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Thursday, July 11, 2013

“Slavery” In the Bible – Part 3: Slavery in the NT and History

“Slavery” In the Bible – Part 3: Slavery in the NT and History

            In our previous segments we explored the history and cultural contexts of “slavery” or debt servanthood in the Old Testament as well as the specific casuistic laws found in the Mosaic law that governed geo-political Israel. We saw that what is described in the Old Testament is nothing like the concept of slavery that we experienced in the antebellum South during the African slave trade and that the Old Testament seemed to have as its goal the abolition of debt servanthood because God’s desire was the elimination of debt all together: “...there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today” (Deut. 15:4-5).
            We must also explore the history and cultural background of slavery in the Greco-Roman world and in Israel specifically at during the time of Jesus and the early church. This is because there was quite a radical shift in the viewpoints on slavery under the Mosaic covenant when it was written when compared to the later Hellenistic world, and specifically in Israel after it had been largely Hellenized. While the Jews would have still attempted to live by the laws laid down in the Mosaic Covenant, they would be surrounded by a very different culture with a very different outlook on slaves, debt, and servanthood. In fact the Roman jurists had a very complex legal code regarding slavery, not to mention how slavery was actually practiced in the larger social context. There is also a lot of confusion that rears its head in these discussions so not only will I be engaging with what I think are flawed skeptical arguments but often times I will be attempting to correct flawed understanding in the Christian or apologetic community as well.[1]
            So before I move into the specific New Testament passages that address slavery, let me begin by briefly surveying the cultural and legal context of the Roman and Hellenistic world that the Jews of the 1st century CE would have found themselves surrounded by.
            What is clear from the Roman Jurists, and somewhat surprisingly, is that the institution of slavery was perceived to stand in direct conflict with the law of nature. This seems to be the only institutional instance in the entire extant corpus of Roman law in which this is explicitly the case. While Aristotle seemed to disagree, the Roman Jurists were nearly unanimous that it is contrary to the law of nature that a person is subjugated by the dominium (power) of another person. However, this should not be confused with the Jurists thinking that this made slavery morally wrong or socially unacceptable. In fact, as strange as it may sound, they were as explicit in the moral and social rightness of slavery as an institution as they were about the conflict it had with the law of nature. While they were divided on how slavery should be carried out and to what degree slaves had rights, etc. they were not fundamentally divided that slavery should exist as a social institution.
            A common error at this point is to lump Greek and Roman (or even Early Roman and Later Roman) systems of institutionalized slavery into one category. They were simply not the same. For example in the Greek system of slavery Freedmen were not granted citizenship and therefore could not partake in political rites, were excluded from holding magisterial positions, could not own land (or even receive a mortgage) and their children were born as noncitizens. However in the Roman and Hellenistic world, Freedman were given citizenship, as were their children, they frequently held high magisterial positions and could often amass a great deal of land and wealth depending on their slave duties and who their patron was.
            One thing that Greek, Roman and Jewish “slavery” did have in common is that it was never racially motivated nor was it class repressive. That is to say that there was never a time when a single race was targeted as an inferior race, nor would a slave have had a social consciousness of being a lower class than anyone else. We see in slave revolts issues surrounding pay, living conditions and treatment (or even legal rights to bring charges against cruel master) but what we do not find is slaves revolting as a class. This is because slaves were often not distinguishable from freemen with regards to work, pay, dress, or social standing. It was not uncommon for slaves and freemen to have the exact same jobs from working in the mines to being shop keepers to artisans to civil magistrates. One could not randomly select a group of 100 individuals from across the class spectrum and select out who was a slave and who was a freeman.
            The population estimates about the amount of slavery that occurred in the Roman Empire during the 1st century vary greatly. This is because the Roman Empire was diverse in culture, geography, agriculture, politics, and so forth. The slave population seemed to actually be higher in rural areas of the Empire than it was in cities such as Rome. The estimates from 15-20% on the low end to upward of 80% on the high end with most historians falling somewhere in the 33-66% range. This means that at the very least it is thought that 1 out of every 3 people that one encountered would have been a slave either presently or at some point in their life. This fact will become important when we begin to consider Jesus’ and Paul’s perspective on slavery as we will see.
            What we also find that will greatly affect our reading of the text, is that in areas like Israel we have numerous legal/law systems all converging. So when we read of servants in the New Testament we have to go through the process of attempting to determine if we are talking about a Jewish concept of debt servitude, a Jewish concept of foreign servitude, a Greek concept of chattel slavery, or a Roman concept of chattel servitude and whether. On top of this we have to determine if we are talking about the kind of servant – were they born into slavery? Where they bought? Were they conquered and enslaved? Are they bonded freemen working off debt? Are they a freeman who is working for their former master as a patron? And so on. This becomes more complicated especially in an area like Israel where we had observant Jews who would likely still have followed the Old Testament concept of debt servitude, mixed with Hellenistic Jews who might have practiced both Old Testament debt servitude and Roman chattel servitude and Gentiles who could have practiced Roman chattel servitude, This will lead us to questions about why someone like Jesus would have so little directly about “slavery”. Is it possible that because he was in an almost exclusively Jewish context he would have only been engaging with Jewish debt-servitude and not spoken against it? We will explore these and other issues in our expository comments after we deal with the most oft cited New Testament verses dealing with slavery.
            Here I will only interact with passages that address slavery as an institution or as a concept, not merely in passing in a narrative about the fact this or that person was a slave. I have also chosen to select only one passage if it is a multiply attested passage (for example the same saying of Jesus recorded in multiple Gospels or multiple times in one Gospel).
            I would also like to point out something interesting before we explore these verses. We will see that the term “slave”, “servant”, and “bond servant” appear in the following verses. When I went to my Greek New Testament I found that they all translate the same Greek word - δολος (doulos) or the verb δουλεω (douleo) which translate as servant, slave, bond, bondman (or to serve, to be in bondage, to do service). Therefore we should not make too much of an interpretive distinction when we see, in the English, one verse say slave, another say servant and yet another say bond servant. There may be contextual issues that alter the translation which we will explore, but generally I think it is up to translator preference. I would also like to remind the reader that what follows will be more a kind of listed response and not fully developed essays.

