Does the Bible Condone Slavery? #118 Part 1.
Hello friends, and happy weekend to you. Yes, if you’re like me – the weekend doesn’t mean as much as it used to, because all the days bleed together. Sundays are still special, however, because our church gathers together online, we worship and pray together live – online – and we listen to the Word together live. It’s not the same, but it’s not bad either. I find myself looking forward to it, and to the small group meetings with leaders and other people that also happen on Sunday. When you are starved for contact with other people, I guess you take it how you can get it! Tonight’s Bible readings include: Numbers 2, Ecclesiastes 12, Psalms 36 and Philemon 1. Philemon is our focus passage tonight, and it brings up an important, but very controversial topic. Does the Bible condone slavery?
The answer is a bit, shall we say, complicated. I had an interesting conversation by text this week with friend and pod listener Lamar who was commenting that some of the slavery spoken of in the Leviticus passages did indeed sound a like lot chattal slavery, as practiced by the U.S. and England, and other countries in the 1800s and prior. Lamar’s speculation was that perhaps God allowed such things – as He allowed husbands to write their wives a certificate of divorce in Old Testament times – because of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts. I believe that is a good and sound explanation of what was going on.
I will say that much of the American/England system of slavery was built on kidnapping, and was race-based – white people oppressing and kidnapping and enslaving black people. This was not at all what servitude in New Testament times was like, and it wasn’t even what the kind of slavery/bond-servanthood spoken of in the Old Testament was like either. In 2017 I wrote a book called “The Bible and Racism,” that addresses how the Bible handles issues of race. Only a fool uses the Bible to justify racism, and yes, I’m aware that there were many foolish preachers that attempted to do just that in prior centuries. Today’s question will be answered, in part, by chapter 6 of The Bible and Racism. If you’d want to buy that book, it is available on Amazon, and when you buy a copy, I get enough money to buy a small box of Raisin Bran, which is important at my age. 😉 Well, let’s read Philemon and then come back and discuss whether or not the Bible condones slavery:
“And the same law commands “not to muzzle the ox which treadeth out the corn: for the labourer must be reckoned worthy of his food.” And it prohibits an ox and ass to be yoked in the plow together pointing perhaps to the want of agreement in the case of the animals; and at the same time teaching not to wrong any one belonging to another race, and bring him under the yoke, when there is no other cause to allege than difference of race, which is no cause at all, being neither wickedness nor the effect of wickedness.” Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian who lived from 150 AD – 215 ADThe AnteNicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 368.
“God, who produces and gives breath to men, willed that all should be equal, that is, equally matched. He has imposed the same condition of living on all. He has opened wisdom to all. He has promised immortality to all. No one is cut off from His heavenly benefits.… In His sight, no one is a slave; no one is a master. For if all have the same Father, by an equal right we are all children. No one is poor in the sight of God but he who is without justice. No one is rich, but he who is full of virtues.… For this reason, neither the Romans nor the Greeks could possess justice. For they had men differing from one another by many degrees: the poor and the rich, the humble and the powerful, private persons and the highest authorities of kings. However, where all persons are not equally matched, there is no justice. And, by its nature, inequality excludes justice.… However, someone will say, “Are there not among you some who are poor and others who are rich? Are not some servants and others masters? Is there not some difference between individuals?” There is none. Nor is there any other cause why we mutually bestow upon each other the name of brothers, except that we believe ourselves to be equal. We measure all human things by the spirit, not by the body. Although the condition of our bodies is different, yet we have no servants. For we both regard and speak of them as brothers in spirit and as fellow-servants in religion.… Therefore, in lowliness of mind, we are on an equality: the free with the slaves and the rich with the poor. Nevertheless, in the sight of God we are distinguished only by virtue.… The person who has conducted himself not only as an equal, but even as an inferior, he will plainly obtain a much higher rank of dignity in the judgment of God. Lactantius, circa 305 AD,quoted in: A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 236.
The above passages, and dozens of others like them, demonstrate the views that the early church had about slavery and race. While there were indeed bond-servants in the early church, both slaves and rich, laborers and merchants, foreigners and natives, were all accorded the title, “brother.” Although the church in latter years would too often give in to opulence and worldliness, the church in the first few centuries carefully sought to heed Paul and James’ biblical warnings against showing favoritism and partiality towards anyone. To read Lactantius’ words, written around 300 AD, is to read refreshing words of equality and unity, the likes of which the modern world has yet to fully grasp, even 1700 years later.
In October of 2014, Boston Globe columnist and spirituality writer Margery Eagan related the following experience from her Catholic church, and left dangling a provocative question: Since the Bible condones slavery (and the modern church does not), should not the modern church “discount and dismiss” what Paul said about homosexuality?
I do want to address, and perhaps challenge, the first part of Margery’s question, since most people assume it to be true. Does the Bible, the New Testament in particular, actually condone slavery? The answer to that question is, as one would imagine, quite complex. The Bible has been tragically used and abused for centuries in the name of propping up one false ideology or the other. This dynamic happens when humans seek to read INTO the Bible their own beliefs and search out phrases, words and stories to justify themselves, rather than reading OUT of the Bible truths for life.
