Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Is the Bible out of date because it condones slavery?

One of the Emergents in a comment on a previous post wrote: "This leads into hermeneutics: would it have been possible for the authors of the Bible to refer to G-d in *any other way* other than male? I don't think this possibility entered their consciousness, just like the abolition of slavery was not something which entered their minds."

Now the use of the slavery issue is a common reason used by both modernist and post-modernist liberals to advance the 'progressivist' idea that Christianity is changing and moving forward in its belief rather than being a fixed for all time set of beliefs. Others have used the argument to justify a change in doctrine on homosexuality. The real issue is not our view of slavery, but our method of interpreting scripture and the unchanging binding authority which conservative envangelicals (but not modernists or postmodernists) believe it holds.

The argument is that we believe slavery is wrong, but don't derive this view from the Bible so we more 'modern' or 'postmodern' people can derive our ethics from places other than the Bible also.

I respond to this argument as follows:

The Biblical position on slavery is more complex than on most other issues. It is important to address, because some argue that because firstly, the Old Testament law allows slavery, and we do not. Secondly, the New Testament says slaves should submit to their masters, while we don't have it in our society. Therefore, they argue that ethics are progressing from Biblical times. This argument is then used to undermine the authority of the Bible for today, because it is seen as being culturally determined - a culture which is now outdated by our 'modern' or 'postmodern' culture. Therefore, new ethical and doctrinal ideas not in the Bible can be entertained and old ethical and doctrinal ideas that are in the Bible, but which don't suit our modern context can be dismissed.

We must look at it in the context that it was practiced as a form of labour management in various forms by almost all societies throughout the world until very recently. It is still practiced in some Islamic countries such as Sudan and Mauritania. The impetus to outlaw slavery was largely driven by Christians such as William Wilberforce, who were motivated by the scriptures. It is completely illegitimate therefore, for those who do not respect the scriptures to claim his historic reason to discount the authority of scripture. Rather, they need to study more carefully what the scripture says on the subject. The scriptural response to the issue is not as simple and absolute as on some other issues such as abortion, homosexuality and adultery.
Old covenant teaching on slavery

The Old Testament law allowed the slavery of Gentiles and 'indentured service' to a maximum of six years for Jews. In the seventh year, the slaves were to be released with substantial gifts to from their master to help them start a new life (Deuteronomy 15:12; Exodus 21:2). One of the reasons for God's judgement on Israel was their failure to observe this law of 7th year release. Now, while this 6-year indentured service is referred to in the Bible as "slavery", it is not the same thing as for example slavery as practiced in the American south prior to the Civil War. It is rather more similar to the few years of indentured service that the ancestors of most Indian South Africans had to give in exchange for payment of the cost of their voyage from India to South Africa. Many poor Europeans also immigrated to America after signing an 'indentured service contract' with the ship captain, who then sold the contract on their arrival in America to farmers who were looking for a few years of labour. Many university students sign contracts to work a certain number of years for a company after graduation in exchange for that company paying their university fees. If they break contract to work for another firm, then they must 'buy their freedom' and pay back their full study loan with interest - just as Hebrew slaves had to under Old Testament law. 'Indentured service' is not called slavery in our society and we should be careful against reading the Bible this way.

Firstly, the slave trade against which Wilberforce fought would not have been tolerated under Old Testament law, because kidnapping was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 24:7). "DT 24:7 If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you." Applying this law to the 'Trans-Atlantic slave trade' of the 19th century, most of those involved would have to have been executed as kidnappers.

Secondly, the Israelite law did not respect the slave-owner rights of neighbouring peoples, thus providing the opportunity for slaves of other countries to run away to Israel. DT 23:15-16 "If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. 16 Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him." This would substantially undermine legalized slavery in the region.

Thirdly, with regard to 'indentured-service' because of debt. This could be effected when a man was sold to pay debts as a result of business errors or it could be a result of an inability to pay a fine or make the law requiring multiple restitution for theft (Exodus 22:2). We must remember that under this system the man's time of servitude was limited to six years. It helped to ensure that victims of crime were properly compensated. It also meant that in the instance of bankruptcy, the creditors would at least get something back. Also, if the 'indentured-servant' was a hard worker and could earn some extra money on the side, he may be able to redeem himself from his master earlier than this 6-year period. Furthermore, the system benefited the 'indentured servant' because unlike our modern system of sending people to prison, the servant could still keep his family with him. Thus the family was not split up by the fathers' crime. This problem in our modern society has led to a terrible cycle of crime, poverty and family break-up amongst certain communities - where children grow up fatherless. The master would in this instance help teach good work skills and good work habits to the servant, thus making him more employable afterwards. By contrast, under our modern prisons system, thieves simply mix with more hardened criminals and come out of prison knowing more about crime and having even worse work habits. In addition, the taxpayer did not have the wasted expense of having to pay to keep a thief in prison. This form of 'indentured-servitude' was thus much better for the criminal, the victim and the taxpayer than the modern criminal justice system. The main difficulty in applying it today is our economic labour surplus. Criminals would effectively be advantaged in getting 'indentured-employment' over the other unemployed poor - potentially taking jobs away from them.

