Why “condemning slavery” is fighting against the Church today

Protesters in the US and Europe accuse the Church of indulging slavery. Photo: UOJ

Historically, the Church would not condemn or oppose slavery. Does this mean that the Church is guilty and that protesters have the right to fight against Her?

America pulls down the statues of those historical figures that were somehow related to slavery. Both the founding fathers of the United States and Christian preachers are currently "under the knife". There are demands for renaming cities. White people (both “commoners” and government officials) are forced to kneel and apologize for the fact that centuries ago blacks were enslaved to whites. Both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew approved this movement. Archbishop Elpidophoros, Head of the American Archbishopric of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, even took a direct part in these actions. Europe is also trying to keep up with the mainstream. At first glance, it all looks like a restoration of historical justice – but only at first. In effect, the spearhead of this mayhem is directed against the Church, and we will now tell why.

Christian martyrs such as Polycarp and Apollonius were slaveholders. Even the holy fathers owned slaves, for example, St. Gregory the Theologian, who remained the owner of both slaves and large estates until his death.

In his book "Lectures on the History of the Ancient Church" V. Bolotov writes: "The Church recognized slavery as a fact, as a legal establishment, and therefore did not fight against it. In historical and patristic literature one can find numerous descriptions of the relations between slaves and slaveholders, as well as rules of conduct for both in order to fulfill the Commandments of God."

Christian martyrs such as Polycarp and Apollonius were slaveholders too. Even the holy fathers owned slaves, for example, St. Gregory the Theologian, who remained the owner of both slaves and larg,e estates until his death. Moreover, the practical possession of slaves did not prevent him from assessing slavery based on his religious beliefs.

He wrote: “Initially, it was not like that. But the Creator at the beginning of man made him free and autocratic, limiting it to the law of commandment only, as well as rich among the pleasures of paradise ... Freedom and wealth consisted only in fulfilling the commandment, whereas true poverty and slavery – in violation of it. But since envy, strife and treacherous power of the serpent appeared ... a kinship was broken between people who separated and ranked, and covetousness destroyed natural nobility ... Nevertheless, one should look at the original equality, rather than the subsequent separation…"

Once again, St. Gregory did not consider slavery to be a natural and God-established institution but at the same time did not call for its elimination. He said that gentlemen should treat their slaves, first of all, as people and not "make the already difficult fate of the latter" even more difficult. But he called on slaves to be obedient to their owners: "obey your owners just as the Church obeys Christ."

A lot of saints who had slaves set them free. The saints of the late 4th century Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and others directly called on Christian slave owners to do this, although they did not demand the abolition of slavery. However, this was not a mass phenomenon, since it lurked a number of problems, both moral and socio-economic. The most obvious one was that the granting of freedom to a slave led to the fact that they had to secure their own livelihood. Previously, their owner took care of this, but after this release, the concern for food supply fell entirely on the shoulders of the former slave. In most cases, giving a slave freedom then was like dismissing a person from work today, i.e. they simply were left without any livelihood. Hence, releasing a slave seemed to be a noble act but actually was a crime in relation to him/her. From an economic point of view, granting freedom to slaves undermined the economic foundations of both society as a whole and individual households.

A lot of saints who had slaves set them free. The saints of the late 4th century Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and others directly called on Christian slave owners to do this, although they did not demand the abolition of slavery.

Therefore, the Church neither followed the path of protests against slavery nor the path of revolutionary changes in the existing system. Instead, She chose the path of evolutionary changes in human consciousness. In the end, it was under the influence of Christianity that slavery was abolished (here, of course, one can argue that slavery was, is and will be, it just takes on different forms and names).

The New Testament contains instructions to both slaves and slave owners, the quintessence of which are the words of the Apostle Paul from His Epistle to Ephesians: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6: 5-9).

The very fundamental attitude of the Church to any social status, national and even gender differences is manifested in the following words: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 28). This construct of the equality of all in Christ and brotherhood with each other despite social, national, racial and other distinctions was fully inherent in the ancient Church. Excavations at the site of ancient Christian cemeteries in Rome indicate that the sarcophagi of slaves were decorated as nicely as those of free individuals.

