I was reading just yesterday some of Edwin Judge's work in Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century, and particularly was enjoying some of his perceptive comments on Paul as radical critic of society.
One of the standard criticisms of Christianity, and the New Testament in particular, is how little it does to oppose slavery. Why doesn't it? Why didn't Christians abolish slavery immediately? This kind of discourse is, I find, especially prevalent in American circles. I believe it emerges from a number of complex factors. These include that (1) Americans generally understand and process 'slavery' through the American experience of slavery. This tends to skew their perception of slavery practices in other times and places. (2) Americans are enculturated in a tradition that makes the civil war, and the abolition of slavery in the US, part of the defining history of their national identity. We can point to Wilberforce and Evangelicals in England all we like, the American narrative is different. (3) Liberty, in both a political and an ideological sense, is deeply embedded as a core cultural value in the American psyche. That concept of liberty has become more extreme in contemporary political and philosophical discourses, so that radical autonomy of the will is seen as the great moral good.
Which is why, in contemporary American thinking, slavery is one of the great moral evils, one which America banished and defeated. And anything that can be tied to slavery is also 'on the wrong side of history'.
Anyway, let's return to Edwin's work. Edwin points out how Paul seems so radically uninterested in questions of social status and the way friendships work in classical society. He has many female friends, and calls them co-workers, and doesn't make a big deal of this. He moves freely across social strata. He engages in manual labour. He seems simply not to care that people are slaves. Judge suggests that this is part of a relativisation of social status. That, in Paul's new social ordering where service is such a key element, being or not being a slave is not so important. "Become free if you can" means that Paul sees the social advantage of being emancipated, but no moral imperative to do so.
I want to point to a few interesting elements of the New Testament in this regard In 1 Peter 2:13, Peter writes "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution". I wrote in my exegetical notes on this passage that here Peter, while on the one hand upholding a contemporary social order, at the same time radically undermines it because he places submission to authority on the foundation of submission to the supreme authority of God. This delegitimises other claims to authority and power - they are all dependent and subordinate upon the supreme God.
Secondly, in looking at Galatians 3:26-29, I have argued that what Paul is articulating is radical equality of status before God, not radical abolition of difference. This is clearly apparent in the first two instances, since slaves and free-people continue to be the same, and Jews and Gentiles remain Jews and Gentiles. Paul elsewhere continues his practice of relating differently to differences, and does not argue for a gender egalitarianism that means no gender distinction at all. Simply put, before God, these differences mean nothing.
Is not the same true for slavery? If as a slave I am entirely free and equal before God, what theological meaning attaches to my slavery at all? None. This is even more radical than overturning the slave system of antiquity, it renders it meaningless, powerless, void, all in an instant. And for Paul that opens up a possibility that is impossible for modern liberty-minded folk to contemplate: it might be of more service to remain a slave, even when you could go free.
I am almost certain to be misunderstood by some people in this post. I have no desire to return to a world with slaves (all the while acknowledging that the slave trade is in fact real and happening in today's world). Slavery has, indeed, been a system of great and terrible evils. But the NT shows us something shockingly different - slavery is not the greatest evil of all. In fact, Philippians 2 tells us the most amazing thing: the one in the form of God took on the form of a slave, and so became obedient unto death.