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A Few Thoughts on Slavery

And Why it’s Unavoidable
By: Jonathan Harris

Spiritual Slavery

A couple weeks ago we had a guest speaker at our church talk on the subject of slavery. The main point of the message was that as Christians we are slaves of Christ. There has been what John MacArthur calls a “conspiracy” concerning the Greek word Doulos which often times is translated as simply “servant,” when in reality it means “slave.” Certainly there are far-reaching implications for the Christian who considers himself a slave of Christ. He no longer belongs to himself, he belongs to Christ entirely. The language of Scripture is crystal clear when it comes to the subject of spiritual slavery. We were “bought” with a price as 1 Cor. 6:20 says. Over and over again we see Christians referring to themselves as slaves. Paul, James, Jude, Peter etc. and even Christ considered themselves slaves of God. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” If one studies the Bible thoroughly they will find there are only two options- either you are a slave of God, or a slave of sin (Mark 6:24, John 8:34). So the question is not, “Am I a slave,” but rather, “Who’s slave am I?” Now of course we are speaking in spiritual terms right now, but what about chattel slavery? We all know that’s wrong right? This question has come up in many discussions I’ve been apart of , and I want to see if this issue can be addressed from a Biblical and historical perspective without waxing long or sounding boring. It’s my hope that this information will help you defend your faith from those who want to point the finger at “those racist Christians!” and also help you think rightly in your own mind.

The first thing we need to figure out is what the Bible says about chattel slavery. I know there are some of you out there who immediately want to discount anything the Old Testament has to say on the topic, so in deference to you, I will start with the New Testament.

New Testament on Slavery

Let’s start with Christ. He lived at a time when slavery was commonly practiced (i.e. the slave girl who confronted Peter when he denied Christ, the slave of the high priest whose ear Christ healed, etc.) and said nothing negative about it. There was no speaking out against it on his part, only passive approval. Some of you may argue, “But His purpose was to seek and save the lost, not champion social causes.” I’m not sure this premise is completely valid because Christ had a lot to say about society, government, relationships, etc., but even if we grant this premise we still have to deal with the parables Christ told involving slavery. The parable of the landowner (Matt. 21:33-46)?, the parable of the slave’s duty (Luke17:7-10)?, and the parable of the wise slave (Matt. 24:45-51)?, etc. must be reckoned with. Christ often used slavery as a spiritual analogy. Does this mean He approved of the institution on an earthly level? Perhaps so, perhaps not. At the very least it does mean that he didn’t oppose it.

Many have tried to use Paul’s writings to renounce slavery, but nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s look at a couple of the most quoted passages on the subject. In Col. 4:1 (and Eph. 6:8) Paul states, “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” Here we can see a “bridge” coming into focus between the idea of spiritual and chattel slavery. Notice Paul doesn’t say, “Free your slaves for it is a sin.” Instead he instructs for masters to treat them kindly. It is utterly shortsighted for people to use what Paul said in the previous chapter to support the idea that Paul was opposed to the institution simply because he said there was no “slave and freeman” in Christ. All it means is that when Christ is held in common there is nothing significant dividing slaves and freemen because they are equally significant. Paul also says there is no “circumcised and uncircumcised.” Does that mean that we should all be circumcised? It can’t because that would contradict Paul’s other writings on the subject.

Paul also wrote a letter (the book of Philemon) to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave, who Paul had converted. Paul’s intention was for the Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his service. If slavery was a sin would not Paul have warned Philemon of his sin instead of encouraging him to continue in it?

