Why is slavery wrong?

So, before you lose it, I’m not going to try and argue something clearly mad like “slavery is ok, really,” slavery is evil. I do think that why we argue that it is evil turns out to be an interesting question for theological method.

Several years ago, I remember having very long debates with someone over why slavery was wrong. The question arises because we all know intrinsically that it is, but our forebears did not. The New Testament doesn’t seem to clearly argue that slavery is wrong, or that slaves should be manumitted, instead giving advice to Christian slaves and masters.

We might point to pioneers like William Wilberforce who fought the slave trade because of their Christian convictions and so you’d think that the Bible would tell us slavery is wrong and it doesn’t appear to. Hence the long conversations about why it was wrong.

I thought it was an interesting thought experiment at the time, now I’m a little less sanguine about discussing owning people as though there were a way it could be correct. It does teach us something about method though: I would argue that owning people is inherently wrong. The person I’m discussing with would ask where the Bible says that. I would fumble and point to humanity being made in the image of God. They would ask why that means owning people is wrong and we’d go around in circles.

The problem was methodological. We were stuck in Biblical Studies (what does the Bible say) without making a jump into Theology and Ethics (how does what the Bible says inform these questions). I was right, by the way, owning people is an affront to their inherent dignity.

We could point to the slavery allowed in the Old Testament, but I think that’s a misnomer. It’s a different enough institution to both Roman-era slavery in the New Testament and the North Atlantic Slave Trade that we’re talking about different things. I’m not sure that the Old Testament institution did amount to ‘owning people,’ and even if it did its undercut by the phenomenon of the Jubilee. Which doesn’t suddenly make it morally neutral, but I’m trying to get at a different point in this piece.

What I think is interesting is in this whole debate, which I’ve heard rehashed in a few different ways over the years, I totally missed that the New Testament does argue against slavery. Not against the legal removal of the apparatus of slavery, because why would a down-trodden powerless community try to do that? That’s a very modern way of thinking if we suggest that they should have.

The New Testament proposes something much more subversive, in three different places.

Firstly, in the two household codes in Colossians and Ephesians (Colossians 3, Ephesians 5), slaves are told to obey their masters. Which seems like a point against me. Except slaves are addressed before masters, flipping the power dynamic in a culture when addressing them at all is remarkable, and are offered compassion and broadly told that if they’re mistreated then God will have vengeance for them. Masters on the other hand are told to treat slaves well.

Which doesn’t sound revolutionary to us, but it is. If every master treated their slaves truly well then slavery as an oppressive institution is unpicked. If they are treated like people, they will come to be viewed like people, which will in the long run undo slavery from the inside.

Secondly, Philemon provides some context to the household code in Colossians. Paul sends the letter back along with runaway slave Onesimus and tells his master Philemon to accept him back. Which also looks like Paul affirming the status quo but instead undoes it. Not only is Philemon told not to exert his rights as a master but far beyond that he is told to treat Philemon as a brother (Philemon).

As a brother. If your slave is not just a person but a member of your family, with all the rights and privileges that would extend. Then, all of a sudden, they aren’t your slave at all. Slavery is undone from the inside within this household, immediately.

Thirdly, Jesus taught in John 15 that he is our master and could view us as slaves, but chooses not to, just like Paul later instructed Philemon to do so. Jesus, the only just master available, does not dismantle our status as his slaves but chooses to say that we are his friends—the most radically equal relationship available. Which of course, means that we aren’t really slaves.

The New Testament teaches that we don’t begin by dismantling systems but that the church radically subverts them within the household of faith. This has all sorts of implications for us today. I would suggest that when we try to dismantle systems of oppression in society without first having radically undone them in our relations to one-another within the church we’re putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Of course, we do get to the cart. It is right and good that Christians have systematically dismantled systems that treat people as objects and continue to fight modern slavery today—which is very much present in your country, wherever you’re reading from.

It’s notable that the first step in fighting slavery is to be changed by the Spirit ourselves and alter how we view others, and that the most revolutionary way of altering our frames of reference towards other people is for Jesus to call us friends.

Friendship is a revolutionary endeavour, that if we pursued it within our communities would turn our categories on their heads. It requires the powerful to give away enough of their power to level the arena, such that newly minted equals can embrace one another.

This has some implications for our societies, but it has far greater implications for the church—is this how we operate? How can I as an elder, and therefore a bearer of some degree of ‘power’ in almost any church setting I find myself in, pursue friendship like Jesus did with those in my community?

I think it’s vitally necessary that we try to do this, context by context, because friendship changes the world, and friendship with Christ sets men free.

Photo by Hanna Zhyhar on Unsplash

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