It is a fact that the Bible does not forbid any and all slavery, but rather regulated it among God’s followers in both Old Testament and New Testament settings. That fact is especially difficult to accept for those who have even a reasonably good understanding of how slavery was practiced in the United States for centuries. It was, with relatively few exceptions, applied in the harshest and most damaging ways imaginable. Further, the Bible was used to justify the institution, no matter how harsh these practices were. Just how are we moderns to view all of this?
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
I recently saw a short piece that Michael Burns wrote about this subject, and thought it contained some very valuable insights. That wasn’t surprising to me, since in my estimation he wrote the best book on racial issues from a biblical perspective that has ever been written (Crossing the Line: Culture, Race and the Kingdom) Since I started my blog, I have known that I needed to address the issue of slavery and the Bible. Thus, when I read the brief piece that Michael had written, I asked for and received his permission to use it within my article. The following article is a mixture of his material and mine, and as one of my trusted advisors, he has read this whole article, given me input on it and approved it. I will soon post an additional article (or articles) that addresses more issues related to slavery, at least one of which will address how biblical principles should affect our view of key figures in American History who owned slaves.
There is an important precedent in modern biblical interpretation and application that is very helpful in guiding us toward a goal of consistency in how we read, interpret, and apply biblical guidance. If we focus in on the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, we will find a consistent belief across much of Christendom that viewed slavery, and specifically, Trans-Atlantic slavery, as justifiable and defendable by proper biblical interpretation.
This misuse and abuse of scriptures not only did unimaginable damage in furthering the cause of slavery in the United States; it has done further damage through a more modern reaction to it. This reaction occurs when those reading what the Bible says about slavery do not understand the bigger picture we are about to paint. They look at these passages as though they approve of slavery rather than only condoning it temporarily due to the cultural settings in which it existed. To avoid erroneous interpretations, we must understand that God has an ideal will and also an allowed will, the latter being designed to give way to the former as time and circumstances change through Divine providence.
God’s Word is aimed primarily at those who have, or develop, a willingness to listen to it. Hence, God is addressing in the sacred writ what his followers should do, and only by implication what all others should do. In other words, to command an end to slavery in settings where the true God was not accepted as the ultimate authority would have been fruitless. The same principle applies today. Unbelievers are simply not affected much at all by what the Bible says, whether we are discussing sexual morality, materialism or any other subject. Since God gave humans freedom of choice, we can choose to reject him and all that he says, and the fact is that most people always have done exactly that. Even in addressing those who claimed to follow God, Jesus made it abundantly clear that most of them were ultimately going to reject his will for their lives and be lost (Matthew 7:13-14).
For those reasons, Jesus never tried to dictate what the broader society in which he ministered should do or not do. He taught those who were willing to listen what they should do, and as they accepted one at a time, greater segments of society became affected. By the time the United States was founded, most of those early settlers accepted the Judeo-Christian principles of morality, although through greed, the principles that should have eliminated slavery were rationalized for a long, sad time. God’s toleration of slavery in ancient cultures was used to justify what should have long before ceased to exist among those who claimed to be followers of Christ. The Golden Rule alone should have sounded the death knell for this sordid practice, especially as it was practiced in this country.
Regulation, Not Simply Prohibition
While God did not forbid slavery among his people in either OT or NT settings, he did most certainly regulate it. How other peoples may have treated slaves is a matter of history, and a great deal of absolutes in that historical information is not readily available. We would have to assume that the majority of slaves were in fact mistreated, but how that mistreatment compared to that found in American slavery is mostly a matter of conjecture. Given the fact that slavery in the US was inseparably connected with financial greed, it could hardly have been better than slavery in any other historical setting and was likely worse.
In that regard, I have seen some writings in which slavery in the first century was made to sound almost positive. Slaves were said to be much like employees and even treated like members of the family. Certainly some may have been thus treated, but to claim that most were treated kindly portrays an ignorance of both human nature and biblical history. When you read the Old Testament carefully, you see some of the cruelest treatment of fellow humans anywhere to be found – in various contexts, including within Israel. In the New Testament, Paul describes non-Christian (pre-Christian specifically) relationships as “being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).
He further described the Gentile (non-Jewish) world of his day in quite an in-depth manner, beginning in verse 18 of Romans 1. After mentioning sexual sins quite graphically (we would do well to study carefully what he says there), he gives a list of what life was like in the Roman Empire. “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (Romans 1:29-31). The Greek term translated “no love” in the NIV is literally “without family love.” Some versions translate it “without natural affection.”
If slaves really became like a part of the family, it was not a pretty sight anyway. That being said, in 1 Peter 2:18, both good and harsh slave masters are mentioned, so both were to be found. My point simply is this: it is not helpful to whitewash and sanitize first century slavery in order to make slavery in America look worse. Our slavery was absolutely horrific and that segment of history we know with certainty, in spite of the rare exceptions found with slave owners whose hearts had been affected more than others by biblical principles. As I said earlier, it could hardly have been better than slavery in any other historical setting and was in all probability far worse.
What is helpful, though, is to consider briefly what the Bible says about slavery, how that was interpreted and utilized in previous eras to justify slavery, and how the Bible is now interpreted to deny slavery as an acceptable position for the Christian. No disciple today would argue that the Bible condones slavery in the modern cultural context. It is the interpretive method of how we arrive at that conclusion that is important for us. Once we see how to correctly interpret the passages on slavery in a modern context, it would seem incumbent upon us to then consistently apply that same method of interpretation to all other biblical issues. After all, any method of biblical interpretation and application that is inconsistent is problematic on many levels.
