Man’s Oppression, God’s Progression: My View Of God, The Bible, And Slavery
By David Metcalfe
November 23, 2019
The question of whether God approves of slavery is an interesting one, because what appears on the surface is fairly straightforward, and yet, upon further thought, becomes quite complex. What we have on the surface, from a simple reading of the Biblical text, is that God commands the Israelites to take slaves and instructs them on how to treat them. It is clearly stated throughout Exodus and Leviticus, and is a common theme in the New Testament (Exodus 20, Leviticus 25, Titus 2, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 6, the list goes on…).
A Short History Of Slavery
Historically, most Christians have thought of slavery as an acceptable practice. For instance, Pope Nicholas V issued a decree in 1452 that Spain and Portugal were fine to capture slaves so long as they were Muslim, pagan, or unbelievers in the Catholic doctrines. The transatlantic slave trade (the forced slavery of Africans in Europe and the Americas from the 16th to 19th century) was performed by primarily Christian nations.
This is not to say, however, that Christians bear the sole responsibility of treating other humans as property. It is well documented that Muslim nations took African slaves hundreds of years before Christian nations ever did, and it continued up until the 1960s (see Arab Slave Trade- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_slave_trade). Prior to that, Rome had what some would go so far as to call a “slave based economy” with as many as 25% of the population consisting of slaves. Prior to that, Ancient Greece, in Athens, had as many as half the population consisting of slaves. Upon formation of the Roman Republic, it became common to take entire nations as slaves.
America banned the practice of slavery shortly after many European nations (in 1865), effectively ending the transatlantic slave trade. Since then, attitudes towards slavery in the west have shifted towards more and more negative. In contemporary America, slavery is considered by practically the whole of the population to be an egregious human rights offence. This was accepted on a worldwide scale in 1948, with the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” stating unequivocally in article 4 that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Currently, there are no nations in the world who have institutionalized or legal slavery.
So What About The Bible’s Support of Slavery?
In our modern society, we accept that all humans have essential rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that enslaving humans in any form is an infringement on their rights, and to the nature of a just society. Since the Bible presents slavery as an acceptable practice, this puts Christians in an awkward position. Since Christians do not want to say that slavery is an acceptable practice, they go to great lengths to find ways to get around the Bible’s obvious acceptance of slavery.
The most common approach is to pretend those verses don’t exist, and label anyone who brings them up as a heretic. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Colossians 3:18-19 at a wedding, talking about wives submitting to their husbands, and husbands loving their wives. If the congregation would simply look down a couple lines, they would see the passage in verse 22 explaining that slaves should also be obedient. When I was at the “Focus on the Family” headquarters in Colorado Springs, they had a big sign that said “Colossians 3:23- Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” If they actually read the passage they would realize that the “hard work” is in reference to slaves working for their masters. If you try to point that out- you are a “bad Christian”. This first approach is a good one for idiots, but thinking humans will defer to one of the next types.
The second most common approach is to try to say that slavery wasn’t that bad. “It was just their form of employment”, “God instructed them to treat the slaves with respect”, “taking slaves was necessary to build their nation”, and so forth. These are, of course, very similar to the “moral” arguments presented by slaveowners in 19th century America, who insisted that slavery was the basis for a stable economy, or that it was fine as long as you treated them kindly, or that America was a stronger nation because of it. Saying that slavery is wrong but being nice to them makes it ok is like saying that mugging someone in the street is ok as long as you are nice to the victim. But the main question I would ask to these people is, “if slavery isn’t that bad, why shouldn’t we allow it today?” and the individual may respond, “well, we are in a different society than those people”, to which I would respond, “are you saying that humans can be taken as property when in the right context? How exactly might you define this context?”. Ultimately, the individual would have to admit that humans do not have essential rights, as they can be taken away and their humanity reduced to mere property if the society wills it.
The third most common approach is to twist the scriptures in such a way as to suggest there is a condemnation of slavery at some point. Some might say that Moses freeing the slaves from Egypt is a condemnation of slavery, while not realizing that he institutes slavery among the freed Israelites only a couple chapters later. Some might say that Paul’s writing to the Galatians that “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” is condemning slavery, but clearly, the context is spiritual rather than political or social. The same might be said of passages like John 8:32 or Romans 8:21.
These are the only significant approaches I have been exposed to. Since I obviously do not agree with these, allow me to explain what I think is a more sensible approach.
My View: The Progressive God
If we assume that God is a good God who reveals things to humans for our benefit, then we have a lot more issues than just slavery. Right off the bat, God gives us a strange creation myth, contrary to modern science in regards to evolutionary theory. Then, as a system of government, God sets up a theocracy, and later allows a monarchy- neither are congruent with the modern democracies we live in and enjoy today. God withholds huge amounts of information from humanity that could serve extremely beneficial. How many people’s lives could have been saved if He’d told them how to make penicillin? Or how to perform CPR? Or gave them peaceful rather than violent solutions to solve conflicts with other nations? Or, well, any number of things that have advanced human society? Or, most importantly in the Christian worldview, for thousands of years He didn’t even fully reveal that His Son was going to come to the earth and die for their sins!
