Love Is Never Later

Thabiti’s most recent post is really very good. I want to begin by mentioning again how pleased I am to able to discuss this issue with him, and in this way. Not only am I pleased with his charitable disposition, and his fair-mindedness in understanding views that are not his own, I am also excited about the actual progress that this conversation appears to be making. Thabiti’s most recent contribution was very helpful in this regard. And judging from feedback I have been receiving, and many comments on Thabiti’s blog, this is a conversation that many have been hungry to see happen.

This post will be shorter than my previous one because I agreed with so much of what he said. Almost he persuadeth me to be an abolitionist. His kind of one, anyway.

First, my summary of these most recent points. He begins by saying that we ought not begin our discussions of this issue too far “downstream.” By this he means that we shouldn’t go straight to the household codes governing the relationships of masters and slaves without first checking how we have read the settings of the global commandments. By this, he means texts that require of us a life of love.

“What texts am I speaking of? I would privilege all the biblical texts that command love for neighbor (Matt. 22:35-39), love for enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), and especially love for brothers and sisters in Christ.”

His second point appeals to the example of Philemon and Onesimus, and argues that the logic of Paul’s argument in Philemon required an immediate manumission of Onesimus, and that this would not be an instance of the kind of gradualism I seem to be urging in Black & Tan.

In his third point, Thabiti argues that Paul does not just argue for the status quo, but that he is an active participant in positively urging Christian slaves toward freedom given any legitimate opportunity. “It would be a mistake to conclude that Paul thinks enslavement itself is not troublesome.”

Thabiti then makes a significant fourth point. He argues that the prohibition of “man-stealing” in 1 Tim. 1:10 would apply to more than just intercontinental trafficking of slaves. In addition, he believes that selling slaves and owning them cannot really be separated. Since the whole system in the South was dependent on the stealing, he argues the prohibition found in that text is more extensive than I believe it to be.

Because there is a lot of agreement here, I believe I can take care of a lot of this quickly — and then move on to the remaining places where we still have some disagreement. I agree completely with his first point about the authority of the global texts. The Golden Rule, to do as you would be done by, is absolutely relevant in discussions of slavery. Not only is it relevant, it would be relevant in intensely practical and immediate ways.

I agree with his second point about Philemon also. In fact, the only thing I differ with in this section is his apparent assumption that we differ. Speaking of the release of Onesimus, Thabiti says: “It seems to me that Paul expects this ‘favor,’ his ‘appeal on the basis of love,’ to be granted immediately—not gradually as Wilson argues in Black and Tan.”

But I agree completely with Thabiti about the manumission of Onesimus. Given the strength of Paul’s argument, I believe Onesimus was set free immediately, or within a very short time. The gradualism I argue for in Black & Tan would be, in Paul’s terms, the elimination of slavery in Asia Minor, and then throughout the whole Roman empire, and then throughout the world. Societies change gradually, but they can only do so if individuals change suddenly. So we agree at this point as well.

On this point, here is a link to my previous post, republished by permission from Omnibus III. It is a brief essay on the flow of Paul’s argument in Philemon. I trust that Thabiti will agree with virtually all of it. And for those working out the chronology of all this, that essay was written in 2005. It is an exposition of my views, not a retraction of them.

I agree with his third point about Paul pushing in a particular direction (toward liberty) in his household code instruction. Paul is working in the same direction as the Spirit of God is working, and that is always in the direction of liberty. That is what the gospel does.

With regard to his last point about the prohibition of “man-stealing,” I agree with most of his point, but not all of it. I do agree that the prohibition of man-stealing (or man-trafficking) is not only in effect when an ocean is involved. I believe that running domestic slave marketplaces would not have been a lawful occupation for believers at that time, any more than being a maritime slave-trader would have been. But it is when you get out to the end of the road and to the simple fact of ownership that the issue gets more complicated. That is where and when I believe the household codes of the New Testament provide some boundaries and some instruction, in the context of love. So I say this agreeing with Thabiti that, everything else being equal, a Christian master was always and everywhere under the law of Christ to seek the best interest of his slaves, as though he were in their position.

