Reader John F posted a comment asking for support for my earlier statement that in early Christianity some elders were slaves in my summary of Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, but it has no topical index and I have no searchable, electronic version.
I thought that was common knowledge, but I found sourcing the claim to require more work than I had anticipated — especially since I’ve evidently lost my copy of the precious Early Christians Speak by Everett Ferguson — perhaps the first work of serious Christian literature I’d ever read other than the Bible itself. (Vol. 1 is out of print but available through iBooks on iTunes but not Amazon. It’s only $9.99 at iBooks but not available for reading on a PC.)
So this is what I came up with —
There is the International Critical Commentary on 1 Timothy by I. Howard Marshall, p. 627, where he speaks of the possibility of slaves becoming elders in the early church.
A more detailed analysis can be found at J.R. Miller’s “More Than Cake” blog.
Following are the items of internal evidence I see that argue for the possibility that some of the Elders in the church might also have been bond-slaves in the community.
1.The Elders in [1 Tim] 5:17 are the Bond-slaves of 6:1 and Paul is giving instruction for how these men should lead first in the church and then how they should conduct themselves outside the church.
2. In the church Elders were to be given double “honor” (5:17) for their service, but outside the church, they still needed to “honor”(6:1) those who were in authority over them.
3. Paul is concerned that Elders not be men who persist in sin (5:20) and demonstrate good works (5:25) . Some sins, Paul says, are harder to discern (5:24), so he gives some specific examples of what sin looks like for an Elder who is also a bond-slave (6:1 and 6:2).
4. Earlier in the first letter to Timothy, Paul made it clear that Elders were to be men of good repute outside the church (3:7). Here in 6:1 he makes it clear that Elders who are bond-slaves must act so as not to bring disgrace to the teachings of God.
It’s true that the end of 1 Tim 5 includes a series of rules regarding elders, and then 6:1 states,
(1Ti 6:1-2 ESV) Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.
2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things.
We assume a change in subject, but that’s not necessarily true.
Frankly, given Paul’s repeated emphasis that, in the church, there is “neither slave nor free,” and the highly educated state of some slaves in Grecian lands, it hard to imagine that churches would not have ordained slaves as elders.
From A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
A third Century bishop of Rome had been a slave and was freed by his predecessor bishop by buying his freedom.
He tells us that Callistus was originally a slave in the household of a rich Christian called Carpophorus.
“CALLISTUS (1),” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 143.
Pope Leo forbade the ordination of slaves, which indicates that slaves were being
Among his disciplinary directions were regulations forbidding the ordination of slaves (Ep. iv.), which, though justified on the ground that they are not free for the Lord’s service, are couched in language breathing more of the Roman patrician than of the Christian bishop (cf. “quibus nulla natalium dignitas suffragatur,” “tanquam servilis vilitas hunc honorem capiat,” “sacrum ministerium talis consortii vilitate polluitur”).
“LEO (5) I.,” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 653.
Marcellus, another Roman bishop, was a slave —
Marcellus (3), bp. of Rome probably from May 24, 307, to Jan. 15, 309, the see having been vacant after the death of Marcellinus, 2 years, 6 months, and 27 days (Lipsius, Chronologie der röm. Bischöf.).
This pope appears as a martyr in the Roman Martyrology, and in the later recensions of the Liber Pontificalis, a story being told that he was beaten, and afterwards condemned to tend the imperial horses as a slave.
“MARCELLUS,” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 689.
Saint Patrick began life as a slave.
He became the slave of Milchu, the king of Dalaradia, the commencement of whose reign the Four Masters assign to 388, so that the very earliest year for St. Patrick’s birth would be 372. Dalaradia was the most powerful kingdom of N.E. Ireland. It extended from Newry, in the S. of co. Down, to the hill of Slemish, the most conspicuous mountain of central Antrim. In the 7th cent. traditions about his residence there were abundantly current in the locality, as indeed they are still. He lived near the village of Broughshane, 5 or 6 miles E. of Ballymena, where a townland, Ballyligpatrick, the town of the hollow of Patrick, probably commemorates the position of the farm where he fed Milchu’s swine (cf. Dr. Reeves’s Antiq. of Down and Connor, pp. 78, 83, 84, 334–348) After 7 years he escaped, went to Gaul and studied under Germanus of Auxerre. He remained for a very long period, some say 30, others 40 years, in Gaul, where he was ordained priest and bishop. He then returned to Ireland, visiting England on his way.
“PATRICIUS (10),” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 805.
Clearly, the early church bought the freedom of slaves at every opportunity, and many former slaves became bishops (and hence elders). Several commentators believe it all but inevitable that some slaves served as elders very early in church history. Barclay’s Daily Bible Study commentary on Philemon argues that Philemon became bishop of Ephesus. And it would so consistent with early Christian attitudes.