Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

There is no doubt that the Bible has been used to justify horrible atrocities throughout history, including slavery and racism.

Jul 18, 2018

There is no doubt that the Bible has been used to justify horrible atrocities throughout history, including slavery and racism. In light of such terrible oppression, this week Vince and Jo Vitale discuss what it really means to be made in the image of God, how to contend for unity in a divided culture, and what it might look like to follow Jesus Christ, who “came to set the captives free.”

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Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. There is no doubt that the Christian faith has been used to justify horrible atrocities throughout history, including slavery, racism, and segregation. Though many forget that the abolitionist movement was born out of the church, many point to Scripture's codes on slavery as tantamount to affirmation. How does a biblically minded Christian address these difficult passages? How do we contend for the goodness of God in a culture that says that the God of the Bible affirms slavery? How do we preach the inclusivity of the Gospel when the wider culture is continuing to polarize based on subjective identity? But before we get started, Vince, could you tell us about your new small group curriculum unpacking, “Jesus Among Secular Gods”, published by Lifeway?

Vince Vitale: Yeah. We've really enjoyed working with Lifeway on this curriculum, and it's based on a mine and Ravi's book, Jesus Among Secular Gods. It's a small group curriculum, but it's also something you can do individually as well. It has lots of independent study articles, Bible studies, lots of different resources that are around this topic. We hope it's a book that really will equip people to be conversant with the different secular worldviews of today. And not just the worldviews, but with the people that believe those worldviews.

At every point throughout the study, we're trying to connect the ideas with people so that you can say, oh yeah, I know someone who believes that, and this gives me some practical ways of engaging with them. The last session is all about the art of conversation. It's all about how do we get into meaningful conversations that focused on important things, and hopefully eventually will focus on Christ. So yeah, hope you can pick up that a curriculum. There's also a YouVersion Bible reading plan that's accompanying it as well, and that's something you can just get for free, available to anyone on YouVersion. We hope you'll check that out as well.

Michael Davis: Excellent. Well, let's get into this difficult discussion. The first question is from Bryant. “I recently got confronted with the issue of slavery from a friend. We haven't really finished the discussion, but I told them that it is morally all right to have slaves, biblically speaking. However, I'm not very firm on my stand on this as well, and I would like an extensive explanation on the Bible's view of slavery. And how to address questions concerning this, especially when the Bible permits it and the world has a very negative view of it? What is the Bible's view and stand on slavery? And how do I address someone with a question concerning this in the light of common view of slavery held by people?”

Jo Vitale: Well, Bryant, thank you for coming to us with this question. And I appreciate the fact of you saying you're not from on your stand on this, because I actually think as we go through this episode and you see the way we unpack it, hopefully what you'll come to realize is just how radical the Bible is in its valuing of human persons made in the image of God. And that actually, when you look at the story of Scripture and the way that God speaks about people and what it means to be beings created equal and loved by him, you'll come to understand that actually, slavery is something that is really antithetical to the heart and the character of God.

I think this question highlights so well what we're often saying on the show about the absolute importance of understanding context when it comes to reading the Bible. And how confused Christians have been historically. We have to hold up our hands and say that historically, there's been so much confusion around this in the way that we've read the texts that. That we have used the Bible to justify the most horrendous kinds of evil. And there's no getting around that fact. But my real question is not what have Christians done historically that has been so evil and damaging? But actually, what does the Bible itself say? And what does God think about slavery?

When it comes to the Old Testament, slavery was already really embedded in the culture of the ancient world at the time the Old Testament was written. In pretty much every culture of the Old Testament, slavery was a crucial and piece of the way that society was composed. And it's interesting comparing what the Old Testament has to say, actually, in light of what other ancient cultures thought about slaves. For example, in Greek culture, Aristotle, who's believed to be one of the most advanced thinkers of the ancient world, he basically writes and says, tame animals are naturally better than wild animals. And by analogy, the same must be true of humankind. And he says, some people are slaves by nature and some people are free by nature. And those who are slaves, it's actually for their advantage and just for them to be slaves. So for Aristotle, it's something to do within our very nature. He's implying that there are certain levels of humanity. And some are better than others, and some are intended to be free and others are intended to be slaves.

