Slavery and Atheism

In Letter From A Christian Citizen, I argue two basic points concerning slavery. The first is that atheism does not provide us with any solid ground for condemning slavery. This does not keep atheists from condemning slavery. It just keeps them from having a good reason for doing so.

“From an atheistic perspective, how can slavery be consistently condemned? . . . Given your principles, why is slavery wrong?” (p. 23).

My second point is that Scripture does provide us with a solid basis for eliminating slavery.

“It is easy to see on these principles how slavery is not what God intends for us. Christ came to proclaim liberty for the captives (Luke 4:18). The Bible prohibits the manstealing that was the foundation of the slave trade (1 Tim. 1:10). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28). The logic of the new creation in Christ provides liberation from the slavery of sin which is the foundation of all other forms of slavery (Gal. 5:1). But how could atheism lead to a condemnation of slavery? (pp. 23-24).

Promoting the ethic of a new world, a new heaven and a new earth, was what the apostle Paul was after, and slavery was radically inconsistent with this vision. A very good description of the Pauline strategy in this can be found in N.T. Wright’s commentary on Philemon, the letter in which Paul is returning a runaway slave” (pp. 22-23).

So I hold up two fingers together and say, “On this subject, me and N.T. Wright . . . like that.”

In Black & Tan, I include the following short chapter that summarizes the biblical teaching on slavery. For those visitors coming here from Richard Dawkins web site, looking to discover some of my deep, dark, doctrinal secrets — here they are:

Relevance

Christians need to understand this issue in order to remain faithful to the teaching of Scripture. By seeing how obedience to Scripture could quite possibly have protected our fathers (both North and South) from a costly and bloody war, had they only obeyed, we may be assured of the importance of submitting to the Scriptures when it comes to our controversies (e.g. militant feminism, homosexuality), whatever the unbelieving world has to say about it.

The Slave Trade

The slave trade was an abomination, and I hold that those evangelicals in England like William Wilberforce who led the fight against it are rightly considered heroes of the faith. The Bible clearly rejects the practice of slave trading (1 Tim. 1:10; Ex. 21:16). In a just social order, slave trading could rightly be punished with death.

Slavery in the Bible

In considering slavery itself, we must recognize the difference between slavery regulated by the Mosaic law, that is, a slavery which was little more than an indentured servanthood, and slavery as it existed in a pagan empire such as Rome. In ancient Israel, it was the duty of those who feared God to simply obey the laws on slavery as God gave them, recognizing their temporary nature. The laws on slavery in the Old Testament begin with manumission in view (Ex. 21:2), and were given to a people who themselves had just been freed from bondage in Egypt (Ex. 20:1-2). The temporary nature of Hebraic slavery was built into it as a design feature.

But when the existing law was that of an unbelieving pagan order, like that of Rome, it was the duty of Christians living within that system to follow the biblical instructions for resisting the paganism of this slavery carefully so that the Word of God would not be blasphemed (1 Tim. 6:1).

The distinction to be made here is between slavery that was ordained by God, which is what we see in the Old Testament among the Hebrews, and slavery that was instituted by an unbelieving and pagan world, and which was to be subverted by faithful Christians living in accordance with the gospel.

Racism

American slavery had the additional complication of its racial basis. And so we as Christians, and especially as American Christians, must denounce as a matter of biblical principle, every form of racism, racial animosity or racial vainglory. God created man in His own image, and has made from one blood all the nations of the earth (Acts 17:26). We are called to believe firmly that in the gospel God has reversed the curse of Babel, and that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28), black or white, Asian or Hispanic, tall or short. Jesus Christ has purchased men from every nation and tribe with His own blood, and His blood necessarily provides a stronger bond than ours does.

Slavery as an Institution

Christ died on the cross to set all men free from their sins, and all forms of external slavery are built on the bedrock of slavery to sin. Therefore, the logic of the Great Commission requires the eventual death of slavery as an institution in any place where it might still exist. While Christian slaves were commanded to work hard for their masters, Christian slaves were also told to take any lawful opportunity for freedom (1 Cor. 7:20-24). This indicates that slavery as an institution is inconsistent with the fundamental Spirit of the gospel, who is the Spirit of liberty (2 Cor. 3:17).

Godly Subversion of Slavery

The best way to subvert a pagan system of slavery is through careful obedience to the law of Christ. This means that, while obedient Christians could have been either slaves or masters, the instructions given to them in their respective stations are very clear. Christian masters are to remember that they have a master in heaven, and this means they must treat their slaves charitably (Eph. 6:9). Christian slaves must work diligently for their masters, knowing that ultimately they are doing their work for God and not for men (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22-23). And Christian slaves who happen to be owned by Christian masters were told to pay even greater attention to this submissive demeanor, because the beneficiary of their labors was a brother in Christ (1 Tim. 6:2; Phil. 10-19). These scriptural instructions, carefully followed, resulted, over time, in a peaceful elimination of Roman slavery, and had they been consistently applied by us, they would have had an analogous impact on the slavery of the ante-bellum South.

Reformation or War?

The godly pattern of social renewal is never bloodthirsty. The radical insists on immediate action, through coercive, bloody, and political means. In contrast, the work of the gospel is done as silently as yeast working through the loaf, and the end result is liberation from sin, love for God, and love for one’s neighbor. This love for neighbor necessitates the recognition that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, white or black (Gal. 3:28). But those radicals who are impatient in their spirits always refuse God’s teaching in such matters. They are proud and ignorant, loving verbal strife, envy, railing, and perverse disputes (1 Tim. 6:3-5). We speak for peace, but they are for war (Ps. 120:7).

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