I am developing a paper (for later this year and as a chapter in a book on Christians responds to tyranny and oppression), of which a part is related to the issue of slavery and how the gospels and Paul addressed the issue.
This following thought from my research and draft (so far) was affirmed by a book review on the issue of slavery that I recently read (I haven't read the book yet)—one of my initial conclusions: despite our desire that Jesus, Paul, and other NT writers would have simply announced the evil of slavery (which they did not, at least in a clear way we modern, progressive Americans could appreciate), we need to understand that Jesus et al. were after something higher, more significant. Wisdom, I believe, had actually prevailed in their approach.
Rather than an exchange of power(s) and enforcement by power (which always means some level of violence to human beings), Paul and Jesus (and Luke in Acts for that matter) had something for more ambitious in mind than advocating that slaves to be legally free (which would have been good for our comfort levels and political agendas, but actually not so much at that time for slaves). Paul and Jesus wanted the church to see slaves as human beings.
In essence, NT writers make us see and recognize slaves and other marginalized people as human beings. This, along with making children and women into human beings (which they all had always been, but you know what I mean), is what changed everything, unhinged an empire, and, as a result, the gospel-cross-shadow (this approach and paradigm modeled by Jesus and the NT writers) through household churches, then, caste itself the gospel moved demographically and geographically into the Gentile world, especially into the Roman Empire.
This should be what the church is about: declaring, making, advocating, accepting, welcoming others, especially the marginal, the oppressed, and disenfranchised into and as human beings. This is what the early church’s Holy Kiss, household baptisms, open tables (i.e., the banquet-meal and Lord’s Supper), and the horizontal nature of Christian gatherings did, subverting oppression and slavery that had been stamped and framed by an Empire built to affirm vertical social status and religious and civil power.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.