Slavery and Christianity

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This is my second post in dialogue with Back of the Envelope's two posts on slavery and Christianity. The first argued that slavery is a matter of degree from absolute autonomy to being under someone's complete control. No one is ever at either extreme, though some have been closer to the extreme on the higher-slavery end of the spectrum. We're all slaves to one degree or another, to our employers and our government if to no one else. This post is now going to consider what the Bible says about slavery. [update: I've continued in this series enough to collect the links to each post all in one post]

The most obvious things to come to my mind almost never come up in such discussions. I remember the first time I ever had to talk explicitly about this issue. Wink had just come back from an argument with some other Christians, and he was frustrated that they couldn't understand what he'd been trying to say. He asked me if I thought there was any biblical support for the view that slavery is always wrong in itself, and I thought for a few seconds before responding that the Bible tells us that we're all slaves. He then knew that I was thinking along the same lines he was, and we proceeded to work through some of the things the Bible says about slavery. The first and most obvious is that everyone is a slave. That's just all too clear, even in the translations that hide the slave language and make it come out as servant language. There's enough slave language there to see it. We're slaves to sin in our fallen state, and Christians are made slaves to Christ. Now Paul also says when he uses such terminology that only the slave to Christ is truly free, but the point is that we are slaves, one way or the other. It's just a fact that the Bible says that. Christians can't dance around it and pretend slavery is inherently wrong if it's right for us to be in a master-slave relationship with Christ. That was the starting point for me and Wink in our truly radical (but I think biblical) view that slavery is not in itself wrong.

The second observation to draw, once you see that it can be morally ok to be in a master-slave relationship, even for the master, is that slavery is not just ok for Paul. To be a slave to the perfect master is actually freeing. We have more freedom in not being bound to sin and death when we are slaves of the perfect master. What this means is that slavery doesn't just exist on a continuum between absolute control and absolute license. There's at least a third dimension, one not of how much control (or lack thereof) the master exercises but of how righteous the master is. A truly righteous master will seek the good of the slave. No mere human being can do this perfectly, of course, but the principle of the good master freeing the slave not by abandoning the master-slave relationship but by making it a righteous relationship is not just a theoretical device I'm using to make a point. It's what the Bible says the Christian's relationship with God truly is.

We do need to keep in mind that there are other elements to the Christian's relationship with God, most notably the father-son relationship. I don't say father-child or father-son/daughter, mostly because the biblical passages dealing with this use masculine words, perhaps for a reason. It may well be that these terms were deliberately used also for women to indicate that they are full heirs as well, which only sons would be. Christian women are thus sons of God in an important enough sense, if what I'm saying is correct. So Christians are simultaneously part of God's family and slaves of Christ, who is our brother. That doesn't make either description false as a description of the relationship between the individual believer and God. It just means each relationship is flavored by the other.

So slavery is not in itself wrong, primarily because the most perfect person ever is a master of slaves. Given that, what the Bible says in other places about human practices of slavery aren't that surprising. You can look at the excellent things Donald says in his two posts for some more on what's different about Torah slavery and even Roman slavery when compared with other kinds that we in our setting almost invariably think of when we think of slavery. Aside from what Donald says and what I mentioned toward the end of my last post, I can't really think of much else that I want to say.

When I started the previous paragraph, I was thinking I might need another post to get into my defense of the biblical attitudes toward the way slavery functioned in the socioeconomic systems the Bible was written under. I'm not sure I really have much to add now except a few scattered thoughts. First, the New Testament regulations of slavery do not institute Roman slavery or legitimate it. They just tell slaves how to treat their masters and masters how to treat their slaves. Donald has an excellent explanation of why they would stop there, and I'll leave you to read his post for that. The only caveat I would have is that I don't think slavery itself is what's wrong and therefore what the principles in those passages would eventually lead toward abandoning. It's certain ways of conceiving of slavery that those passages turn upside down. This is especially so in Philemon, where Paul hints that it would be a good idea for Philemon to release Onesimus from his service, not because it's wrong to be his master but because in being his brother in Christ he should want Onesimus to serve the Lord primarily, and thus greater freedom from less servitude to Philemon would better serve that cause.

