The central story-line of the larger of the two testaments
revolves around the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. In
light of the crucial importance of this history, it is perplexing
that some people have managed to talk themselves into believing the
Bible is a pro-slavery tract. If slavery is a good thing, why was
leading the Israelites out from slavery also a good thing?
Though they entered Egypt as invited guests, by the time of the
exodus the Jews had fallen into harsh and bitter bondage:
"And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them."
God heard their cries:
"And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant.
Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians."
It did not escape the notice of the African slaves that the Old Testament is the story of a slave population
liberated by God. For some reason this inescapable fact still escapes the
notice of the atheists.
The Essenes were a Jewish sect not in receipt of the New Testament or
the good news of God in Christ. Though lacking any scripture but the Old
Testament, they reportedly rejected slavery:
"And they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession
of servants or slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature,
for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness
of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued
some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker."
(Philo Judaeus, On the Contemplative Life, Chapter
"Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields; no makers of arms or of military engines; no one, in short, attending to any employment whatever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations even in peace which are easily perverted to wicked purposes; for they are utterly ignorant of all traffic, and of all commercial dealings, and of all navigation, but they repudiate and keep aloof from everything which can possibly afford any inducement to covetousness; and there is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, aiding one another with a reciprocal interchange of good offices; and they condemn masters, not only as unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the very principle of equality, but likewise as impious, because they destroy the ordinances of nature, which generated them all equally, and brought them up like a mother, as if they were all legitimate brethren, not in name only, but in reality and truth."
(Philo Judaeus, Every Good Man is Free, Chapter XII).
There is a book of the New Testament devoted to smoothing over the situation of a run-away slave
who came to know the Lord. Paul sends Onesimus, the slave, back to his
Christian master Philemon:
"I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides."
Taken literally the "no longer as a slave" of verse 16
would suggest that Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free, however
he may not mean it literally. Verse 16 does make clear that Paul
perceives an incongruity between being a "slave" and being a
"brother," and he expects Philemon to
receive Onesimus as "a brother beloved." If he perceived no
incongruity, why not say, 'receive him back as a slave and as a
brother'? Instead he says, "no longer as a slave."
Unlike the Supreme Court justices who rendered the monstrous Dred Scott decision, Paul is not
scandalized that a slave fled from his master; he does not want
Philemon to punish him for it, though Philemon had the right in law
and custom to do so. Paul wants Philemon to receive the returning
run-away "as myself." He expects Philemon to do even more than this:
"Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that
you will do even more than I say." (Philemon 1:21). What is this
Moses' law did not require the community to return an escaped
slave: “You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him."
(Exodus 23:15-16). Whether Paul respected civil enactments
comparable to that upheld by the Dred Scott decision or not, he did
ultimately speed Onesimus on his way back to his master.
Nevertheless he does not send him back as a slave but as a brother.
The New Testament does not contain any direct command for
Christians slave-owners to free all their slaves, or for Christian
citizens to work for the abolition of slavery. Those who ponder what
it means for Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother may yet
feel led in those directions. The general provisions of
Christian morality: the command to do unto others as you would have
them do unto you,— leave no room for this cruel
institution, which no one chooses for himself. No one in classical antiquity
was under any illusion on this score; Plato gives an analogy of a
slave-owner transported to the wilderness with his slaves. What will
he expect them to do? Kill him, of course:
"What is your illustration?
"The case of rich individuals in cities who possess many slaves.
. .You know that they live securely and have nothing to apprehend from their servants?
"What should they fear?
"Nothing. But do you observe the reason of this?
"Yes; the reason is, that the whole city is leagued together for the protection of each individual.
"Very true, I said. But imagine one of these owners, the master say of some fifty slaves, together with his family and property and slaves, carried off by a god into the wilderness, where there are no freemen to help him—will he not be in an agony of fear lest he and his wife and children should be put to death by his slaves?"
(Plato, Republic, Book IX).