“That a Christian slaveholder could be a member in good standing in a church, as Wilson contends, doesn’t settle the issue. Surely he may have been a slaveholder when he was called to Christ (1 Cor. 7), but just as surely Paul would appeal to him/her on the basis of love to immediately free their slave and receive them as brothers in the Lord if they were Christians (Philemon).”

This is why I think the word immediately might need to be qualified somewhat. What about a slave-owner who never bought or sold any slaves? He inherited the plantation, and everybody was already there. Or suppose he just had two slaves, both in their eighties? Or what if he, like Jefferson, would not sell a slave family unless the family itself approved of it? I agree that Paul heavily leans toward setting slaves free, but there are other times when he does make lesser appeals for the meantime. He urges masters, for example, to “forbear threatening” (Eph. 6:9). And he tells slaves who have masters who have not yet picked up on the compelling logic of Philemon to not despise them (1 Tim. 6:2).

So Thabiti and I have agreed on the need for immediate, practical obedience. But immediate obedience might not mean immediate manumission. Wherever it did mean that, Thabiti and I agree. But suppose I am a pastor in 1858, and a young man who is a fine Christian comes to me for counsel. He has just inherited the family plantation, owns 25 slaves as a result, is troubled by the situation, and wants to know what to do. My counsel would be designed to get him (and his slaves) out of that circumstance as quickly as possible — so long as it was consistent with the well-being of everyone. In other words, start implementing the law of Christ today. But because of the outside circumstances, the full process might take years — freeing the children when they were born, teaching literacy and productive trades, providing for the elderly, etc.

A man can love his slaves, and if he loves his slaves he will not sacrifice them to an abstract idea. Sometimes a master does something else, like going to Jesus for healing on his slave’s behalf. “And a certain centurion’s servant (doulos), who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die” (Luke 7:2). Sometimes love does has something better to do than immediate manumission.

I know what I would do today if an abortionist wanted to join our church. He would be called upon to repent, and to shut down his clinic immediately (like, yesterday) regardless of the circumstances. In other words, this is the kind of sin that does not admit of any gradations whatever, and so I would not be a supportive pastor if an abortionist parishioner wanted to “taper off.” No, you shut down the clinic, you don’t sell it to someone else, and you simply repent, down to the ground. A slave-trader with five ships would be in the same position. A slave-marketeer trafficking in human souls like that great city Babylon (Rev. 18:11-13) would be in the same position. The message of Christ is to knock it off. But there were more than a few slave-holders in the South who, like the centurion, had members of their household who were dear to them. Their affections were not turned into something else by the corrupt nature of the institution itself.

For my abusive critics, these are the only people I am interested in defending. Part of my defense has been to point out that some of them actually existed. But if you then throw back in my teeth a long history of white degradation, abuse, sexual exploitation, lynchings, etc., as though I had any sympathy whatever with those sorts of monstrosities, I will just give you leave to debate with the man you think I am. Tell him hi when you see him next. I have never met him myself.

But back to Thabiti, who is not that kind of critic. And this may be the most significant point in the whole discussion thus far. Thabiti says this:

“Wilson’s recommendation for a gradual approach does not seem consistent with gospel love. If he amended his position even at this one point it would mean a world of difference for how people hear his argument and perceive him.”

This is a point I am happy to clarify, especially if it might make a world of difference. In addition, I am happy to amend any statements that led reasonable people to believe that I thought the duties of gospel love in individual situations could be implemented gradually, over centuries. No, I would repudiate that approach entirely. Individual obedience, individual acceptance of the Golden Rule, is always right now. If anyone were to read Thabiti’s excellent treatment of Philemon alongside my treatment of it, I don’t really think they would be able to find any daylight between us.

And that is why I think we are gaining on it. Again, many thanks to Thabiti for this constructive conversation. Also I want to thank those commenters at his blog and mine who are helping that along with their comments and prayers.

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