1.      2 “Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him.” Luke 7:2
a.       What we can see in this verse is the great concern that this Roman Centurion (a non-commissioned officer in the army of Herod Antipas) had for his servant. This is a Gentile and thus his servant would not have the same freedoms as a Jewish one under the Mosaic law. And yet we have a ranking officer not only caring for his servant but humbling himself to go out of his way to find an intenerate Jewish Rabbi. This would have been an act of desperation for a loved one – not typically the actions of a master who lorded over their servants. Some commentators speculate that this particular Centurion could actually be a partial or full convert to Judaism due to the glowing recommendation from the Jewish leaders and the fact that he helped to build the synagogue in Capernaum. While this is not a verse that directly conveys the authors views on slavery, it is a good window in to the fact that at the very least, slavery was not universally brutish.

2.      “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Luke 17:7-10: (Jesus seems to approve of the belittled attitude of the servants?)
a.       The meaning of this parable, aside from the implications that it has directly on the institution of slavery, is complex. In my mind this is one of the more difficult parables to understand, let alone extrapolate Jesus’ actual views on the institution of slavery. This is due in part to two different factors. (1) Luke is here using the parable in contrast to one previously given in Luke 12, and (2) Jesus here uses instructive irony. We will first look at the contrast that is occurring between this parable and the previous one, and then look at what instructive irony is and its role in this parable before extrapolating the application of this verse to the institution of slavery.

Let us look at (1). In Luke  12, we find the following parable:

“ like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.”

Some commentators have noticed that these two parables teach seemingly directly opposite things. The parable found in Luke 12 is exhorting the disciples of Jesus to endure in their patience on the Lord’s coming. The meaning is clear – those who are found to persevere will be invited in to sup with the Lord (what Revelation calls the great wedding feast of the Lamb – a theme also common in Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospels). Yet in our parable in Luke 17 Jesus seems to be saying the exact opposite? Why in this parable is the servant not expected to eat the meal with his master?

