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What About the Bible and Slavery?

by Thor Ramsey

There is this grand assumption that if we find something in the Bible then God approves of it. In his brilliant lecture on this very subject, Dr. Peter Williams (PhD, University of Cambridge) explains that this is not the case at all. We find many things the Law of Moses regulated that God did not approve of, such as polygamy, divorce and (the topic of this blog) slavery.

There are always things in a culture that are not good things. We cannot ignore them, so they must be regulated for the common good. For instance, gambling isn’t a good thing overall, but when it becomes part of culture it must be regulated. The same can be said of alcohol. Even drugs are regulated for the medical industry. Jesus said in His day, divorce was regulated by Moses “due to their hardness of heart.”

The Bible isn’t a book about how to make the world perfect. It’s a book about how to live in an imperfect world.

This brings us to a common question about Christianity, which I will cover very briefly — what about slavery and the Bible? (If you have the time, I’d encourage you to watch Dr. Williams’ lecture on the subject of slavery and the Bible.)

Slavery in the Old Testament

There is a difference in how we understand the word slave in our day as compared to how it was practiced in Old Testament times. We often bring a 20th century understanding of slavery and superimpose it over the ancient culture of the Bible. This is one of our problems of interpretation.

Dr. Williams used an example from western culture that many have experienced, such as the military draft during a time of war. When the government drafts young men, the young men are required to serve in the armed forces for a period of time. This is basically forced labor. But most of us don’t view the draft as slavery. Most of us view it as military service, not military slavery.

This is more in line with the Old Testament concept of slavery, especially in the nation of Israel. Dr. Williams contends that the Hebrew word that many Bible translations render as “slave” would be better translated as “servant”.

In the Old Testament there are even laws that protect what is more akin to servants than slaves. Every servant had access to the laws of the day. That in itself shows there is a difference between “slaves” in the Bible and “slaves” in the Ante-bellum South.

For example:

Deuteronomy 23:15-16

15 “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.

This law is a far-cry from the laws of some states before the Civil War.

An actual law from the Ante-bellum South said if you found an escaped slave and failed to deliver him back you would “suffer 6 months prison and fine of $1000.”

So, we must not superimpose our more recent history of slavery over ancient Bible slavery. When the Old Testament texts on slavery are looked at closely, you will find that slavery in the context of the Old Testament was much different than slavery in the south before the Civil War. They are not one and the same. This again is why context is so important when trying to understand anything, not just Scripture.

Slavery in the New Testament

Now, in the Apostle Paul’s letters, he is writing theological truth that will help the church understand the gospel and live in obedience to Christ. Christians at that time lived under a particular legal system of Roman rule. They couldn’t just change the secular laws of the land. Paul’s writing people in that context, not to condone slavery, but to deal with the real world in which they found themselves living. Slaves who rebelled under Roman rule would be executed. That little bit of information in itself sheds some light on how the Apostle Paul addressed Christian slaves in New Testament times. Paul was concerned about preaching the gospel to people from every strata of life. He wasn’t out to incite a political revolution.

Christianity has never been out to change political systems, but Paul instructed Christians to love each other as Christ has loved us. Now that’s a command that makes all relationships thrive, even in the worst of circumstances.

The dramatic change that Christianity brought to Roman culture happened over time in the day to day lives of the Christians living within that culture in obedience to Christ. That in itself was cause for much cultural change.

For example, the teaching of Christians greeting one another with a holy kiss — this wasn’t a common ancient custom. This was instituted by the Apostles for a specific purpose, which was to break down ethnic and social boundaries. The church used the language of family. This holy kiss made it visual. This is the physical action that displays the language of brotherhood and sisterhood — a Jew kissing a gentile, a master kissing a slave, etc. This was scandalous to Roman citizens because it broke down barriers that they had worked so hard to keep in place.

The early church didn’t overcome Roman culture by political action, but by simple day to day obedience to Christ.

In any culture, deep change happens over time. Various factors have to be in place before dramatic systemic changes can take place.

Slavery and Church History

Finally, at no time in church history did the entirety of the church condone slavery. Historically, it was the Abolitionist Movement in America that spearheaded (just as their name indicates) the abolishment of slavery. In the United Kingdom, it was a Christian by the name of William Wilberforce who struggled alone for years to end slavery in the UK and finally succeeded.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t folks in the Christian community who were wrong about their interpretation of slavery, but that’s the point of interpretation. Some interpretations are proven to be wrong.

Slavery and Racism

It’s the same thing with racism. In the pages of Scripture we find reasons that far outweigh political motivations alone for respecting all human beings, regardless of race, social status or sex — because they are created in the image of God. That reason alone is why every human life is valuable. That’s the meaning of Paul’s words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

With that one sentence the Apostle Paul broke down ethnic divides, social barriers, and sexual discrimination. This passage doesn’t mean we disregard ethnic heritage or even gender distinctions. It means we don’t treat anyone as less because of these differences. That simple passage alone poses a very serious question for professing followers of Christ. “Can a person be a Christian and a racist?” I’ll let Paul answer that. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”

The racist who becomes a Christian has become a new creation. They must give up their racism or they must give up Christ. You cannot serve both God and race.

That’s the whole point of the gospel. Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God is restoring what was lost. Through the gospel, humanity gets a glimpse of what the New Earth will be like. God has begun His work of making all things new in the midst of a fallen world.

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