The fact that the Bible records the practice of slavery as an accepted social institution and that Torah actually provides regulations for it, has been one of those issues that progressives have seized upon to dismiss or undermine the authority of Scripture. I believe many well-meaning people are often sucked into this line of thinking that ends up placing individuals in the awkward place of sitting in judgment of the word of God and then picking and choosing to highlight certain passages that fit their worldview and ignoring those that don’t. The logic seems to be since the Bible promotes slavery and we all agree now that slavery is wrong then the Bible just got it wrong on this issue. Since we ignore what the Bible says on this issue then we can just ignore what it says on other issues as well. I believe, however, that this is a very superficial way of looking at Scripture, and as a matter of fact we should reconsider the deeper and more substantial way that the Bible does indeed promote slavery and how its greatest proponent, Jesus Himself, taught it in such as way that it turns the world and the world’s ways on it head and inside out, and therefore right side up.
First we must understand that the Bible is not simply a collection of arbitrary rules that all have the same priority and purpose. The Bible is quite obviously primarily narrative in nature. It tells us stories that are all part and parcel of a grand narrative that one can discern by reading and re-reading the whole Bible. One of the major problems is that this grand narrative has been ignored in favor of other grand narratives that one brings to the text, such as neoconservative or Marxist political stories to name a couple. The Bible is then mined in order to find support for these alien grand narratives, even the grand narrative that says there shouldn’t be any grand narratives. When this happens distortion is inevitable. In other words, puzzle pieces, stories and verses, will have to be bent out of shape or chopped down to size to fit a different big picture from the one for which they were intended. Marcionism is an extreme example of this from ancient church history. Marcion apparently looking at the Bible through a semi-gnostic lens insisted that the god of the Old Testament was a lesser god, a malicious demiurge, and not the same loving God who was revealed in Jesus in the New Testament. So he dismissed the Old Testament, but also ended up ‘cleansing’ the New Testament of many of it’s ‘Jewish’ influences. The “German Christians” during the rise of the Nazi’s did something very similar albeit through a different worldview lens. Nonetheless, I believe the Bible tells it own grand narrative that can be carefully discerned by any humble inquirer.
We must understand that the grand Biblical story is about a god who claims to be the One True God, the creator of heaven and earth. This God created humans to be His image-bearers and stewards in the Earth. This would require cooperation with God and with each other based on the will of God. Yet humans, us, we were created with freedom of choice, to be able to choose whether to cooperate or not. Upon temptation we decided to do things our own way, and found ourselves lost in our own “wisdom”. We doubted God and trusted our own desires that had been stirred and stoked by the tempter. As a result we experienced the consequences that God had warned us about. The rest of the Bible is the story of lost humanity being pursued by a forgotten God, Who continually worked to reveal Himself once again to a wayward humanity who continued to insist on doing things their own way, following their own desires to their own hurt. God continues to try to reveal Himself, but in the meantime because of human freedom makes concessions to the hard hearts and wayward desires of humanity. The selfishness and wickedness of the human heart manifested itself in human society in ways in which evil became entrenched and codified in human culture. Systems of power and domination became the norm. People were dehumanized and things were deified. People became objects to be used in the pursuit of the love of pleasure and the worship of things. Hence, slavery became a culturally accepted institution under those selfish principles not because God willed it, but because we did in our darkened and foolish hearts.
The Bible tells us the story of the sovereign God who chooses to make concessions to the hardness of human hearts for a time until we can be convinced and empowered to live another way, a better way, indeed, the best way. We see examples of these concessions even with the people that God chose through His servant Abraham to reveal Himself to the rest of the nations who were blinded by idolatry. Yet the chosen people infected by the same disease of sin hardened hearts were also unable to see the will of the true God, truly and clearly. They too still had blind spots for which God made concessions. Jesus tells us that one of those cases was His allowance of divorce, which he says Moses allowed in the Torah because of their hard hearts (Mark 10). Another example is in 1 Samuel 8 where God allows the Israel to have a king even though it was not his primary will and only a reflection of their rejection of Him from being King over them. We must understand the dynamics of this dynamic relationship that is revealed in the Biblical narrative if we are going to understand the Bible on its own terms. Slavery, at least the way it was/is practiced according to the spirit of this age, must be understood as an evil that God allowed for a time, until He Himself could clearly show us a better way.
Like the Roman empire, Jesus also promoted slavery, but a variety of it that turned the ‘normal’ version of it on its head. When Jesus’ own disciples, argued about which one of them would be the greatest or clamored for positions of prominence (Mark 9:33-37 & Mark 10:35-45), He flipped the script of power and greatness that they carried in their minds, minds no doubt that had been condition by the ways of the world. He clearly insisted that greatness in His kingdom was completely different from the way it was ‘normally’ conceived.
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45 NRSV).
