Bill Lockwood: The Bible and Slavery
by Bill Lockwood
The 1619 Project, sponsored by the New York Times, is a series of essays and multimedia creations designed to “reframe American history” by claiming America’s founding is based on racism and slavery instead of freedom and liberty. The chief writer for the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, calls white people “savages” “bloodsuckers” and “murderers” who used Christianity as an excuse to enslave different peoples of the world. Her vitriol, which seems to know no bounds, is now being picked up by many others who are concerned about slavery in America’s history.
A slave is considered to be a person owned by another, without rights, and—like property—to be used and disposed of in whatever way the owner may wish. 1 The Encyclopedia of Religion defines slavery as “[A] social and industrial system in which the person and labor of one individual may be disposed of as the property of another.” 2
Setting aside Hannah-Jones’ ignorant vilification of “white people” as the sole perpetrators of this institution, as well as her abysmal lack of knowledge of American history, what is particularly concerning here is that she assails the Bible in her diatribes as somehow teaching the practice of chattel slavery.
What Does the Bible Actually Teach Regarding Slavery?
Moses writes by inspiration that are human beings are created in “the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6). Of all the philosophies of the world, this Divine assertion alone gives all men and women equal dignity. All persons are equal in value to one another. Life itself is a gift of God.
Placing man in the Garden of Eden, God ordered him to “dress the garden and keep it” as well as to “eat of the fruit” which he gathered (Gen. 2:15). These commands imply freedom as well as the right to property. “Thou shalt not steal” is built into the very foundations of the created order.
From these simple premises it is easy to see that God never intended one human being to be the property of another. However, as is the case with polygamy which departed from the marriage institution that God created (Gen. 2:24)— mankind departed sharply from God’s design.
Separated from God men have concocted many schemes which ignore these plain biblical ideals, particularly regarding the value of human life. Aristotle, for example, developed the theory that some persons were servile by their very nature. 3 The school of philosophy known as Stoicism later considered slavery as a mere accident of fortune and therefore it was not a just cause about which one could complain.
The ancient world was actually steeped in slavery, whether it be the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman world—all practiced slavery. As Everett Ferguson writes, “Slavery was pervasive in ancient civilization.” Thomas C. Edwards, in his superb commentary on the book of 1 Corinthians, notes that the practice of slavery actually sprang from a rejection of God’s Word regarding the dignity of man. “Slavery was an institution that sprang from other fundamental ideas—namely, the superiority of men over women; the religious preeminence of Jew over Gentile; the Greek consciousness of creative political genius …” 4 It was the devaluing of human life that brought about slavery.
1 The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, p. 1462. 2 Ed. Vergilius Ferm, p. 714. 3 Everett Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 854 4 Commentary on 1 Corinthians, p. 182.
Slavery was almost universally practiced in all cultures during Old Testament times. Men and women were enslaved by capture in war (1 Sam. 4:9) or by purchase (Gen. 17:12-13, 27). The Law allowed Hebrews to purchase slaves from foreigners at home or abroad (Lev. 25:44ff). Children born “into the house” of slave-parents were evidently called “house-born slaves” (Gen. 17:12-13).
Interestingly, slavery could be entered by other methods as well. God legislated that if a convicted thief could not make “restitution” and pay his damages and/or fines, money could be raised for this purpose by selling him as a slave (Ex. 22:3). This law showed that slavery involved the production or labor of a person was considered to be his property, which now became the property of the one wronged.
The insolvent debtor, as well as his family, became enslaved to the creditor (2 Kings 4:1). It was also possible for one to sell himself and his labor to escape poverty (Lev. 25:39-43).
However, there are some important considerations that the Old Testament includes. First, in the case of the insolvent debtor, he was not to be treated as a chattel slave, but as a “hired servant” and to be released at the Year of Jubilee (every 50 years on the Jewish calendar) (Lev. 25:39-43). The person who purchased him was instructed “not to rule over him with rigor, but shalt fear thy God.”
Second, to abduct a person and to reduce a stolen person to slavery was punishable by death (Ex. 21:16). Third, to murder a slave was punishable by death (Ex. 21:20; Lev. 24:17,22). The reason for this is once again because of the intrinsic value of a human being. Fourth, the enslaved debtor was to be released after six years (Ex. 21:2). There was no lifetime enslavement.
God, in the Old Testament, taking men where they were, regulated the practice of slavery and softened the edge of it. Contrast that with Roman law whereby a slave is not considered a person.
Old Testament scholar K.A. Kitchen summarizes the spirit of the Old Testament.
Generally, a more humane spirit breathes through the OT laws and customs on slavery, as illustrated by the repeated injunctions in God’s name not to rule over a brother Israelite harshly (e.g. Lev. 25:43,46,53,55; Dt. 15:14ff). Even when Hebrew law and custom on slaves shares in the common heritage of the ancient Semitic world, there is this unique care in God’s name for these people who by status were not people, something absent from the law codes of Babylon or Assyria. 5
5 The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, p. 1464.
The New Testament
When asked about marriage, our Lord refers questioners back to the beginning and God’s initial intention with the sacred institution (Matt. 19:3-9). In similar fashion the New Testament elevates the dignity of man (Jas. 3:9) by carrying him back to God’s created order. The beautiful principles of Christianity, influencing cultures one heart at a time, eventually eradicated the practice of slavery by re-asserting the value of human beings.
It is important to see however, that New Testament teaching did not smash with a sledge-hammer one single social institution that had imbedded itself in society. Instead, the doctrine of Christ works as a leaven in the soul of individuals, nations, and cultures. Slavery was one of those institutions.
This explains why the inspired apostles, when discussing the the question of slavery, not only advise masters and slaves how to behave in their particular life-situations, but address themselves to the deep antagonisms in the social world. This will be brought out below.
