Monday, February 06, 2012

Wrestling With the Issue of Slavery in the New Testament

It was not too long ago in our nation’s history that the institution of slavery was both accepted and approved of by many Christians. What’s even more distressing is that they supported slavery while finding ample scriptural backing in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I have never met a Christian in my life, or even heard of one for that matter, that supports slavery. Why? Because in spite of the scriptures that seem to be either indifferent to slavery or to endorse slavery most people have seen that the greater narrative of scripture is a movement from slavery to freedom. It is quite interesting that for all of the Christians in South that held slaves the abolitionist movement that worked to free slaves was also heavily inspired by the scriptures. I am certainly glad that the abolitionists won out and I am also encouraged by recent movements to combat human trafficking and slavery around the world. As with the abolitionists much of this movement is carried on today by Christians.

So I want to turn attention to some verses on the topic of slavery from the New Testament and then put forth a way of understanding these scriptures that doesn’t help slavery flourish.

Jesus’ words on Slaves:
Matthew 10:24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master.” (NAS)

Matthew 24:45-46
45 “Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes.” (NAS)

Paul's words on slaves
1 Timothy 6:1-2
1 All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. (NIV)

Ephesians 6:5-9
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. (NIV)

9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Titus 2:9-10
9 Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.
Peter on Slaves
1Pet. 2:18-21
18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (NIV)

I want to say that I don’t believe that any of these verses are a flat out endorsement of slavery but they certainly are not a condemnation of it either. It seems that both Paul and Peter see that the main issue is that if you are a slave you can still live to the glory of God and God can even use your life to effect those who are your masters. That said, it is awful hard to read such verses which never condemn the institution of slavery at all.

However, as with the women in ministry issue, I think it is necessary to look a bit at some other things Paul wrote as well as his actions. The truth is that while the Apostles didn’t condemn slavery outright there is no evidence that any of them had slaves themselves. One of the best places to see how Paul actually dealt with slavery in person can be found in the letter he wrote to Philemon.

The primary issue in Philemon concerns a slave named Onesimus who ran away from his master Philemon and was helping Paul in his ministry. Paul refers to Philemon in the first verse of the letter as a dear friend and fellow worker. We also find in verse 2 that the church meets in his home. So Philemon was a church leader and a fellow worker in the ministry with Paul and he had slaves (or at least one slave Onesimus).

Here’s what Paul writes concerning the slave:
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. (Philemon 1:12-21 NIV)
When it came to a situation involving a slave with a Christian master Paul encourages that the master free the slave and welcome him as a brother. Why would Paul take this stance after everything he said? Because he saw the trajectory of what Jesus accomplished as breaking down every wall that separates us from God and one another. This is no where clearer than when he writes in Galatians 3:28-29
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The kingdoms of this world major on divisions: slaves and free, men and women, Jews and gentiles but Paul sees the only identifier that matters as being Jesus. While Paul doesn’t attack the institution of slavery that was rampant in the world he does try to remove it when he has the authority to do so. Paul sees that in Christ slaves become brothers with their masters. That was revolutionary then and the implications are still every bit as revolutionary today!

We should expect to see that the community gathered around Christ should not major on the things that separate us in the kingdoms of this world but rather on the One who has torn down the walls that separate us both from God and from others. In my opinion this too has implications on the issue of women in ministry as well. Though Paul said some things which seemed to be very harsh towards women in certain situations he certainly had no issue with women like Priscilla, Junia, and Lydia serving in very prominent leadership roles within the church. This leads me to believe that what he was writing about in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 and in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 were not for all Christians at all time but rather had to do with specific situations going on within specific churches at that time.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I love verse 19 where he's essentially saying, I'll give you what you think you deserve, but you owe me your take that into account too... you wonder what the response was!

Good stuff bud!