Slave-owners have always feared from their slaves what John
Brown delivered. If their security arrangements fail them, the
slave-owner cannot expect gratitude and good-will. This is not an
institution that can be defended by the Golden Rule. As the author asks in
one of the anti-slavery tracts I've uploaded,
"If we fulfill the injunction of our religion, to do to others as we would wish them to do unto us — if we love our neighbor as ourselves, can we consign him and his posterity to hopeless and interminable slavery?"
(Evan Lewis, 'An Address to
Christians of All Denominations, On the Inconsistency of Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership.')
To ask that question is also to answer it; it can be answered only one way.
Even the pagans of classical antiquity felt it was a civic and philanthropic duty
to free slaves: "Do we not free our slaves chiefly for the express
purpose of making out of them as many citizens as possible?" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 7.6).
The atheists' case that the New Testament is pro-slavery demands much of the
reader's indulgence: when Paul tells Philemon to receive back his run-away slave "no longer as a slave,"
of course he does not mean that the way it sounds. But if he did not mean what he said,
what did he mean?
Turn the Other Cheek
Christian ethics is upside-down by the world's standards. The carnal man, when he is injured
unjustly, wants pay-back. But this is not what Christians are called to:
"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
When New Testament authors counsel Christian slaves to serve their masters faithfully, this is sometimes
taken as a confident endorsement of the slave system. After all, if these authors thought slavery in any way unjust,
they would surely not recommend the slaves to excel at their work:
"Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him."
What might surprise some people is that this advice is exactly the same if it is stipulated that the
master is unjust:
"Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed."
(1 Peter 2:18-24).
This is what Jesus did; He was not crucified justly, for crimes He had committed. He was innocent of the
charge of blasphemy, yet He suffered patiently. Not everyone likes the
ethic of 'turn the other cheek;' Tom Paine accused the maxim of "assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a
spaniel." (Tom Paine, The Age of Reason, p. 172). Like today's atheists,
the Deist Tom Paine wanted to claim that you don't need revealed
religion to be moral, because the moral guidance that comes from nature
is sufficient: "As to the fragments of morality that are irregularly and
thinly scattered in those books, they make no part of this pretended
thing called revealed religion. They are the natural dictates of
conscience and the bonds by which society is held together, and without
which it cannot exist; and are nearly the same in all religions and in
all societies." (Tom Paine, The Age of Reason, p. 171). His argument
implodes immediately when he reaches this thing which is not the same, because most
human societies and most systems of ethics do not encourage a wronged
person to turn the other cheek. Callicles thought it was the part of a slave to suffer
injury without being able to retaliate: "For the suffering of injustice
is not the part of a man, but of a slave, who indeed had better die than
live; since when he is wronged and trampled upon, he is unable to help
himself, or any other about whom he cares." (Plato, 'Gorgias').
However you can't take it away from Christians:
That the reciprocal advice to slave-masters: that they should treat their
slaves as Onesimus, as brothers, no longer as slaves,— would have
undermined and subverted the institution of slavery as it then existed
is freely admitted by pro-slavery apologists like Douglas Wilson. If
they had done that,— really done it, not continued with the status
quo while saying they were doing it,— nothing recognizable as slavery
would have remained.
The New Testament authors, as representatives of a small, persecuted sect within the empire, were not in a position
to dictate terms to the world. What terms they might have dictated had they been in such a position is
open to dispute. Jesus Himself said, "My kingdom is not of this world"
(John 18:36); the church is not a sovereign state nor a civil government nor an interest group cemented
around a political program. But once the church became strong under Constantine,
Christians politicians began to make small, incremental changes to
this ubiquitous and universal ancient institution. First they demanded respect for slave marriages. Then they made
other changes, until ultimately the institution was no longer
This New Testament advice would be the same whether the apostles
thought slavery just or unjust. Paul encourages his enslaved readers
to claim their freedom if possible: "Art thou called being a
servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it
rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the
Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is
Christ’s servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men." (1
Corinthians 7:21). If this is not within reach, they are to "care not."
These principles neither condemn the slave system nor endorse it.