Few things in the Bible are more countercultural than what we read there about slavery. It runs contrary to ancient Greco-Roman slave culture. It runs contrary to nineteenth-century American slave culture. It runs contrary to twenty-first-century libertarian culture. There’s something here to afflict everyone.
First, the data:
- Jesus nowhere advocated the abolition of slavery. Search for it in vain, for there is nothing in the gospels (or anywhere else in the New Testament) that delivers to us a clear abolitionist message. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, if I lived somewhere that practiced slavery, one of the first things I’d do is work to eliminate slavery,” then it has to make you uncomfortable as a Christian to see that neither Jesus nor any of the apostles ever did so.
- Jesus did not ignore slavery. If He had, maybe you could reasonably say, “Well, Jesus had more pressing issues—what with the salvation of the world from sin and all—and the apostles had no political power to do anything about slavery. Therefore, they never got around to saying much about it.” And yet, they had enough time to write about the problems of eating meat sacrificed to idols and the wrong of filing civil lawsuits and the sinfulness of homosexual sex. What’s more, when Paul DID have the power to influence a slaveholder (see the Book of Philemon), rather than influencing him to abandon his slaveholding ways, he urged him to take back into slavery a runaway slave.
- In fact, beyond refusing to push for the abolition of slavery, Jesus embraced slavery as one of the most prominent models used to describe Christianity. Christianity IS slavery, or else neither Jesus nor the apostles knew what Christianity was. This phenomenon is pretty ubiquitous in the New Testament. Consider a brief survey of the data:
- The most prominent word family in the New Testament relating to slavery (doulos) appears more than 160 times in its various forms across the New Testament.
- Salvation is described as a process of being enslaved (Romans 6:18).
- Jesus’ favorite metaphor to describe the relationship between God and His followers—used in parable after parable—was the image of the master and his slaves.
- Paul bragged that he had enslaved himself to God, that he had enslaved himself to other people, and that he had enslaved himself to himself (1 Corinthians 9:19, 27; Philemon 1:1).
- We are commended to make slaves of ourselves just as Jesus made a slave of Himself (Philippians 2:7).
- The pathway to greatness in Christianity is found through exploring the depths of lowly slavery to all (Matthew 20:27)
- An entire office of the church is named “the slaves” (“deacons,” 1 Timothy 3:8)
That’s a lot of data. I can’t say it any better than John MacArthur did:
When you think about terms used to describe Christians in the New Testament, we’re called children of God, right? We’re called heirs and joint-heirs. We’re called members of the body of Christ. We’re even designated as branches, sheep. And you don’t want to mix all those metaphors because each of those gives you a facet of understanding and aspect of our relationship to Christ. But the dominating word inside of which our full understanding of salvation is best seen as this word “slave.”
Now there’s a corresponding word that I want to mention as well, and that is the word “master,” right? If I were to ask you…let me ask you a fundamental question: “What is the foundational reality that defines what it means to be a Christian? What is the fundamental reality that distinguishes the believer’s relationship to Christ? What is our great confession in three words?” Jesus is Lord.
In fact, if you want to be saved, Romans 10:9 and 10 says, “You confess Jesus as Lord.” Kurios is the corresponding word to doulos. Kurios is “lord and master.” Doulos is “slave.” You can no more eliminate doulos from the believer’s relationship to the Lord than you could eliminate kurios. [emphasis mine]
You’re a lot more libertarian than Jesus ever was. That’s why discussing what the Bible has to say about slavery makes us all uncomfortable. And that’s what it needs to do, not in order to make us into Simon Legree nor to take us back to that awful place where we condoned nineteenth-century chattel slavery of blacks based upon race, but to teach us some other lessons.
First, slavery in the Bible teaches us that the way of salvation is counter-intuitive. I think sometimes we who have the job of explaining the teachings of Christ may do our jobs better than we ought. If you have made the gospel make perfect sense, then you have made it something other than what Jesus purported that it was. To lose your life for Christ’s sake is to find it. The path to exaltation is to humble yourself. The way to defeat your attacker is to forgive him. The way to inherit the whole world is to be meek. Christians embrace slavery because to be enslaved to righteousness is to be free and to become enslaved to the most people is to gain rank above them in the Kingdom.