When the Israelites rebelled against Gods law, they failed to release their Hebrew slaves in the 7th year, which was one of the many sins against which the prophet Jeremiah spoke against and for which God later punished the Jews (Jeremiah 34:8-20).

Fourthly, the Old Testament law provided various protections of the rights of slaves not customary in the surrounding peoples. For example, they had to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14). There was a penalty for sexually taking advantage of a slave girl (Leviticus 19:20). The 'indentured-servant' retained the right of redemption anytime after he was sold based on the number of years left to the Sabbath year. He could redeem himself by extra work or one of his relatives could do so (Leviticus 25:47-52). If the servant was injured by his master, he had to be set free (Exodus 21:26-27). Likewise, if a man married a slave-girl, she had to be set free (Exodus 21:9). The law did not allow 'indentured-servants' to be abused and expected them to be treated similarly to other employees LEV 25:53 "He is to be treated as a man hired from year to year; you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly."

Apart from the 7-year limit, many of the practices of 19th century slavery such as 'slave-breeding' and the use of slaves as prostitutes would have been illegal under Old Testament law.

Thus when the Old Testament speaks of slavery of Jews, it is talking about 'indentured service', not permanent slavery.
The New Testament context

Now when we look at the issue in the New Testament context, there is a significant change. The brotherhood of Christians included both Jew and Gentile (Romans 10:12; Colossians 3:11), while the Old Testament law assumed a brotherhood only between Jews. Thus, if one applies an Old Testament law to Gentile Christians, one has to give them similar privileges to those previously reserved only for Jews. Thus the prohibition on keeping Hebrew slaves for more than seven years would now also apply to Gentiles also.

The Old Testament teaching helping slaves was repeated:

• While the New Testament does not forbid Christians to own slaves, it does instruct masters to treat them well (Colossians 4:1) and to treat Christian slaves as brothers (Philemon 1:16).
• Christian slaves were encouraged to try to earn their freedom (1 Corinthians 7:21).
• As in the Old Testament, slave trading (kidnapping) was forbidden (1 Timothy 1:10).

Then there is the question of how a Christian master would apply Jesus command 'love your neighbour' and 'do to others as you would have them do to you' to his slaves. Logically, in most cases, he would free them. This was in fact what happened in many instances. Usually not immediately, but gradually slaves were freed voluntarily by Christian masters in many slave-owning societies.

New Testament teaching carefully balances teaching on respect for all forms of human authority including slave masters (1 Peter 2:18) with responsibility of authorities including masters (Colossians 4:1) to act in accordance with Christian principles. It would not have helped slaves to gain their freedom had Paul encouraged them to rebel against their masters. It would just have resulted in a lot of conflict and in the event of a slave revolt - a bloodbath.

Looking at the issue in broader context, about a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. If the early Christians had started at the outset to campaign for the abolition of slavery, it would have resulted in massive social upheaval that would not have been successful. The empire was under constant threat of slave-revolts that usually resulted in massive loss of life for slaves and other citizens. It is one thing to condemn slavery, but completely another to organise a peaceful transition from a slave-owning society to a free society. There are questions to look at like: Who will find employment from unemployed freed-slaves? Who will care for aged slaves who are no longer economically productive? There are issues here beyond the scope of this article.

The historical effect of Christian teaching

The Biblical teaching of respect for authority, whilst also reforming those authorities thus allowed Christianity to operate peacefully in a society where slavery was legal, without producing social chaos, while planting the seeds of the ultimate destruction of slavery as an institution. That destruction came first through voluntary freeing of slaves; secondly through the end of enslavement/kidnapping/slave trading; thirdly through improving the rights and treatment of slaves and fourthly through making slavery itself illegal by extension of the Old Testament law against permanent slavery from Jews also to Gentiles.

