Does God Support It?
On March 25th, 1807, the world celebrated the abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which for many years had allowed slaves to be bought and sold in the United Kingdom. In 1863, America followed the lead of the UK when Abraham Lincoln started the process of abolishing slavery here in our country as well. The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in those states that had seceded from the Union, and slavery officially ended in America with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment two years later in 1865.
The recent movie, “Amazing Grace”, chronicles the abolition movement and has caused many people to consider the role that Christianity played in both the PROMOTION and ABOLITION of slavery. That’s right, I said “promotion”. Many Christians don’t want to think about the fact that ‘good’ church attending Christians owned slaves right alongside non-believers. They also don’t want to recognize that these Christians used the scripture to support their ownership of slaves! But sadly, that is exactly what happened. Remember that many southern slave owners prior to the Civil War based their ownership of slaves on their Christian Faith. Look at what Jefferson Davis said in his Inaugural Address:
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America
“(Slavery) was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation… it has existed in all ages, as been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
He was not alone in his feelings. In fact, he may have gleaned this belief from his pastor or minister! Many pastors at the time espoused the same belief as Jefferson and preached this belief from the pulpit!
Reverend R. Furman (a South Carolina Baptist Minister in the 19th century)
“The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”
While it is important to recognize that Christians don’t always accurately represent or reflect the will and desire of God, my atheist friends are quick to make the claim that God supports the institution of slavery as well. They make this claim based on several key observations. First, they argue that there are passages in the Bible that recognize and even regulate the practice of slavery. Second, they also observe that while Paul had every opportunity to condemn the practice, he refused to even criticize slavery in his letter to Philemon as he discusses the status of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. And lastly, they also observe that Jesus never condemns the practice of slavery in any of his teachings or sermons. In essence, they cite both the acceptance and silence of the Bible as evidence that God condones the practice of slavery.
Does God Hate It?
While there were obviously some who read the Bible and came to the conclusion that God supports slavery, there were also many others who came to the opposite conclusion. In the early years in our country, the Church of the Brethren (German Baptist Brethren) denounced slavery and would not allow any of their members to own slaves. Ministers who might try to defend slavery from the Bible were quickly excommunicated. During this same early period of time, Quakers and Mennonites also condemned the practice of slavery. Many of the founding fathers believed that slavery was wrong and they formed their opinions based on their Christian upbringing:
Noah Webster (the Father of American education)
“Justice and humanity require it (the end of slavery) – Christianity commands it. Let every benevolent… pray for the glorious period when the last slave who fights for freedom shall be restored to the possession of that inestimable right.”
Benjamin Rush (a Signer of the Declaration of Independence)
Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity… It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men.”
In fact, the abolitionist movement was dominated by Bible believing Christians who were so moved by their faith and God’s Word, that they felt utterly compelled to act to eliminate slavery altogether. So, how is it that two diametrically opposed views on slavery can be developed from the same sacred text? How is it that some people can read the Bible and conclude that it supports slavery, while others use the Bible as their foundation for the abolition of slavery?
How Can They Be So Divided?
Well, it may largely be due to a simple definition. There are many words in the Bible that had one meaning for those living in New Testament times and another meaning for us today. As an example, we often read the word “church” in the New Testament and interpret it through our contemporary cultural lens. We typically think of a building or a place of worship. But for those who first read the text, they understood the word to describe a group of people who shared a common faith in Christ. Therefore, when Paul says that he will visit the church in Ephesus, he doesn’t mean that he is going to visit a building, he means that he is going to go to Ephesus and visit all the believers who lived there. It might even take several stops to visit all the homes where these believers met. Can you see how the word has a different meaning for us today than it did for those who first used the word two thousand years ago?
Well as it turns out, the term ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ poses a similar challenge for those of us who are trying to understand what God says about the issue. Before we can begin to understand what God says about slavery, we are going to have to take the time to see if the slavery that is discussed in the Bible is anything like the slavery we think of when studying the more recent history of Europe or America. And as we begin to study the issue more carefully, we are going to see that the ‘New Testament Slavery’ of the Ancient Near East (we’ll call this NTS from this point on) has little in common with the ‘New World Slavery’ (NWS from now on) of our American ancestors. So before we become defensive with atheists who claim that God somehow approves NWS, let’s do our best to understand the difference between these two forms of servitude.
What Exactly Are the Differences?
Let’s look at several commonly understood characteristics of slavery and see if there are any differences between the ancient NTS and the more recent cultural NWS we understand so well.
The Motive Behind Slavery
We first need to understand WHY slavery existed in each case we are examining. In NWS here in America, slaves were taken so that their MASTERS would have a better life (for economic gain), but in ancient NTS, the primary motive for slavery was the economic relief of the SERVANT:
Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain.
