Regarding moral relativism the christians are hypocritical. They say they believe in a moral objectivity given by god…but how is it then, that they believed slavery was a product of the old days, as it was applicable to the time it was practiced (and sanctioned by the bible) but now condemn it? The bible, last I checked did not change. I think this is a PRIMARY example of moral relativism exhibited by the church and christians. So how can they sit here and tell us that a proof for god is moral objectivity?
In other words, how could the ethics of Christians change over time if the book they supposedly base their ethics upon has not changed? Either the God that inspired the Bible was completely incompetent in his revelation or there was no God revealing anything at all. The note caused a discussion that resulted in almost 90 comments, and I quickly realized that if I were going to respond, it would need to be in a more lengthy manner than a Facebook comment (which is not the most helpful of mediums of debate). So here it is. I’d like to respond to the ideas that came out in the discussions. I want to disagree with them on the basis of five ideas:
- The Philosophy & Theology of Ethics
- The Nature & Progression of Revelation
- The Inadequacy & Elitism of Modernism
- The Story & Beauty of Redemption
- The Necessity & Irony of the Entire Discussion
The above sections will follow in the days to come. Today, I just wanted to explore the most basic question of this entire discussion: What does the Bible say about slavery in the first place? I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page before addressing underlying assumptions. Usually, the first place Christians go to in this debate is trying to place slavery in the historical context of its time. They point out that Old Testament slavery was more like indentured servanthood and New Testament Roman slavery was more like employee/employer relationships. Though there is much truth to this idea, it has its inadequacies. Slavery in the OT was still a punishment to the peoples the Israelites conquered, so it wasn’t supposed to be “desirable”; and 1st century Rome was still subject to semi-regular slave revolts, so it doesn’t seem like Roman slaves were enjoying their “employment.” In fact, the most famous of these revolts, the one led by Spartacus which led to an entire Servile War between slaves and the Roman army, was only about 100 years before Jesus started preaching and Paul started writing.
But, as I actually looked into it, I found something surprising — the Bible isn’t nearly as in “favor” of slavery as I my atheist friends seemed to make it sound in the first place. Not only does the Bible not talk much about it, but when it does, a very different picture is painted than the one my friends painted. Drawing mainly on my own reading and David Clowney’s excellent essay The Use of the Bible in Ethics, I found the following information (quotes are Clowney’s):
In the Old Testament
- In the Pentateuch, Jews were forbidden to hold for life fellow Jews as slaves, though foreign ones were allowed (Exodus 21:2-11). But the interesting thing with these foreign slaves is that to the best of my knowledge, this was a case by case thing. Some people conquered by the Israelites were allowed to be taken as slaves, some were supposed to be killed, and some were allowed to have the women of that culture become the Israelite’s wives. And what seems to have determined which culture received which response when conquered? It looks like it was however the conquered culture would have treated their conquered peoples. Would they have raped, tortured and killed everyone? Then it seems that God would have his people kill them all. Would they have just killed all of the Israelites but not raped them? Some of the women, then, would be taken as full members of the community of God’s people. Would they just kill all the men? Then the Israelites would take them as slaves. It seems that God would have his people do whatever would be more humane than what that culture would have done.
- Does this seem rough? Yes, but if we look at the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15, we see something very interesting. God pretty much says, “I’m going to give you all this land that other people are already living on. In fact, I’m going to give you the ability to conquer all of those people that are already living in the land.” The next logical question is When?. God says, “they [Abraham’s descendants] shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (v. 16). God just said he would delay delivering the promise to His people because the Amorites, who already lived there, weren’t wicked enough to warrant destroying. In this we see that God was purposeful and intentional in who was conquered and became slaves. He made sure these people were wicked enough that no one living at the time could look at Israel and say that they were acting unjustly or completely out of line.
- Indentured servanthood was permitted but ended every 49 years at the festival called Jubilee (Lev. 25:39-55). “The exception to these instructions proves the rule, since it involves a deliberate choice by the slave and still does not affect his descendants.” The slave, at Jubilee, could choose to be freed or stay, and (unique to the ancient Israelites), slavery was an individual, not family affair. So if you were the child of a slave, you were not automatically a slave.
- The Jews expected Messiah to usher in the fulfillment of this “Jubilee”, and the New Testament clearly represent Jesus as the fulfillment of the liberation foreshadowed in the festival. There was something about these festivals that was meant to foreshadow of a time to come. God was hinting at an ideal he preferred and was slowly weaving into their culture, so that at the proper time, Messiah could usher in a time entirely incompatible with slavery.