The major text used to support the notion that Paul opposed slavery is 1 Cor. 7:21-24 which states:

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

Most anti-slavery proponents forget about the last portion of the phrase for good reason, because it would totally negate their point. In context, Paul is talking about the physical condition of converts- Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen. He then relates chattel slavery to spiritual slavery showing that if one is a converted slave he is free from sin in Christ, and if he is free, then he is Christ’s slave. In other words, a restatement of the idea that Christ unifies all social classes and ethnic distinctions, not a statement on whether slavery is right or wrong. His command to “not become slaves of men” must be contrasted with the first phrase in the sentence stating that we “were bought with a price.” It means, Christ is our primary master. He paid the most for us. We have a duty to disobey our earthly masters when it conflicts with Christ. Likewise, if we can become free as verse 21 says, we should do it! It gives us greater freedom to serve God. This is not a statement about slavery being a sin, but rather a personal admonition to follow Christ first. To make more of it is nothing short of eisegesis.

The Old Testament

We could talk for weeks about what the Old Testament has to say on the subject. My goal however is to find out primarily what it says. i.e. I’m not looking to know every single law concerning slavery. Instead, I just want to know if it was approved, and if it was, to what degree. Before we start however I must make one thing clear. The Old Testament does matter. Some of you might say, “But that was given to the Jews.” True enough, the moral and ceremonial laws have been negated by the New Covenant (or at least aspects of them), and they don’t apply to gentiles, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at them. My reason is simple. The same God reigned then that reigns now. His nature does not change, and therefore his moral standard is unmoving. His principles are the same yesterday, today, and forever. With this being said, I am not arguing that we must apply the Old Testament to today for fear of sinning if we don’t. I’m arguing that we should apply it. In other words, it’s the best model we have. Sure there are differences between a Theocracy and a Republic, but this doesn’t mean the civil magistrate is therefore not required to punish murderers etc. in the latter. He still “bears the sword” to “punish evil” and promote good as Romans tells us. We only know what justice is and how it should be carried out by the government on society by looking at the Old Testament. So on that note, we shall proceed.

Slavery was definitely accepted both for kinsmen (Ex. 21:2) and for those captured in battle (Deut. 21:10), however there were limits placed on it. As I stated in a previous post Leviticus and the Goodness of God:

Biblical slavery, is not based on race, it is based on economic standing (see Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18). Hebrews would sell themselves into slavery for the purpose of obtaining livelihood (our equivalent of declaring bankruptcy). Also, criminals would become slaves as a way to pay for their crimes (our equivalent of community service). Therefore, it was voluntary. . .“kidnaping” was not an option. . . the Israelites were never to go out and capture slaves. In fact in Exodus 21:16, the death penalty was instituted for those who engaged in such practices. . . Hebrew slaves were freed after six years (Ex. 21:2), All slaves were freed on the year of Jubilee ( Free slaves were released with a handsome payment (Deut. 15:12-15), slaves were given responsibilities such as having families (Ex. 21:3-4), runaway slaves from other cultures curious about Israel’s God were not to be returned (Deuteronomy 23:15-16), excessive punishment was forbidden (Ex. 21:26-27; Lev. 24:17), foreign slaves could become proselytes (Lev. 22:10-11), slaves could share inheritances (Prov. 17:2), slaves were to rest on the Sabbath, and female slaves were to be protected (Exodus 21:4-11).

So much for the Old Testament being “anti-slavery” since the Jews were slaves in Egypt. The real problem in Egypt wasn’t slavery, but an unjust slave system.

American History and Slavery

I will admit that it’s hard to use the term slave (even though it comes from a derivative of Slav who were white) without it conjuring up images of racial injustice. In our country sadly this has happened, but let’s be fair, there’s plenty of blame to go around and plenty of blessing to remember. African waring factions sold rival tribe members for rum in the first place. New England slave merchants (note: they are from the North) then bought these slaves in the horrendous Triangle Trade and eventually shipped some of them (4% of those that came to the New World) to the South (Read my post on Northern involvement in slavery here). The less than 5% of Southern whites who used slavery (there were both black and white masters) did so in an honorable way in accordance with Paul’s admonition for Masters to treat their slaves with respect (Read my post on Southern slave conditions here). The Northern opposition to the “expansion of slavery” had everything to do with protection for white labor, not care for black families. Still, in spite of all the wrongs done both in the North and South, God’s purposes were served. Former pagans were exposed to the Gospel in Christian homes. Western Civilization has blessed those who continue to work hard for their living even today in what was once the slave community. It is for this reason that I can look at all the problems with it (i.e. man capture and racism which were both forbidden by Scripture) and say, “Thank God that the slave trade brought the Gospel to the heathen.” Insofar as the slave masters lived in accordance with the Word of God, they were doing nothing wrong, even if their government was.

