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the authority of the Bible for today, because it is seen as being culturally determined - a culture which is now outdated by our 'modern' or 'postmodern' culture.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.