The following is an extract on Slavery and the relevant Bible teachings, from the book, “The Reason for God – Belief in an Age of Scepticism” by Pastor Timothy Keller, pages 109-111.
“ 5 Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; 6 not with eye service, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,7 with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.
9 And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” Ephesians 6:5-9.
“When I first came to New York City almost twenty years ago, the main problem people had with the Bible was in the areas just discussed – science and history. Today things have shifted somewhat. I find more people now especially upset by what they call the outmoded and regressive teaching of the Bible. It seems to support slavery and the subjugation of women. These positions appear so outrageous to contemporary people that they have trouble accepting any other parts of the Bible’s message.
In the early days of Redeemer I spent a lot of time with people who were reading the Bible for the first time. As a result was constantly responding to people who were choking on some particularly indigestible verse. I remember one black-clad young artist who came up to me after a service. He had just discovered the verse ‘slaves obey your masters’ (Ephesians 6:5ff.) and was almost apoplectic. Here’s how I advised him and other people on how to deal with a Scripture text that appeared objectionable or offensive to them.
Many people simply run viscerally from any consideration of the Bible once they find such a biblical passage. I counsel them !instead to slow down and try out several different perspectives on the issues that trouble them. That way they can continue to read, learn and profit from the Bible even as they continue to wrestle with some of its concepts.
One possibility I urge them to consider is that the passage that bothers them might not teach what it appears to them to be teaching. Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context. Take the text ‘slaves obey your masters‘. The average reader today. immediately and understandably thinks of the African slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or of the human trafficking and sexual slavery practised in many places today. We then interpret the texts to teach that such slavery is permissible, even desirable.
This is a classic case of ignoring the cultural and historical distance between us and the writer and readers of the original text. In the first-century Roman Empire, when the New Testament was written, there was not a great difference between slaves and the average free person. Slaves were not distinguishable from others by race, speech or clothing. They looked and lived like most everyone else, and were not segregated from the rest of society in any way. From a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free labourers, and therefore were not usually poor. Also, slaves could accrue enough personal capital to buy themselves out. Most important of all, very few slaves were slaves for life. Most could reasonably hope to be manumitted within ten or fifteen years, or by their late thirties at the latest.*
By contrast, New World slavery was much more systematically and homogeneously brutal. It was ‘chattel’ slavery, in which the slave’s whole person was the property of the master – he or she could be raped or maimed or killed at the will of the owner. In the older bond-service or indentured servanthood, only slaves’ productivity – their time and skills – were owned by the master, and only temporarily. African slavery, however, was race-based, and its default mode was slavery for life. Also, the African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapping. The Bible unconditionally condemns kidnapping and trafficking in slaves (1 Timothy 1:9-11; cf. Deuteronomy 24:7). Therefore, while the early Christians did not go on a campaign to abolish first-century slavery completely, later Christians did so when faced with New World-style slavery, which could not be squared in any way with biblical teaching.**
Some texts may not teach what they at first appear to teach. Some people, however, have studied particular biblical texts carefully and come to understand what they teach, and yet they still find them outrageous and regressive. What should they do then?
I urge people to consider that their problem with some texts might be based on an unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others. We must not universalise our time any more than we should universalise our culture. Think of the implication of the very term ‘regressive’. To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historic moment, from which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned. That belief is surely as narrow and exclusive as the views in the Bible you regard as offensive.”
* See Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (IVP, 1999), Pp. 44, 70. Also see Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Bible Commentary, 1990, pp. 416-17: ‘Modern readers [of the Bible] need to free themselves from a number of assumptions about first-century slavery, including the assumptions that there was a wide separation between the status of slave and freedperson… and that all who were enslaved were trying to free themselves from this bondage…. There was a broad continuum of statuses between slave and free in both Roman and Greek society. Slaves of Greek owners could own property, including their own slaves, and could obtain permission to take other employment in addition to their duties as slaves. .. . It was frequently in the owner’s interest to manumit them, since their labor could be obtained more cheaply if they were freedpersons. . . . Though there were undoubtedly far too many cases of cruelty, brutality, and injustice, there was no general climate of unrest among slaves.’
** ‘Although it has been fashionable to deny it, antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently ‘lost’ from history until recently. Finally, the abolition of New World slavery was initiated and achieved by Christian activists. . . . Slavery was once nearly universal to all societies able to afford it, and only in the West did significant moral opposition ever arise and lead to abolition’ (Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 291).