Slavery and the Bible: The Perspective of This Abolitionist
In my previous post, I attempted to interact with what I saw as the underlying logic of Black and Tan. I argued that the logic of the book didn’t hold up because (a) Wilson’s assumption about departures from biblical authority didn’t prove true and (b) Wilson commits a genetic fallacy when he links the way slavery was ended (Civil War and Reconstruction) with the way contemporary culture wars are fought and resolved.
Wilson kindly replied to my first critique by first accurately and fairly summarizing my position, a gesture I appreciate and am encouraged by. I’m grateful he has shown both a willingness to interact publicly and privately as well as a willingness to engage the substance of this issue. In his reply to my first point about biblical authority, Wilson distinguished between formal authority and functional authority. He agreed with me that both sides showed a very high allegiance to formal authority, that is, they held a doctrinally high view of the Scriptures. But he thinks my critique of Black and Tan fails because the concern of Black and Tan was for functional authority, “a view of authority shown in obedience, and not just formal willingness to appeal to Scripture to justify what you already wanted to do.”
In my last post, I committed to picking up my critique with some comments about exegesis and application of the biblical texts pertinent to slavery. Wilson’s reply makes for a nice segue since we’re both truly concerned with actual obedience. When I argue that the North privileged different texts—and I agree with Wilson that theological arguments almost always feature this difference—I was not suggesting that such privileging was or should be acceptable as pretext for actual disobedience. To the contrary, I think many anti-slavery advocates were in fact obeying the texts they privileged which is what led them to their abolitionist position. How might that be? Let me attempt a brief exegesis of pertinent texts as an illustration.
Do We Swim Upstream or Downstream on the Issue of Slavery?
Wilson does attempt in Black and Tan to interpret and apply texts of Scripture beyond the household codes and their instructions to slaves and masters. He does, for example, argue from the creation account, the post-flood re-population of the earth, and Acts 17:26 that all men are men, created in God’s image, and cousins descended from the same parents. He also argues that we’re all even more closely related in our common fallenness in sin. That theological anthropology informs his rejection of racism, slavery based on race, and racial vainglory. But when we’ve put the household codes alongside the texts that give us our biblical anthropology, have we yet put all the relevant texts on the table?
We have not. To begin with the household codes, it seems to me, is to begin swimming too far down stream. To take the codes as (a) establishing the legitimacy or permissibility of Roman slavery and (b) authoritative in American chattel slavery, because of its relatively “better” condition than Roman slavery, assumes or overlooks far too much biblical text—biblical texts that abolitionists privileged in this discourse.
What texts am I speaking of? I would privilege all the biblical texts that command love for neighbor (Matt. 22:35-39), love for enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), and especially love for brothers and sisters in Christ. This, our Lord teaches us, is the second greatest commandment. All the Law and the Prophets hang upon this command and the command to love God above all (Matt. 22:40). Jesus teaches us that love is the distinguishing mark of true discipleship, a mark that should be so evident that the world will know we’re His disciples (John 13:34-35). The apostle John elevates love to almost a synonym for the gospel itself—”This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” He continues, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us” (1 John 3:11, 23). John tells us we have no right to regard ourselves as Christians apart from love for the brothers (1 Jn 4:20-21).
Now, lest someone think I’m trying to pull a fast one by pointing to a “general principle” to avoid more specific and toothier commands, let me hasten to point out that biblical love is a very fangy creature! It’s not mere sentiment devoid of action. Recall that love is a verb in 1 Corinthians 13. And the apostle John tells us, “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). I am contending that the command to love should have been obeyed and it should have been the controlling command in the entire debate. I argue that for this reason: love is everywhere commanded and slaveholding is nowhere commanded. We must realize we are comparing a positive injunction against an arguable freedom. Before we insist on obedience to the household codes, which address a matter of Christian freedom (at best), we need to insist on obedience to the greatest commands, which are not a matter of Christian freedom but obligation to God—indeed evidence of whether or not we really know God.
What Does Obedience to the Command to Love Look Like in the Context of Slavery?