Now, contrast that with the radical words right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1 when it says that, "God said, Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. And so God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God, he created them, male and female, he created them." Now, this is just so radical in an ancient worldview where it was basically assumed the only person made in the image of God is the king of a culture. And everybody else within that society would basically be rated on the basis of their social standing. But in contrast to this, the Bible sets forth, before anything else, at the very beginning, that all human beings are set apart from animals to be uniquely image bearers of God, male and female, slave and free. So our foundation is that all people are made in the image of God. And therefore what we see in the rest of the Old Testament is not a vision for humanity as God intended for it to be, but actually what human beings have done with the world that God has made, and the way that we demonize and abuse and hurt one another in turn.

Now, when it comes to this question of slavery, one thing we have to understand is that the very identity of God's people, Israel, was formed by the fact that they, themselves, were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. This was crucial to the way that both they understood themselves and their relationship to the God who freed them from slavery, but also the way that they came to treat one another. Rather than being called to hate the foreigner or to see them as enemies, so much of the way that Israel are commanded to treat the foreigner is to love them as you love yourself.

So the first thing that needs to be said about the Old Testament when it comes to this question of slavery is, actually, what we are talking about in the Old Testament is a form of indentured servanthood. And this kind of servanthood actually only occurs at all in ancient Israel in response to poverty. The Old Testament makes it clear, God's ultimate desire is that there be no poor among you. And in order to alleviate poverty, the poor are actually given opportunities to glean the edges of fields during harvest time or pick lingering fruit on the trees. after the Israelites have harvested the land. But if, even after all of this, an individual or a family still couldn't pay off their debts, or they face some kind of disaster due to crop failure, and they're literally at risk of starvation, then as a last resort, they had the option of choosing to work as debt servants in order to pay off their debts.

But even in these kinds of cases, we have very explicit instructions for how they're to be treated. In the Old Testament, Leviticus 25 says that they're to be treated as workers hired from year to year. You must see to it that those to whom they owe service do not rule over them ruthlessly. Nor was this a permanent position, but every seven years, their debt would be canceled and they would be released, whether they'd managed to pay off the full amount that was owed or not. And in fact, it makes it clear that when these individuals are released, that employers are instructed to give generously to them and to do so without a grudging heart.

And what we're seeing here is, this is radically different from the image that we have in our minds when culturally, we talk about this idea of slavery.

Vince Vitale: You also could mistreat somebody who was in the position of your servant. Exodus 21 says that if you hit your servant and were to knock out his tooth, he has to go free. If you were to kill a servant, then you yourself would be killed. So servants are treated as people created in the image of God, and there's serious justice that God puts into his law about the way that those who were servants in that culture were treated. Also, if a servant of this sort ran away and took refuge, then it says that they are not to be sent back to the person that they were working for. So in this situation where they had run away, they're given the benefit of the doubt that perhaps they weren't being treated well. And if that was the case, they're not supposed to be sent back.

Jo Vitale: Yeah. And it's also interesting that people accused the Old Testament law of being pro human trafficking, but actually, you're not allowed to kidnap people and force them into slavery in the first place. Nor are you allowed to tattoo them or brand them as if they were property. In fact, in every one of these instructions, when you compare them to other ancient Near Eastern law codes, we see a radical difference in the treatment of slaves in other cultures and servants within Israel. At every point, the emphasis is on the fact that they're not lesser beings or creatures of some kind, but they are equally human.

For example, Job in the Old Testament, he asked the question, "If I've denied justice to my manservants and maidservants, then what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?" And it's on the basis of actually the radically humane treatment of these servants in comparison to everything else you find in the ancient Near East. That is the Anchor Bible Dictionary that comments that we find the first appeals in world literature to treat slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their masters.

Vince Vitale: And then as we move to the New Testament, we have Paul, referring to those who were slaves in the Roman Empire as brothers. We have him saying that there is no longer slave nor free, but there's that equality of value in unity in the body of Christ. And really, as we then move beyond the New Testament and into further history, I think it's very fair to say that the Biblical and the Christian roots and ideals that really laid the framework, in large respect, for movements towards abolition in various regions and various times around the world.

There are a few reasons for that. There are some very key things that the Bible says is true of all humanity, all races, all ethnicities, all cultures, that in a sense put us all in the same boat. One of those things is about the sinfulness of humanity. That every one of us falls short. And so there is not this distinction between those who are in power and those who are not in power, and in any way them being able to say, well, we are more valuable and you are less valuable. We are more human and you are less human. Which, in the ancient world, would have been so regular for those who are in power to even be treated as gods, and those who are not in power to be treated as slaves.