How People Entered Into Slavery
Next, it’s important to understand that in our American version of NWS, people were taken into captivity and slavery against their will. They were simply kidnapped or were later born into captivity from parents that were taken captive. But in ancient NTS, the path into slavery was varied and in many cases voluntary. There were several types of servant/slaves in the New and Old Testament:
Voluntary Temporary Indentured Hebrew Servants
People who needed assistance, or who simply could not pay their debts, might turn to a voluntary form of slavery to get by, and the Bible had guidelines for this kind of voluntary servitude:
Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment
If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. And when you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today
Voluntary Permanent Hebrew Servants
Now it was not uncommon for a temporary indentured servant to want to STAY in service to his or her master (they were not treated harshly like slaves in the NWS version of slavery as you will soon see), and the Bible also offered guidelines for the treatment of these types of servants who became part of the family:
But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently
And it shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. And also you shall do likewise to your maidservant. It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do
And there were very strict Biblical laws preventing Hebrews from holding their brethren as slaves against their will:
If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently, or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.
Involuntary Hebrew and Gentile Criminals in Restitution
Just like today, there were several crimes that required restitution as part of the penalty following a conviction. But what if the criminal was unable to make the restitution to the victim? Well, in these situations, convicted people found themselves in servitude as slaves, paying off their debt to society and to God:
If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.
Permanent “Pagan” Servants
The ancient Hebrews did have permanent slaves obtained from the non-Jewish nations that surrounded them. They came into their possession as the result of military conquests:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have — you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession
But, remember that this does NOT mean that the Jews were allowed to kidnap a man (even a ‘pagan’ man) against his will and hold or sell him:
And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death
The point here is that unlike NWS in which slaves entered into slavery involuntarily, the ancient NTS of Biblical times was far more varied and often voluntary.
How People Were Treated Once They Were Slaves
And there was also a great difference between the way slaves were treated in the New World and in the Ancient Near East. We are all familiar with early American stories chronicling the harsh and often brutal mistreatment of slaves. They were considered the lowest of properties and often treated as though they were not human. But ancient NTS is another story altogether. Slaves were treated humanely and their treatment was regulated by Biblical law. Look at just a few of the legal requirements for the treatment of slaves:
Slaves were not to be treated harshly. They were to be treated humanely and with respect:
Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53
You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God… You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves… Like a man hired year by year he shall be with him; he shall not rule over him with severity in your sight.
It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do
Slaves were allowed to make a decision about whether or not they would stay with their masters:
But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.
And it shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever
Slaves were often released and when this was done, the slave was to be released with his or her possessions:
“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free.
Slaves were allowed religious privileges and were also allowed to rest on the Sabbath along with everyone else:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.
Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor in order that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.
Slaves were also allowed to celebrate other religious holidays and celebrations:
And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you.
But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings.
Masters were to be held accountable for the way that they treated their slaves:
And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.
And even though the law allowed for the punishment of slaves, this punishment was exactly the same as that prescribed for non-slaves and even for the sons of non-slaves:
And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.
If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, then it shall be if the wicked man (a non-slave) deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt.
On the lips of the discerning, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks understanding (whether a slave or not).
A whip is for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools (even non-slaves)
He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently
And Slaves could actually be freed if they were not treated properly by their masters:
And if a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.
Foreign slaves were prescribed refuge under Biblical Law. They were not treated as property:
You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.
Slaves could actually be brought into the Jewish Covenant and become Jewish believers alongside their masters:
And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it; but every man’s slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it.”
And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
No layman, however, is to eat the holy gift; a sojourner with the priest or a hired man shall not eat of the holy gift. But if a priest buys a slave as his property with his money, that one may eat of it, and those who are born in his house may eat of his food.
Slaves had rights within the homes of their masters and, as a part of the family, they could even share in the inheritance:
And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned…
A servant who acts wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully, And will share in the inheritance among brothers.
How People Freed Themselves From Slavery
Finally, let’s take a look at how people were able to free themselves from their servitude in ancient times and compare this with the more recent version of slavery with which we are familiar. In NWS here in America, there was very little recourse for slaves who wanted to be free of their master, but in the ancient NTS form of the institution, there were a number of pathways to freedom:
A family member could purchase your freedom by simply paying your debt:
Now if the means of a stranger or of a sojourner with you becomes sufficient, and a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to him as to sell himself to a stranger who is sojourning with you, or to the descendants of a stranger’s family, then he shall have redemption right after he has been sold. One of his brothers may redeem him, or his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or one of his blood relatives from his family may redeem him
A slave could purchase his own freedom by simply paying his debt:
…or if he prospers, he may redeem himself.