Well, how should the command to love be worked out by a Christian master? We have one place in scripture that specifically addresses the relationship between a known Christian slaveholder and a known Christian slave. Philemon. We’ll come to the household codes in a moment. But consider how the apostle Paul addresses slavery and slaveholding in the one place where manumission is in view. He writes, first of all, to commend Philemon for the faith and love he shows all the saints—that’s the same apostolic wedding of genuine faith and love we saw in 1 John. Then Paul makes his move based on that affirmation. ”Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my son Onesismus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me” (vv. 8-11).
I emphasized the two portions in Paul’s words for this reason: I think Wilson is correct to argue that the gospel and the spirit of the gospel remains irremediably contrary to slavery and that the forcible end of slavery is not, from a Christian perspective, the best or first means to use. That, I think, is why Paul refuses to use even his legitimate apostolic authority to “order” Philemon. Moreover, I think Wilson and I agree that the “coercive” power of love is far more explosive, longer lasting, and attended with fewer (no?) side-effects than the use of force. Thus Paul’s appeal on the basis of love.
But—and this is no small “but”—I think Paul’s letter to Philemon exposes the serious and deadly flaw of Wilson’s sense of timing for the eradication of slavery and of Wilson’s seeming identification with the master class’s “right” to own slavers instead of identifying with the slave. Notice how Paul keeps rattling his own chains of imprisonment in Philemon’s ears. Paul identifies himself repeatedly as the prisoner, the bound man, the one without freedom. He could have identified himself as the man of authority, the apostle, the one with right to exert himself over others. He nowhere does. That, I think, is instructive for how Christians should engage discussions involving oppressors and the oppressed. We should normally be on the side of the oppressed in the fight for justice. And when Paul appeals to Philemon to treat Onesimus the way he would treat Paul, the implication is obvious—free him immediately. But we don’t have to rely on the implication; Paul states it in the text and that governs our sense of timing about how quickly love should work in manumission.
Consider verses 12-17, the heart of the letter: “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
It seems to me that Paul expects this “favor,” his “appeal on the basis of love,” to be granted immediately—not gradually as Wilson argues in Black and Tan. We don’t imagine that Philemon would receive to himself the apostle Paul as a slave (v. 17), but rather as a man and brother. Paul makes explicit—though gentle—his expectation—which he could have ordered—that Onesimus be “no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (v. 16). Paul both frees Onesimus and elevates him in Philemon’s affections. Paul affirms Onesimus’ manhood and his brotherhood. Love—far from misty sentiment—governs this relationship by actively freeing Onesimus. This means that calls for immediate abolition of slavery were consistent with the gospel and with love. Whether the War was just is another matter, but at this point I only want to stress that immediatism was consistent obedience to the scripture. Wilson’s recommendation for a gradual approach does not seem consistent with gospel love. If he amended his position even at this one point it would mean a world of difference for how people hear his argument and perceive him.
I trust we see from Paul’s letter to Philemon the great dissimilarity between American chattel slavery and what Paul addressed, for American chattel slavery reduced Africans to 3/5 human and actively worked against the notion that the slaves’ conversion and baptism should mean their freedom (for a wonderful book-length treatment of this, see Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race). Paul maintains assumptions about the nature of man and the effect of conversion on master-slave relationships that are chalk and cheese, oil and water, night and day to the assumptions underpinning American slavery. Which brings us to…
The Household Codes and Their Application
Paul’s earliest statement on slavery and slaves comes in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24. This is an important passage because the overarching theme of 1 Corinthians 7-9 has to do with Christian liberty—the freedom to marry or not marry (chp 7), freedom in worship (chp 8), freedom and rights as an apostle (chp 9). Throughout the section Paul expresses a kind of ambivalence about the “situations” we find ourselves in when we’re called to Christ in salvation. He generally advocates staying in that situation and not letting it bother you, but he permits and encourages actions to change that situation especially when it serves the gospel and deepens our satisfaction in Christ. So he writes, “20Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.”