We’re All Slaves Now

Yes, I realize the header is politically incorrect (well…just about everything about this post is), but it is true. Think about it for a moment. On a spiritual level (that which is of the utmost value compared to our flesh) we are all slaves of something, otherwise Christ was a liar. However, we are also slaves of someone in the physical dimension as well. You see, I don’t believe the Bible conveys the idea of “ownership” but rather “stewardship.” This applies to property both animate and inanimate. Slave masters are stewards of what God has entrusted to them because after all, “All authority has been given to Christ.” So in that sense, slave master’s are completely responsible for their slaves. In the same way however, governments are responsible for their people, parents for their children, and pastors for their sheep (we are to be “subject one to another). What happened during reconstruction was the federal government became the slave’s new masters and the welfare doles started with the Freedman’s Bureau. Today it has expanded into an empire of slavery, only this type of slavery is not warranted by Scripture. The sons of former slaves find themselves today to be slaves (in general) to Uncle Sam. The only differences are they don’t work for their privileges, and they lack the love and support of kind masters. What’s the result? A moral catastrophe. My point is three fold. 1) We are all slaves in a loose sense. 2) Those who were suffering injustice in our country at the hands of slavery are now under a greater injustice undergoing an unauthorized form of slavery.3) Slavery will always be around (Rev. 13:16)

Apologetic Approaches

Now hopefully even if you don’t agree, you have a Biblically informed opinion on this topic now. The information provided here may be fine and dandy for most Christians but what about the nonbeliever? How do you deal with them if they ask the question, “Doesn’t the Bible support slavery?” Really the question is very simple to answer, and I have used this approach first-hand. This will require some knowledge of presuppositional apologetics (check around the website for tons of material), but it’s fairly easy to grasp once you understand what to do. Basically, the unbeliever has no transcendent ethical standard to appeal to. So you can say, “Yes the Bible does allow a form of limited slavery.” Then ask, “Why is this wrong.” A nonbeliever will not be able to give you a rational answer. They may appeal to convention (well people say it’s wrong) or their own arbitrary standard (I don’t like it) but both fail in the long wrong. Very simply stated, Hitler winds up being right either way you cut it by these criteria, and you could in fact use that logic to prove that slavery is right under the proper circumstances. In Muslim countries the majority agrees that slavery is fine (although not a Biblical type at all), so it must be. Or, I think it’s fine, therefore it is. What looked like your biggest problem to overcome with the unbeliever soon becomes your biggest asset because it provides an opportunity by which to do an internal critique of his or her worldview. Don’t forget though, be sure to at least make sure the nonbeliever knows what the Biblical position is (so they don’t get the wrong idea) and if you have the historical background, what American slavery truly was. (Note: Apologetics is about reaching people with the Gospel, so don’t get bogged down in rabbit trails like slavery for too long)

In closing, I think it can be seen that slavery can either be a good or a bad thing depending on your master. Christ is a good master. Sin is not. Southern plantation owners were primarily good Christian masters. The federal government is not. Yes, there are injustices because of sin, but don’t criticize an institution because of individual sin. Simply advocate that the government does its job and punishes the individual instead of abolishing the institution.Under the former logic we should get rid of the institution of marriage because the divorce rate is so high. Remember, God has not been silent. He speaks through His word, and He has given us principles to defend. Let us not be ashamed of them because of our culture. Let us instead defend them! It’s called making disciples.

For further reading check out:

Are Christian’s Racist?

Leviticus and the Goodness of God

Slave Treatment in the South 

Northern Involvement in Slavery

Abraham Lincoln: The Great Discriminator

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