On the Old Testament attitude toward slavery, it's harder to take the line most Christians want to take. After all, the Torah does institute the practice of slavery. It tells Israel to take slaves of certain peoples conquered in war, which is actually merciful given what it says to do to the natives of the land. That means someone who truly believes the Torah came from God should admit that it's ok to institute a practice of slavery. At the same time, the context of the Torah limits this slavery from being anything like what we would think of as paradigm cases of bad slavery. The seven-year maximum alone (and some cases would be much less, if they began closer to the seventh year) shows a huge difference. The fact that many slaves voluntarily stayed with their masters, as a provision in the law allows, shows that it wasn't an oppressive practice. That it was voluntary and perhaps the best way at the time to deal with excessive debt shows that it's a mercy for Israelites who would become slaves. That the 49th or 50th year (depending on how you take certain passages) would return property to its rightful owner (not that Israel ever followed this law, but God had commanded it) also helps a great deal.

So in the end I don't see how the slavery imposed by the Torah of God is anything like what people usually complain about when they say slavery is inherently wicked. I think I've given enough reason for Christians to think of slavery in very different terms from how it's usually thought of in the American orthodoxy of moral thought. It's not slavery itself that's wrong in principle. It's various other features that happen to go along with slavery enough in recent memory and at certain important times in the past. We associate those things with slavery, but slavery itself is in principle something that can be very good. At least that's what Christians should say, given what the Bible says.

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Parableman on Slavery from Back of the Envelope on February 28, 2005 3:36 PM

A bit after the fact, but Jeremy Pierce of Parableman has taken up my challenge to say what's wrong with slavery by arguing that there's ... Read More

20 Comments

Slavery to Christ is voluntary, not forced. God created man to be free, but by his grace to be moved to voluntarily accept a relationship with the Sovereign. God seeks submission out of joyful surrendering, not by forced servitude.

I think your views on slavery assume a static, unchanging God, a God totally unmoved by his interaction with human beings.

Was the Declaration of Independence wrong when it spoke of certain inalienable rights -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I think it is, in principle, immoral to own another human being. In the course of history, humane treatment of slaves has been by far the exception, rather than the rule. Slavery is necessarily a degrading institution that dampens the human spirit.

You write that we are all slaves in one way or another. Consider, however, that you still have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to move about freely within your country, etc. Why is it that it is always people who themselves have never experienced true slavery who defend it?

I agree with your first paragraph fully.

I think your views on slavery assume a static, unchanging God, a God totally unmoved by his interaction with human beings.

How so? I think it doesn't assume that. Unless you give me an argument, you haven't given me any reason to believe you.

Was the Declaration of Independence wrong when it spoke of certain inalienable rights -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Yes. That was a philosophical presupposition that too many people think has a religious foundation but really conflicts with Christian teaching. Thomas Jefferson got most of his ideas from John Locke, but he forgot the most important one. For Locke, the only reason we have rights is not because of anything inherent to us. It's because God has rights over us, and if we do anything bad to each other then we violate God's rights. I think the image of God involves more than that, but I don't think we have rights except as derivative of other people's responsibilities to us. Locke was right at least in that.

I think it is, in principle, immoral to own another human being. In the course of history, humane treatment of slaves has been by far the exception, rather than the rule. Slavery is necessarily a degrading institution that dampens the human spirit.

I think it all depends on what is involved with whatever you're calling owning. I own someone to some degree simply by their owing me money. I own the fruits of their labor that they haven't even produced yet. Surely you can't mean it's immoral to have someone owe you money.

In the course of history, humane treatment of slaves has been by far the exception, rather than the rule.

I agree, but you're already conceding a lot more than you should if you think slavery is inherently wrong. If it can be humane at all, then it's not thoroughly immoral.

Slavery is necessarily a degrading institution that dampens the human spirit.

The biblical authors would disagree with you on this. Slavery to Christ is the most freeing thing, according to them.

