Servants and slaves formed by far the greatest part of the early Church. Within the Roman Empire it is estimated that there were sixty million slaves, mainly prisoners taken in war. They not only fulfilled the menial jobs, but there were slaves who were doctors, actors, teachers and so on. Many slaves were beloved members of families, but the huge issue for them was that Roman law decreed that slaves were not human beings, but things with no legal rights whatsoever. The only law for a slave was the master's will, whether fair or unjust, balanced or capricious. Most animals have greater rights in the twenty first century than slaves in the first! Christians proclaimed that EVERYONE was precious in the sight of God and so social barriers were broken down within the Church. One of the earliest bishops of Rome was a slave and the aristocrat believer and the Christian slave would be martyred hand in hand. The danger in this was that slaves could be leaders in the Church over their masters and the inclination naturally would be for the slave to assume an equality with his master and think that he could get away with less work in the household. This if brought to the Romans' knowledge would be stamped on ruthlessly and the early Church would be destroyed. The great citizens of Rome relied heavily on its huge slave force and would not allow that to be tampered with. That was the flipside of this new freedom: the positive outlook was that Christianity introduced a new relationship between master and servant. If you get a few minutes, read through the short letter of Paul to Philemon and read about the runaway slave Onesimus. Paul does not view him as an object to be destroyed, but a fellow believer to be forgiven and welcomed back. It reminds me somewhat of the Church in India, which has a vast number of people from the Dalik (used to be Untouchable) class attending. They are now one in Christ with Brahmin, the highest caste, and I have met members of both castes working alongside each other for Christ. Peter ends this passage with quotations from Isaiah 53, comparing Jesus Christ, the innocent who was mistreated and killed with slaves of unjust masters. Think of it as great joy when you suffer, he exhorts believers who were slaves, because you are suffering in the same way your Heavenly Master suffered!
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