I teach survey-level New Testament and Old Testament courses at a local liberal arts college. At the beginning of each of those classes, I take a Bible and physically demonstrate two different approaches to Scripture. Holding it over my head, I explain that we can view the Word of God as authoritative – that we must follow it and submit to it – we can’t read into the Bible our worldview, biases and feelings, but we must read out of it the foundation for our worldview, biases and feelings. The view that the Bible is above us represents a high view of Scripture – that it is God’s Word (not the word of man) and that we must seek to understand what is written and follow it. When we understand the grammar, vocabulary and context of a passage, in other words, we will know the meaning of that passage.
The second major way we can approach Scripture, I demonstrate by putting the Bible on the floor, and explain to the students that in this approach, the Bible is beneath us, and rather than read out of Scripture authoritative direction, we read into Scripture our own views, picking and choosing which Scriptures to follow and which to reject, and interpreting what the Bible has to say in light of our own views and opinions. With this approach, some Bible passages are ignored, or completely reinterpreted by us to mean something entirely different than what the grammar, vocabulary and context of the verse says.
There are technical terms for both of these different approaches to Scripture, with eisegesis denoting the approach that seeks to read meanings into the Bible text, and exegesis indicating the approach that seeks to bring out of the text its intentions and meaning. Dr. James White offers an excellent definition of eisegesis below, and shows how it differs from an exegetical approach:
Eisegesis is the reading into a text, in this case, an ancient text of the Bible, of a meaning that is not supported by the grammar, syntax, lexical meanings, and over-all context, of the original. It is the opposite of exegesis, where you read out of the text its original meaning by careful attention to the same things, grammar, syntax, the lexical meanings of the words used by the author (as they were used in his day and in his area), and the over-all context of the document. As common as it is, it should be something the Christian minister finds abhorrent, for when you stop and think about it, eisegesis muffles the voice of God. If the text of Scripture is in fact God breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) and if God speaks in the entirety of the Bible (Matt. 22:31) then eisegesis would involve silencing that divine voice and replacing it with the thoughts, intents, and most often, traditions, of the one doing the interpretation. In fact, in my experience, eisegetical mishandling of the inspired text is the single most common source of heresy, division, disunity, and a lack of clarity in the proclamation of the gospel.(Dr. James White – Pulpit Crimes, 2006)
Almost all Christians have engaged in eisegesis at some point, but it is a very dangerous practice. Unfortunately, my use of the word “dangerous” here is quite literal. Eisegetical methods of interpretation have led to much bloodshed and acrimony between people who call themselves Christians. There have been wars and killings and thousands of denominational splits, all because we humans have a tendency to look to Scripture for divine approval of our thoughts, actions and opinions, rather than seeking to base our thoughts, actions and opinions on a right understanding of Scripture.
Supporters of race based slavery have engaged in significant and aberrant eisegesis in reading into Scripture Divine commendation for their abominable practices. While it is true that the Bible does not completely ban the practice of bond-servitude, a careful examination of Scripture will demonstrate that the bond-servitude of the Bible and the race-based slavery of Europe and the Americas are vastly different.
I’d like to share a very interesting, and extremely important piece of history as a way to close out this chapter, and bridge into the discussion of the next chapter. The passage below is one of the earliest descriptions of Jesus and His followers by somebody not in the Bible. It was written by the Roman governor of Bithynia, a man named Pliny the younger, and was addressed to the Roman emperor Trajan. The date of writing was approximately 112 AD, and Pliny is writing to inform the emperor of a new movement of people who worship Christ as a God, and bind themselves to pledges to not steal, commit adultery, lie, or be untrustworthy. Pliny was very concerned about these strange people, because they appeared to him to be members of a secret society, which he had forbidden in his district. Therefore, he captured two young girls and interrogated them to find out the truth about these Jesus-followers. Note below how the two young girls are ministers (deaconesses) in the church AND they are slaves/bond-servants. This is steady proof, from an outside source, that the early church viewed slaves as worthy and qualified for some of the most crucial positions that the church had to offer!
They declared that all the wrong they had committed, wittingly or unwittingly, was this, that they had been accustomed on a fixed day to meet before dawn and sing antiphonally a hymn to Christ as a god, and bind themselves by a solemn pledge (sacramento) not to commit any enormity, but to abstain from theft, brigandage, and adultery, to keep their word, and not to refuse to restore what had been entrusted to their charge if demanded.(Source: F. H. Blackburne Daniell, “Trajanus (1), M. Ulpius (Nerva),” ed. William Smith and Henry Wace, A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines (London: John Murray, 1877–1887), 1040.)
After these ceremonies they used to disperse and assemble again to share a common meal of innocent food, and even this they had given up after I had issued the edict by which, according to your instructions, I prohibited secret societies.
I therefore considered it the more necessary, in order to ascertain what truth there was in this account, to examine two slave-girls, who were called deaconesses (ministrae), and even to use torture. I found nothing except a perverted and unbounded superstition. I therefore have adjourned the investigation and hastened to consult you, for I thought the matter was worth consulting you about, especially on account of the numbers who are involved. For many of every age and rank, and of both sexes, are already and will be summoned to stand their trial. For this superstition has infected not only the towns, but also the villages and country; yet it apparently can be checked and corrected.