You write that we are all slaves in one way or another. Consider, however, that you still have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to move about freely within your country, etc.

Yes. So I'm not as much of a slave as others. That's exactly what I said.

Why is it that it is always people who themselves have never experienced true slavery who defend it?

I don't know. I haven't ever had personal contact with anyone who has defended what you're calling true slavery. I'm certainly not. I haven't defended all slavery. I just said that it's not the slavery of it that's wrong, where slavery is what I isolated out as things that are true to a lesser degree of all of us. It's the immoral elements that usually go along with slavery in its more extreme forms that I would say make those paradigm cases of slavery wrong.

Hmm, interesting thoughts here Jeremy.

I find parts of it a little bit troubling, though. First, your use of the language argument to justify the morality of slavery does not seem to me to pass muster. You established that since the language that the NT used to describe our relationship with Christ is that of master-slave, then slavery must not be inherently wrong. From there, I see you use certain principles that both testaments established for the slave/master relationship to conclude that it is after all a good thing.

I can see how you might be able to justify the master/slave relationship as not inherently wrong by using the language argument (although I am troubled by such usage), but maybe I am missing something, because I don't see how you can conclude that slavery is in fact good or even that it can be good.

Using similar reasoning, would you say that since the Bible has so much to say about death, that it is a good thing really? For instance, the Bible says that we are now dead to sin, and Paul himself says to die is gain. So perhaps death is a good thing in itself. So, why prevent it? Let everyone die naturally, either out of old age or disease. That would save a lot of work, anguish and the almighty dollar!

The kind of slavery that's good is slavery to Christ. I don't know how a Christian could argue otherwise. I haven't said explicitly that any humanly-instituted slavery is good, though I do think the Torah-instituted slavery would have been good if they'd done it properly. They turned out not to have done so.

Whether death is a good is not the same as whether it's intrinsically good. It's intrinsically bad. It's still an instrumental good for the Christian because it leads to good things. Whether slavery to Christ is intrinsically good is not something that even occurred to me. Slavery to mere human beings would never be an intrinsic good, I would imagine. If I'm to defend the Torah institution of slavery (which was the point of all this), then I need to be able to say that slavery in that form at least can serve as an instrumental good.

I'm not sure I responded to everything you said, so if there's something else in there that I need to say something about could you make the objection or point more explicit?

I think there is possibility that there is a confusion between the relationship description and the nature of the institution itself. The Christian's relationship to Christ as described in the form of a master-slave relationship can be said to be an analogical use of the terms. It probably doesn't transfer to all master-slave relationships and doesn't say anything about master-slave relationships in general. To take that leap might be to commit a categorical error.

As for the Torah slavery, perhaps it illustrates how God use fallen human institutions to eventually get His work and mission done, while not necessarily endorsing or legitimizing those institutions themselves. Examples of this can be seen in the establishment of the monarchy in Israel, and Jesus' explanation on the Torah laws about divorce.

There are two ways to view this. One is what I said. Slavery is a broader concept than thought by those who think it's inherently immoral, and that's why it's both informative and not immoral to use it as a description of the Christian's relationship with Christ. Another possibility is as you said, i.e. that the notion of masters and slaves is derived from the human institution of slavery, and therefore the biblical use of slave terminology for us is derivative of that. I want to give an argument against this, and that argument will assume your view as the premise to see what follows.

On your view, citizenship in a country, particularly in a monarchy, a soldier's relation to superior officers, and employment are all not genuinely slavery in any way. A Christian's relationship with Christ is also not genuine slavery any more than Jesus is a door to a sheep pen. The biblical authors are picking out some relevant feature of slavery that's not in those other examples I just gave (or those would have served as better examples), just as Jesus picks out some relevant feature of the door to the sheep pen to say he's like it.

My problem is that I can't see what the relevant feature of slavery is that would have all the following features. First, the relevant analogical feature is not itself immoral, but slavery is (and intrinsically so, on this view).

