Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Slavery and the Bible


[About three weeks ago, my friend Xavier asked me the following question on Facebook:
"Do you believe that AMERICAN slavery is morally wrong? If so, how do you ground that moral position in the bible consistently?"
Below is my answer.]

Overview of slavery in the Bible

Though slaves are mentioned in Genesis, the theme of slavery is first emphasized in Exodus as the children of Israel are placed into a condition of forced labor by Pharaoh and then freed from this slavery through divine intervention. It is important to note the purpose for which the LORD redeems His people: that they may SERVE Him (c.f. Exodus 7:16); the Israelites are not given liberty from Pharaoh because they have some absolute right to autonomous freedom, but because they properly belong to God as His slaves rather than to Pharaoh. The redemption of Israel from Egypt becomes the basis for how slaves are to be treated within Israel (see, for example, Deut 15:15). The theme of slavery is renewed as Israel [specifically, “Judah”] is punished for rebellion against God through being taken captive by Babylon. After Israel’s repeated failures, it becomes clear that the need is not only for external release from slavery, but from a spiritual release from the bondage to sin. This is how the idea of freedom from slavery is developed in the ministry of Christ and His apostles. Set free from sin, we are yet slaves of righteousness, bound to follow the teaching of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, who taught, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). Following this command would keep Christians from placing others on the auction block, splitting up families, etc. Though American slaveholders refused to see this, it wasn’t because Jesus’ words were unclear.

Slavery in the Old Testament laws

Because the Old Testament has laws regulating slavery, some see an implicit endorsement for slavery in the Bible. But this is an illegitimate use of Old Testament law, as we see in a parallel example from Jesus’ teaching on adultery in Matthew 19:3-9. In this passage, the proponents of divorce point to the law of Moses regarding “a certificate of divorce,“ imagining that due to this law God approves of divorce. Jesus says that this law was given due to hardness of heart; the civil laws of the Old Testament deal with maintaining order within a community of radically corrupt individuals. Jesus corrects their misunderstanding, not by gleaning wisdom from the current more evolved culture around Him, but by going back to the state of Man and Woman before the Fall: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning,” etc. How should the Christian look to the situation of humanity before the Fall in order to gain insight about how we should think concerning the issue of slavery? One line of biblical reasoning in regards to this topic was suggested by Dr. Russell Moore (who was my professor for Christian Ethics) in the following statement from
a recent article:

In the Scriptures, humanity is given dominion over created things but he is not given dominion over his fellow image-bearing beings (Gen 1:7-30)

Writing about slavery in the American South, Moore goes on to point out:

The southern system of chattel slavery was built off things the Scripture condemns as wicked: ‘man stealing’ (1 Tim 1:10), the theft of another’s labor, the destroying of family ties, and on and on and on.
In order to prop up this system, a system that benefited the Mammonism mostly of wealthy planters, Southern religion had to carefully weave a counter-biblical theology that could justify it (with the spurious “curse of Ham” concept, for instance.) The abolitionists were right.
Slavery in the New Testament commands

In the New Testament, the practice of slavery, as found in its 1st century context, would have been radically transformed for those following the teaching of the apostles; in addition to the Golden Rule, which was applicable to every member of the believing community, those who owned slaves and came to faith in Christ were forbidden from threatening their slaves (Eph 6:9) and they were to regard their Christian slaves as brothers in Christ (Philemon 16). But why were slaveholders not commanded to immediately release their slaves? Part of the answer to this question lies in the great differences between Roman slavery and American slavery, as recently indicated on Justin Taylor’s blog:

In the first century, slaves were not distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech or by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves into slavery for economic or social advantage; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated after ten to twenty years of service or by their thirties at the latest; they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; their natural inferiority was not assumed.
The Great Commission as the solution to unjust slavery

For the Christian, the solution to unjust slavery is the Great Commission. The good news of freedom from slavery to sin through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed; those who believe in the risen Lord are then discipled to follow His commandments, such as, "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "do unto others as you would have them do to you." And as we challenge one another to love and obey Christ the world is changed.

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