhoeffer would have totally agreed with you, but he also chose to act & speak against the state and for the jews. these issues may not come in america (or, we may not choose to see them), but they do come up.

    so, in the spirit of friendly conversation, what’s your take on the church’s responsibility when it comes to the empire abusing another group, a third party who is not the church. i’m honestly still formulating my opinions in this area, but i’m leaning towards the church taking up the mantle of its prophetic voice.

    • I find this question difficult to answer because believers in the first century would not have had any significant voice with which to protest the empire. So it could be argued that specific exhortations to preach against such injustice are absent only for this reason.

      However, when I consider a group of persecuted churches in a particular region today, I find no justification from Scripture to suggest that their leaders stand up against the abusive powers that be. Rather, I see the summary exhortation in the NT as something like: “Stand firm (in the faith), submit where possible, and give Gospel-witness.”

      I am less sure about the role of churches in places where persecution is not common (like here in the USA). We have certain rights and perhaps even obligations to promote justice within our own country (whose government is supposed to be of the people). (I will be reflecting on submission in the Roman Empire on Tuesday and later posting thoughts on what the US constitution has to do with civil submission in the USA context.)

      More broadly, I think that any church should condemn abusive regimes, including our own when guilty (obviously we shouldn’t be found supporting abuse). I wonder, though, who cares what the church thinks (in most places around the world). I tend to think that resources are better served in more explicit evangelistic activities. I don’t find Paul taking up a pulpit except to preach Christ. This doesn’t mean he didn’t care about injustice, but his priority was not political activism. Difficult question… but I it will probably come up again in the next week or two. Thanks for the discussion!

  4. josh,

    i tend to agree with what you’ve written. as i think about these things, one thing i can definitely say is that i do not think the pulpit is the place for political activism. it’s the place for theological activism, with admonitions of orthodoxy & prophetic calls for orthopraxy (i may have just coined something!). good response, thanks for the dialogue

    fyi, i added you to the coveted list of “sites i check out” on the righthand column of my blog; now expect literally dozens (lol) more people to know about your blog!

    later bro

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