Leaven in the Flour

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.

17
Leave a Reply

avatar
 
17 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
11 Comment authors
Valerie (Kyriosity)AaronStan McCullarsJames BradshawDarius T Recent comment authors

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
James Bradshaw
Member

Unless we’re talking about two completely different institutions, does slavery not require, by definition, one person to buy or sell another person (with their consent or not) for their own profit? Please explain how such an institution can in any way abide by the Gospel’s mandate to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”.   Would YOU like to be a slave?  Do you suppose any American slaveholder would under any circumstance have been willing to live under the conditions they forced their slaves to endure? I’m betting they would not.    To suggest that the institution of slavery is any way… Read more »

Rick Davis
Guest

James,   How in the world did you read this post in which Doug is arguing that slavery should be ended (by one method rather than by another method), and come away thinking Doug is saying that slavery is totally okay and need not be ended? Did you actually read the post at all, or did you just insert your preconceived notion of what you think Doug believes so that you don’t actually have to interact with him?   Here’s Doug’s position: Slavery should be ended, and when the gospel is rightly proclaimed it does end gradually (just as it… Read more »

Daniel
Guest
Daniel

James states: ” the Bible is simply incoherent and useless as a moral guide.” Herein lies the difference between Pastor Wilson’s arguments and James’,  and I’m sensing the bur in James’ saddle. Pastor Wilson argues consistently from a scriptural worldview, holding himself to it and showing how it works in this chaotic world we live in.  James sits and snipes from the sidelines, and yet while he is quick to state that the Bible is incoherent and useless as a moral guide would have a hard time stating how his alternative, whatever that might be, is any better.  At the end of the… Read more »

holmegm
Guest
holmegm

Exactly so Rick.
James Bradshaw, was Paul just all wet, then?  Not conversant with the gospel?  What then was Paul going on about?

James Bradshaw
Member

Rick, my impression is that Doug is sort of retracting his former statements about the institution of slavery.  Frankly, I don’t disagree with him that gradually ending the institution would have been preferable to the shedding of blood.   However, quotes from his book “Slavery: As It Was” often refer to the genuine faith of Christian slaveholders in the South and the supposed racial harmony between whites and their black slaves.   If slavery is that detestable (as he now seems to be implying), how can he simultaneously laud the Southern slaveholders as the “last nation of the first Christendom”?  We all… Read more »

Robert
Guest
Robert

I would like to recommend a book for readers. It is called Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove. Though it is a science fiction, it is written by a Ph. D in Byzantine History. In the book, Roman slavery is described as well as speculation of what the Chruch would have looked like had the Christians not gone to the Lions. It is worlth a read

Stan McCullars
Guest
Stan McCullars

James, Were contraception, divorce, masturbation and targeting civilians supposed to be challenging ethical dilemnas to which Scripture provides little to no help in resolving? Are those the best examples you got? I can’t speak to contraception, but the Bible is crystal clear as far as the other three are concerned.

John T.
Guest
John T.

I find a lot of this hand-wringing over slavery in the Bible to be a bit silly.  Without Christ we are all slaves to something.  Speaking strictly in terms of one’s physical freedom, it seams that autonomy is not binary, but exists on a sliding scale.  Africans forced onto ships against their will were on the low end of that scale, suffering greatly at the hands of power. But can the same not be said for most of humanity throughout history?  Even today, most of us are beholden to the powers that be – be it our employer, the federal… Read more »

Scott P
Guest
Scott P

Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;} We fail to maintain objectivity in at least two ways when it comes to these topics. On the one hand we fail to distinguish where slavery offends our Christian ethic from where it offends our post-Christian egalitarian ethic. Also we tend to see Roman or antebellum slavery as particularly evil because we naively compare it in our minds to a 21st century middle class lifestyle. A similar modern example… Read more »

Scott P
Guest
Scott P

No sure what happened with the formatting. I’ll try again. We fail to maintain objectivity in at least two ways when it comes to these topics. On the one hand we fail to distinguish where slavery offends our Christian ethic from where it offends our post-Christian egalitarian ethic. Also we tend to see Roman and antebellum slavery as a particularly evil circumstance because we naively compare it in our minds to a 21st century middle class lifestyle. A similar modern example would be fighting to end child labor in a third world country not recognizing that the alternatives include starvation… Read more »

Darius T
Guest
Darius T

John T, that is a very insightful comment… well said.  

James Bradshaw
Member

Stan writes: “I can’t speak to contraception, but the Bible is crystal clear as far as the other three [divorce, masturbation, targeting civilians] are concerned.”   Is it?  Steve Hays of Triablogue would beg to differ:  http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2007/01/lusting-in-ones-heart.html   Contraception? Read “The Evangelical Christian case against contraception” here: http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/abbott/100804   What other issues do you think the Bible is explicit about?  Should people abandon their families?  Christ actually commanded it if the reason was to “serve Him” (whatever that means).   Do you think that was a general mandate or just a “nice to do”?   He also said that perfection consisted of… Read more »

Stan McCullars
Guest
Stan McCullars

James, Did you read the article to which you linked? I didn’t see Steve struggling with “masturbation (being) a soul-damning sin or not”. Perhaps you’re just looking for a fight. I’m not.

Aaron
Guest
Aaron

The one thing that still gets Doug in trouble. . and that he just hints at here. .  is the REALITY of slavery in the antebellum south was not Christian, or ethical, or anything else.  He argues 1st Century Roman slavery was comparably bad, and that is a difference he has with many.  My point gets into “Just war” theory. . .at what point WAS a war the “Christian” option here.  Racial, man-stealing, oppressive, systematic (1/3rd of a person. . really) slavery, at some point, required action.   No, the bible doesn’t lay clear ground work for just war theory,… Read more »

kyriosity
Member

“Racial, man-stealing, oppressive, systematic (1/3rd of a person. . really) slavery, at some point, required action.”   Aaron, I think Doug’s analogizing of the abortion situation is helpful here: We can say that the American practice of abortion has been racial (eugenicist), man-stealing (stealing the lives of tens of millions), oppressive (of the babies and of the many mothers who are coerced into committing murder), and systematic (the legal system deems preborn children to be zero percent of a person). If there was a basis for a just war against those who engage in slavery, then there’s an even greater… Read more »

Aaron
Guest
Aaron

Great point Valerie. . the question would be. . . who would be the target or “enemy” of a war against abortion rights?   And, currently the law of the entire country, all states. . is that abortion is legal, so who would give the authority to wage such a war?   I”m as pro-life as they come, and I think that civil disobedience is warranted. . .also, if the tables were turned and the country’s laws were pro-life and some states were breaking that law and allowing abortion,  then a war, or secession, or “kicking out” of the union… Read more »

kyriosity
Member

I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to watch Doug’s conversation with John Piper, but that’s where he makes the analogy with abortion, and draws a distinction between civil disobedience (both Doug and John were arrested when rescue-style civil disobedience was going on) and over-the-top hotheadedness (Paul Hill went the John Brown route). If a systemic injustice really needs to be stopped by any means, then vigilante violence is as justified as state-sponsored violence.