Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Slavery and the Bible

I am of the conviction that the Bible is God’s word written, and is therefore true and authoritative. I don’t claim to understand everything in the Bible—in fact, I would say there’s more in there I don’t understand than things I do understand—but I still accept it all as God’s word.

The past few days, I’ve been involved in a heavy Facebook conversation with an acquaintance, who also happens to be a student at a major liberal seminary on the east coast, about the Bible, and whether or not it is entirely trustworthy. In our conversation, the issue of slavery in the Bible came up. You need to know that the Bible’s apparent endorsement of slavery is a major sticking point for many, especially Black people, when it comes to accepting the Bible as God’s infallible, inerrant and authoritative word.

Well, this morning, after thinking about our conversation and my previous comments, I decided to write once again to clarify and expand my views on this issue of slavery in the Bible. So that others, hopefully, may be encouraged to think deeply and biblically about this very sensitive and controversial topic, I’ve my latest comment below. I’ve never thought a whole lot about slavery in the Bible before now, because the issue never really bothered me, even though I’m a descendent of slaves. I’ve also never read anything about this topic. So, if you have any thoughts or insights on this topic, please feel free to comment.


You’ve forced me to think more deeply about this issue of slavery than I’ve ever needed to, and that’s good. Nevertheless, I still cannot come down on the side that would have man sitting in judgment over the Scriptures (and over the God who inspired them).

The regulations for slaves that God gave Israel (e.g., in Exodus 21 or Deuteronomy 15) describe a system far different than American slavery (or the Egyptian slavery that Israel experienced). Two things, in particular, stand out: slavery under the Mosaic Law wasn’t relegated to a specific race or culture outside Israel, and slaves were not involuntarily slaves for life and from generation to generation. The recurring refrain in the Mosaic Law is, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt”.

As un-politically correct as it sounds, I don’t think one can make a BIBLICAL case that slavery, in and of itself, is immoral. I don’t think you can demonstrate that from Scripture. What makes slavery immoral—and this would apply to American slavery (or modern day human trafficking, for that matter)—is how, and for what purpose, it is carried out or practiced. American slavery was an evil institution for the fundamental reason that it was based on racism—it targeted an entire race of people, for life, and from generation to generation—and it involved physical, spiritual and emotional brutality and deprivation for those so enslaved.

Although the Bible never commands the abolition of slavery, I do see in the New Testament the seeds for what eventually became the abolition of slavery in Europe and the Americas. Take, for instance, this passage in Philemon (vv.15-17):

“For this perhaps is why he [Philemon’s slave, Onesimus] was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me [the apostle Paul] your partner, receive him as you would receive me.”

Or, these verses in Galatians (3:26, 28):

“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 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.”

So, rather than endorse or give approval to slavery, I believe the overall message of the Bible undermines slavery, but not because slavery is wrong in and of itself. Rather, the Bible undermines slavery because in Christ people are made equals, and it is difficult to keep in slavery one whom you view as your equal before God.

This is poignantly illustrated in the life of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Are you familiar with his life story?). In short, Allen was converted to Christ after hearing a Methodist preacher. His slave master was so impressed by the change in Allen and how Christianity made him a better slave (and I can’t help but think of Ephesians 6:5-8), that he gave permission for Allen to invite a Methodist preacher to hold meetings at the plantation. As a result of the preaching that the slave master heard at these meetings, he, too, was converted to Christ. After he was saved, the slave master realized he could no longer keep slaves and allowed Allen to work and buy he and his brother’s freedom.

So, I believe the Bible ultimately undermines the institution of slavery. Have you ever considered that, perhaps, God prescribed slavery in the Old Testament as a concession to the culture of the people, similar to what he did with His laws on divorce (cf. Matthew 19:3-9)?

Additionally, as I’ve already stated [in a previous comment], I think we err in thinking of slavery as inherently wrong or evil, because if slavery is inherently evil, then it is also wrong to be a slave of God and of Christ. I know you think it ridiculous to make the comparison, but isn’t it interesting that God inspired the writers of Scripture to use the terminology of slavery? I think that fact is significant. As I stated before, whether we like it or not, we’re somebody’s slave—either a slave of sin, which leads to eternal death, or a slave of Jesus Christ, which leads to eternal life. Given the choice, I will gladly embrace my status as a SLAVE of Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

Stanley Livengood said...

A well-reasoned and thoughtful idea about Biblical slavery. I might add that just because events and cultural institutions are recorded in the Bible because that was the way of things in those days, that doesn't mean that they are good or meant to continue forever. I think otherwise you'd have to be like the fundamentalist branch of Mormons who believe in polygamy. The Bible doesn't seem to condemn Solomon's many wives, but certainly doesn't make an endorsement of polygamy as a good thing that should be kept. In fact, it seems that those multiple wives and children caused endless trouble for each other.