A cursory reading of the NT might cause one to think that sometimes the apostles seem to sanction slavery; at other times to proclaim its abolition—in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female; all are one man in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
But Christianity abolishes slavery by assimilating and sanctifying the relation of master and servant in its inmost nature. While it refuses to wield the sword and destroy civil institutions by violence, it so transforms their ruling ideas that those institutions become what they never were before. For instance, Christ bestows on the most degraded and despised slave who is a believer, spiritual endowments that cannot fail to inspire him with a consciousness of freedom. He ceases to be a slave by the very fact of knowing that in the sight of God he is free, and his service ceases to be a bondage because it is now a willing obedience to Christ. 6
What about those deep antagonisms that exist in all societies between different peoples? Paul’s overall theme in teaching is summarized in 1 Corinthians 7:10-24 which might be entitled, Live in Harmony with One Another. Like several NT passages in which slaves and masters are addressed, and who were part of local congregations to which the apostles ministered 7 some of the Corinthians were slaves and some were slave-owners. How did God counsel them?
“Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called. Were you called being a slave? Care not for it [that is, do not be overly concerned with your social condition. Your calling in Christ ECLIPSES this consideration]. Even if you can be free, use it rather …” (7:20-21).
The phrase “use it rather” following “even if you can be free” has been variously interpreted. It is either interpreted as (1) “… use your freedom,” or, (2) “use slavery …” Many modern commentators, and even the translators of the NIV, consider the phrase to be saying, “if you can gain your freedom, do so” –opting for the first alternative.
But it seems out of character with the theme of the entire section which is to Live in Harmony—even in challenging situations. Further, the next line in the passage (v. 22) begins with the word “for”—which is explanatory of that which has just been said. “FOR, he that was called in the Lord, being a slave, is the Lord’s freedman …” That explanation does not follow if Paul has just said, “if you can become free, do so.”
As John Peter Lange points out in his classic commentary, the “whole drift of the argument is—to make men content with their lot …” 8 That being the case, the translation is, “but even though you may be made free, use your servitude rather [as a means of discipline, and an opportunity for glorifying God by showing fidelity therein].”
6 Edwards, p. 186 7 See Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-4:1; 1 Pet. 2:18ff. 8 Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Vol. 10, p. 153.
In any case, the main point should not be lost on us. The important thing is to serve God “and the slave should not worry unduly about the fact that he is a slave. If God has called him as a slave, He will give him grace to live as a slave.” 9
F.W. Grosheide understands the verse as simply saying, Use your vocation—whether slave or free. 10 The entire argument of Paul is that the over-riding concern for the Christian is that of spiritual blessings “in Christ”, and this outweighs all other concerns—including slavery! The dominant factor is being a Christian.
How does this fit within the current context of so many churches and Christians all at once becoming extremely exercised about black slavery in history, or stirred to the point of anger about discrimination in the Jim Crow era? How does Paul’s advice comport with emotionally driven screeds today that demand a removal of a Christians’ name from Christian college buildings because those preachers lived during the segregation era but did not stomp it out with vengeance?
An interesting New Testament episode involves the runaway slave Onesimus. Paul met him while a prisoner in Rome (circa 63-64 A.D.), converted him to Christ, and sent him back to his owner, Philemon, a Christian man who lived in Colossae. A cover letter was sent with the returned slave (Col. 4:7,9). It is the book of Philemon.
In it Paul admonishes Philemon to “receive him back” and treat him no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. “Not now as a slave, but more than slave, a brother beloved specially to me, but how much more unto you, both in the flesh and in the Lord?” (16) It is noteworthy that Paul does not command Philemon to “free him” but appeals to him on the basis of brotherhood. It is also worth mentioning that Paul actually sent Onesimus back to his slave master.
Once again, Christianity revolutionizes and changes the world, but not by pouring out into the streets, holding a nation hostage with violence and smashing its cultural symbols. It does so with the teaching of the peace of Jesus Christ.
John Peter Lange summarizes the entire disposition of biblical Christianity to slavery. Christ and his followers “assailed no existing social institutions from without—marriages, callings, and conditions were to remain as they were.” Christianity wrought “from within” a “sanctifying and ennobling” influence over individual character.
Biblical principles “employed the existing bonds of society as conductors through which to diffuse its saving power—sanctifying wives through husbands, and husbands through wives, children through parents, and parents through children; and even servants through masters and masters through servants.”
Further, as seen above, Christianity aims at the preservation of peace in a society—as far as possible—in consistency with being faithful to God (See Rom. 12:17-21). Christ wants us to “ignore outward distinctions—counting outward distinctions as of little moment, in comparison with the inward state.” How our society needs this lesson! What a difference this would make to the writers of the New York Times and the 1619 Project!
9 Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1 Corinthians, p. 113. 10 NICNT, 1 Corinthians, p. 170.
Christ’s teachings “begot contentment with the outward estate, by imparting a blessing which more than counterbalanced all earthly ill.” Not only so, but the Lord Jesus “reconciled the opposite poles of human condition, freedom and obligation in the love it engendered, making the slave a freeman, and putting the freeman under obligations to serve, and making all alike free, and all alike obligated.”
Finally, the Bible places “all in the presence of God, in whose sight it constrained believers to live; whose honor it urged all to sub-serve, and from whom it invited all to derive their chief good.” 11
The gospel brings to mankind a belief and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. Faithfulness is commanded which involves the improvement of one’s character which in turn improves the conditions of society. When people place the glory of God foremost, not only is slavery eradicated as a social condition, but it is seen to be a very little thing in the ultimate scheme of things. It is past time for people to come to Christ and lift themselves above the grievances of slavery past or racism present.
11 Lange, p. 156.