Slaves were freed as part of a national day of debt forgiveness and rest every 7th year:
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.
If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. And when you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you.
An injury to the slave would often be a means by which the slave could gain his or her freedom:
And if a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye
While it is clear that the ancient Jews did possess slaves, it is also clear that the reason for their possession, the manner in which they were treated, and the manner in which they could be released is was very different from the institution of slavery that existed in more recent times in Europe and here in America.
When American slave owners used the Bible to support their ownership, they clearly were either ignorant of the true nature of slaves in ancient times, or were willfully denying the truth about New Testament Slavery. These slave owners may have tried to use the Bible to support their position, but by doing so, they clearly twisted the intent and meaning of the scriptures, applying guidelines for one form of servitude to an entirely different form of slavery. It is unfair to say that the God of the Bible supports the institution of slavery that existed in the New World. That version of slavery has little in common with the version of servitude that existed in Biblical times.
But Why Would God Permit ANY Form of Slavery?
In order to answer this important question, I think we need to stop for a minute and think about what it is that God is trying to accomplish here on earth. Is this place we now call home supposed to be perfect? Well, if this place is supposed to be heaven, we should all be disappointed! If there is a great God who loves all of us as his children, wouldn’t he want our world to be a great place as well? And if that is true, why is this place so messed up? From a Christian perspective, we know that this world is NOT our home:
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
We know that we are simply travelers passing through this earthly home on our way to something that IS perfect:
All these people (the faithful examples from the Old Testament) were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country-a heavenly one.
And in addition to this, we know that God intends to take this world and recreate it entirely:
2 Peter 3:10
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
So what is the purpose of this life here on earth, at least from our Christian perspective?
This Life is Where We Are Called
Well, as Christians, we know that God is using this experience here in the temporal material world to call out a people for Himself.
2 Thessalonians 2:14
He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This Life is Where We Are Shaped
We also know that God is using our experiences here on earth to shape us and prepare us for a life with Him in Heaven, the place where we will truly be home.
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it
And it’s really important for us to remember that we are seldom shaped by the ‘easy’ aspects of our lives. In fact, it is thorough hardship that true maturity and spiritual development usually takes place. Just like sandpaper, the courser the grade, the easier it is to shape the wood. Life is often like that for us. God will use the hardships of this existence to shape something wonderful if only we will allow ourselves to see what He is doing.
It’s really important for us not to confuse God’s USE of an institution to accomplish something good, with God’s APPROVAL of an institution as something inherently good. Even though slavery is NOT part of God’s heavenly plan (you will not find Biblical passages that describe slavery in heaven), He does use human evil here on earth to accomplish his goals in all of us!
This Life Is Where God Redeems the Individual
It’s important for us to remember that the INDIVIDUAL is the target of God’s redemptive work. He looks at all of us individually and sees us all uniquely as His children. He is concerned with the individual. Of course, along the way, He is also seeking the redemption of our society, but this is only a secondary benefit of his work in all of our hearts as individuals. Remember that when you look at how evil slavery is from the perspective of a society, and remember that God may just use what looks like societal evil o accomplish something wonderful in an individual. Maybe that’s why Paul never calls for the complete abolition of slavery, but instead recognizes that as single individual hearts are changed, the mores of an entire society can also be changed. Listen to what Paul says to Philemon as he describes how Philemon should treat his returning slave, Onesimus:
For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
You see, the Bible DOES reflect God’s desire to seek the end of slavery, but it does so one heart at a time. Remember that the Roman Empire had 60 million slaves living amongst the citizenry. To call for an end of slavery in this culture and context would have resulted in mass murder and civil war. In this context, the message of the Gospel for each individual would have been completely lost. The Church would have been a group of rebels seeking political change rather than the Bride of Christ introducing the Gospel of Grace to a lost world. Instead of calling for a political revolution, Paul calls for an internal revolution of the Spirit:
1 Timothy 6:1-2
Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against. And let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved.
So, What Does God Say?
When we think about how God feels about slavery, let’s do our best to remember the cultural context of the ancient world, and God’s redemptive plan for all of us in this life. Ancient New Testament slavery cannot seriously be compared to the slavery we all know from the New World and from the early years of American history. Those who would say that these two forms of slavery are one in the same are simply ignoring the facts. And it would be equally unfair to judge God based on what WE think God should do about slavery. In the end, God is immensely concerned about all of us as individuals and He uses the worst parts of our lives and the worst aspects of our society to accomplish unexpected good and surprising opportunities fro growth and mercy. This backward principle of using evil for good is part of the very nature of God, and we are so blessed that this spiritual truth is understandable to all of us as children of God.
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