SLAVERY: Does the Bible Condone it?
Comparing Slavery and Homosexuality in the Bible
By Bruce Atkinson, PhD
Special to Virtueonline
July 27, 2013
Nicholas Holtam, the Bishop of Salisbury, England, has commented: "... before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation. Similarly in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church supported Apartheid because it was Biblical and part of the God-given order of creation. No one now supports either slavery or Apartheid. The Biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has."
While there is some truth in what he has said, there are also a number of misleading and subtle distortions that you can hear if you listen with discernment. . Bishop Holtam is certainly not the first person to attempt to devalue scripture and/or traditional Christian interpretation by using the slavery example. Those who push the LBGT agenda have frequently brought this issue of slavery (as well as God hating shrimp) into their arguments as a reason to disregard those biblical texts that address homosexuality. I have dealt with the issue of "progressive revelation" in a previous article: www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=12366#.UeVvQ42R-So
Clarification on the issue of slavery is long overdue
There is no doubt that slave owners in the American South did not want to give up their primary source of income. And of course these slave owners misinterpreted and misapplied the Bible to justify their lifestyle, even as unmarried people today who are 'sexually active' revise or ignore the scriptures to justify their own chosen lifestyle. This is an old story; in order to rationalize doing whatever it is they want to do, sinful churchmen have always twisted the words of scripture to suit their desires. Even Satan used passages from scripture to tempt Jesus in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). But in His case, it did not work.
The social institution of slavery was ubiquitous in ancient times. It was common for slaves to be prisoners of war. However, especially among the Jews, it was often simply a form of employment for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. A good master would take care of his slaves like he would take care of his family. But of course evil masters were just that... evil, and not necessarily because they had slaves. And unlike in the southern USA before the civil war, it was not racial so much as the case of people already in poverty who were willing to become indentured servants rather than beg or starve. It was their form of welfare and not much more enslaving than our own welfare system.
Although the scriptures do honestly portray the reality of slavery as common and generally accepted in biblical times, I disagree that the Bible actually condones it. The Jews had a history of being the victims of slavery themselves, especially in Egypt but also to a lesser extent in Babylon and Assyria. Compared to the other nations and cultures of the time, they had a natural antipathy toward slavery. They even instituted the Jubilee where every 50 years all slaves were freed and all debts were canceled. Jewish law required that slaves be treated far better than was normal in other cultures who had no such laws to protect them. Note this Hebrew law: "Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death" (Exodus 21:16). Most all of the Africans who were forced into slavery and shipped to Europe and to the New World were first kidnapped by other African tribes and then sold to white slave-traders. According to Jewish law, both the kidnappers and slave traders committed a capital offense.
What did Jesus and Paul say about slavery?
Jesus regarded all humanity as slaves, that is, as slaves to sin. Every single one of us. He came liberate us from this slavery, to "set the captives free" (Luke 4:18-22, fulfilling Isaiah 61:1). At another time Jesus stated: "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:32-37, see also Romans 6:16-22). So we know that God's will is freedom for humanity from all forms of slavery.
So although the Lord was against slavery, it made no sense to fight the social institution of slavery (and many other social injustices) until people were given the power to be free from their deeper enslavement to sin. Nothing could be accomplished prior to that spiritual transformation. Even the Law itself never had the power to transform people, only faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ enabled us to become free by His sacrificial death and His Resurrection- breaking the overpowering bondage to sin in those who believe. Surely our omniscient God knew that people would not long stand for the social institution of slavery once societies became even semi-Christianized. And sure enough, we have not tolerated it.
Some people have accused the Apostle Paul of supporting the institution of slavery. They are mistaken. For example, slave-traders are listed among those who are "ungodly and sinful" and are in the same category as those who kill their fathers or mothers (1 Tim 1:8-10). He told Philemon, a Christian slave master, to treat his slave Onesimus as a Christian brother rather than as a slave.
It is important to understand what Paul was teaching about Christian slaves obediently biding their time (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:17-24). In general, new believers should not be quick to change their external situation until they have gained some spiritual maturity. I learned this the hard way in my own life. But Paul also wrote that a slave should take advantage of the legal opportunity to become emancipated if it occurred, but meanwhile one should endeavor to be the best at his/her position that one could be, including being a good slave. In such a case, the Christian slave would have the best opportunity to be a witness for Christ and possibly bring salvation to his/her master. Rebelling would not do that, and in fact a mass slave rebellion in those days (when the social institution of slavery was universally accepted) would have greatly increased the persecution of Christians (which was already great). Remember what happened when Paul freed the slave girl from demonic possession and thus reduced the owners' profits- they sought to kill him. It seems obvious to me that the timing was not yet right for a major civil rights protest.