Then you have the universal Fatherhood of God. Literally, every person has God as their Creator, and ideally, as their Father, if they accept him. And therefore, we are brothers and sisters in that most literal sense, and that unity of value within the family that you have when you have the same father.

Thirdly, as Jo's mentioned as well, that every single person being created in the image of God. And that image having to do, in part, with God being a reasonable God, having reason, and that God being a free God, that got freely created. And so that is what gives every single person the intrinsic value. And I think over time, people reasoned out and lived out and wrestled to the conclusion, if God himself gave us humanity, the freedom of whether to choose him or not to choose him, if he gave us that sacred gift and he was willing, himself, to prioritize freedom in that sort of way, well then, we as human persons, we as human governors or legislators or people who are responsible for societies, we better take that as a key priority as well.

Jo Vitale: Yeah, sometimes there may be texts in the New Testament that we struggle with, again, because we're trying to make sense of the context. So for example, in 1 Peter, Peter writes, "In reverent fear of God, submit yourselves to your masters, for it's commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering." Some might point to that and say, well, clearly Peter here is endorsing slavery in some way. But actually, he's not, he's calling it unjust. But I think what he's saying here is, sometimes as Christians, we may be in a situation where we don't yet have the power to bring about change and affect justice as it should be. But nevertheless, the way we conduct ourselves can still be a witness to Christ and to the Gospel, even as we bear up under suffering. I think that would be true in different ways in many of our lives. And that we have the opportunity, even under difficult situations, to speak some kind of truth about who Christ is, and perhaps even some of these slaves had the opportunity to lead their masters to faith because of the way that they lived their lives.

And yet when you look at the whole flow of the New Testament, we see a clear sense in which the Gospel points to liberation. Whether it's Paul repudiating the slave trade in 1 Timothy, or referring to slaves like Andronicus and Barnabas, his fellow workers and kinsmen in Romans. Or whether it's encouraging slaves to acquire freedom wherever possible in 1 Corinthians, or treating them as fully accepted members of the body of Christ, or reminding Christian masters to treat their slaves as brothers and sisters in Christ. Altogether, we see that the Gospel is a powerful message of liberation that starts with the very first sermon Jesus ever preached. I love it that when Jesus stands up in the synagogue and he says, "Today, these words are fulfilled in your hearing," and then he quotes the Prophet Isaiah, "The spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives. I'm released from darkness for the prisoners to declare the year of the Lord's favor."

Vince Vitale: And it is just so frustrating and heartbreaking that we, as a church, have often not lived up nearly to the ideals that Jesus and that the Bible have left for us. We have to be willing to admit the really terrible aspects of parts of our history where, at times, people claiming to be Christians who were slave owners, say in the early colonial period. And there are some historical accounts of people who didn't want their slaves to become Christians, because they thought Christianity was for a free person and not for one who was a slave. And they were worried that if they did become Christians, then they might demand their freedom. So there is a very tarnished history here, and in many ways that can be the case still today.

So there's a lot of repentance that's necessary. There's a lot of reconciliation that's necessary. And yet, I'm so grateful to have the hope of the fact that we can, in this life and in the life to come, come to a better place in both our understanding and our treatment of one another, because of the ideal that Jesus gives us, because of the ideal that the Bible gives us. And because he doesn't leave us sinners to try to enact that on our own, but yet left his Holy Spirit to empower us to live with the unity that he desires for us as well.

Jo Vitale: One question we could just be asking today is, what could we do even now to help to end slavery? Because it's not like it isn't still a problem in our world today. In fact, statistics range between 25 to 45 million slaves in the world today, which is the highest recorded number in all history. And human trafficking is identified as the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, after drug and arms dealings. So this isn't just an ancient problem, this is very much a present problem. So I think God is really asking of his church, what are you going to do about this today? How are you going to bring the good news of my Gospel to the 100,000 girls who are trafficked each year?

Michael Davis: This is actually a really good segue way into this next question, because though most of us don't understand what it's like to experience being enslaved, there are a great many believers and a great many people in our culture that do experience racism. So this question actually comes from Richard. “I am first a follower of Jesus, but also an African American who cares deeply about the spiritual wellbeing of our nation. It pains me to see the moral decay and recent violent events that have chipped away at decades of progress for minorities in the US. Fear, suspicion, and stress abounds. How do you respond to those who argue that the Bible has been used to justify slavery, racism, racial division, and that Sunday still remains one of the most segregated days of the week?”

