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.