What follows is an essay I wrote several years back in response to what I have heard numerous times: that we cannot trust the Bible, nor can we reliably interpret it, as shown by the fact that modern people had to progress to the point where they eventually and wisely rejected what the Bible taught in favor of slavery. Therefore, we must do the same with all sorts of other things that the Scriptures teach.
Today’s issues of biblical interpretation cannot be strictly compared to the change in the church’s attitude to slavery over the last two hundred years, in part, because there was none, except for the brief lives of the American and South African heresies. These heresies not only condoned slavery, they commanded it. In an even more rare and stunning novelty, they did so for an entire race of humans, and in perpetuity. The Bible itself never commands slavery; it only regulates it in OT law, and in ways more strict (for the slaveholders) than any of Israel’s neighbors ever did. But over those regulations is the bigger picture of the Exodus, the freeing of a slave people.
In the New Testament, slavery is assumed as an evil to be endured and made use of for witness, if you are a slave and cannot break free of it (I Cor. 7:21). In fact, engaging in the slave trade itself is considered a soul-threatening sin (I Tim. 1:10). Over that lies the bigger picture of the Incarnation of God in Christ at a social level lower than that of most slaves in the Roman Empire, and as a slave to us (e.g., foot-washing). Abraham Lincoln caught the biblical spirit regarding slavery when he said, “Just as I would not be a slave, nor would I be a master.”
In each case where slavery is mentioned in the Bible, we must ask, Which form of servitude is it? Is it more like indentured servanthood for a period of six years? Apart from Hebrew slavery in Egypt, that is the most common form of slavery in the Old Testament. Or is it the compulsory labor of convicts or prisoners of war? The service of an aide, a cook or a tutor, which carried more job security and benefits than what most free workers had? Or is it the brutality of working people to death, like convicts rowing in a galley, or laboring on a remote island salt mine (like John the Revelator)? Those latter three we find throughout the New Testament. Thus we cannot apply any Biblical words about managing the various forms of slavery in a cookie cutter fashion to all the different kinds of employment, servitude and bondage that might be called “slavery” or “servanthood” in the Bible, nor in the ancient world. Again, nowhere is there any scriptural command, or permission, to enslave an entire race of people, because of their skin color, throughout all generations to come. If anything, all races, colors, cultures and languages are invited and envisioned around the Throne of the Lamb, in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 7 and 22) Compared to all of Biblical history and Biblical witness, the pro-slavery theologies of the Spanish colonizers and of North American plantation owners were brief, shameful and minority novelties in church history that required the most convoluted and self-contradictory travesties of biblical interpretation so-called for the slimmest fig leaf of scriptural justification. Most Christians of North America and of Europe knew that and opposed it.
Early Christians struggled with this institution which they had little or no power to stop. Still, at great cost and risk did they elevate slaves to equal status with freedmen and nobility in church membership and leadership. One slave who became a bishop late in the First Century was named Onesimus, perhaps the same Onesimus about whom Paul wrote to Philemon. One of the earliest Roman critiques against the Christians was about their equal treatment of slaves, and the fact that the faith “was encouraging slaves to think.”
Never in either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox teaching was slavery officially condoned nor commanded, except during the Conquest of the Americas, and with the possible exception of The Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Vatican permitted, encouraged and tried to regulate European conquests and colonialism in the New World. Again, that was part of a three-hundred-year departure within fifteen hundred years of Catholic social teaching, and was never without prominent Catholic critics like Fr. Bartholomeo De Las Casas, and even most of the popes to follow.
The Protestant Reformers were quite openly and adamantly against slavery, while the Pietist, Methodist and revivalist movements of the Great Awakenings in 18th and early 19th Century England and America provided much energy and many activists against slavery and the slave trade. The altar calls of the Second Great Awakening in early 19th America included signing new converts up to work against slavery. Compared to this great tradition, the pro-slavery factions were temporary and localized minorities. Their racist and pro-slavery theologies were rarities and novelties.
Admittedly, our Christian ancestors were not always aware of and active against the many different, subtle and un-named forms of slavery around them, and the disguises in which it hid, such as European serfdom and debtors’ prisons. Nor are we always so savvy today. Slavery, in the forms of forced labor and sex trafficking, is greater in scope now than ever before in world history. But one finds Christians opposing them and ministering to its victims, not condoning nor commanding such slavery. One could also argue that having to work at jobs that people hate, which don’t pay a living wage, because it’s their only way to earn anything and maybe, maybe get some meager health and retirement benefits, is a modern form of slavery that we overlook. But the biblical and theological arguments marshalled against slavery in the past and today would be entirely familiar to the likes of St. Augustine of the Western Church, Basil the Great of the Eastern churches, and John Wesley of the Methodist movement. When the World Council of Reformed Churches condemned the racism and apartheid theology (and black slavery) of their South African members a few decades ago as a heresy, they didn’t have to invent anything new, nor did they have to discern a new movement of the Holy Spirit taking them away from the scriptures and long-standing church tradition. They stood in the mainstream of majority Hebrew and Christian Scripture, tradition and teaching.