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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Did God Invent Slavery?

If the ongoing debate over the appropriate Christian response to the institution of slavery is not the single touchiest subject currently batted around by evangelicals in multicultural societies, it has to be at least Top Five.

Some Christians, perhaps wisely, dodge the issue entirely if at all possible: “Are there slaves today anywhere in the West? Have there been any for over a century? No? Well then, it’s irrelevant what I think about it. Next question!”

Most of us wouldn’t put it that baldly, but we would be just as happy discussing something else.

Binary Thinking

Why is that? Because most people’s thinking is reflexively binary and overly-simplistic: issues are quickly reduced to polar extremes. The answer must be either ones or zeros, “X” or “Not-X”. In such minds no nuance is possible. Thus if you go on record with any position other than “Slavery was the single worst thing in the history of mankind and God hates it passionately”, you risk being accused of approving of it. And some Christians, tarred unreasonably with that brush, have subsequently doubled down and actively defended slavery as being God-sanctioned and Bible-approved.

Such a position may initially appear defensible, if tremendously unpopular. All alert readers of the New Testament have faced the fact that institutionalized slavery is addressed over and over again by the apostles, and in no instance do any of them announce that God wants his children to overthrow it, protest it or even quietly subvert it.

Possible Christian Reactions

Doug Wilson provides a convenient list of possible Christian reactions to New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 7:21-24, Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, Colossians 4:1, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, Philippians 1:15,16 and 1 Peter 2:18:
“There are three basic ways for believers to respond to such passages. One is to come up with some version of ‘that was then, this is now.’ This is to abandon the sufficiency of Scripture, and it will not be long before biblical standards are being jettisoned in other areas as well. I only say this because you can see that kind of thing happening pretty much everywhere you look.

The second way is how too many Southern defenders of slavery took it — arguing that slavery was designed by God to be a permanent fixture in human affairs, thus keeping everything just the way it was (with no thought of gradualism). They took some stills from the movie, and analyzed them closely, but never watched the movie itself.

The third way would be to argue that this apostolic strategy was actually a subversive attack on the institution of slavery, an attack by means of gospel gradualism. All we ask, the early Christians said, is to be allowed to put this leaven here into the three measures of flour.”
Hmm. I’m not sure Doug has exactly exhausted the possibilities.

How About None of the Above?

To his first point: Like Doug, I am not inclined to the “That was then, this is now” approach. I see no logical or theological reason why an apostle carried along by the Holy Spirit of God who counseled first century Christian slaves to submit to their masters would counsel believing slaves living fifteen or twenty centuries further into the Church Age to rebel against theirs.

To the second: Again with Doug, I choke on the suggestion that slavery was designed by God AT ALL, let alone to be a permanent fixture in human affairs. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest this, and anyone who cites Old Testament instructions to slaveowners as evidence of God’s approval of modern slavery must first demonstrate that: (1) the Law of Moses teaches that slavery is a good thing; (2) modern, secular nations ought to base their governance on pre-Christian Bible teaching; and (3) Christians within such societies are obligated to follow practices their societies do nothing more than permit.

Good luck leaping those hurdles.

To the third point: I am not the least bit surprised to find a postmillennialist arguing gradualism. But the problem with reading the apostolic passages about slavery as a subversive attack on the institution by means of the gradual impact of the gospel on society over the course of centuries is that I find no evidence in Bible prophecy that we can reasonably anticipate the postmillennialist dream of a transformed society prior to the personal return of Jesus Christ.

Leaven and Flour

Put another way, Doug Wilson reads the kingdom parable of the leaven and the three measures of flour as signifying that gospel testimony will ultimately permeate and positively transform all of human society, whereas I read it as signifying that hypocrisy, malice and false doctrine will eventually make their way through the institutional church.

With nearly two millennia of church history under our belts, ask yourself which of these interpretations better fits the observable reality around us?

So let me humbly suggest another possibility.

Neither For Nor Against

A fourth possible way for believers to respond to the New Testament passages about slavery is by observing that God appears to be neither for slavery nor against it as a cultural convention. He did not institute it. He does not require the Christian to perpetuate it, nor does he require the Christian to fight it.

The Christian has other priorities.

The fact is, not one of the apostolic passages addresses the reformation of slavery as an institution. Rather, every one of them addresses the transformation of individual believers through growing Christ-likeness. At the present time, in God’s economy it is not institutions but individual attitudes and behaviors that require change. Masters are not told to release their slaves, but to treat them fairly, without threatening them; to be good and gentle. To treat them more like employees than slaves (and better than many employees). Slaves are not told to organize, rebel, or flee their masters, but honor them, respect them, and serve them with greater faithfulness.

The emphasis is on individual Christian growth and service, not on cultural change.

Oh, don’t worry: God has every intention of getting to the cultural institutions in his time. But it is not primarily through you and me that he intends to do it.

The Least Worst Option

The fact is that slavery was always a better outcome than some of the other possibilities. Where two nations fought over territory, there were always winners and losers. Living in slavery might please some of the losers more than dying by the sword. For the conquering nation, taking slaves was in many cases morally preferable to killing everyone down to the last man, woman and child, and perceptibly shrewder than granting full citizenship rights to foreigners who might turn out to hold a grudge. And in cases where individuals sold themselves into servitude because of accumulated debt or poverty, it is clear they viewed it as preferable to starvation.

Not ideal, of course. But slavery wasn’t necessarily the worst case scenario even in Old Testament times, as the Law takes into account.

Local Transformation

In the first century, there can be little doubt that wherever the institution of slavery was transformed by loving Christian masters and obedient Christian servants, it would have been virtually unrecognizable to its critics. Those who deplore it today would have little with which to condemn it, aside perhaps from theoretical secular notions about individual autonomy and fears about long-term sustainability. If all slave/owner relationships were so transformed, certain personality types might actually prefer slavery to other options.

God takes no position on such choices:
“Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.”
I see no indication here of a desire on the part of the apostle to subvert any cultural practices, immediately or in the long term. The operative phrase is “do not be concerned”.

The Other Side of the Coin

Such a view is not postmillennialist gradualism. There is nothing subversive about it. Everything about the new slave/owner relationship is very much out in the open. It contains no expectation that the bulk of secular slave/owner relationships would be likewise reengineered, since where there is no indwelling Holy Spirit there is neither motive nor power to effect or maintain such a transformation.

On the other side of the coin, such a view does not in any way restrain Christians or even secularist reformers from advocating for social change for others if they so desire. There is nothing about the institution of slavery that requires we preserve it when it no longer serves a useful purpose. Where social safety nets ensure that those who are not by choice unemployed do not starve to death, it hard to see how any aspect of slavery might be defended on principle. Scripture is neither concerned to ensure that masters have slaves nor that slaves have masters, but rather that all are conscious of their obligations before God.

The Christian simply has other priorities. Higher ones.

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