To begin with, it’s worth summarizing my understanding of the Bible. In my view, it is not a single unified book, and not the inerrant Word of God. Instead, I consider the Bible to be primary source material which, together with conscience, can help us to understand and relate to God to the extent we are capable. I consider Jesus Christ to be Himself the Word of God (as alluded to in John 1), and the various books of the Bible are to be treasured in different ways as history, or revelation, or fable, or poetry, or commentary, as the context suggests. It is natural that people honestly disagree on correct interpretation. I think if God had wanted us to have a clear, perfect reference text to guide our theology and our behavior, Jesus would have written it Himself. This post expands upon my understanding of the Bible more fully. In this context, we can separately consider Old Testament and New Testament references to slavery.
In the Old Testament, we find the practice of slavery in ancient Israel specifically codified into law, ostensibly by the Lord Himself, in Leviticus 25:44-45 and Exodus 21:1-11. We also see the Lord threatening slavery as a punishment for Israel’s enemies, in verses such as Joel 3:4-8. Understandably, these examples have been cited approvingly over the centuries by those claiming Biblical support for the morality and legality of slavery, including many southern churches up to the time of the U.S. Civil War. It’s hard to argue that these verses are taken out of context, and those taking the Old Testament as the inerrant Word of God have many other difficulties to address besides the slavery issue.
There are perhaps two ways to make sense of these verses. One is to argue that God intentionally provided the Israelites with laws tailored to their stage of their development. Such laws might have had practical purposes, in the context of society and culture in the ancient Near East (see, for example, this article by Glenn Miller, who does subscribe to an inerrant view of the Bible); verses concerning slavery could be seen as having regulated the practice in a way that sounds barbaric to us but may have been an improvement over what Israel’s neighbors were doing at the time. Certainly, slavery was not an invention of Judaism or Christianity; it was widespread in almost all cultures in some form throughout human history until modern times.
An alternative approach is to view the Old Testament texts as primarily a human product, in which whatever God revealed has been mixed with legends and with the culture, tradition, and editorial objectives of the various Biblical writers; this to me seems consistent with many of Jesus’s sayings, especially Matthew 5:31-48, John 8:1-11, and Matthew 19:8, and indeed with the whole general thrust of His ministry. Either approach can reach the same conclusion, that God does not “approve of” slavery, but the latter approach resonates more with me.
St. Paul does seem to have assumed that the Old Testament did originate from God, but he viewed it primarily in theological terms, as a step in God’s long-term plan for humanity (as suggested throughout the Epistle to the Romans). Law is a tool for bringing into relief the deeper troubles of man’s heart, and man’s sin, disobedience, and separation from God. For this purpose, any Law would have sufficed, not only the specific one laid out by Moses. It is often hard to tell where Paul is referring to the Law in all its Mosaic specificity and where he is referring to the universal moral Law written in our hearts. It is not clear from Paul’s writings what he thought about slavery as a political institution, or which parts of the Old Testament he understood in a literal versus allegorical context. I believe Paul was a great saint, and that he did have a genuine encounter with the risen Jesus, because Paul and Jesus are at their core teaching and demonstrating the same thing (love). However, I do not take everything Paul writes at face value. I don’t think he saw his letters as being a new “scripture” for people in the far future to consider as being the word of God; rather, they were written to particular churches to deal with particular problems. Paul’s overwhelming desire was to bring the gospel of God’s love to people, and reconcile them to God. Whatever he believed about peripheral doctrines was subservient to that goal. I think whatever Paul personally thought of Moses would have taken a backseat to his desire to bring his listeners to Jesus; if it was easier to get his message across by sticking with conventional Jewish understandings on some things, I think he would have done so even if he felt (or knew) differently. There are clues of this being Paul’s evangelistic approach in his comments about his becoming all things to all people and his advice (in the context of the Mosaic food laws) that whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God.
In the New Testament, we find slavery mentioned in several places, but without approval or disapproval of it as an institution. It was simply a fact of life in the first-century Roman empire, as it was in almost all societies for almost all of history. When most of us think of slavery today, the environment that comes to mind is the American South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In this environment, slavery was an especially glaring injustice because it was surrounded by democratic institutions and ringing declarations of the rights of man. In 1st century Palestine, there was no presumption of equal rights, and virtually all institutions were corrupt and unjust by modern standards. If Jesus or the Apostles had marched on Rome as social or political reformers, they might have had a very long list of changes to suggest, the abolition of slavery just being one of them. But the New Testament does not set forth any kind of blueprint for political structures or social institutions; rather, it speaks to the individual who must live amidst an unjust world and do their small part to bring some light and love to it, and it encourages them with the idea that God has forgiven their own individual part in the injustice, has a plan for setting things right in good time.
The person who finds themselves in a position to influence public policy should of course bring a moral outlook to this process. In that sense, the efforts of abolitionists and civil rights workers from William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King Jr. (both of whom drew inspiration from their deep Christian faith) were good and proper. In most ancient societies and many modern ones, lacking a free press and an open political process, this was simply not a viable pursuit for anyone. Even today, the vast majority of us are not in a position to “change the world” in a revolutionary sense. Unlike the portions of the Old Testament dealing with law codes and palace intrigue, the New Testament speaks primarily to the man (or woman) on the street, and especially to those on the margins with absolutely no worldly power. That neither Jesus nor the apostles call for reforms should not be seen as their endorsement of slavery or any other institution of that time. Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
Of more interest to Christianity than the legal status of a person under man’s laws is the spiritual status of a person before God. Clearly, the slave is not to be seen as sub-human or as a second class citizen, but an equal. Just as men and women are to be seen as equal, despite this being not the case under the legal or cultural conditions of the time. A healthy Christian community is supposed to reflect this ideal, regardless of what the world around it is doing:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. — Galatians 3:26-28
This approach towards affirming the common worth of humanity in God’s eyes is reflected in Jesus’s focus on people at the margins of society. From Jesus’s compassionate interactions with the sick, the blind, the poor, Samaritans, etc., His view the morality of treating anyone as a second-class citizen ought to be abundantly clear. It is admittedly difficult, then, to see how often Jesus’s parables involve master and servant (as opposed to some kind of equal, respectful relationship between employer and employee). Part of this of course is just reflecting the culture of His immediate listeners. But the other part, I think, is reflective of a basic truth that is deeply uncomfortable for some, especially in a society like the present-day United States. The master/servant, or even master/slave, dynamic is an important illustration of the real truth of our relationship to God. We are His creations, we belong to Him, and we owe Him our obedience. He would like to have it freely, and has given us freedom within the limits of our mortal lives, but ultimately the universe is His, and accepting that is step one to any kind of realistic understanding of our situation. If we can muster the humility to accept this, we can also experience a deeper relationship with God as a trusted servant, and beyond that as a friend. How do we make sense of a relationship like that, where one party is clearly the powerful one in charge, but the one owing obedience can also experience friendship and love? It too can be found in a human analogy – father and son, a relationship we have with God as illustrated in the very name we use to pray to Him and in parables such as the Prodigal Son.