A cursory study of human history quickly reveals the fact that slavery has been practiced on every major continent by every color of people. Egypt’s Great Pyramids—constructed by slave labor—are an enduring reminder of its practice many centuries ago. Reliable news reports from the countries of Nigeria, the Sudan, and Mauritania document the fact that the practice of slavery remains a fact of human existence to this very hour.
In the first century A. D. slaves were derived from two sources—conquest of other nations in war (2 Kings 5:2) and bankruptcy (Leviticus 25:47; Proverbs 22:7). Because of the aggressive and powerful Roman army, most of the people within the Roman Empire were slaves. Some historians have estimated the percentage to be as high as 90!
A slave living in the apostle Paul’s day had no legal standing. Emperors were infamous for their callous mistreatment of their slaves as a form of entertainment. In like manner, Roman citizens who owned slaves had life-and-death power over their human possessions.
It is in this setting that the inspired apostle pens these revolutionary words: “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:5-9).