Christian apologist Aristide of Athens (2nd century) writes that Christians "convince male slaves and female slaves and children, if they have them, to become Christians out of love of them, and when they become Christinas, they call them brothers without any distinction." Christian slaves in the Church had exactly the same rights as free ones. They could become priests and even bishops. In Rome, these were Pope Pius (II century) and Pope Callistus (III century). Moreover, this phenomenon was so widespread that in the "Rules of the Holy Apostles" one can find a special rule governing these relations: "We do not allow the consecration of slaves as clergy without the consent of their masters and to the chagrin of their owners, because this may cause disorder in households. But when a slave is worthy of being ordained in a church rank, such as our Onesimus was, and his masters consent thereon and release him and allow him to leave his household: let him be consecrated” (Rule 82).

Presumably, this is Onesimus, referred to in the Epistle of Paul to Philemon. He was a slave who escaped from Philemon and joined the Apostle Paul, who baptized him and sent him back to Philemon not so much as a slave, but as a brother in Christ: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker — also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier — and to the church that meets in your home: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul — an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus — that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (Philemon 9-17).

True though, the slaves of a Christian master often abused the fact that the Christian faith required a merciful attitude towards slaves. Often, slaves became Christians only in order to receive certain preferences; often they simply did not want to fulfill their duties or approached them with disdain. Those are exhorted by the apostle Paul through his disciple Timothy: “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers” (1 Tim. 6, 1-2).

In any case, the Church somehow did not oppose the institution of slavery, did not demand to abolish it, and therefore, She is now associated with slavery in the eyes of the current protesters and sympathizers. This, in turn, means that the Church no longer has the moral right to teach people and preach something to them. How can one read St. Gregory the Theologian if he was a slave owner? How can one trust the Apostle Paul if he returned the runaway slave Onesimus to his master Philemon? How can we follow Christ if from His mouth we have not heard the condemnation of slavery? On top of that, Jesus Christ should be erased from the consciousness of humans only because He ... is white.

“I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been. <...> Tear them down,” the American writer Shaun King wrote in his Twitter account. He demands to remove all the murals and stained glass statues depicting "white Jesus, his European mother and their white friends". Though Palestine is not Europe, this fact does not bother Shaun King and his supporters. They demand to remove Christ from the life and memory of people. It seems, at least to some extent, that these demands will be met, for many people identify Shaun King's rhetoric with the right to exist.

Therefore, a tangible blow is inflicted on the Church, on Her authority among people. But besides this, another no less important process is taking place – mission drift. The concept of slavery loses its religious significance and boils down only to being a socio-economic phenomenon.

Christ tirelessly said that true slavery is slavery to sin

Christ tirelessly said that true slavery is slavery to sin: “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8, 34-36). Accordingly, true freedom is freedom in Christ, freedom from passions devouring the soul and, ultimately, freedom from death and corruption. It is in this religious meaning that slavery is condemned by the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ delivered us from the slavery of death and corruption. He has given us the Grace of the Holy Spirit so that we can fight against the law of sin that lives in us.

The Apostle Paul described slavery to sin as follows: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom. 7: 19-24).


The patristic ascetic literature gives us exhaustive recommendations on how we, with God's help, can be freed from this "body of death". But among these recommendations there is no demolition of monuments, much less robbery of shops and destruction of other people's property. But this is exactly what the protesters against slavery do ecstatically. They appear to assert their freedom from slavery in social terms but more and more become slaves to sinful passions. Take, for example, the passion of anger, which the protesters are obsessed with obviously. Saint John Cassian says: “Until (anger – Ed.) nests in our hearts and blinds the eye of our mind with pernicious darkness, we can neither acquire the correct distinction between good and evil, and clear religious contemplation, nor have the maturity of advice, nor to be partakers of life, not adhere to the truth, nor even perceive the true spiritual light ... "

Consequently, despite the fact that in the light of the protests, the right things are declared at first glance, such as restoring justice, ending the practice of racial discrimination, and so on, they lead to the destruction of the Church and Her authority in society. Once Dale Carnegie gave advice on how to convince people of their innocence and impose your point of view on them. He said: do your best so that your interlocutor is initially forced to answer “yes” to your questions; then it will be very difficult for him/her to say no at some point. According to this scheme, the current campaign against the Church is being built under the guise of the fight against slavery.

“Is slavery bad?” – "Yes".

“Did the Church accept slavery?” – "Yes".

“Did the Church act badly?” –  ...

“Should the Church disappear?” – ...

One must understand this is a set trap and have the courage to testify that the Church is the place where true slavery – slavery to sin – is destroyed. Therefore, as long as there are people on earth who want to free themselves from this slavery, the Church must fulfill Her mission on earth – as She has always done it without “mission drifts”.

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