For Jesus, this wasn’t just clever rhetoric, but the reality of the Kingdom which he came to proclaim, a Kingdom where there were no masters, but One, and even He came into this world as a slave. Jesus revealed this quite clearly and shockingly when he washed the disciples feet at the last supper before he was arrested (John 13) and most vividly and graciously as he died on the cross. Philippians 2:5-11 shows how the Master of all Masters, God Himself, took the form of a human slave and in obedience gave his life on the cross. John 13 and Philippians 2 both show us that this way of slavery wasn’t just the way for Jesus, but for all of his followers. The call of Christ is a call into slavery, but this is a system of slavery where everyone is a slave to one another in love rather than the system of slavery promoted by the world based on lust, pride, manipulation, and domination. The slavery that Jesus promoted is the social fabric of the Kingdom of love and light where people are loved and things and pleasures are used in service of that love. In contrast, the slavery that was inspired by the spirit of this age in hardened and wicked human hearts was part of the kingdom of darkness wherein things and pleasures are loved and worshiped and people are used in the service of these disordered loves.
The slavery that Jesus promoted and embodied and that is to be promoted and embodied in his Kingdom turns all ‘normal’ human relationships upside down, which is really right side up. But it wasn’t designed to be set on a head-on collision course with the system of the world, but, like leaven, it was designed to permeate the world system from the inside out (Matthew 13). Jesus’ Kingdom of slavery, when taken seriously changes all human relationships so that the race is no longer to the top, but to the bottom where we all meet at the foot of the cross to our own cross and wash basin and towel. It changes what it means to be a master, to be a husband, to be a father, and certainly a pastor.
That’s why Paul would subversively command masters, after commanding slaves to be the best slaves they could be and to “render service with enthusiasm,” to “do the same to them” . In other words, masters serve your slaves with enthusiasm because you “both have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partially” (Eph 6:5-9; see also Gal 3:28). That’s why Paul also ‘suggested’ to Philemon that he receive his slave Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philm 16). Christ and Christianity, true Christianity, changes hearts and therefore redefines relationships, and it does so through the promotion of a system of slavery, where all are enslaved to Christ, Who himself became a slave, and to one another in love (see Gal 5:13).
A common assumption today seems to be that during the days of American and European slavery that the people who took the Bible most seriously were those who sought to use the Bible to justify slavery. But I feel quite confident to say that there have been very few people who took the Bible more seriously, or as strictly for that matter, than John Wesley. He believed the Bible to be true to the highest degree, as true as God Himself is true he would say. He was enormously informed by Scripture and deeply transformed in his heart by it to a degree that most could never imagine. And because of this, not in spite of it, he was dead-set against slavery and especially the racism that went along with it (see his “Thoughts Upon Slavery”). Reading John Wigger’s book about Francis Asbury is was also evident that Asbury himself took it for granted that the New Testament condemned slavery as it was practiced in early America as well. He too held an extraordinarily high view of the authority of Scripture. It is well known that Wesley’s last letter was written to William Wilberforce to encourage him in his fight to abolish the slave trade. Wilberforce was also a “Bible Believing” evangelical, however anachronistic it may be to put it that way. Knowing these things it shouldn’t be surprising, although it often is, that slaveholders were barred from membership in early Methodist societies and in the Methodist Episcopal Church when it was established in America in 1784. Just read “The General Rules”! Sadly, though, the MEC capitulated to the culture, especially in the South, only a few years later and allowed slaveholders to become members. Compromise eventually led to denominational splits, one of which included the formation of what we know of today as the Wesleyan church. They were staunchly against slavery and at the same time loyally devoted to the authority of Scripture. Today the Wesleyan Church has a very strong statement about the authority of Scripture that would, sadly, make many American United Methodists queasy, but John Wesley quite pleased. From what I understand they are also firmly, virtually if not completely unanimously, in support of the traditional definition of marriage.
There is much more that could be said, and really more work needs to be done in this area. But the point is I think that we need to realize that the deep underlying narrative of the gospel undermines and subverts from the inside out worldly systems of power based on selfish domination and manipulation. People deeply informed and transformed by Scripture will not be against such systems, especially those like the European/American system of slavery, in spite of Scripture but because of it. So rather than seeing the Bible’s promotion of slavery being a black eye and a convenient whipping post to use to beat it into submission to another grand narrative, perhaps we should see it as it’s crowning achievement, the achievement through which God in Christ saves the world from the inside out and reveals Himself and His will most clearly to a wayward humanity. Jesus promoted slavery and we should too.
All of this became most poignant for me when I stooped down on a Maundy Thursday several years ago to wash my first African American foot. The foot belonged to a beloved sister and member of the AME Zion church across the road from the church I served. They didn’t have any holy week services scheduled so I invited them to join us. Some years after the Civil War, a member of the church I served, which was founded in 1762 as an Anglican parish and joined the fledgling Methodist Societies at some point during the Revolutionary War, granted African Americans a plot of land on which they built their first church. According to one of their oldest members before this they were only allowed to listen to services from the outside of the white church. When I stooped down and held that foot in my hand the significance of the history and the clarion call of the gospel flooded overwhelmingly into my soul sending shivers of awe all over my body. I realized at this point most clearly how Jesus promoted slavery and how we should too. Since then I have made foot-washing and the significance of it a center piece of my ministry, especially the confirmation classes that I teach. I preach and teach about the race to the bottom, to the foot of the cross where we receive our own cross to die to ourselves so that we can live for God and serve our neighbors with basin and towel.