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Slavery, the Bible and Christianity

Slavery, the Bible and Christianity

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Slavery in the United States began 400 years ago. 

This month in 1619, Africans were sold as slaves to colonists

Tragically, our nation which was founded by many God-fearing Christians gave into the ways of the world when it came to embracing the institution of slavery and taking over the new world from the indigenous peoples.

For some people, their rejection of Christianity and the Bible is a direct result of this dark history.

Those who have used the Bible to promote racism or slavery have manipulated the meaning of the Scriptures for their own evil intentions and have not actually looked at the words being written and the context of what was being shared.

The Bible is the most revolutionary book from ancient times which calls for the end of slavery and the end of injustice. The world needs to know this!

So many issues at the heart of the Christian faith have been politicized so that cultural Christians are seen as against immigrants and for white nationalism.

The world around us should know that we are for them as broken as they may be, yet we are against the evils of racism, bigotry, white nationalism, and injustice.

Unfortunately, our silence has been perceived as endorsement. Our unwillingness to acknowledge the evils of our nation's past makes it seem like we are in agreement with injustice continuing.

We are those who are forgiven by Jesus because we were willing to repent so we should be the first willing to repent on behalf of our country because of the evil perpetrated on people who look differently. Consider the prayer of Daniel for his nation in Daniel 9 as he repented on behalf of his nation and those who came before him.

So what does the Bible really say about slavery?

When something doesn’t make sense, we need to look at the context and use the Scriptures to interpret the Scriptures.

So many people throw out all of God’s Word because some of it doesn’t make sense at first glance.

Remember, the historical accounts are descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, we are reading what happened not necessarily what God intended or wanted from His people.

In terms of slavery, even though Paul encourages slaves to submit to their masters (and masters to be kind to them), there is something bigger going on.

This seems so backwards to us, but consider a few elements of context.

We have to realize that in the ancient world no one was talking or writing like Paul who was advocating on behalf of women, Gentiles, and slaves. The early house churches bore the fruit of that as they became the most inclusive, diverse, and free communities on the planet!

Slavery mentioned in the New Testament is not like the African slave trade where families were separated, kidnapped, taken hostage on a boat and sent across the ocean to a new world where they knew no one and were mistreated. 

Instead, up to 80% of the Roman Empire was enslaved. Slavery is how the economy worked. Scholar N.T. Wright equated the importance of slavery to the economy of the ancient world to the way we depend on electricity today. Slavery is also how most people survived. They needed a place to stay and a job to do and a way to take care of their family.

In those days, slavery had nothing to do with race. You could be a king one day, lose a battle and be enslaved the next day. Many of those enslaved were paying off a debt. They chose servitude as a way to get out of their difficult circumstances. Even in the Old Testament, the Bible calls for those who were enslaved to be freed every 7 years (which is very different than forced slavery). 

The Bible does not advocate slavery. 

Instead Paul is writing to help slaves know how to handle their difficult circumstances. 

A Trajectory Towards Freedom

Even still, there is a trajectory towards freedom in the Bible. For example, Paul’s letter to Philemon was a letter asking him to free his slave Onesimus. 

Paul's letters to the early churches, church leaders, and in particular his letter to Philemon was a ticking time bomb written by Paul that would go off and lead followers of Jesus to become advocates for abolishing slavery. 

In a cultural context where slavery is still so commonplace, Paul advocates for freedom!

Both Jesus’ and Paul’s approach were spiritual and long-term rather than a short-term fix that may not have had any lasting effect. If Jesus and Paul had advocated for a slave rebellion, even if it had worked, it would have been localized and short term. Instead, Jesus came to free all the captives and that freedom included freedom from all sin. Paul tells slaves to become free, if they can and conversely tells free people to not become slaves. The early church leaders knew that as people were freed from spiritual slavery, then the end of physical enslavement was soon to follow.

There are other New Testament texts as well like Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, and 1Timothy, but Paul is advocating for a subversive undoing of an institution in daily life.

Remarkably, in his letters Paul is writing to slaves directly. This shows he sees those who are enslaved as people too and not as just property. Also, this makes clear that there were Christ-followers who were enslaved. He is reminding them that their suffering is not in vain. In fact, we know some of the most important figures of the Bible like Joseph and Daniel were actually slaves at one point in their lives!

Paul even mentions that anyone who chooses to follow Jesus receives spiritual gifts including women and those who were enslaved. In other words, women and slaves could very well have the spiritual gift of leadership or teaching.

Paul writes an incredible declaration of freedom and equality for women and those who were slaves. He writes:

"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." – Galatians 3:28

This is revolutionary!!

The Subversive Undoing of Slavery

As a result of the teachings of the Scriptures, some church leaders (but not nearly as many as there should have been) advocated for the end of slavery as early as the 600s and William Wilberforce of England became anti-slavery after becoming a follower of Jesus. John Wesley, a pastor wrote his friend Wilberforce encouraging him to keep up the fight against slavery:

“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils.  But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.’” John Wesley - 1791

One of the greatest testaments to the fact that the Bible is for oppressed people is that it was written by oppressed people and oppressed people are most open to following Jesus. 

Even as slave owners in the South would try to use the Bible to oppress and control people they had taken hostage, beaten, mistreated, and enslaved, many of those who were enslaved fell in love with Jesus. So many of the old spirituals came from the story of when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.

Southern slave owners edited the Bible to keep the people they oppressed from knowing the full story of the Scriptures. It was called the Slave Bible.

Also the story of Phyllis Wheatley is really compelling. She had been enslaved as a young girl, but the family who owned her allowed her an education. Eventually, she gained her freedom and became a writer. She used the Scriptures to point out the evils of slavery but in a very subtle way as she was writing in the late 1700s.

Museum of the Bible on Phyllis Wheatley

The reality is that all nations informed by Christianity (informed by the Bible) have moved away from slavery throughout history. It has been far too slow, and Christianity has had its own share of prejudice, injustice, and racism in its churches, seminaries, and institutions. Even now, we still have a long way to go towards equality and righting the wrongs of injustice, but the trajectory that began in the Scriptures moves towards value and worth and love beyond what any culture would be like naturally.

As followers of Jesus who pray that God's Kingdom comes to earth as it is in heaven, we are to work towards a world that looks like the new earth and new heaven described in Revelation 21:3-4 where John hears: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Dr. Eric Bryant wrote the book Not Like Me: Learning to Love, Serve, and Influence Our Divided World. This book has been used for small groups and sermon series. Eric serves as the Campus Pastor of Gateway Church in South Austin and shares free resources at www.ericbryant.org.

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