In the New Testament
- In Revelation 18, the writer is sees a vision of the possessions of the wicked city of Babylon (probably in reference to Rome) marched in front of him as a sign of all that was wrong with the city, and in this list of those things he mentions, it concludes with “…fine flour, wheat, cattle, and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls!” (vv.10-13). Clearly not an endorsement. Ancient lists often ended with the most important of items in the inventory. So in a list of negative things, the worst would have been listed last. Clearly, not only because of placement in the list but also the added commentary (“that is, humans souls!”), this slavery was seen as the most egregious of wrongs that the evil city (Rome) had committed.
- Whenever the apostle Paul mentions slavery — whenever he talks about the relationship between slave and master — he never uses the classic “creation-order” appeal he uses to justify nearly every other institution and relationship he “supports” or thinks has a place in the Kingdom of God. He uses this “order/place in creation” argument to give added weight to his commands concerning Jews/Gentiles, Employees/Employers, Parents/Children, Wives/Husbands, Church Leadership/Congregations, and others. He does not do this with slavery. He does not see slavery as a “natural” institution that is eternal (unlike Aristotle in Politics). This shows that biblically it is seen as transient and fading, unlike all the other relationships he uses this creational appeal with.
- In 1 Cor. 7:21-33 Paul encourages slaves to seek their freedom from slavery whenever they possibly can, because “he who was called in the Lord [converted] as slave is a freedmen in the Lord. Likewise he who was free when he was called is a slave of Christ [spiritually]. You were bought with a price; do not become the slaves of men.” He says that living as a freedmen is most in line with Christian living and should be sought after. Surely this exhortation is not only for slaves to hear but the slave-holders who would have surely been in Corinth at the time hearing these same words and perhaps feeling the conviction of these words upon their own consciences.
- “[T]he exhortations to slaves to obey their masters are phrased as obligations to render service to the Lord and are justified by references to the way Christ suffered on our behalf” — a suffering and death, I might add, that is clearly portrayed as unjust, wicked, and evil. It is in these terms that slaves remaining slaves is talked about.
- In the entire New Testament there is only one believer in Christ that is described as technically still having ownership of a slave. No disciple, no apostle, no initial convert, no church member is described as such. We only have one man, Philemon, whose one slave ran away a couple of years ago (it seems he was the only one and it was about this long according to Paul’s letter). Paul meets the slave and feels the legal responsibility to send him back to the man that still technically has a claim on him, but beforehand he sends a letter pleading with him to receive this slave back as a freedman and not keep him as a slave. He obviously does not think slavery is the way of life most in line with the Gospel. He says that he is not commanding the man to release the slave because “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” Paul’s primary desire, it seems, is that the slave’s emancipation would be because of a heart changed by Christ, and not because of compulsion, legal or otherwise.
- In one of Paul’s lists of the actions of “lawless”, “disobedient”, and “ungodly” sinners he writes “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Timothy 1:8-11). He directly says that holding slaves is “contrary to sound doctrine” and is not “in accordance with the gospel.”
what do we do with the potentially confusing, and seemingly contradictory statements that seem to be okay with slavery? Though I don’t believe that regulation, allowance, or lack of political action is equal to “endorsement”, nevertheless, that is not a point being granted by these atheists. Therefore, there is the presence of statements that seem to at best not try to end slavery and at worst actually think it’s okay. Once again, I don’t think this is problem. I don’t think that regulating something or not trying to start a revolt over it is tantamount to outright approval, apathy, or even ambivalence. But, for one reason or another, the atheists aren’t on board with that idea so I can’t just say that I think that and leave it there. I need to ground it in something, and the future posts will do this more fully. But for now, I will conclude with Clowney’s conclusion:
For a modern person there are certainly puzzles here. But…the Gospel works gradually, like leaven. It appears that the apostles were interested in the transformation of life within the existing social structures by the love and power of Christ rather than in focusing on the structural social changes which the application of Christian principle would eventually bring. In fact, the principles which the apostles laid down for life in the the church are fundamentally incompatible with a system of slavery. Sociologically, it would not work for one’s slave to be one’s church elder; yet by the distribution of Christ’s gifts, a slave might have this calling. This incompatibility is…evident in the case of Onesimus [Philemon’s slave]. Not only does Paul refrain from sending him back to Philemon until Onesimus is ready to go, but he pleads with Philemon to recognize the way in which the old wineskins of the slaveholding economy will not hold the new wine of the demands of Kingdom service… It is not a far-fetched rationalization, then, to say that the leaven of freedom was set to work in the New testament by the apostles and that that full expression of it, when the dough had risen, was the abolition of slavery. Abolition was a consistent outworking of New Testament principles in a society in which the gospel had been at work. It was right to expect nineteenth-century slaveholders to keep in step with this movement of the Spirit and not rationalize attempts to preserve slavery by appeal to what was acceptable in the first century.
I hope that was helpful to someone out there. In the next post (which will be far shorter, I promise), I’ll unpack the flaws in the naive and mechanical sense of ethics that my atheist friends either actually believe or just think that the Bible should espouse if it were the real Word of God.