Well the reason for this we will find in exploring (2) – Jesus’ use of instructive irony. Instructive irony is a literary tool in which the speaker uses an ironic situation (an ironic juxtaposition) to present a point that the reader would not expect. In fact we find instructive irony consistently used in the teachings of Jesus and in the larger narrative presentation of the gospel writers. In this instance the irony is that it is the slave who is at fault in the parable. The point of the parable in Luke 17 is not to tell us how God will reward his faithful servant, but rather that a person who finds himself  servitude to another should not expect to be rewarded, let alone rewarded for begrudging the one to whom he serves. The principle here is that the master does not owe the servant anything for merely doing what he was asked to do. If the servant would like to be blessed by the master, he should go above and beyond what was asked and act from a position of genuine service, not a position of begrudging obedience.

The reason for the difference is actually quite simple. Neither of them are meant to be commentaries on some universal rule. The first is a parable about the reward that God will give to his faithful servants. The other is a parable about the attitudes of a disciple when doing the will of God.

And it is here that we can see that this passage is not actually a picture of Jesus view on slavery as an institution. He is rather using a culturally understood metaphor to explain a spiritual point. We should no more take this as Jesus tacitly approving slavery as we should read his as approving reckless living and self-righteousness described in the parable of the prodigal son.

3.      34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.John 8:35
a.       Yet again we have a verse where Jesus is not affirming slavery as an institution but is merely drawing on it as a cultural convention to make a spiritual point. In this case Jesus is having a dialogue with the Pharisees who think that simply because they are children of Abraham that they are God’s people. Jesus’ point here is that it takes more than just genetics to be part of God’s people and children of Abraham. Rather they are like servants in the house of Abraham. They may partake of the benefits while they live there, but they could be set free and dismissed at any time. They do not partake in the inheritance as the sons do. So again this Jesus here is simply using a cultural image to make a larger point.

4.      16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” John 13:16
a.       Here again Jesus is not affirming slavery but simply drawing their attention to a principle of servanthood. He states this to cut off any thought of his disciples that any one of them is “too good” to wash the feet of those to whom Jesus is sending them. The point is that if Jesus (i.e. the Son of God, God come to earth, etc.) is willing to condescend to serve humanity, who are they to think that they are above it?

5.      20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. 1 Corinthians 7:20-24
a.       I will attempt to keep this explanation brief since the passage itself is not only theologically complex, but there are many grammatical issues that play into how it is translated into English. Here there are two principles that we must keep in mind if we are to understand this passage. Firstly, Paul is not opposed to the concept of slavery per se. While I think he is opposed to the concept of chattel slavery (as we will see) and even debt servanthood, he clearly thinks that as Christians we are servants of God. That is, we were in bondage to sin and death, God paid for our redemption, and now we are servants of God. At the same time Paul also considers us “freemen” who have been freed by God to be considered as sons. I think that both concepts are meant to point as analogies to differing aspects of our relationship with God through Christ (in the same way God being called “Father” is an analogy as God is not a male nor genetically our father). So for Paul, we are both bonded to God and freed with respect to human sinfulness and oppression by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A second concept that Paul operates with is the concept of heavenly citizenship. That is, that Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God primarily, before they are citizens of the kingdom of man and that as citizens of God’s kingdom, we function as ambassadors to the kingdom of man.

This means that for Paul our priority is to be ambassadors of Christ, sharing the good news of Jesus, rather than social reformers trying to turn the kingdom of man into the kingdom of God. This plays out in various different ways elsewhere but in our present verse this means that if someone is a slave, they are to be a Christian first – because in Christ there is neither slave nor free (as we will see elsewhere soon). For Paul the slave is free in Christ and the freeman is a slave to Christ – and it goes round and round. The primary purpose for Paul is not social reform. Thus when he tells slaves to not be concerned that they are slaves, he is not saying that it is good that they are a slave because slavery is a good institution. In fact he tells them if they are able to gain their freedom they should do so (likely because of the mobility it would afford them to spread the gospel even further). Yet Paul is concerned with them being good examples of Jesus – as Christians we are to share the gospel wherever we find ourselves whether that be as a freeman, a slave, a prisoner, or a master. We can think of Paul’s exhortation to those married to unbelieving spouses to not divorce their spouse to “correct” their situation but rather to be a Christlike spouse to attempt to win over their unbelieving spouse to Christ.  This is the same message Paul gives here. He is not affirming slavery, but because his concern is with the spread of the gospel and not social revolution, his goal is for slaves to be Christlike even in their condition as slaves to win over their masters (and fellow slaves) to Christ. (Paul himself, though a freeman, saw himself as a servant to those he ministered to: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them,” 1 Corinthians 9:19).