The essential theological points are two: 1) because of the eternal consequences, freeing people from the slavery of sin is far more important than freeing them from the temporary social injustice of slavery, and 2) the social institution of slavery would eventually be eliminated as well if believers focused on preaching the gospel.
Slavery is relative
The idea of slavery is on a continuum from subtle forms of control to the extremes of being physically chained or imprisoned. Slavery is still rampant today. It is estimated that there are over 12 million people in the world who are subject to forced labor, the sex trade, etc. I believe that slavery also occurs in more disguised forms. We can choose to be slaves to banks and credit card companies by our debt. Many of my clients are virtually enslaved by their employers, especially large powerful corporations and state and federal governments. They have no say; they must work when they are told, even when family and church time must be sacrificed. They could leave their jobs- but they have not the courage because of the country's employment situation and their lack of belief that they could make it outside the company. So many of these employees choose to stay in a job they hate and where they feel like slaves. Similarly, welfare states, fascist systems and all forms of extreme governmental control constitute modern forms of slavery- that we generally accept without calling them by their right name.
It also is important to understand that slavery, unless one is in chains or otherwise imprisoned, has always been optional for those enslaved. People can always run away, but they generally do not try to escape for fear that the consequences will be even worse- which is often true. If you have a good master, you are blessed and slavery is little different than contracted employment with a powerful benevolent employer. If you have an evil master, then maybe you should examine your options more closely and count the cost- and risk trying to escape. There are those who truly believe: "Give me freedom or give me death."
Racism is wrong
In the USA, for obvious historical reasons, the idea of slavery and that of racism have become virtually synonymous. What does the Bible say about human equality? Three main Christian principles teach particular elements of equality. First, all human beings are "created in the image of God." Therefore, there is immense dignity and incalculable worth in each individual person. Secondly, all human beings (other than Christ) are sinners deserving of death and condemnation. We are all in the same boat. A third equality principle must be added: Salvation is inclusive in the sense that Christ died (potentially) for every sinner; forgiveness and eternal life is offered to all who hear and is bestowed upon all who believe (John 3:16).
This is why our American forefathers (most of whom were Christians) wrote that we have inalienable rights and that all human beings are created equal - at least in the eyes of God. This is why slavery, racism, and ethnic discrimination are all considered evil.
The Apostle Peter's revelation: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right" (Acts 10:34-35). Therefore, race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background mean nothing important in the eternal situation: "In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female." (Galatians 3:28). But this inclusivity does have an exclusive aspect: one must believe and submit to God in order to be free from the enslavement of sin and thus become "in Christ."
Sexual preference is not like race
Science is rapidly proving the mutability of sexual preference. No reliable genetic markers can be found for homosexuality in either gender. We are now coming to understand the true environmental origin of same-sex attraction. I have worked in the mental health field for over 30 years and have had many clients who were likeable, intelligent people but who experienced same-sex attraction. Some lived an active, promiscuous gay lifestyle while others were married with children and kept their temptations closeted. The following paragraph describes what I found in common in the backgrounds and family dynamics of these people. Although surely these dynamics do not apply to all homosexuals, I don't recall even one exception in my clinical or personal experience.
Those experiencing same-sex attraction (including bisexual attraction) as adults had suffered in their childhood from coldness, rejection, or abandonment from the same sex parent and had an enmeshed, too-close relationship with their opposite sex parent. For simplicity's sake, I will refer to the individual here as male (although the same dynamics were observed in lesbians as well). Alienated from Dad, the boy identifies more with his mother, with whom he is close; but he continues to have a 'hole in his heart' regarding his father, and he (often unconsciously) still wants to receive the love that he never got. So with the onset of puberty and the hormonal boost in sexual interest, the desire for love and acceptance from the same sex parent (here the father) becomes sexualized into attraction for same sex peers.
Early sexual experimentation with the same sex or any sexual abuse (by perpetrators of either sex) would often cement this dynamic in their psyche- becoming a "stronghold." Using a technological metaphor, it was like a virus being inserted into the software programming of the brain. But note that all these dynamics are psychosocial and environmental (software and not hardware)- and thus the effects are learned, not inherited. This also means that they can be changed by new learning and appropriate therapy (working as an 'antivirus program'). Fortunately, all sexual attraction IS mutable and sexual behavior IS a choice (as is all behavior). God's truth can indeed set us free.
The Bible is authoritative, reliable and useful.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16)
In order to avoid misinterpretation of scripture texts, I hold to the traditional "analogy of faith model" of scripture interpretation. When dealing with confusing or controversial passages where a number of interpretations are possible, we should always use the interpretation that is the most consistent with the Bible as a whole. We should expect any important teaching to be repeated elsewhere, and maybe even explained through other passages dealing with the same topic. The most important messages from God are repeated and examined from a number of angles in the scriptures. We should stick with the ancient practice of comparing passages of Scripture and letting the clear and unambiguous passages provide guidance on how to read those passages which are less clear. Also, we should use the Vicentian Canon as a guide, that is: "take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all." The more novel an idea is relative to any principle found in the New Testament and the more it varies from traditional interpretations, the more likely it is to be heresy.