Historically, the campaign against slavery by William Wilberforce in the British Empire was fuelled by the revival under John Wesley and the campaign against slavery in America by Abraham Lincoln was fuelled by the revival under Charles Finney. Both evangelists spoke out strongly against the practice and encouraged their politically minded followers to fight for abolition. It is questionable whether the political motivation for abolition would have existed without these revivals. Other Christians such as David Livingstone helped expose the evils of the trade - all of them staunch and unquestioning Bible believers - with strong respect and understanding of the scriptures.

The Christian teaching on slavery has been attacked by Islamists, Marxists and Liberals. Nevertheless, we must remember that it was Islamists who were responsible for devastating the African continent with slave raiding; laws only were passed against it a few decades ago in many modern Islamic countries and some still clandestinely practice it. Marxists and other socialists showed little or no interest in fighting for the rights of black Africans until they wanted their political support in the late 20th century. Furthermore, Marxists practiced a form of state slavery in their forced labour camps. Secular liberals, while condemning slavery today didn't do much against it when slavery was socially acceptable. It was evangelical Bible-believing Christians mainly who fought to destroy the institution.

With the rise of Christianity bringing these reforms, slavery faded away first from Europe, then the British Empire; then America and the rest of the world. Therefore, it is completely consistent for the Christian to support the apostle Paul in his context in encouraging slaves to submit to their masters and to support William Wilberforce in his context of the fight to outlaw slavery. Both of these positions can be supported by scripture and it is not necessary to diminish respect for the authority of scripture by supporting both. Therefore, those who try to use the shift in policy on the issue of slavery as justification to dismiss Biblical teaching on other issues are ill informed.


Anonymous said...


Your being rather unfair to Roger in this post. It sounds like you are tying him up with the straw man that you are creating.

Please cite a reference, any reference, any time, in conversation or in writing, virtual or print, where Roger goes on to say "please ignore all OT law."

Failing that, please clarify what you mean by quoting him here and linking him to a view of "progressionist Christianity" as you define it here.

ChristianView said...

Dear Tim,

I accept your criticism. Other liberals do use such arguments, but maybe Roger himself does not. I and have edited the article as follows:
"The Biblical position on slavery is more complex than on most other issues. It is important to address, because some argue that because firstly, the Old Testament law allows slavery, and we do not. Secondly, the New Testament says slaves should submit to their masters, while we don't have it in our society. Therefore, they argue that ethics are progressing from Biblical times. This argument is then used to undermine the authority of the Bible for today, because it is seen as being culturally determined - a culture which is now outdated by our 'modern' or 'postmodern' culture. Therefore, new ethical and doctrinal ideas not in the Bible can be entertained and old ethical and doctrinal ideas that are in the Bible, but which don't suit our modern context can be dismissed."

Anonymous said...

Other liberals? Are you sure that Roger is a liberal?

It still sounds like you're boxing Roger unfairly and unnecessarily. Either remove the quote or edit the over picture in the article so as to not unduly create bias.

ChristianView said...

Tim. I have edited the article again to remove the name of the person and the reference to the quote. He is not the first person I have met who has used the article, so I reply to all of them in one article. I reply to the argument, not the person. Is that okay.

If you delete his name from your posts then there is no risk of hurting him?

Roger Saner said...

Guys, I have no problem with Philip using my name here (perhaps it's unnecessary, but I don't mind). I haven't read his post in-depth, but I hope to, because this gets to the core of what we're speaking about. My contention is that people interpreted the Bible ("correctly" according to their times and their methods - and probably their consciences before G-d) to support a system which was evil.

Then, us Christians, over time, changed our interpretation of the Bible to fight against that system.

I'm taking these two facts as a given, as my starting point. I then come to a particular conclusion - that in the past Christians have read the Bible incorrectly - and that we always need to ask ourselves, in every generation, "Have we got it right?"

If that is the structure of the argument which Philip is engaging me in, perfect :)

For the record, I do not classify myself as "liberal" and I don't think we should ignore all OT law.

Roger Saner said...

Hi Philip

Thanks for this post.

You assert that I'm a liberal because I have a particular way of reading the Bible. Maybe I'm a liberal in relation to you, because I don't read the Bible in the same way you do. Is that your only criteria for claiming I'm a liberal? So far all I've done is pointed out that Christians have used the Bible to support the evil system of slavery, and that there's something wrong with that.

