Lynn Cohick details pushback within the early church against the institution of slavery.
You know there’s people today who say about Christians, well, why didn’t they just get rid of slavery? As though somehow the Christians, especially in the first three centuries, had the power to do that. We have to remember, this is a tiny band. They don’t have any political power; all they can affect is their own group. And from the very beginning, from Paul’s letters, he really knocks the foundation out from the institution of slavery when he says that owners need to treat the slaves as they want to be treated themselves. And, theologically, that God shows no favouritism. Now that’s news to the Graeco-Roman world. They did think that God played favourites – I mean, their gods played favourites. But the one true God does not show favouritism.
The other way I think that the early Christians reduced the power of slavery was by elevating slaves themselves. So in the second and third century, we have the age of the martyrs. Not that there were a lot of Christians martyred at that time, but those that were, were remembered, and they shaped what Christians thought about themselves. And they also shaped how the wider public thought about Christians.
Well there are a lot of slaves amongst the martyrs; including, for example, Felicitas, a very famous female slave who was martyred. And her story was told every year, on her anniversary, so to speak, of her martyrdom. Another slave, Blandina – she’s also remembered in probably the most famous history book of all time, Eusebius’ Church History. Now these are slave women, and yet they are set up as models for all Christians – men and women, free and slaves – to honour and to emulate. And so the Christians, even if they didn’t have power to remove the institution of slavery, nevertheless gave slaves the ultimate honour.