Most of us know that the world of the earliest Christians included slavery. The book of Philemon details the return of Onesimus. And elsewhere, Paul flips the usual household codes, addresses slaves directly (scandalous!), and tells masters they, too, have a master. But even more personally, Paul refers to all believers as manumitted from sin and free to become slaves of righteousness. Here are three examples from his letters:
Romans 6:16-23 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness.
So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
1 Cor. 6:20 For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.
1 Cor 7:23 You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men.
Interestingly, inscriptions in Delphi, Greece, have some scholars seeing a cultural context for Paul’s view of believers as slaves of Christ.
Delphi erected temples to multiple gods including Artemis, but their main deity was her kid brother, Apollo. And inscriptions there record acts of what scholars refer to as “sacred manumission.” There were different kinds of sacred manumission, but one is of particular interest to students of the New Testament. As scholar Deborah Kamen notes, “Sacral fictive sale is found predominantly in central Greece, especially in Delphi, where the practice is thought to have originated. In fact, over a thousand recorded acts of manumission survive from Delphi … entailing the manumission of over 1350 slaves, and dated between 201 BCE and ca. 100 CE.”
An example of such a “fictive sacral manumission” was found at the temple complex of Apollo. It begins by stating the date, which is typical of such inscriptions. In those days, they identified dates by who was leading—the equivalent to an American saying “in the third year of President Biden.” With this particular inscription the month and era of some generals is given along with the month. This information is then followed by a pronouncement: a male slave named Maiphatas from Galatia (Anatolia/modern Turkey) and a female slave named Ammia of Illyrian origin (Western Balkan Peninsula) “were manumitted for the price of seven minas of silver.” But there is one major stipulation. To gain their freedom they had to remain with their owner for as long as he lived, doing what he told them to do. If they did not remain, the agreement said, all would be void. Nevertheless, when their master—one Critodamus—died, “the sale shall remain with the god on condition that they are free and not to be claimed as slaves by anyone for their whole life, doing whatever they wish and going wherever they wish.” That is, they would belong to Apollo. And since he would never claim them, they were free.
Kamen explains, “In this mode of manumission, masters freed their slaves by ‘selling’ them to a god… for a specified price…. These slaves then became the nominal property of the god, with the understanding that [the god] would make no use of his right of ownership.” Consequently, that right “was transferred, by default, to the slaves themselves, who were then in possession of themselves—that is, free.”
Scholars see in this ancient practice Paul’s perspective as the believer as manumitted to Christ. Those formerly enslaved to sin were bought with the price of Christ’s blood. They were set free. And their freedom allowed them to choose righteousness.
Paul loved to borrow analogies from his culture to communicate spiritual truth. And what he said is as true for believers today as it was for the recipients of his letters 2,000 years ago.
Do you belong to Christ? If so, you have a master in heaven who has set you free. You no longer have to choose sin. It has no mastery over you. You are free in Christ through sacred manumission. Go and sin no more!
 SGDI 2.1854; translation by Austin, Hellenistic World, 272.
 Karem, Sale, 285.
 Karem, Sale, 286.