The roles of slave and child are compared and contrasted in the New Testament (John 15:15; Galatians 4:7). Both slaves and children generally own nothing, can be compelled to obey, are not free to determine their own living arrangements, daily activities, relationships, or manners of behavior. When Jesus stated that one must become as a little child in order to enter the Kingdom, I believe that He was referring to that suite of attributes that children and slaves share in common. The way of salvation is the way of subservience.
Modern libertarian thought (I’m referring not to the political party but to the philosophy, which greatly influences all of American politics and culture) is not counter-intuitive at all. You have rights. Fight for them. Never allow yourself to be enslaved. Maintain your independence at all costs. The only path to freedom is to seize it and defend it. There’s no nuance there. The contrast between these two ways of thinking could not be more profound.
Second, God teaches us in the Bible that slavery is universal and that we cannot eradicate it. Rather we can only choose better forms of slavery over worse ones. We are slaves to sin or we are slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:16-18). There is such a thing as freedom, to be sure, but it is found in slavery, not outside of it. Emancipation, therefore, is a phantasm, a useful fiction.
Jesus did not advocate for emancipation for the same reason that He didn’t encourage riding pink unicorns down the streets of Atlantis—not because the experience would be so horrible, but because Jesus, rather than being Mr. Roarke, was someone who spoke honestly with us about our nature and our prospects.
Emancipation is not merely a simple fiction; it is an elaborate, carefully constructed fiction. It has a supporting legal fantasy: The notion of “property in the person.” The idea of “property in the person” is that when you sell your time, your effort, your skills, and even your health to your employer, you are not selling away yourself; you are merely selling away these items of “property” that you “own” and that just happen to be located within your body. This philosophical conceit masks the truth that everyone who has a job is selling away his or her freedom. Just try sending your skills off to your employer while you stay home. That’s one of the reasons why a definition of slavery is so difficult to create.
“Let’s go fishing next Tuesday.”
“What do you mean, ‘I can’t’? You’re a grown-up. You’re free. You can do whatever you want.”
“I have to work.”
Although this truth appears in greater eloquence and clarity in the Bible than anywhere else, you don’t have to turn to the Bible to find the truth of it. You can find it in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”: that adolescent dread of the inevitable servitude that is American adulthood. You can find it in Liberal, Feminist, Anarchist critiques of the wage-labor system that dominates our economy. The person determined to avoid enslavement is doomed to failure.
Look at the phenomenon of consumer credit. God explains it to us in the Bible: “The borrower is slave to the lender.” (Proverbs 22:7) In theory you can leave your job, but not if you’re walking off the graduation stage with a diploma in one hand and a promissory note for $100,000 of college debt in the other hand.
Look at the phenomenon of addiction. How many people are enslaved to alcohol? How many to drugs? How many to pornography? How many to cigarettes? How many to gambling? How many to gluttony? How many to their uncontrollable anger?
Look at domestic violence. How many husbands, wives, and children are in every way slaves to a bully in their homes?
Look at the entrepreneur. Ah, the great American dream! “I’ll be my own boss! I’ll answer to no one!” Only to discover that now your banker, your investors, and every one of your customers is your boss. You’ve traded one boss for one hundred.
Look at divorce. “I’ll get a divorce and get free of that rotten spouse of mine.” But you’ve got children together. You can’t be rid of one another. You live the rest of your life stuck with that relationship, only now it is more toxic than ever, and it hangs over every graduation, wedding, funeral, and holiday from now until death.
The evidence piles up all around us: The American libertarian experiment is an utter failure in delivering upon the promise of independence and emancipation. We trade one master for another. We can trade up or we can trade down. The black American who traded chattel slavery on a cotton plantation for slavery to debt and materialism has, in my opinion, traded way up. The black American who traded for a crack cocaine addiction instead? Not so much. It is always a trade up to become the slave of Jesus Christ. But nobody gets off scot-free. Nobody ever gets fully emancipated. That’s what the Bible says. That’s how the data stack up.
Third, the idea of the “Christian slave” is embraced with much greater enthusiasm in the Bible than is the idea of the “Christian slaveholder.” New Testament commands to slaves always make them more slave-like. New Testament commands to masters always make them less master-like. This is largely because of the Christian conception of personal rights. In my previous post, I almost defined a slave as a person without rights. The Christian life as presented in the New Testament is a life in which rights are relinquished and obligations are taken up. This idea fits well with the role of the slave. Indeed, God makes it clear that Christian slaves ought to make the very best slaves (1 Timothy 6:1-2, and please note how sharply verse 3 upbraids those who object to this biblical concept). When the master, however, begins to relinquish his rights and to take up additional obligations, this transformation alters the fundamental fabric of the master-slave relationship.
