This is the third of four pieces on the subject of American slavery and modern race relations. I am building up to my conclusion, in which I will restate and expand a variation of an apology I extended to Thabiti in the course of our exchanges. But why all this preparation beforehand? Well, if I seek forgiveness for x, and if anybody hears me seeking forgiveness for x,y, and z, then I will be in real trouble (just a few weeks later) if I re-offend by reasserting y and z all over again. So consider this post and my previous post as a restatement of y and z at the front end.
What I want to do in this installment is give, in summary form, a statement about what I actually believe with regard to the teaching of the New Testament about slavery. I want to do this as though this were the first time I had ever said anything about it. I do not regard this as a personal quirk of my own, but rather as the teaching of Scripture which is binding on us all — red and yellow, black and white. This is what I believe careful exegesis requires.
The sufficiency of Scripture is an abstract doctrine if we never ground what we are saying in the text. So in my mind, the heart of this entire debate concerns the sufficiency of Scripture. Sufficiency is a doctrine that is easy to proclaim until it gets you in trouble, and it usually causes the trouble when you get to the point of contested applications.
Now Scripture can only be sufficient for every contingency if it is the very breath of God. But if we believe that it is inspired in that way, then we should be determined as Christians to live and die by it. When we are in situations that appear to us to be absolutely intractable, whether individual or cultural, then we must turn to the Bible for instruction in how we should respond. How should we then live?
There are many directions this discussion could take, and I don’t mind taking them each at the appropriate time. But there is only one thing that matters as a root issue. What we say when we have addressed this one issue will actually determine whether further discussion will be profitable.
This root issue does not require us to compare the historical day-to-day conditions of Roman and American slaves. I happen to believe that American slavery (as it was legally structured) was worse in certain key respects, and that Roman slavery (as it was legally structured) was worse in others. For an instance of the former, take the horrific conditions suffered by the slaves in the middle passage. Take the absolute authority of the paterfamilias for an example of the latter — American slaveowners were legally constrained in ways that the Romans were not. But such detailed comparisons are actually not necessary to my argument — such a comparison would only be relevant if either system required the abuse of slaves as mandatory.
Because abuse was not mandatory (either in Rome or in America), it was therefore possible for a Christian owner of slaves to heed the ameliorating teaching given by the apostle Paul. In both systems, slave owners had the liberty to treat their slaves well. This would obviously include treating them well in the way their church leaders required. Obedience in the midst of a corrupt and fallen system was therefore possible in 50 A.D and in 1850 A.D.
If it was not possible, the apostles would have not told anyone to do it. This means that it was possible for a man in South Carolina to treat his slave in exactly the same way that Paul required Philemon to treat Onesimus. And the guy who was willing to do that is the only guy I am willing to defend and stand with.
Moreover, there is no reasons for taking such obedience in the midst of such circumstances as requiring an approval of all the surrounding disobedience. To say that obedience was righteous is not to say that disobedience was also righteous.
So the apostles were faced with a circumstance where slaves and slaveowners were members of their churches. When confronted with this, what did they tell everybody to do? How did they handle it? This was a common enough problem that it was explicitly addressed in at least seven books of the New Testament. Here it is in brief:
“Were you a bondservant [doulos] when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [doulos] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants [doulos] of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor. 7:21-24).
“Bondservants [doulos], obey your earthly masters [kurios]with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers . . .” (Eph. 6:5-6a, ESV).
“Masters [kurios], do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Eph. 6:9, ESV).
“Bondservants [doulos], obey in everything those who are your earthly masters [kurios], not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22, ESV)
“Masters [kurios], treat your bondservants [doulos] justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1, ESV)
“Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [doulos] regard their own masters [despotes] as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters [despotes] must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved” (1 Tim. 6:1-2, ESV).
“Bondservants [doulos] are to be submissive to their own masters [despotes} in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:9-10).
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant [doulos] but more than a bondservant [doulos], as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Phil. 15-16)
“Servants [oiketes], be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Pet. 2:18, ESV).
Now there are three basic ways for believers to respond to such passages. One is to come up with some version of “that was then, this is now.” This is to abandon the sufficiency of Scripture, and it will not be long before biblical standards are being jettisoned in other areas as well. I only say this because you can see that kind of thing happening pretty much everywhere you look.
The second way is how too many Southern defenders of slavery took it — arguing that slavery was designed by God to be a permanent fixture in human affairs, thus keeping everything just the way it was (with no thought of gradualism). They took some stills from the movie, and analyzed them closely, but never watched the movie itself.
The third way would be to argue that this apostolic strategy was actually a subversive attack on the institution of slavery, an attack by means of gospel gradualism. All we ask, the early Christians said, is to be allowed to put this leaven here into the three measures of flour.
If you were to go for this third option, then I would agree completely, and would say that this is precisely how I have been seeking to apply these passages throughout this entire controversy. I believe that it does justice to the plain sense of the words, while at the same time displaying real trust in the power and trajectory of the gospel to transform every human institution, including the really problematic ones.
But, I would point out mildly, to argue for peacefully subverting an institution until it is stone cold dead and good riddance is not the same thing as defending that institution.
In short, when it comes to slavery in America, there is no species of cruelty, unkindness, malice, hard-heartedness, callousness, greed, avarice, presumption, lust, wickedness, arrogance, or pride that I am prepared to defend or explain away. The only thing that can deal with such sins is the blood of Jesus Christ.
But I know that I can be accused of complicity with such sins in history because of the gradualism in my gospel gradualism. To the extent that I have succeeded in echoing the teaching of the apostles on this point, I am willing to be misunderstood and misrepresented along with them. I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, and I believe it is sufficient to undo every snarl.
But to the extent that I have given any unnecessary offense to brothers who were not caught up in the errors I have been addressing — because I have explained these truths in a way that would have made the apostle Paul cringe — I want to be easily entreated, as James put it, and I want to be eager to put things right. Because apologies are rarely improved when they are encumbered with accompanying “explanations,” I have now said what I needed to say beforehand. And this is why my next post will be presented the way it will be, and tagged the way it will be tagged.