Vince Vitale: Wow, thanks for that question, Richard. There's a lot in there. Just recently, we had Lisa Fields to our office. She's the founder and president of the Jude 3 Project and apologetics organization, and it's particularly strong in its emphasis on equipping the African American church. One thing she said really stuck with me, we were talking about race, we were talking about racial reconciliation. And she said, we don't just have a racial reconciliation problem, she said we have a reconciliation problem. She said we are not, as the church, good at reconciling. We don't value reconciling, we don't make it part of our practice and our spiritual discipline to identify where we need to reconcile, and to do it and to do it well and to do it Biblically. So of course we're not in position to reconcile racially well, if we don't even know how to reconcile generally. We don't even know how to reconcile within our own families, within our own friendships groups. I thought that was really significantly.

That took me to Matthew 5. and this was a point that I took from a friend named Judy, but it says, "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them. Then come and offer your gift." And I've read that verse numerous times, many times. And I don't think I fully appreciated the significance of it. This is how serious God is about reconciliation. He's saying, if you're on your way to worship me and you realize that you're unreconciled, that someone has something against you or that you have something against someone else, go and reconcile with them first. I would rather you put your explicit worship of me on hold until you've gone and reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come back and worship me in the context of corporate worship.

It's a very significant thing. We know how serious God is about our worship. Well, how serious must he be, then, about reconciliation? And I think it's something, therefore, that we need to take very, very seriously. And we need to start with ourselves and we need to start asking questions like, when is the last time that I said to someone, not just I'm sorry as a kind of quip, but said to someone genuinely, I was wrong, I have no excuses. Will you forgive me?

Now, those are vulnerable words. But the reality is, if the Bible is correct that we are all sinners and we all fall short of the glory of God, then we should be saying those words regularly. We should regularly be standing in front of our family, our friends, our colleagues, people of our race and people of other races, and we should be saying, I was wrong. Will you forgive me? I repent. And until we're in the habit, I think, of those words coming out of our mouth regularly, then we're not going to be in position to make serious progress in terms of race relations in our country and beyond.

Jo Vitale: What Vince just shared about and is acknowledging, when we come to a place of worship and then we become aware of where we've caused offense. But I also think we really need to be asking God and the Holy Spirit just to help us to see. Because I think we also have blind spots, sometimes we're not even aware of the offenses we've committed. I think this can be particularly true when it comes to racism. I often think of the prayer of David in the Psalms, he prays, "Search me, oh Lord, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting." The point is, sometimes there are things in our hearts that we're not even aware of that they're there.

It's been interesting for Vince and I, we moved to the US about a year and a half ago, and before we did that...You know, we come from churches that actually were very diverse. I grew up in a church in London that was incredibly mixed, whether socioeconomically or racially. It was a wonderful experience of what I think that the family of God should look like. And then we were at a church in Oxford that was very multiethnic, international people from all over the world. Their tagline was house of prayer for all nations, and that was certainly true of our church.

It was only really when we moved to the states a year and a half ago that we were confronted in a new way. Our eyes were opened, I would say to some of the challenges around segregation that we just hadn't seen in a different cultural context. Partly that was because we were in a different context, partly probably because we didn't have our eyes opened the way that we should have. So for us, moving here has been partly really asking God to teach us, to show us, and learning to listen really well and really carefully and take a lot of time over it before we even begin to open our mouths and speak.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's good. And I think we need to start with ourselves. For Jo and for me, the way that has looked, now having moved to Atlanta, is that we're attending a predominantly black church. It's not necessarily the case that God is going to lead every white person to do that. But maybe it's a question that we should be asking, a question that we should be praying about, where God wants us specifically, so that those Sundays aren't as segregated as they need to be. So often, I think diversity comes in the form of a predominantly white church inviting those of other ethnic backgrounds into a white church and to worship in ways that predominantly white churches tend to. That's great. But it's great when it's moving in the other direction as well, and you have diversity moving in more than one direction.