You say that the orthodox/correct/only valied belief is that Christianity is a "fixed for all time set of beliefs." I'd like to respectfully question that. When did Christianity become this? When Jesus spoke? When the Gospels were written? When Paul articulated his theology? When the council of Nicae was convened and the Nicene Creed was written? When the doctrine of the Trinity of articulated and defended centuries after Christ? When Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa Theologica (and then had an experience of G-d in the eucharist, regretted that all of his writing was "straw" and that he could write no more)? When Martin Luther called the church back to a better way of being herself? When the Bible was translated into the common tongue so that it was no longer mediated by an elite? When the Reformers defined the sola's? When Calvin wrote his Institutes? When the "correct" view that the earth was the centre of the universe was challenged by heretics? This may sound like I'm being flippant, but I'm not. I know that for me and how I see the Bible, Christianity has had to change and adapt over the centuries - and sometimes it's done this really well, and sometimes really badly. There are still core doctrines that I hold to, and I believe all Christians through the ages have held to.

If Christianity is a fixed set of beliefs, then there absolutely no need for us to do any more theological research or even historical research into Jesus. All we need to do is to find out what those beliefs are, because surely they're fixed and do not change - ever - and then we've *got* what Christianity is.

The problem, the big problem with this view is that it forgets that Christianity is about a relationship with G-d, and while that relationship takes place within certain boundaries (and there's a certain continuity for how that relationship works with people over time), that relationship cannot be reduced to a set of beliefs.

This is the big problem I (and many inside - and outside - the emerging church conversation) have with Christianity being "a fixed set of beliefs": it creates a dichotomy inside the Faith where people can believe certain things (i.e. give mental and verbal assent to them) without those beliefs changing their lives. In other words, it becomes possible to profess to having a loving and transforming relationship with G-d (and defend that using solid theology) without that reality being true.

Case in point: Apartheid. Many Christians were orthodox (probably by your standards) and held to Christianity being a fixed set of beliefs. That did nothing to affect their behaviour towards those Scripture would identity as "the least of these."

I would love to see how you would answer some challenges to Christianity being a fixed set of beliefs:
1. When did Christianity become this?
2. Does everyone (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant) agree, and if not, why not?
3. Why did it become necessary for the Church to change its reading of Scripture through the centuries?

I've got more to write, but so far I've only made it through the first 2 paragraphs of your entry! This is a good place for us to focus our debate, because we've taking a presenting issue (slavery), relating it to the Bible, drawing some conclusions about how we approach Scripture and Christianity, making those clear, seeing that there's a difference between us, and then debating that.

Roger Saner said...

Thanks Philip, I've finally made my way through your post - extremely well-written, I must say: I've book-marked it and will point people here whenever the issue of slavery comes up.

You've shown quite well that "slavery" as referred to in the Bible is different to the modern form of slavery, and that much of the Bible speaks strongly against that. Particularly the evangelicals who rallied around Scripture to fight against slavery. Those people are commendable and I stand in that tradition too.

I must say that I hope you're not arguing that because I'm someone who is appalled at how the Bible was used to justify modern-day slavery, I'm claiming the Bible is out-of-date? Just because I claim the first, doesn't mean the second follows logically. My particular stance on the Bible mirrors that of N.T. Wright: that it is a place where heaven and earth overlap, a place where G-d speaks, and a book which was written to people for a particular purpose, and we can learn from that. I do not by any means claim the Bible is out of date: why would I bother on still reading it, then?

So while you've shown that the Bible speaks against modern-day slavery, what you haven't dealt with is why and how the Bible was used for so long by Christians to justify it. Which is exactly the point I'm making: regardless of what Scripture actually says, people are adept at twisting it to say what they want it to say (ironically, the very thing you're worried about - so maybe we can claim this mutual concern as our common ground).

I would love for you to show two things:
1 - why it's so easy for Christians (as shown to us by church history) to twist what the Bible says to play into their own lust for power
2 - how you would counter that.

I hope it's clear from what you've written that context is immensely important: both the context of the text (like the OT and the NT - particularly what meaning the authors and readers had in mind with particular words) and our current context (so, equating "19th-century slavery" with "indentured service" is an incorrect application). This is exactly what those in the emerging church (and theologians we respect, like John Howard Yoder and N.T. Wright) are doing.

Ironically, you've undermined (shall I say "deconstructed"?) a particular argument of yours with what you've written. If Christianity is a fixed-for-all-time set of beliefs, does that mean the Bible is too? If so, you're in trouble! Here's why.

You wrote: "Therefore, [the post-modernist liberals] argue that ethics are progressing from Biblical times."

