A controversial passage, 1 Corinthians 7:21-24, has often been used by Paul’s critics to say he was indifferent to the plight of slaves. And some Christians have cited it as justification for ignoring social concerns in favor of proclaiming the gospel. But an examination of the passage’s historical and biblical contexts reveals that both views are wrongheaded.

Paul wasn’t condoning slavery, but was showing that his overriding concern was the proclamation of the gospel in light of the soon coming of the Lord. Next to that, everything else was subordinate.

In verse 23 of the passage, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are slaves purchased by Christ, like those purchased in a marketplace, and that true freedom is only found in Christ — while slavery by comparison is nothing.

The historical context shows that slavery in Paul’s day was not as oppressive as later forms of slavery. Many prominent people in the ancient world were slaves, including teachers, writers, politicians, artisans and philosophers. Some slaves were better off financially than many who were born free or had purchased their freedom. And slaves often anticipated their freedom after 10 to 20 years of service to their masters, yet some chose to stay with their masters.

The process of being released from slavery is recorded on ancient wall inscriptions found at Delphi, north of Corinth. A ritual took place in a sacred temple, in which a slave would pay a priest the funds to purchase his or her freedom from the owner. (Slaves could negotiate the transaction on their own.) Once freed, the slave’s name was inscribed on the walls of the temple.

Remarkably, the early church had little interest in freeing slaves from their masters (Eph 6:5-9). The book of Philemon is an exception, but even there it was for reasons other than emancipation. Strangely, in the early second century, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, advised Polycarp not to encourage Christians to purchase the freedom of the slaves. He writes:

"Do not be haughty to slaves, either men or women; yet do not let them be puffed up, but let them rather endure slavery to the glory of God, that they may obtain a better freedom from God. Let them not desire to be set free at the Church’s expense, that they be not found the slaves of lust." (Polycarp 4.3)

Yet, we should not equate this lack of interest in freeing slaves with indifference, but rather to a different social milieu than we find in the more oppressive slavery of later centuries.

For Paul and the early church fathers, the importance of preaching the gospel in light of the soon return of Christ took priority over the social order. This didn’t relate only to the issue of slavery, but also to marriage, as can be seen in the verses immediately following the passage on slavery (vv. 25-27). In these verses, Paul appeals to the Corinthian believers to remain in their current marital state — whether married or single — as a means of preparing for the coming of the Lord.

Interestingly, in the mid-second century, a Christian tradition emerged that claimed when Paul entered the house of Onesiphorus (2 Tim 1:16; 4:19), he uttered several beatitudes including, “Blessed are they who have wives as if they had them not, for they shall be heirs of God” (Paul and Thecla 5).

So, Paul’s advice to his readers to keep their current social status — as a citizen or slave and single or married person — was to enable them to focus more clearly on the great day when Christ will come again (1 Cor 7:26-31; see also 1 Thess 5:1-11).