Salvation and Slavery

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In an earlier exchange that I had with Thabiti, he acknowledged that Scripture contains “angular texts” on the subject of slavery. He is one of the few who does acknowledge this—most expositors who claim to believe in inerrancy are content, if the subject is Scripture on slavery, to blow sunshine in all kinds of random directions. Since their readers are equally invested in the value of receiving said sunshine once blown, they give all such wishful-thinking-exposition a pass, and so everyone is happy.

But one of the worst things that Christian apologists can do is to be disingenuous with the text. We cannot defend the faith by pretending that Scripture teaches something other than what every intelligent atheist can see that the Bible actually does teach. Do we really think that no atheists have ever read through the entire Old Testament? Are they not permitted to notice what they read there? A second really bad thing that Christian apologists can do is upbraid Christians in history for doing things of such a nature that their rebukes would apply equally well to some Old Testament saint doing exactly what Moses said he could do.

For example, if you are outraged at a hypothetical law in South Carolina two hundred years ago that would charge a master with murder if a slave died after a beating, but disallowed a murder charge if the slave died a week later, what are you going to do if the outrage occurred in the tribe of Judah three thousand years ago (Ex. 21:20-21)? Remember, the law is holy, righteous, and good.

I grant that such angular texts do need to be harmonized with the rest of Scripture, which I am going to be doing shortly. But the harmonization can’t be lame, and cannot overlook the plain meaning of the texts as they stand. Is that too much to ask?

“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth” (Ex. 21:26–27, ESV).

We might want to praise the humane nature of this law, letting a slave go free for the sake of a tooth. But some critics, difficult to please, might point out that if the slave got punched and didn’t lose a tooth, then he doesn’t go anywhere.  But . . . “the Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works” (Ps. 145:17).

This kind of disconnect is so common, and so largely invisible to us, that it is really worth asking where such disconnects come from. I would submit that they come from a foundational misunderstanding of the nature of man, the nature of grace, the nature of history, and the nature of the gospel. Other than that, everything’s fine.

A Distinction:

In previous expositions of the scriptural teaching on slavery, I have distinguished slavery in its Mosaic forms and slavery under pagan Rome. In the former, God gave instructions directly to Israel. In the later, the instructions had to do with how to respond to and deal with an ungodly form of slavery. I have argued that the former was a glorified form of indentured servitude, which is accurate enough in a rough and ready kind of way, and that the latter was simply wicked institution of pagan slavery. The wicked institution of pagan slavery was to be subverted over time, and not confronted directly by revolutionary means.

Even so, even with this distinction made, the Mosaic regulations about slavery did contain some angular elements, enough to make a pious exegete pass by on the other side of the road, as though the text were a beat up guy somewhere between Jericho and Jerusalem.

When a fellow Israelite entered into bondage, it really was like indentured servitude.

““If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee” (Lev. 25:39–40, ESV).

“You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God” (Lev. 25:43, ESV).

But it was perfectly acceptable for the Israelites to own slaves from the nations round about them.

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:44–46, ESV).

It was not permitted to rule over a fellow Israelite “ruthlessly,” apparently meaning in perpetuity. The Israelite shall be indentured by the year, in contrast to ruthless possession, meaning generational possession.

“He shall treat him as a worker hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight” (Lev. 25:53, ESV).

But if the slaves were from the surrounding nations, then it was allowable to pass them down to your sons as an inheritance “forever.”

Understanding Slavery as a Gospel Issue: 

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” These are the opening words of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and he sure makes his appalling heresy sound pretty uplifting—as though that scamp had not done enough damage to Western culture through what he taught elsewhere. His inspiring quote is actually a photo negative of the truth. The biblical message is the reverse of this—man is actually born in chains, and any liberty he comes to enjoy is offered to him by grace alone.

In Rousseau’s system, liberty is man’s birthright and the strictures of civilized society have robbed him of that birthright by creating and maintaining various inequities. He is born free, and justice requires that his lost liberty be given back to him, and pronto. He deserves it, especially since the liberty he craves getting back consists largely of obtaining his richer neighbor’s car, house, and wife.

But in the biblical system, man is born a slave to sin. By nature he is an object of wrath. We are fundamentally in bondage to sin, and as a consequence are susceptible to every other form of servitude. All the other forms of servitude are a natural outgrowth of our central bondage, our bondage to sin. Political slavery grows out of sin. Chattel slavery grows out of sin. Debt slavery grows out of sin. Sin is the soil in which every form of servitude grows.

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (Rom. 6:20–21, ESV).

“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14, ESV).

 So because of sin, the natural condition of mankind is grinding slavery. How do you think the pyramids were built?

A Miserable Planet:

As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, slavery has been ubiquitous throughout human history. It has been a commonplace, as universally present as other forms of sin have been. And then, just a few centuries ago, in one sector of the world, in Western European culture, men started to develop a bad conscience over the whole thing. The reason their conscience caught up with them is because of the growing cultural influence of the Christian gospel, and particular agents of that gospel application as represented by great men like William Wilberforce. But in the meantime . . .

“Blacks were not enslaved because they were black but because they were available. Slavery has existed in the world for thousands of years. Whites enslaved other whites in Europe for centuries before the first black was brought to the Western hemisphere. Asians enslaved Europeans. Asians enslaved other Asians. Africans enslaved other Africans, and indeed even today in North Africa, blacks continue to enslave blacks.”