Our pastor spoke about Jesus going through Samaria to meet the woman at the well in John 4. And interesting, it starts in verse four with, "Now he had to go through Samaria." Now, he didn't geographically have to go through Samaria. In fact, most people in his day wouldn't have gone...Most Jews in his day wouldn't have gone through Samaria. They would have went around so that they wouldn't have to deal with the discomfort of interacting with those of another race. But Jesus specifically goes through Samaria. He specifically meets this woman. And then he asked her if he could have a drink. So he's asking if they can drink out of the same vessel, out of the same jug, having those germs mixed between them. It's a real vulnerable request, and really an expression of the extent to which he sees her as human, and as someone that he can be close to. Really significant statement. I just think it's a model for us to not wait for these issues to come into our home in some way, but to go out and ask the question, what does it look like for me to walk through Samaria, and to have the interactions that God is leading me to have there?

Jo and I have found in Atlanta that several of probably the most meaningful and valuable things we've been a part of, both spiritually in terms of church, but also just socially and in terms of the arts in the community here, and...I'm thinking of a jazz club that we went to, which is probably the best night that we've had since we moved to Atlanta. It was really an all-black context. And the interesting thing that we found was that when we were inside, we would look outside, and we would see white people walking by the front. And they would look in, and it was almost like this expression of, that looks really cool, but I guess it's not for me, and walk by. In a sense, not walking through Samaria. I guess we didn't know any better, so, we just walked in. We were just so grateful for the extent to which we were welcomed and cared for. And we've had some of our absolute best experiences by walking through Samaria.

It's just wonderful to sit in church and to be learning so much by having to see the world, and also having to see the Scriptures, through a different lens, through a different filter, from the eyes of a different culture. Things that are pulled legitimately out of a text in the Bible, but not the things I would have pulled out of it, because someone's pulling out of it from a different culture, from a different set of life experiences. It's something that we've been really thankful for.

Part of it, I think, is just like you said, Jo, being willing to be ignorant, being willing to be naive. And oftentimes we're just asking questions or saying, we don't know how to speak about this. We don't know how to think about this. This is completely new to us. And just having to be willing to be stupid and naive and ask them questions and just learn from people who are different from you and who have had different experiences from you. That's been a big part of our experience here in Atlanta, and it's one we would very much encourage for others as well.

Jo Vitale: I think one of the beautiful things about Jesus is he has such a gift of relating to every single person. That when you look at Jesus, you feel like this is someone who you are at home with. But I think part of the problem with that, as well, is in our heads. Because we feel so at home with Jesus, we basically wind up projecting onto Jesus someone who looks like us. And I think that's been part of the problem, certainly historically, and you might even say even to this present day. A lot of people... If you've grown up in a white evangelical culture, you might think of Jesus as very white or as someone who looks like you. But actually, Jesus doesn't look like me. Jesus is a Middle Easterner. A shock for some of us in America today might be to remember, Jesus isn't American.

So just remembering that actually, we come to the table with all of our different cultural baggage and our backgrounds. And God looks at us and he says, you're mine, you're made in my image, I'm a god who values diversity. And even when we look at the very nature of God, God isn't just one, but he's three persons in one. There's something about unity within diversity that is right at the character and the heart of God.

I think that's why, when it comes to the book of Revelation, we see this beautiful picture of what heaven will look like. Where it will be a house of prayer for all nations, where every tribe and every tongue will worship Jesus, and our worship will be so much more beautiful because of the diversity represented, not because we've all learned to speak in one language or one tongue or molded ourselves into one kind of thing. I think there's as many kinds of beauty as there are people in the world because we're all made in the image of God.

Michael Davis: Well, guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.

Vince Vitale: Well, this is a really difficult topic. And I know I speak for all of us in saying that we feel like we're just scratching the surface of our understanding, scratching the surface in terms of where our hearts need to be with respect to these issues of race. But we're thankful to have friends around us who are challenging us to do that. It's an issue that we want to speak about more on this show. We're hoping that Lisa Fields will come down, she's agreed she will come down. She's a real mentor to us in several respects and we're excited to hear more from her and learn more from her on this issue as well.

But we thank you for the questions today. We hope that we've been clear that the Bible... I was going to say cannot be used. Sadly, it can be used, because of our sinful nature. But it should not be used, ever, to justify slavery or racism or racial division. And it has to break our hearts whenever we see Sunday being the most segregated day of the week. It just cannot be the case.

We need to unite around that prayer in John 17, that prayer that Jesus offered on our behalf, "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." People are not going to believe in Jesus when they see division in our churches on a Sunday. And he goes on, "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you and me, so that they may be brought to complete unity." That's our prayer. "Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me."

Michael Davis: Vince, Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening, and we will catch you next week.

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