So what does the Bible tell us about sexuality?
Ev en more important than answers coming from the unfinished work of science or from biased personal experience, we need to examine the principal divine source of codified knowledge, the Holy Bible.
You will notice that unlike racial or gender equality before God, neither 'sexual orientation' nor any similar term is mentioned in the scriptures, and sexual relationship is never regarded as a right except in one very special case: male-female marriage.
It makes no sense to say that the writers of the scriptures didn't understand such things back then. The One who created human beings certainly understood. Our omniscient, prescient God knew exactly what was coming down the pike in the 21st century with regard to our sexual issues - which is why the Holy Spirit made sure that the scriptures were/are consistent from beginning to end regarding sexual morality. While we must admit that human beings were (and still are) immensely ignorant, it is also true that God, who lives in eternity, knows everything past, present, and future. God is sovereign, perfect, and does not change. He is also powerful enough to make sure that the words associated with Him (the Word of God, the Bible) would come through His chosen writers and be canonized exactly in the form that He willed. So we devalue the authority of the scriptures at our own peril. At the end of the last book of the Bible, the Lord warns of major punishments to those who add or subtract from His prophetic words (Rev 22:18-19). And surely this warning applies to some extent to anyone who deliberately revises, misapplies, or denigrates the scriptures.
So following from the consistent principles found in the scriptures regarding sexual morality, we believe that sexual attraction for anyone other than your spouse falls into the category of temptation, and if you act on it or even if you obsess on it (that is, lust, see Matt 5:27-28), it becomes sin. However, people in this sex-worshiping and pleasure-loving culture cannot stand hearing the common sense truth that every rancher and zoologist knows: the purpose of sexual behavior is for the propagation of the species. Sex is for producing children, for populating the planet. That sex is pleasurable is a divinely appointed side effect, a necessary gift for married people - otherwise the human race would have died out long ago.
In the Bible, 'sexual fulfillment' is like financial wealth or physical strength; that is, nowhere is there a hint that it is an inalienable right for human beings. It was not intended for everyone. No one has yet died of celibacy- but millions have died (and are dying) as a result of sexually immoral behaviors.
Just because our idolatrous culture worships sex (I call it 'sexolatry') and permits rampant fornication does not mean that God has changed His mind about the immorality of sex outside of marriage. I submit that the Jewish laws regarding sexuality were rooted not in economics or health but in the nature of created humanity in "the image of God"- which is inseparably male-and-female. As long as there are males and females, as long as there is sex, homosexual behavior (and other sexual sins) will offend God and will harm us psychologically and spiritually, not to mention physically through STDs.
Of course, sexual morality is also rooted in the principle of faithfulness to each other and to God. Christians do not doubt that adultery is a sin (one of the 'big ten') and divorce these days often involves adultery, but we tend to look the other way or even excuse it in our friends or in ourselves. In our culture, we have long since ignored fornication (sex between unmarried people) and have a difficult time thinking of it as sin. However, the Bible is clear that fornication is indeed sin and thus its prevalence today is strong evidence of the current downward spiral of western culture into moral decadence.
Throughout history, those cultures which have become greatly permissive in the sexual area (a symptom of general decadence according to Romans 1) without exception have fallen rather quickly once they were entrenched in these ways. The Roman Empire is a good example. It is time for us to wake up. [see article on Stages if Moral Regression: http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=13028#.UeL2zY2R-So]
Summary and conclusion
In coming full circle, let us examine again the opening quote by Bishop Nick Holtam: "... before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation. Similarly in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church supported Apartheid because it was Biblical and part of the God-given order of creation. No one now supports either slavery or Apartheid. The Biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has."
As I have proved in this essay, there are a number of misleading and subtle distortions in Holtam's statement. One perversion of truth is the suggestion that the Bible promotes slavery. Second, it most certainly is not true that all Christians accepted slavery and misused the scriptures to support this heinous practice. A third deception is that it is acceptable to change our interpretations to fit current popular cultural views of morality; that somehow we know better today than did the Apostles (as if the Holy Spirit were not leading them). A statement like Holtam's sounds so true when it is first heard - which makes it a rather cunning snow job. But the truth is always more powerful and permanent than any clever prevarication.
As I have shown, the church's past errors in accepting the institution of slavery has nothing at all to do with the current situation regarding homosexuality. The way the LGBT community attempts to compare these issues is as illogical and unhelpful as comparing apples to ants.
Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia
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