It would be a mistake to conclude that Paul thinks enslavement itself is not troublesome. That’s not his meaning in verse 21. Rather, the person saved while enslaved should regard his or her relationship to Christ as the main thing, the identity changing thing—from slave to Lord’s freedman. In that sense, the slave should not be troubled by his station. It would also be a mistake to think that Paul believes that the slave should remain in that situation in perpetuity. He anticipates that misunderstanding and breaks his thought with “although if you can gain your freedom, do so.” Which is actually a more direct encouragement than anything Paul says about singles wanting to marry or the status of circumcised/uncircumcised. To them he never says “do so,” but to the slave he does. The apostle sees freedom as a positive good to be pursued. This point seems to get lost in a lot of this discussion because Black and Tan sets up at least some forms of slaveholding as morally neutral. People go on to then argue for the rights of slaveholders against the right of slaves to pursue freedom. That does not seem to be the apostle’s perspective here. And that has some implications for how we read the household codes in tension with these other verses.
Wilson rightly exegetes the instructions given to masters and slaves in places like Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; and 1 Tim. 6:1-2—all written after Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7.Though Paul calls the masters to treat their slaves in a respectful way and slaves to obey their masters—even wicked masters in 1 Tim. 6—his primary concern is not the maintenance of slaveholding as a system. In other words, in instructing Christians in their duties in whatever state they find themselves in when converted Paul is not also commending the system as a neutral or positive good. A Christian soldier should behave like a Christian even if his country sends him to fight in an atrocious war. A Christian accountant should behave like a Christian even if her multi-national company has questionable investments overseas. The Christian responsibility to submit or lead in those settings does not amount to an endorsement of the setting. We’ve seen in Philemon and 1 Corinthians that Paul expects freedom when freedom comes into view.
So, I think Wilson goes beyond what the household codes warrant when he infers from these passages that (a) slavery must have been permissible in the apostle’s mind as a “neutral” (keep in mind, Wilson does not argue that slavery was a positive good), (b) that we may safely assume that at least some of the masters and slaves addressed would have been in relationship with each other and in the same church (that’s just an assumption, an argument from the silence of the text), and (c) therefore the way slavery ended was in disobedience to these texts. We might respond: (a) Paul clearly encourages freedom; (b) We could just as readily assume that the masters and slaves in view were not related to one another; and, (c) These texts say nothing about the continuance of slavery as a system or anything about how slavery should be ended. None of these assumptions are necessary to the text.
That a Christian slaveholder could be a member in good standing in a church, as Wilson contends, doesn’t settle the issue. Surely he may have been a slaveholder when he was called to Christ (1 Cor. 7), but just as surely Paul would appeal to him/her on the basis of love to immediately free their slave and receive them as brothers in the Lord if they were Christians (Philemon).
Which brings me to one final point, briefly. When Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:10 that “man stealing” or “slave trading” is “contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God,” I don’t think he means the Transatlantic stealing and shipping of slaves was wrong but the subsequent purchase, holding, breeding, and keeping of slaves was okay. I don’t think that text countenances a difference between trading and holding, and that’s key to Wilson’s view of the permissibility of slaveholding in the South. The Southern holding was a consequence of the stealing. To try and separate the two would be like a thief defending himself by saying, “Yes, I stole the money, but the poverty I left the family with is just something they have to endure.” That will never do. That thief, biblically speaking, is obligate to return what he stole and then some! That generations later there were people born into slavery who only knew slavery is immaterial. They were only in the country due to the trafficking of persons, which thus far everyone agrees was wrong. Righting that wrong, it seems to me, meant scrapping the entire system built on the wrong. If there were going to be a permissible system of slavery in the South—a Christian country as Wilson sees it—it needed to be built upon indenture, voluntary servanthood, usually premised on debt obligations or poverty and not race.
There’s more that needs to be said about the condition of slaves and their treatment, about the South as a Christian nation, and about State’s rights, and about Wilson’s post-mil views and how it affects the book’s argument. Perhaps a subsequent post will deal with some of those things. But the heart of the issue is whether we obey in practice all the texts of scripture. And that, I would argue, requires more than a simple application of the household codes. Without love we are clanging gongs. Without love we are nothing. We have to start with love and work it all the way down to the particulars.