There exists a very strange idea among many Christians that God is somehow restricted between the covers of the Bible, and that He has no power, influence, or interaction beyond that. But if we accept the premise that we are created by God intentionally, with each aspect of us the way He wanted it to be, we have to accept that God did not make a mistake when he enabled humans to be able to think using evidence and logic, and gave humans a conscience by which we can come to know right and wrong. For this reason, we cannot separate human progress from the one who creates, sustains, and inspires it.
Think about it this way: we cannot say that Michael Jordan bears the sole responsibility for his success in basketball. Without his parents, he never would’ve been born in the first place. He was raised in North Carolina, where he had tons of opportunity to play high level basketball. He had great coaches who taught him along the way, and of course, a good height at 6’6″. In the same way, if we consider the advancement of humanity through science, politics, morality, etc., it is because of a God who created us, gave us the abilities and opportunities to do so, provided general instruction for us, and inspired us with a desire for truth and justice.
Human knowledge is a living thing. Just as a living thing gets fed healthy, life giving things to make it grow, develop, and progress, so too does human knowledge. Aristotle thinks about forces, and human knowledge gets fed. Copernicus applies ideas of forces to planetary systems, and it gets fed again. Einstein applies ideas of forces to time and energy, and it gets fed more. It gets fed and fed, and it grows and develops into something incredible.
In regards to abolishing slavery, it was a gradual process of being fed. The Jews are inspired to treat slaves with greater dignity than the nations around them, and give them opportunities for freedom. Paul is inspired to tell the churches in Ephesus that God shows no favouritism between slaves and free people (Ephesians 6:9), and tells Philemon to free his slave and consider him an equal brother in Christ. John Locke studies the Bible and realizes that all humans are created in the image of God, and that each person has essential rights to life, liberty, and property, which inspires the Founding Fathers of America to write that into their constitution, and Napoleon to establish individual rights throughout his conquests of Europe. William Wilberforce reads the Bible and considers the nature of mankind as being free and equal regardless of race, which eventually culminates in the liberation of slaves in England. Americans take hold of that same push for freedom and equality, and launch the civil war, thereby ending the slave trade.
To say God was not active in the process of abolishing slavery would be a terrible misrepresentation of history.
Can You Follow Jesus And Believe Slavery Is Good?
Jesus says in Luke 6, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude and insult you.” He goes on to say, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
Applying that to the institution of slavery, the slave would clearly be the one whom Jesus is looking to bless, and the slaveowner clearly the one Jesus is looking to condemn.
Jesus says in Matthew 25, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Who would be considered “the least of these” throughout human history? Slaves would clearly fit the description.
Jesus tells the Pharisees, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”
Jesus quotes the Jewish scriptures in Luke 4, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Jesus says during the Sermon on the Mount, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” and says the greatest commandment for how to treat humans is “love your neighbour as yourself”.
Would you want someone to imprison you and make you work as a slave? Ok, then it’s wrong to do to other people.
It’s impossible to imagine a conception of Jesus as a slaveowner, or someone who condones the practice of slavery. He embraced low social status and pacifism. So much so that Frederich Nietzsche accused him of teaching a “slave” morality- i.e. that Christians should be passive and meek, like slaves. The teachings of Jesus do not directly address political or economic situations, but they do offer a direct conceptual framework for how to treat people- and it is in no way congruent with the practice of slavery, or anything that results in people being treated poorly or exploited. It’s the opposite; actually elevating the oppressed to a status of blessing and honour.
There is no doubt that mankind has exploited people throughout history, exploits people today, and will continue to exploit people. Slavery is as old as civilization itself. Whenever there are strong people, they naturally find weak and helpless people to exploit for their own benefit. Today, while slavery is technically outlawed, it still goes on in the form of sex trafficking, child soldiers, slave or severely underpaid labor, unjust incarceration, and many more ways. But more than just slavery, certain people still are mistreated because of their race, their gender, their ethnicity, their economic status, and so forth. Despite humanity’s immense progress over the last few thousand years, there is still significant improvement yet to be made.
A part of me wishes God would just restore humanity already, rather than take so long, and use imperfect humans to carry out His work. But there is something amazing about it. We know how bad things were in previous societies, and we get the opportunity to use our minds and our hearts to progress in both our knowledge and our morality. Scientific progress, from absurd superstition and confusion, to the highly advanced technical processes of the modern day, was a long time coming. So too, moral progress on the issue of slavery has also been a long time coming. But it has come as a result of the intelligence and moral good that God has instilled within humans, and for many, revelation from scripture that directed them.
Psalms 82:3 says, “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
The Bible is not a science textbook or an outline of a political philosophy or economic system. But it does compel us to seek truth and justice. It is by the continued inspiration instilled within us, and the dedication of humans to carry out good works that we can hope to advance the essential rights of all people and create a better world for everyone.