When you preach in an expositional fashion through books of the Bible, inevitably you are forced to treat topics you might otherwise avoid. Yesterday was such a case. As I was in Ephesians 6, I had to address the topic of slavery.
Slavery was a common thing during the days of Paul. Estimates are that 10-15% of the sixty million population of the Roman Empire were enslaved at the time the New Testament church was forming throughout the empire.
In our day and in the USA, as we celebrate even this week our freedom, we could think we have advanced too far to need to address this topic. After all, the Civil War ended over a century and a half ago. The 13th Amendment brought an end to legalized slavery, stating:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Though our land still struggles with the impact of this history with respect to racial tensions, still slavery does not appear to be a present, live issue that confronts us as Americans.
Or does it? Consider these facts.
Studies done by Homeland Security estimate that the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States is between 11-12 million people. The majority of these people came across the border between the USA and Mexico. Many of them are brought here illegally by the "coyotes," the ones they pay to smuggle them across the border. Then, by indenturing these immigrants and using the fear of arrest due to their illegal status, the coyotes and their employers treat them as slaves. (To learn more and see documented cases about how this is done in farming work, read "Modern-Day Slavery.")
In some visits to New York City in the past few years, I have learned of similar things happening to the Fujianese people. A large majority of the people coming to the U.S. from the province of Fujian in China, across the strait from Taiwan, arrive here to work in restaurants. However, many are brought in illegally by what they call “snakeheads,” which operate similarly to coyotes. They indenture these poor people into restaurant work, pack them into crowded apartment buildings to live in, garnish their wages until they pay their fees, and threaten to report them if they fail to comply.
The U.S. State Department estimates millions of women and children are being held in sexual servitude worldwide. Thousands of these people are enslaved here in the USA, subjected to prostitution and controlled with drugs and abuse. A report of a study done a while back by DePaul University's International Human Rights Law Institute stated that 80 percent of those sold into sexual slavery are under 24 (with some as young as six years old) and that approximately 30,000 die annually.
Reports and statistics like the ones above could be multiplied. Estimates are that anywhere between 25-50 million people worldwide are enslaved. So this issue cannot be relegated to the distant past. Certainly it should not be ignored by the church. How are we to think Biblically about this issue?
To raise that question is to enter into a moral maze for several reasons. The very word "slavery" in our nation is a term weighted with historical background and often produces moral outrage at its very mention, making it difficult to discuss. A number of responses to slavery claiming to be Christian and Biblical have not been very Christian or properly Biblical at all. Perhaps making this matter most difficult, critics of the Bible have often used Scripture itself to slam the Bible's morality on this subject in the following way.
They argue that since the Bible does not seek slavery's abolition, but rather appears to accept it, the Scriptures' teaching on this subject is not to be followed in these days of modern enlightenment. On the surface, we can see why unbelievers would raise this issue. For instance, the Apostle Paul does not tell slaves to escape but instead instructs them in the New Testament church in this manner.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. (Ephesians 6:5-8)
Indeed, the book of Philemon is a letter of Paul’s where he sent a runaway slave back to his master. Thus, appeals to the Bible about this subject can often stir up visceral responses.
Yet these and other difficulties should not dissuade us from looking to God's Word for wisdom on this topic. Though it is beyond the scope of a brief article to give this matter a full treatment, five basic teachings from God's Word are offered below about slavery. They are followed by an excellent historical resource that can show the church how to live them out.
The Bible consistently recognizes the hardness of man’s heart. Rather than pretending there is no evil in this world, the Bible consistently proclaims the wickedness of man that leads to injustice. The God who created the heavens and the earth, and then watched mankind fall into the wickedness of sin, does not remain aloof and refuse to speak to the sins of this world. Rather, God proclaims that men's hearts are hardened by sin and offers guidance regarding it in the most difficult of circumstances.
For instance, God’s law has statutes regulating divorce. Unlike what the Pharisees claimed, the presence of divorce laws in the Bible is not to be read as a promotion of divorce or as a moral right every person entering into marriage has without proper substantiation. Rather, God's Word contains laws about divorce, as Jesus said, because of the hardness of man’s heart (see Matthew 19:3-9). Similarly, the Bible acknowledges the existence of slavery and gives instructions regarding it. The hardness of man’s heart means there will always be slavery in this world and we need to know how it should be handled.
The Scriptures indicate servitude may be an appropriate condition for certain people at certain times. People who are greatly in debt or those who have been captured in war are cases that reveal a need for a strong authority structure for people's own protection and training. The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution quoted above, the very amendment that abolished slavery, reflects this truth as it still states some form of servitude may be necessary "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."
The laws in the Bible provided instruction on righteously dealing with such cases. Proverbs 29:19 says, “A slave will not be instructed by words alone; for though he understands, there will be no response.” The hard truth is that some people cannot be instructed in freedom. They need a stronger taskmaster than mere words. But the next Biblical teachings must quickly follow this one.
The word of God clearly forbids racial prejudice and the abuse of slaves. The Bible acknowledges certain forms of slavery may need to exist in this wicked world, but it is based on behavior, not race. Israel was instructed to treat people from other countries living in their land with love and kindness as a reminder of their former state in Egypt as slaves. "Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19). They were especially not to enslave them. "You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns" (Deuteronomy 24:14).
Slaves were clearly not to be abused. In fact, they were to be granted their freedom if they were mistreated. Exodus 21:7 says, “If a man knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.”
The Gospel promotes an initial “remain as you are” attitude. The gospel does not encourage a social revolutionary mentality. Rather, if you become a Christian, you are to "remain as you are." Are you as a Christian married to an unbeliever? The Bible teaches you to remain as you are and seek to win your spouse to Christ. Are you converted, and immediately want to serve the Lord and become a missionary? The story of the Gerasene demoniac would teach you to remain where you are and tell your friends and family in your hometown about Jesus. Are you a slave that has become a Christian? Remain as you are and show how Christ is working in you so that your master will desire your freedom as you do.
For the sake of Christ, for the peace of the church, remain as you are initially.
Yet the Bible strongly encourages the freeing of slaves. Remember, God saved Israel from the slavery of Egypt. Similarly, the gospel is the message that Jesus came to earth as God’s Servant promised in the Old Testament, took on the slavery of our sins by dying on the cross, and set us free. The Bible is all about setting people free in the right way and at the right time.
In the proper course, the Lord desires people to be set free. Old Testament laws outlined how slaves could be freed, and how their former masters were to help them achieve it (see Deuteronomy 17:12-18). Yes, as mentioned above Paul did send Onesimus, the runaway slave of his master, back to Philemon. Yet remember what he wrote, “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother." Paul then went on to tell Philemon that he would pay the price if needed for Onesimus' freedom. "If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
Indeed, it has been where true Christianity has flourished that slavery has disappeared. William Wilberforce, a devout believer, worked in the British Parliament for years and finally achieved the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. He frequently appealed to Biblical truth to do so, and wrote a treatise against the false Christianity that allowed slavery to prosper (whose title in modern versions has been shortened to its last two words) called "A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity."
Now for an excellent resource. To learn more about how the Reformed Presbyterian Church practiced a Biblical morality with regard to slavery, see Robert Copeland's A Candle Against the Dark. As we see slavery rising again in this darkening age, we can learn anew how to light such a candle against it.