Second, this feature is not present (or present enough) in any of the other potential analogies available at the time to justify using them instead, since choosing something that is immoral as an analogy for something God does is to be avoided if possible. That means whatever it is about slavery that's relevant to what the master-slave analogy does is not strong enough to be present in mere employee relations, military relations, king and citizen relations, empire and conquered nation relations, parent-child relations, or any other social relationship of the time.

When you put these two things together there needs to be something about slavery that other slavery-like relations don't have, and it needs to be something that's present in the Christ-believer relationship. That feature must not be immoral. Yet what is it that distinguishes slavery from these other relations?

If it's something you only find in slavery and not in these other things, and it's not whatever is bad about slavery, then I'm not sure how this position ends up being all that different from mine. I'm saying there's some core of slavery that's not immoral but turns out to end up with immoral elements added to it almost all of the time. You're saying there's an element of slavery that's morally pure but can never be found in any human institution other than slavery. Is that enough of a difference to satisfy you that you're distancing yourself from slavery as immoral? If it is, then what's so bad about my way of describing it?

I'm not convinced that the Torah merely uses an established human institution. At the very least, it gives permission for Israelites to take further slaves, and some of them aren't even voluntary. Conquered peoples became slaves, as per Torah requirement (if they weren't wiped out entirely, which the Torah required they do with the Canaanite nations). It seems to me that it sets up structures for slavery. It's been a long time since I've looked at that element closely, so I'm not prepared to say much more at this point.

Phew! Parableman, why don't you stick to parables! :)

OK, let's see how I tackle this one. I think it boils down to the use of the term "slavery." I believe we need another term: ownership comes to mind.

Perhaps what you have done is conflate the use of the term slavery and use that as a determinant of relationships between employers/employees, parents/children, monarch/vassals, master/slaves.

I think if you use "ownership" or something akin to that, then it becomes clear that there is a continuum in all of those relationship with perhaps, president/citizens (of a western democracy or a republic) at one end of the continuum and master/slave at the other end of the continuum and the morality factor slides down as you go from one end of the continuum to the other, with something close to "inherently moral" on the one end of the scale and "inherently immoral" on the other end of the scale.

Of course, seeing it that way may still come back to bite us (me), in that, how do I reconcile what God says in the OT, ie, seemingly instructing (not just permitting) the Israelites on slavery.

That is when I will stick with my "God using human institutions" story. You say you don't think that it the case, but I say there is enough evidence to show that it is (examples I have cited before). I think it works in my overall argument.

A static unchanging God. You say God approves of slavery in the O.T. and thus that is evidence that God approves of it today. I say that even if he did formerly approve of it, he doesn't approve of it anymore. I believe that God has undergone significant transformation from O.T. times because of his relationship with the created. I believe that God has witnessed that humans use slavery almost exclusively in evil ways and thus will not trust us to own another person.

Further, it seems to me that human freedom is a significant theme throughtout the Bible -- much more so than slavery.

Why assume God approved of slavery even in the OT? If my version of the story is correct, then just as he did not (and does not) approve of divorce and yet allowed it, and even enacted laws for it, he did not and does not approve of slavery.

I don't assume God has ever approved of slavery, at least from the standpoint that I am sure it is not part of his creative intent for humanity.

A static unchanging God. You say God approves of slavery in the O.T. and thus that is evidence that God approves of it today. I say that even if he did formerly approve of it, he doesn't approve of it anymore. I believe that God has undergone significant transformation from O.T. times because of his relationship with the created. I believe that God has witnessed that humans use slavery almost exclusively in evil ways and thus will not trust us to own another person.

One thing the Bible makes clear is that God does not change in terms of moral character. If you're simply acknowledging that I think such a view of God is sub-biblical, then I admit that. I can't agree with your metaphysical view of God. I'm not sure whether you think it's moral development or just inability to know his creation, but either one seems pretty far from what the Bible says about God in its clear statements that aren't describing how things appear to human beings in interaction with him. I'm not going to get into open theism here any further than that. I've addressed that plenty in other posts, and those posts would be the place to raise questions about that.