Prior to the Civil War, the American Church was split on the issue of slavery in the Bible. Some argued that the Bible did not allow for the Christian to approve of such a blight against humanity. The majority, however, felt that there were four clear points in the Bible as it relates to slavery.
- Christian masters were instructed about how to treat slaves (Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9; 1 Timothy 6:2).
- Christian slaves were instructed about how to respect their masters (Ephesians 6:5-6; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 5:1; 6:1-2; Titus 2:9).
- Scripture dictated that slave and master be treated equally in access to salvation, but no other manner of equality is expressly dictated (1 Corinthians 7:21-23; 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11).
- The Bible allowed slaveholders like Philemon to be church members. Thus, most churches argued that without express condemnation of slavery and slaveholding in the Bible, and because it was societally legal, the church could not rightly do anything stronger than give lip service to denouncements of slavery based on personal dislike of the institution.
What the interpreters of the time seem to have overlooked was the larger trajectory of God’s will and broader scriptural principles. They failed to consider the implications of Jesus as the full revelation of God’s will (Hebrews 1:3); a will that was only partially visible prior to Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2). They neglected the new world that was created by Jesus’ words to do unto others as they would have done to them (Matthew 7:12) or the Christ-like call to put the interests of others ahead of one’s own (Philippians 2:1-5).
Prohibition, Not Simply Regulation
They overlooked the trajectory towards which Paul was aiming, to call them past their cultural bindings when he declared that there was no distinction in Christ between slave or free (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11), or what Paul was truly insinuating when he discipled Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother (Philemon 16) and hinted that he should even free Onesimus if he understood fully what it meant to be in Christ (Philemon 21). These culturally-bound supporters of slavery even managed to all but ignore the consequences of 1 Timothy 1:10 when it lumped slave traders in with other forms of lawbreaking sin. As Paul shot the arrow of the gospel through the cultural morass of his day, those who would later read his words and wish to justify slavery focused on the arrow itself rather than the target that it was speeding towards.
The facts are the facts. There are verses that direct slaves and masters, seemingly supporting the whole concept of slavery if read at no more than face value. There are no verses that directly call for the end of slavery. Yet, when we follow the trajectory of where the gospel was leading the Christian community, it becomes clear that we cannot just read the Bible “literally” in this case. The gospel itself calls for a nuanced understanding of how Paul was carefully addressing his cultural situation and leading the disciples out of their cultural biases, while at the same time avoiding turning Christianity into a social movement bereft of the true power of the gospel to transform.
Modern interpretations of the slavery passages in the New Testament seem to have settled on four principles to direct our interpretation.
- The cultural situation of slavery was very different in the 1st century, so it is necessary for us to read biblical passages considering those differences.
- The New Testament never explicitly bans slavery and seemingly tacitly condones it in places, but those passages must be understood in light of the larger principles of the gospel.
- Paul was carefully but consistently moving the believing communities to understand the implications of where the Kingdom of God was taking them.
- Thus, clear directives in favor of slavery in the New Testament are no longer applicable if we read past the cultural conditions that Paul had to deal with, and correctly apply the larger principles of the New Covenant to our situation in which we find ourselves today.
God’s Legislation, Not Simply Government Legislation
As we have already said, these conclusions will be accepted by those who accept Christ as their authority. He cannot force others to accept any conclusions and he will never try. Christianity is an inside/out religion, and the heart must direct our attitudes and actions. This is precisely why I do not trust political change to ever fully satisfy us. In my opinion, expecting those in the world to accept what Christians know the Bible teaches is a disappointing road to follow. Unrealistic expectations can easily lead us to trust politics to have more power to effect change than the gospel of Christ. One is the quick-change approach aimed at legislation of one type or another, and the other is the long-term approach aimed at the heart. While politics may well change laws, it has never been very effective at changing hearts. Thus, the legal system may reduce overt racism, which is a step in the right direction, but it will never seriously affect hidden racist attitudes. Only the gospel of Christ can do that, and the more his people spread that message, the more heart-felt changes will occur in society.
Think of it this way: love and acceptance are near the top of our human needs list, making it impossible for outer changes in society to ultimately satisfy our basic emotional needs. We want to be loved and accepted, and this world is not going to love us. Could Jesus have made it any clearer than this? “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). We have already quoted Paul’s description of pre-Christian experiences as “being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Just be thankful that in Christ your spiritual family can love you. If we are waiting for those in the world to accept us, we will die waiting. Adjust your perspectives and your expectations, for therein lies contentment and peace. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Two Extremes to Avoid
To sum it up, two serious mistakes must be avoided. One is to soften the horrors of slavery in this country through appealing to passages in the Bible that were intended to only be temporarily in force. The second mistake is to look at those temporary regulations and view God in a very wrong way. This is my greatest concern in our current setting. Jesus once told his disciple Phillip this in John 14:9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” It is impossible to study the heart of Jesus in the Gospel accounts and believe that his agenda was anything less than a full acceptance and practice of the Golden Rule. The second greatest command of loving your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39) and to “in humility value others above yourselves, to count others better than yourself” (Philippians 2:3) needs no further explanation. What the unbelieving world may do is their choice; what followers of Jesus must do is clear. The arrow of ultimate truth as it relates to slavery may have flown somewhat aimlessly at times from man’s vantage point, but it finally landed in the middle of the bullseye of agape love, for “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Amen!