Thursday, August 13, 2009

More on the Slavery and Christianity question

Note: this is reprinted from a comment of mine on the blog Positive Liberty.

I was addressing a question from blog commenter Michael Heath, who has commented occasionally on this blog as well, who characterized my position regarding slavery and the New Testament this way:
Mr. Heddle believes God changed his position (on slavery) for us post-New Covenant. In the background is also the view, which I am arguing against, that the New Testament condones slavery.
This was in the context of a larger debate: Michael Heath (and some others) arguing that the New Testament condones slavery--

I wanted to save my response—not because it is especially good but because I may want to come back to the argument quickly. The easiest way is to repost it here, on my own blog.

My response—with some minor tweaks:

No, I don't think God changed his position, although maybe that's just semantics as they say. Instead what we have here is case law. What is appropriate for Jews before Christ, as part of God's unfolding plan of redemption and instruction, is not necessarily appropriate for the Christian. I think you know my oft-cited example in this regard: It was good and proper and moral and ethical and even commanded for Jews to sacrifice animals for atonement. It would, however, be an abomination for Christians to do so. God didn't change his position or his mind. Instead the most dramatic event in history (the cross) occurred, and naturally the before and after worlds are quite different.
9Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10)
When it comes to the passage in Titus, we have an acknowledgment that slavery exists and instruction for Christians suffering that plight—and there were many because Christianity first appealed primarily to the lower rungs of society. Given that Christians found themselves in bondage, what should Paul's instruction be:

A) Rebel against your masters, or
B) In your station bear witness in words and deed to the strength of gospel and to the fact that Christians are just pilgrims in this or any land.

Option B, which some interpret, as condoning slavery–is really, in my opinion, the only choice Paul had consistent with other New Testament teaching. Paul didn't rebel when falsely imprisoned; he obeyed his guards and witnessed to them. Why would he instruct slaves to act differently?

Even in dealing with Christian ownership of slaves, such as with Philemon, we can likewise imagine two broad approaches:

A) A command to free slaves immediately or
B) An appeal and apostolic persuasion to do the right thing

Once again it is option B, that is most consistent with the New Testament upgraded (to more difficult) model of sin--that is is measured by the desires of the heart rather than by deeds. Philemon's sin can only be avoided if Philemon wants to free Onesimus, not if he is commanded to. This lesson is being taught. As for Onesimus, I think we can safely infer that Paul considered whether Onesimus remained as a slave or was freed somewhat secondary—Onesimus might even have a stronger witness as a slave. This does not constitute a condoning of slavery—it's a prioritizing: the gospel, and God's glory, trumps all. It is not a social or a political gospel—it is a gospel designed for just one thing: to bring glory to God. Onesimus can bring glory to God as free or slave. Paul can bring glory to God as free or imprisoned. Philemon can bring glory to God by freeing Onesimus, but not by being commanded to do so.
For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. (Hebrews 7:12)
To answer whether the New Testament condones Christianity you must, I believe, turn to the deliverer of the new law that comes with the New Covenant, Jesus. When Jesus gave this new law, primarily in the Sermon on the Mount—can we find anything in there that is consistent with slavery? I think you cannot—and on the contrary what I see is that his second greatest commandment, and his primary instruction for how man should interact with his fellow man, completely rules out any possibility that the New Testament condones slavery.

Some point out the lack of an explicit condemnation, but the New Testament, again, emphasizes the heart as opposed to enumerating do's and don'ts. We are not supposed to be told: slavery is bad. It is only to our advantage if we recognize and believe that slavery is bad, on the basis of Jesus' teaching. The NT is full of this more complete revelation of the law. For example, the explicit command to tithe is gone—replaced with: give, but only if you can do so joyfully, otherwise don't even bother.