It's completely different to say that God allowed something that God doesn't allow anymore. There are lots of things like that. If God ever allowed it, then it's not immoral, though. Period. It might be that the only context in which a certain act is ok involves a people of God in the way Israel was, but admitting that means admitting that it's not wrong in itself, which is all I'm saying. I never said anything like the paradigm cases of slavery in times since Israel are even close to morally ok.

Bloke: Do you think God doesn't approve of divorce in cases of abuse? That's a pretty radical view. It may well be correct, and I have some sympathy for the view, but most people I know think it's morally in the same category as my thinking slavery is in principle ok.

With regards to the exchange between the two of you, here's a clarifying question. Is it like war? If so, how? War seems to be a bad. It couldn't have been part of God's original plan in the sense of what he intended for Adam and Eve had they not sinned. Yet he commanded it and did not just allow it. It may well be that it's immoral for anyone outside of ancient Israel, which many people think was a theocracy (though I think that's too simplistic a description). I disagree myself. I'm wondering how much this dispute is like that one. I'm thinking that war and slavery are both bads. It's just that on rare occasions things might be better overall if we engage in them because the things that would otherwise happen are just so bad that it's better to do the bad thing. Just as it's bad to cut off someone's leg, it's better than allowing the person to die from gangrene, so too something like slavery might be bad but still morally justified in some very rare cases.

I consider myself a free-will theist, not an open theist.

I believe that the moral character displayed by Christ is a further revelation of God's moral character such that it supercedes previous revelation of God's character. In other words, God's moral character doesn't change, but the O.T. gives us an incomplete pciture of that character.

I have no problem with the idea that the NT supplements the OT and talks about stuff it didn't make clear or pulls together things the OT didn't put together in various ways. With positive commands, I do have trouble with the idea of a command superceding another command unless the first thing wasn't a moral command to begin with. With negative commands that come later, where the command is not to do something that was explicitly allowed earlier, I don't know how you can avoid the conclusion that God thought it was ok and then changed his mind. That seems genuinely contradictory if God's moral character is constant. If you just mean that it wasn't clear that slavery was wrong, and it later become closer to being clear (though the NT doesn't imply that it's wrong), then I think you're saying the same thing as The Bloke.

Jeremy,

Do you think it is moral, in principle, to execute people for homosexual conduct? Is it moral, in principle, to execute alduterers?

It must be, unless God ordered Israel to do something regularly that's immoral. It may not be moral to do so under every government structure. It may not be moral to do so under any structure besides ancient Israel when governed fully by Torah. Still, it must be in principle moral, or it couldn't have been part of the Torah. The only way to deny this is to deny inerrancy of the law of God. I agree rather with Psalm 119, which says that every word of God's law is to be treasured and loved rather than questioned simply because we don't do such things now in our context and would never think to do such things.

Well, of course, I don't believe that God's word is inerrant. I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God containing all things necessary for salvation. It does not, however, claim to be the sum of all revelation.

I agree that it's not the sum of all revelation. I do think it's the only infallible revelation, however, and I am an inerrantist, but you don't even need full inerrantism to believe that the law of Moses was given by God to reflect what God really wanted for his people.

Coming late to the fray, but a couple of points for your consideration:

1. Jeremy, you wrote "If God ever allowed it, then it's not immoral, though. Period."

Surely you did not mean this. God allows all sorts of sins, any or all of which might be called "immoral." It's a necessary result of having given Satan dominion over the earth.

2. Slavery to Christ is not at all like humans being "owned" by other humans. As has been clearly noted in other comments, Christ is perfect; human slaveholders are not. But even this misses the real point: the very expression, "slave to Christ" is allegorical; another way of stating how the elect are to love God with all hearts, souls, minds, and bodies.

By 'allowed' I meant "instituted in the Torah".

It's not allegorical. Do you mean really analogical? I think you can distinguish between physical slavery and what you might call spiritual slavery. Both involve absolute ownership, so I think both are literal. I think it's quite literally voluntary servitude in a very strong sense.

Noted in comments? I noted that in my post. It was crucial to my argument.

I assume you mean mere human slaveholders, because Christ is a human slaveholder.

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