Ephesians 6:5: Slavery and Christianity: Part Two
Last week we began to try and paint the picture of slavery in the OT and the ancient world. The reason we have to do these history lessons is because of the false history that is presented in the present political climate. We live in an age of critical race theory which rereads history as a story of monolithic relationship of race oriented oppression. So the race and slavery question is a heated one that is often skewed. The Bible has become a casualty of the present cancel culture that has declared the Bible a book used as a tool of oppression. The call for slaves to submit to masters is seen as evidence of this. Our job is to interpret the Bible honestly, and demonstrate and defend that it is indeed the inerrant word of God which is sufficient to equip us for life, and is superior to all other worldviews, philosophies, religions or ethics. The Bible alone is the inspired word of God all other belief systems are born of man’s ignorance.
The modern concerns over slavery in history are being used as fuel to feed a narrative of racism as the core systemic problem which has given birth to things like poverty, violence, family breakdown, etc. The painting of all slavery as having a racial basis is necessary to feed this narrative. In looking into history are not only able to demonstrate how the Bible saws the seeds of slavery’s destruction but we also have an opportunity to destroy a terrible lie which is even being believed by Christians and introducing racial divisions into the church. For example, we are hearing black Christians in America talk about the systemic racism for which whites must pay compensation and the need for black Christians to separate from white Christians to a safe place where they can be black in black churches. The international race destroying power of the gospel is being overcome by this new political view that has a slanted view of history.
We have already shown the slavery was not racially driven, there were many reasons why people were enslaved, race was one of them. Racism as a reason for slavery came about in the American South as an apologetic for the institution’s defence was made for the first time. Prior to the African slave trade whites were enslaving whites in Europe. One of the reasons for African slavery was the fact that the European states solidified and made it hard for groups to come in and raid and take prisoners of war. Slavery can only flourish in a place where there are weak states and political situations, Africa was such a place. The word slave comes from the word Slav, the Slavs were white Europeans who made up the larger part of slaves in Europe in the medieval era. Slavery was not a white against black thing. In fact between the 15th-18th centuries North Africans enslaved 1 million whites. The Ottoman empire enslaved whites putting the women into harems and castrating the men to make them eunuchs. Contrary to the picture in the TV series Roots, it was not the whites that attacked the African villages and stole people, Africans enslaved Africans and brought them to the ports for sale. Black on black slavery is still practiced in parts of Africa today. China was involved in slavery, India was one of the worst slavers in history including stealing children for the purposes of prostitution. Even our own Maoris were slavers who enslaved their fellow Polynesians. They would kill those who escaped and when confronted by Britain in the time of abolition, they responded, ‘but what of that it was in conformity to our customs.’
That all slavery is racially driven is a lie, that whites are the great oppressors of the world is to little of the truth, that the Bible is a tool of oppression that feeds these structures of power is very wrong. We are hearing a bad lie told in a very intellectual fashion and people are buying it. Sadly we see more anger and tears over slavery done the past than over any slavery that is presently active today. The political agenda driving the present attitudes in this issue are clear as we see this rewriting of history and this ignoring of the same injustice happening in the present. If this matter is of interest to you and you are wanting some clear perspectives on it I would encourage you to read Thomas Sowell, his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals is particularly helpful.
We want to come now to an elephant in the room and one that Christians must take head on in light of the questions being put to us: Why doesn’t the NT clearly prohibit slavery? Let’s begin answering that question in ways that some have wrongly done in saying that the Bible does not condemn slavery because it does not see the institution as inherently sinful. Some have reasoned that if the Bible can command slaves to submit to their masters then it cannot be inherently sinful that slavery exists. There may be some nuance on this where they would add that slavery exists because sin exists, in the same way that the death penalty does, but if God can command a slave to submit it must not be inherently sinful in itself. This view has a high view of scripture and recognises that there are ways of saying slavery is sinful that could then make the Bible command something bad in the NT putting the Bible in a bad light. I suspect that the mindset behind such a way of thinking is seeking to honour the Bible and would rather revisit or nuance the premise that slavery is altogether sinful rather than even imply the Bible is in error. I disagree with this way of thinking, I reject this as a false dilemma, simply because the bible encourages slaves to submit to masters does not necessarily infer that the institution of slavery is somehow recognised by God. I can imagine another scenario where a man has two wives and a pastor encouraging both to be good wives. This is not an endorsement of polygamy just a regulation of it. The NT has all sorts of teachings that imply that polygamy is wrong though there is no clear prohibition to that end. It is the same with slavery.
Secondly, in reading those who hold the opinion that the institution is not sinful in itself I have found a false assumption of God somehow being behind the institution. The Bible teaches us various authority relationships; citizens submitting to the state, wives submitting to husbands, and children submitting to parents. Each of these is given by God. God creates the state to be over us; God made male headship in the home and parental headship over children as something built into creation. Slavery is not an institution found before the fall and to regulate all human life in all places like marriage and parenthood. Some have tried to point out that the command for slaves to submit comes in the same place where Paul addresses marriages and families. This however is because Paul is conforming to addressing the parties of traditional household codes that can be found in other worldviews, not because he is basing his argument on creation. One of the ways you can know that the NT does not endorse slavery is the fact that it does not base the call to submit in creation as Paul does when it comes to marriage.
So we reject the view that slavery is somehow not all bad as a way of explaining why the Bible does not outright prohibit it. In all honesty, my life would be made really easy if the Bible just spoke in ways that I thought it should. There hasn’t been a time in history when someone didn’t wish the Bible would just speak a little more clearly about …. Fill in the blank, marijuana, homosexuality, anti-depressants, what defines marriage, can a divorced person ever remarry, the Trinity, what miracles can we expect etc. We must begin by saying that the Bible comes to us in various genres but we are able with a proper study of the Bible to discern the Lord’s will when it comes to any situation we may face. So let us begin by saying, a clear single verse of prohibition does not mean that there are not many principles that help us piece together a biblical view that can guide us. So in our study this evening we will be pulling some of those puzzle pieces out and putting them together to make a picture.
Some other reasons have been put forward for why we don’t see a clear prohibition. Firstly, some suggest that since there were some signs of progress on the horizon like in the teachings of Seneca who encouraged gentleness and kindness and who spoke of the brotherhood of man, this may have not necessitated a strong voice. Secondly, some have suggested that the apostles avoided political issues because Christianity was an unrecognised religion that had no legal right to exist and challenging a practice upon which the back of the Roman Empire was built would be perceived as sedition and bring down a heavy hand on the church and hinder the gospel. Thirdly, some have suggested that God’s plan for addressing social evils like slavery is not by political action but through changing hearts by the preaching of the gospel. We can only speculate, the important thing for us is to wrestle with the text that God has given to us. And we will do that now.
What are we looking at as we look at these texts. I am going to pull out some of the texts that address slavery in the NT, I will not be able to bring every verse nor every point that needs to be made. I will restrict myself to Paul and show how he puts forward principles that when taken together show that the gospel renovates all human relationships and gives us a rationale for abolition.