Another aspect of this could be not only that Paul is unconcerned with driving social change, but that he is also aware that a direct attack on such a fundamental aspect of the culture of his day would be a futile effort. Every slave revolt attempted ended in massive governmental crack down and the brutal execution of all involved. Not only that but the consequences were usually harsher conditions and treatment of the slaves that remained in the area and the group that “sponsored” (or ideologically drove) the revolt were seen as violent anarchists and not only lost credibility but were seen with disdain. One of the many reasons that Paul could be uninterested in social reform is precisely because he wanted Christianity not only to not get more persecution that it was already getting, but also for it to be seen as kind and gentle (i.e. Christlike) movement within the community. And from history we can see that this strategy worked. We know that while it was heavily persecuted, one of the major reasons why it spread was precisely because of its policies of non retaliation, grace in response to hatred, and a sense of a genuine forgiving and loving community. That is precisely what attracted so many people to it.

We can think of Paul basing this course of action on the teaching of Jesus in the parable of the Leaven. In Matthew 13:33 Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Here we see that a possible principle that Jesus and the apostles were working from is rather than overtly go after social change, they would attempt to “leaven” society with the gospel and allow the change to slowly and organically rise. This is what we see Paul doing. While he does not explicitly attack slavery as an institution, he begins to leaven the dough of culture to see that there is no real difference between master and slave, male and female, Jew or Gentile. He was establishing the principle that in the eyes of God there was no qualitative distinction, and thus as Christians and children of God, we should not hold those distinctions either.

6.       13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:13 and 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 and 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.Colossians 3:11
a.       These are verses that simply show the belief in Paul that in Christ there was to be no distinctions between slave or free. In principle this is a tacit rejection of the institution of slavery because one would not be able to justify one’s right over another. At the very least this categorically opposes Roman chattel slavery even if Jewish debt-servanthood (where the master does not “own” body and soul his servant). That Paul said it so many times, in so many different contexts, to so many different congregations helps us to see just how important this concept is to Pauline thought.

7.      22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. Colossians 3:22-24
a.       This is really just a further exposition on the principle that we discussed with regards to 1 Corinthians 7:20-24. We see here that the principle importance is that the servant is to serve the master as a servant of Christ. They are to be good examples, bearing witness to their masters (and likely fellow servants) as the grace and forgiveness of Jesus to sinners. Undoubtedly the principle is the same that we see in 1 Peter 2:18 where Peter writes, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” It is really a social application of the principle of “turn the other cheek” found in the Sermon on the Mount.

In fact Paul extends this principle in Titus 2:9-10 where he states, “Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” Here he explicitly affirms the principle we have been exploring – that by their good behavior, even as slaves, the Christian can be “well pleasing” thus they “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior”. This means that when they present the gospel (“the doctrine of God our Savior”) to their master (or more likely when their masters ask them why they behave so well) their bad behavior will not be seen as fruit of the poisonous tree. Gandhi once said something like “I like their Christ. I dislike their Christians.” The believer is to “adorn” the message of Jesus with a life well lived. When a Christian acts poorly it affects not only their witness, but also the view of Christianity held by those who observe them. In fact if Christians listened to Paul more on this, we likely would not have so many people rejecting Christianity because of all of the crimes that the church has committed in history and of the bad behavior, hypocrisy and back biting that they see among Christians in church. 