When you live as a slave, you are imitating Jesus (Philippians 2:7). When you live as a master, you are far less likely to do so in a Jesus sort of way. American libertarianism recoils against slavery because of what it does to the slave. From what I can tell, Christianity worries profoundly about what it generally makes of (reveals in?) the slaveholder.
Fourth, without condemning slavery, the New Testament actually condemns virtually every system of slavery that you know.
If a system of slavery is built upon any notion that the slaves are inferior to the masters, then that line of thinking stands condemned in Galatians 3:28.
If a system of slavery favors one’s countrymen and disfavors foreigners, then it collides smack into Leviticus 19:33-34.
If a system of slavery involves any form of sex slavery (and most do…just ask Thomas Jefferson), then it runs afoul of biblical sexual morality.
If a system of slavery keeps slaves in line by means of threats or outbursts of anger, or if it in any way denies due process and justice to a slave, then it is a violation of Ephesians 6:9.
If a system of slavery involves greedy masters, then it violates everything the New Testament says about the relationship Christians should have with material possessions.
In the comment thread, I welcome you all to identify which historical instances of slavery live up to this standard. I think there are a few, but they are very few, and none of them constitute the reasons why we hate slavery so much.
Of course, superiority complexes, xenophobia, lust, anger, and greed also show up quite frequently in wage-labor economic systems. After careful study, you may find that you are less troubled with what the Bible says about slavery and more troubled about what is says regarding the way you behave at your workplace.
Fifth, what rightfully displaces slavery in the New Testament is not liberation but love. We read that we are no longer slaves but are friends (John 15:5). We read that we are no longer slaves but are children (Galatians 4:7). We do not read that we are no longer slaves but are now emancipated freedmen. What is the difference between friends and children on the one hand and freedmen on the other hand? The latter is the termination of a relationship; the former is the maturation of it.
Hugh Lindsay’s Adoption in the Roman World provides some insight into the Roman phenomenon of adopting trusted slaves as sons. The servitude did not go away (for example, the adoptive father retained rights over all of the adoptive son’s possessions). The adoption was less about things taken away and more about things added. The adopted slave remained in the household and gained inheritance rights. The primary gain was not, however, something gained because of the adoption, but something gained that caused the adoption in the first place: the development of affection between slaveholder and slave that eventually transformed the relationship from master-slave to father-son. “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease.”
Perhaps this teaches us something about what it means to mature as believers? Can those aspects of Christian living which may start out feeling like the obligations of the enslaved eventually blossom, well watered with love, into something more intimate and familial? I think so.
In conclusion, a culture that pridefully insists that we will be slaves to no one is a culture that will lead us away from Christ.
This was a sermon illustration that I heard years ago in chapel at SWBTS. A preacher told this story as true, so there’s at least a 30% chance that it actually happened.
An evangelist was preaching a youth revival in Texas. Toward the end of the week, down the aisle at the altar call came a young man. He was one of the most popular boys on the local high school campus. He was a “high-value target.” Friends had been inviting him to the services, sharing their faith with him. The congregation held its breath as the evangelist took the young man’s hand.
“I’ve been told,” he began, “that if I believe in Jesus He will forgive my sins and will take me to Heaven when I die. I’m ready to do that. But I want it to be clearly understood by you, by this church, and by God Himself that nobody, including God Himself, is going to tell me what to do or how to live my life.”
Behold, the libertarian spirit! It originates in Hell, and like a boomerang, it takes back to its origin all whom it catches along the way. “Better to reign in Hell than to be enslaved in Heaven!” Yes, few things are more countercultural than what the Bible says about slavery, and few things speak more poignantly to the rebellion of the sinful heart.
In the next post we will consider this question: Is slavery ever an improvement for anyone, considered strictly as an economic phenomenon? If we have something better available to us now (and I think we do), then have those economic alternatives always been available to all people? Can we, like the Prodigal Son, ever imagine a circumstance in which entering slavery would be an upgrade? We will bark over that bone next time.