Millions of men and women have been slaves—red, and yellow, black and white. The word slave comes from Slav, a prime target population. A couple million black slaves were exported from the west coast of Africa, and during overlapping centuries, hundreds of thousands of white slaves were imported to the north coast of Africa. As the Christian faith was just getting established, there were two to three million (largely white) slaves in Italy alone in the first century A.D. The chances are pretty good that everybody reading this is descended from slaves somewhere and somehow.

Naturally, the cultural Marxists have taken to blaming Western culture as the unique propagator of slavery when actually it was unique in that it was the birthplace of the revolt against slavery. And this was only possible because of the influence of the Christian gospel. Gospel liberty is a precondition for every other kind of liberty.

So all of this is a function of the miserable sinfulness of the entire world. It is a function of our heart condition, and in no way is it a function of our skin color. And when I say this, I am not just referring to those usurpers who use other human beings as though they were nothing more than animate tools. We cannot forget the sinfulness of those who were so manipulated. Sin is what presents the handles for manipulation. Sin is what makes us susceptible. Jesus came to a wretched planet in order to bring us into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). We were not in fact enjoying that liberty before He came, and if we continue to outlaw the mere mention of His name, we are going to spiral back down into the morass from which the gospel took centuries to extricate us.

What’s Wrong with Human Rights?

We do oppose the system of slavery which existed here in America a few centuries ago, but we are doing it for all the wrong reasons. If we opposed that chattel race-based slavery for the right reasons, we would understand (at the same time) that those slavers were not our moral inferiors. We would be repenting alongside them. We are not looking down on them from some exalted and enlightened height.

Rushdoony nailed it when he said this: “[H]umanism is butchering millions of babies annually through abortion. This is murder. Not all the evils of heresy trials and the injustices of some witchcraft trials are equal to this, in their brutality and carnage. It is arrogance of a fearful sort to believe that ours is an enlightened age, and earlier ones darker

Arrogance of a fearful sort about sums it up. Without justifying any unjustifiable act from the past, whatever the motive might have been, it should still be noted that the slavers of the 19th century were farmers, trying to make a profit. They enslaved people in order to make a profit off their work, and that was bad. But it was left to the 20th century to enslave people simply for the sake of lunatic ideologies, herding them into cattle cars headed off to concentration camps, there to execute them by the million for the sake of “the cause.” Or take our generation, in this country alone, which has, for the sake of a more convenient sex life, executed 60 million babies. We are the generation that has been willing to sell the pieces of those babies, and in case Planned Parenthood wasn’t making enough money off of that, we supplement their accounts with taxpayer dollars. Can anyone say “beam in our eye?”

The reason we are so blissfully unaware of our hypocrisy-on-stilts is because we have gotten our ideas about human dignity from Rousseau, and not from Scripture. Liberty is our birthright, according to Rousseau. It is a given. Anything that interferes with my free choices, like say, a baby, is an obstacle to that swollen little god inside me, sometimes called the Self, and at other times Precious. This is why Rousseau could demand that his mistress abandon all five of their children to orphanages (where they almost certainly died), and yet write so glowingly about how man is born free. Everybody is born free, except for those five apparently.

In contrast, the gospel tells us that we are all of us born in chains, but that God offers through Christ to bring us into a liberty that we do not in any way deserve. For Christians, the goal is liberty, but there are preconditions. The preconditions amount to these two things—repent and believe. And how will they hear without a preacher? And how will they preach unless someone grows a backbone?

Rousseau tells you to resent your chains. Christ tells you to repent your chains.

“The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine. God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered simply in itself, out of relation to God, is zero.”[1]

We are not going to have racial reconciliation in this country until white Christians realize that we are far more complicit in the current holocausts than white Christians were in the abuses of slavery centuries ago. Our compromises are worse. And further, we are not going to have racial reconciliation in this country until black Christians realize that they are far more complicit in the current holocausts than white Christians were in the abuses of slavery centuries ago. We are worse. And when God gives a real spirit of repentance, blacks and whites will not be on our knees casting sidelong glances make sure “that other group” over there is repenting the way they ought to be. That’s not how repentance works.

Always Jesus:

The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). The devil accuses us constantly (Rev. 12:10). How are we to tell the difference between true conviction of sin and a constant, never-ending guilt-plantation? The answer is found in the cross of Christ. We are charged as believers to preach Christ, and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). As we do so, we are engaged in toppling every form of human vanity, which has quite a stronghold in us (2 Cor. 10:4). We are participants in a mighty battle—“casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

The cross of Christ is easy to mock. How could the execution of a Jewish carpenter two thousand years ago be the reason that slavery in the West came to an end? We laugh at this pretension. We are free in essence, we say. We have never been slaves of anyone. Now excuse us while we gather up thousands of pothead socialists to assemble in front of the state legislature, with the sticky sweet aroma of our chains wafting over our heads, while we demand more entitlements from our lords who walk the earth.

In fact, God designed His instrument of liberation precisely so that the wisdom of God might look really stupid to us. But it only looks stupid because we are so foolish.

“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).

Your chains can be fashioned out of any kind of spiritual metal. Your chains might be lust. They might be resentment. They might be racial grievances. They might be covetousness. They might be hatred. They might be socialistic envy. They might be crapitalistic greed. They might be officious do-goodery. They might be critical theory. But regardless, only the resurrected Christ can strike them off. Ask Him to.

There is so much more to say. And much more could have been said in fewer words. Who is sufficient for these things?


[1] C. S. Lewis, A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works, ed. Patricia S. Klein, 1st ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2003), 46.