In fact he continues this theme in 1 Timothy 6:1-2 when we states, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.” In this verse he explicitly states that the purpose of the slaves good behavior toward their master is that the name of God (and presumably the message of Jesus) is not reviled, or in modern parlance, hated. Here he states unambiguously that the reason for their good behavior is to present a good witness for Jesus Christ.

8.      Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. Colossians 4:1
a.       Here we can see another example of Paul using the principle of leaven to abolish slavery. It is often said that the best way to love one’s enemy is to stop calling your enemy your enemy. Here we can imagine a Christian master reading this passage and realizing that those in his possession are not only equals as human created in the image of God, but that in Christ they are not even supposed to be distinguished as slave or free because they “also have a Master in heaven.” Imagine the reaction to finding out that all the while you had a slave that you were enslaving a brother. How long could you maintain your stance  that slavery is acceptable if you believed along with Paul that we are all one in Christ or that we are even supposed to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)? This includes all “others” – Jews and gentiles, male and female, slave or free.

Here we can compare Paul’s exhortations to the slaves and compare it to that of the masters. Paul’s advice is not that different than what a Marriage counselor would give to a marriage on the rocks. Both parties are to be the best spouse that they can be to the other, and by their positive behavior and love, help the other to also be the best spouse possible. That is, their first responsibility is to be concerned with their own actions. In fact this is the same advice that Paul and Peter give to married couples. If they are married to an unbeliever, they are not to leave them but to live the as Christlike as they can to attempt to win them over with their witness – they are not to say that they are free to complain and retaliate because look how awful their husband is. Wives are to submit to their husbands. It does not say only to do so if the husband is the most loving shining example of Jesus. They are to act as Christlike as they can to their husbands regardless of the situation.[2] And the husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. This does not mean that they are only supposed to act Christlike when their wives are not cruel or naggy or abusive. They are to unequivocally love their wives as Christ loved the church (sacrificially). Paul unifies the principle when he says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5:21).

The major assumption of the gospel is grace in the face of sin. That even when others sin against us we show them grace and forgiveness because “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” So to the slaves Paul says that they should be the best Christlike examples that they can. To the masters he encourages them to also be the most Christlike examples that they can (which would entail seeing their slaves as equals and thus free them as Christ freed us). In neither case can one appeal to an unsaved/unjust master or an unsaved/lazy servant as an excuse to not act in accordance with the gospel. That is the message of Paul – whatever situation you find yourself in, you are to be the best example of Christ that you can be.

9.      10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 1 Timothy 1:10
a.       This is as close to an overt and explicit condemnation of slavery as an institution that we get in the writings of Paul. Here is talking about sins that are in violation with the law of God and we notice that he includes “enslavers” – those that put others into slavery. In fact he even continues on to say in v11 that these are contrary to sound doctrine, “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” What this basically means is that because Paul (and Timothy and those to whom they are both ministering) understand the gospel (that all are free in Christ) the actions listed are seen as immoral and contrary to the freedom in the Gospel. While we could quibble about other attributes in the list (such as homosexuality) it is clear that Paul lists those who enslave others as those who oppose the law of God and the gospel of Jesus. I’m not sure one could get a clearer statement that Paul thought that those who enslaved others were standing in contradiction to the law of God and to the gospel of Jesus.

            As we have seen, not only does Paul explicitly condemn those who enslave others as sinful and contrary to the gospel, over and over the verses normally cited by skeptics to say that the New Testament endorses slavery, never do. Rather they are exhortations to believers that no matter what situation that they find themselves in, even if they are in the lowest station one could be in, they are to comport themselves as one who has been redeemed by God. Now this should be enough to settle the issue but I think there are yet a few more questions to be answered. Here we will draw together all of the strings of thought from these verses (and some from the previous sections on “Slavery” in the Old Testament) and discuss Jesus’ views on slavery. We will end with a brief analysis of Paul’s letter to Philemon as a kind of case study.

