16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century
The first century society was built around the concept of oikonomia,
household fellowship. The head of the house was the leader, and
all the extended family and slaves had to follow his religion and
be obedient to him. For slaves, this was on pain of death. However,
the call of Christ was to individuals; and yet individual
conversion to a religion was unheard of at the time. And yet further,
it was usual for the head of the household to automatically be the
leader of the religion which his household practised. But for the
true Christians, this was not necessarily so to be; for the Lord
had taught that it was the servant who was to lead, and the least
esteemed in the ecclesia were to judge matters (1 Cor. 6:4). Elders
of the household ecclesias had to be chosen on the basis of their
spiritual qualification, Paul taught. The radical nature of these
teachings is so easily lost on us. Even if not all these poor converts
were slaves, they were all subservient to their employers / sources
of income. Craftsmen would have had to belong to a pagan trade guild,
normally involving idol worship which a Christian had to refuse,
and slaves of course had no ‘right’ to their own religion if it
differed from that of their household. Everything was against
the spread of the Truth amongst the poor women and slaves
of the first century. And yet, the Gospel grew and prospered,
as it marched through town after town across the Roman empire. The
Romans allowed the existence of the autonomous politaea,
the city-state, so long as within its religion it featured the worship
of the Emperor. And yet the NT writers speak of the ecclesia as
a city which is independent, defiantly devoted to the worship of
the one and only true God (Eph. 2:19; 3:20; Heb. 12:22; 13:14; Rev.
21). The writers must have nervously penned those inspired words,
knowing the problems it would create. The Spirit of God could have
chosen not to so directly challenge this world; and yet there is
a chasmic difference between the community of God and the surrounding
world, which the New Testament unashamedly triumphs in. And let
us do so too, not being conformed to this word, but being transformed
unto the things of God.
Slaves in the first century were seen as mere bodies owned by their
masters or mistresses. Hence Rev. 18:13 describes slaves as somata,
bodies. They were seen as both the economic and sexual property
of those who owned them (1). It seems Paul had this in mind when
he spoke of how we have one master, Christ, and our bodies are indeed
not our own- but they are His, to be used according to His wishes.
For many slaves, this would’ve meant running the risk of death
or flogging. And yet despite this radical demand, Christianity spread
rapidly amongst the huge slave population of the first century world.
The insistence to marry “only in the Lord” was very hard to obey in the
first century. The Acts Of Thecla record how Thecla’s refusal to marry a
non-Christian was judged as a criminal act, and as a threat to the whole fabric
of society. The pressures and related issues facing Christians in many areas
today is just as radical. Likewise female slaves- amongst whom the Gospel
spread so powerfully- were the sexual property of their owners, who could
sub-let them as he wished. This was all part and parcel of being a female
slave. There are many extra-Biblical records of female Christian slaves being
martyred for their faith, running away and being cared for by other Christian
women, or committing suicide. The moral demands of the New Testament were even
harder to follow then they are now.
It is clear that although women weren’t to teach brethren in ecclesial
settings, they did teach- either unbelievers, or other sisters,
we assume. The references to women teaching would have been anathema to
many of the surrounding cultures in which the Gospel spread in the first
century: “Not only the arm, but the voice of a modest woman ought to be
kept from the public, and she should feel shame at being heard…she should
speak to or through her husband” (Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom
31-32). Likewise the encouragement for a woman to “learn in silence” was
a frontal attack on the position that a woman’s duty was to follow the
religion of her husband and concern herself with domestic duties rather
than religious learning. The way the Lord commended Mary rather than Martha
for her choice to learn and her rejection of domesticity similarly challenged
the prevailing gender perception. There is no doubt that a 1st century
Christian woman was far more liberated than in any other contemporary
According to Plato, no artisan could be a citizen of the ideal state.
Aristotle tells us that in Thebes no man could become a citizen
until ten years after he had stopped working at a trade. Cicero
believed that " No workshop can have any culture about it"
. And then, into this culture, walks Jesus. A working man, who in
practice learnt His matchless spirituality in the worskhop. And
whose religion had for its founding fathers a band of working men
from Galilee. Truly did Christianity with its women and slave converts
turn the first century world upside down. It could only have been
on the basis of their transformed personalities and that 'something'
about them, which converted the masses, and also the educated white
collar converts whom we know were made.
(1) Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery In Early Christianity
(Oxford: O.U.P., 2002).