As you've said, the NT teaching on slavery was not to directly undermine it or directly oppose it (because that would've been catastrophic for that culture it was written in) but to sow the seeds of its eventual destruction. How is that NOT a progessive ethic? Surely if slavery in the NT times was wrong, AND Christianity is a fixed-for-all-time set of beliefs, then the Bible would HAVE TO condemn slavery outright? Why wait? Why approach the issue in a roundabout manner? It's wrong, correct?

ChristianView said...


In terms of the issue of progressive revelation, yes:
i. Within the scriptures there is the story of progressive revelation of God and his truth, the study of which which theologians call 'Biblical theology' as opposed to other forms such as 'Systematic’ or 'pastoral' theology. That concept is perfectly orthodox. The unfolding revelation was completed with the New Testament canon.
ii. Within our own context there is an unfolding of truth as God 'shed's new light on his Holy word' (to quote the Puritan Pastor preaching to his congregation just before they set sail on the Mayflower to America). That is what happened with Luther etc. But it is not scripture changing, but our understanding of it which is enlightened by the Holy Spirit shedding light on the word. No new doctrine comes from the Holy Spirit outside the word. That concept is orthodox.
iii. Theology has to be re-written in every generation not because the answers change, but because the questions change. In the days of the Nicene Creed, it was Arianism. Before that Platonism. Now we have Postmodernism. But our beliefs have not changed - just the questions we have to answer have changed. Few if anyone in past generations questioned the churches teaching on homosexuality, but today we must put much effort into defending orthodoxy on this point - before there was no need to do so.
iv. There is much detail in the practical application of the word of God that is not spelt out in scripture and this is something we have to continually examine and reconsider how to be faithful to scripture and to our context and situation and the experience of others trying to do it.

But what is not acceptable, is for people to come up with completely new ideas borrowed from the culture and then draw thin connections between those new ideas and a few isolated out of context scriptures, whilst ignoring or 'deconstructing' the rest to make them mean something other than their obvious meaning. That I object to.

Anonymous said...


It is point iii) that serves as the point of departure for so many Christians, having inherited a faith with it's model questions and answers from a previous generation, that is grappling with a new set of questions and answers that are now being asked and answered.

Some of these questions has to do with postmodernity and some of them has to do with postcolonialism and, as Roger points out, in our context these issues converge.

It sounds to me like you're forgetting that Christianity has a long history of borrowing from the cultures around it and then repackaging them according to a new meaning - examples include phrases I'm sure you're happy with, e.g. "Jesus is LORD" and "Son of Man" and "Kingdom of God", as well as practices you may or may not care much about, e.g. "Easter" and "Christmas".

Many are also looking to build along the lines of point iv) and this includes guys like Pagitt who offer a yoga class at their church and myself, who makes use of phrases like "open channelling" to bundle and describe what others may term "prophetic evangelism" and "power evangelism".

McArthur, for example, in the CNN dialogue with Pagitt failed to account for points iii) and iv) and argued dogmatically, perhaps even pharisaically, against christians a) practicing yoga and b) it having any value in people's lives.

It would seem to me that you've set yourself against the likes of McLaren, and company, rather than maturely distinguishing between what they validly contribute as they grapple with iii) and iv).

Roger has asked you some direct questions and I'd loved to hear you answer them.

ChristianView said...

Regards the positive aspects of the emergents, I think they have correctly identified numerous problems in evangelicalism, which I also struggle with (and which I incedently have written hundreds of pages of unpublished material searching for answers in the scriptures and history). But their response to these problems I think is mostly unhelpful:
* They tend to advocate pendulum swings away from the extremes of their own church backgrounds. E.g. Logic to experience; legalism to liscence; Narrow fundamentalism to unbounded theological discussion; Structural to relational. I think it would be more helpful to just make some minor corrections and adjustments rather than go to the opposite extreme.
* They look for answers by re-reading the scriptures through the lens of postmodernism rather than studying postmodernism through the lens of scripture.

Anonymous said...


It appears that you believe there is an island out there called the Christian perspective?

We all have a worldview, a horizon of knowing, a way of being in the world that delimits and explains that world including how to live within it and what lies beyond it.

If you feel you live on "the" Christian island please respect those who don't. The island of postmodernity, along with the island of modernity, are both points of departure wherefrom and through which people yearn after, search for, dialogue about, and find Godde.

Why do you feel the need to villify these lenses? The kingdom and the gospel are both transcultural and in-cultural (or is it "en-", my sociology and anthropology are both pretty rusty...).

It seems to me that you're standing on a soap box arguing that people may've gotten their hands dirty while doing the very work you mention in your points.