Jesus and “Slavery”
            Jesus was in an entirely Jewish context and had almost nothing to say about the gentile world. He was most likely on engaging with the Old Testament Jewish concept of debt-servanthood. Now what we find in Jesus’ comments are not a direct repudiation of debt-servanthood as an institution but it is undeniable that he was deeply troubled and adamantly opposed to not taking care of, or worse, taking advantage of the poor. When we consider that this is the exact view of God in the Old Testament, it is hard to say that Jesus was not opposed to debt servanthood. In fact when we look at his comments about divorce we see something interesting that sheds more light on the issue. Jesus tells the Pharisees that God allowed divorce because of the sinful nature of the people. That is, he allowed it as a safety net because he knew his people would sin and allowing divorce was better than letting Israel fall into the immoral practices of the other nations – but it was not his ideal. When we look at the Old Testament laws about debt servanthood we find the same concept. God’s ideal is that there be no poor among the children of Israel. Yet, because of their sinfulness (specifically greed) that would keep them from ensuring that there were in fact no poor among them (despite God’s laws requiring the corners of their field be left on harvested, not charging interest on loans, giving freely to their neighbors, etc) God instituted debt-servanthood that allowed the Jews to pay off their debts but did not allow debts to last longer than 7 years – paid off or not.
            While we touched on the concept of God’s disdain for those who oppress the poor and his desire that there be no more poor in the land, we can here cite a few references that drive this point further. In Isaiah 58:6-7 we read the following:

6“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

            In this passage the Lord is condemning those who either fast for the wrong reasons or refuse to fast all together. In this case it is those who failed to keep the fast of the Sabbath year – the fast every 7 years where the land was to go untilled and the servants and their debts were to be set free. In addition to this we see that one of the purposes of the weekly Sabbath was also to share one’s bread with the hungry, invite the homeless into one’s house and to clothe them. Israel was judged by God for not only failing to do any of these, but also for actively oppressing the poor. We can see this in passages such as Amos 8:4-6:

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
    and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
    that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
    that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
    and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals
    and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
            In this case God is judging those who cannot wait for the Sabbath to be over that they can continue to use false scales to further impoverish the poor and then ultimately force them into debt servanthood where they could be bought for silver or even as  cheap as the cost of sandals. This tells us that not only were the Israelites not following the commands about freeing servants but they were also not following the commands to ensure their fellow Israelites did not go hungry or homeless. The statement that they could be bought for the price of sandals means that they would allow a fellow Jew to go into slavery if they could not even buy their sandals. We may think of someone going into debt over the price of a plot of land, but over sandals? This is how far Israel had sunk.
            And for those who are tempted to say that this only applied to their fellow Jews, God also states in Ezekiel 22:29 that, “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.” If we remember, God commanded that the Israelites were to deal fairly with the sojourners in their land, but here we see them extorting (and thus impoverishing) the sojourners as well. This was simply not acceptable to God. He was not only interested that there be no poor in Israel, but also that there be no poor period. While we commonly think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as stories of judgment about sexuality, when God tells us the reason it is quite different. He states in Ezekiel 16:49, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” God is not merely concerned with the poor in Israel, but with the poor in all lands, Jewish or otherwise.
            Therefore it should not be a surprise when Jesus states that part of the good news of his coming is not simply that he brings  redemption for sin, but also “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives,” (Luke 4:18) and that “good news is proclaimed to the poor,” (Matthew 11:5). Even though Jesus’ goal was not explicitly about social change, he undoubtedly had the same outlook on poverty and thus the issue of slavery as God did in the Old Testament. That is that due to the hardness of the hearts of the people, and the reality of life in a fallen world, God allows for a certain kind of debt servanthood (one that is not to be chattel, never perpetual, and immensely charitable) even though the ultimate goal is the end of poverty and thus the end of slavery. It is no surprise then that Jesus is the one who gives us the parable of the leaven presented above. It was Jesus’ mission that the gospel (freedom from sin and freedom from captivity) would be the leaven that would permeate through the dough of the world. Jesus did not come out explicitly against slavery as an institution, but he undoubtedly began the subversive campaign to put an end to it all together.

Case Study: Philemon

            Many skeptics have viewed Philemon as Paul’s expressed acceptance of slavery, a reading that I think is utterly false. This analysis will be brief as it will draw on much of what we had said previously with regards to Paul’s view and purpose in living as Christlike examples. In the letter (which would only 25 verses and would take just a couple minutes to read) Paul writes to Philemon about his former runaway slave named Onesimus. From the letter the background on the situation is vague. We are not sure when in the timelines Onesimus ran away from Philemon. It could have been years before becoming a Christian or it could have been after becoming a Christian. It could have been years before Philemon became a Christian, or after Philemon became a Christian. What we do know however is that at the time of writing Onesimus and Philemon had both become Christians.[3] It is in this context that Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. Yet he does not do so because, as a slave, it is Onesimus’ duty to be a slave. Rather it is for reconciliation between two brothers in Christ. Notice what Paul says,

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.

            The goal for Paul is not merely to return a slave to slavery. He says that it possibly all happened so that Philemon could have him back forever, but not as a slave, but now as a “dear brother.” That is, Paul is telling Philemon to not just take back Philemon as a servant in his house, but as a member of his house. Paul is here is giving us an example of applying the gospel that he has mentioned elsewhere. This is what it would look like when a master understands that in Christ there is neither slave nor free. In the same way that Philemon would receive Paul that is how Paul desires that Philemon receive Onesimus.
            Therefore for the skeptic to read Philemon as if it was Paul affirming slavery has committed themselves to an extremely shallow reading of not only this specific text, but also to the entire Pauline corpus. Rather than this letter showing that Paul affirms slavery, it is an excellent example to the exact contrary position. Paul was not affirming slavery but showing how the bonds of slavery are broken and overcome by living according to the gospel – that one of the applications of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the break down these social divides and put an end to such social injustices. The gospel, again, is to Paul the leaven that saturates the kingdom of man and brings redemption to humanity and “declares freedom to the captives.”

            As we have seen, the New Testament does not endorse slavery as many skeptics assert that it does. In fact rather than endorse it, we find Paul explicitly condemning it and Jesus not only undermining it but giving us the structure and the means to overcome and overthrow it. It was not incidental to Jesus but was one of the driving reasons that he came – to declare freedom to the captives. In addition to this, Jesus and Paul and the other New Testament authors not only opposed it in the abstract but showed us a better way, a way forward. It would not come through violence or revolt. It would come through humility, kindness, forgiveness, and understanding ourselves to be no better than anyone else. It would come through living consistently in light of the gospel of Grace.
            And yet, sadly, this is not how the church has acted throughout the centuries. If the Bible, both Old and New Testaments are opposed to institutionalized slavery, especially that of violence, oppressive, chattel slavery, then why has the church not only practiced it throughout the centuries, but why were some of its biggest advocates churchmen who used the Bible as their very justification for it? Those are some of the questions we will explore in our next segment:

“Slavery” in the Bible – Part 4: Slavery in Christendom.

[1] My main sources for this segment are the section “Slavery” by J.A. Harrill in The Dictionary of New Testament Bakcground; ‘Morality, Slavery and the Jurists in the Later Roman Republic’ by Alan Watson published in the Tulane Law Review, vol. XLII (which can be downloaded as a free pdf  at:; Slaves,Citzens, Sons: Legal Metaphors in the Epistles by Francis Lyall; Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan; and for commentaries for the relevant passages found in The New Testament Commentary ed. Hendricksen, Expositor’s Bible Commentary ed. Gaebelein, and the New International Commentary on the New Testament ed. Fee. There are several other commentaries and sources that I will cite along the way as well.
[2] Here I would like to state that I do not think that this means the wives must subject themselves to abuse or violence. The point is not to become a passive punching bag. The point is that they respond with grace rather than retaliation. They are to submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ. Since Christ is not a violent spouse this does not entail that the wife must take the punishment of an abusive spouse since such a spouse is not being Christ to the church. The wives are however not to respond in kind.
[3] I think that the likeliest reading is that Onesimus had run away prior to his own conversion and possibly prior to the conversion of Philemon as well. This is because it seems that he had been converted by the ministry of Paul ad had been minister with Paul for some time by the time the letter is written. It seems possible that it was due to Paul’s preaching on being a good Christlike example that prompted Onesimus to finally confess to being a runaway slave and to seek reconciliation.

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