In a very brief letter of the New Testament, Paul urges his friend Philemon to release the slave Onesimus. Paul had met Onesimus in prison and led him to Christ, but once the young man was released, Paul sent him back to Philemon with this instruction:
I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. Philemon 1:12-14 (ESV)
Many people have rejected the Bible because they say it condones modern day slavery, but in an instructive portion of his excellent sermon, “Literalism: Isn’t the Bible Historically Unreliable and Regressive?”, Tim Keller shows how this is far from the case. In the process, he urges us to consider that the way we are understanding and (sometimes) rejecting the Bible’s teaching may just mean that we are misunderstanding what it is saying:
“It is very easy to read a passage of the Bible, read it through your cultural blinders, and therefore, misunderstand what it’s actually teaching. My example is slavery…Many, many times people say, ‘The Bible condones slavery, and that was wrong. Therefore, it’s wrong on this as well.’ Very often people start with that as the premise, and they go off in various directions to undermine biblical authority. I want to ask a question. Does the Bible actually condone slavery? You say, ‘Well, of course! Look at these passages where Paul says, ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters …’ There it is. He condones slavery.’
“You know, if you actually go into one book of the New Testament where Paul actually talks to a master/servant relationship … He talks both to Onesimus, who is a servant, and Philemon, the master. If you actually read that book and you see how Paul talks and you see how that relationship works between Onesimus and Philemon, you begin to realize this is more like something you might called indentured servanthood. It’s not what we think of as slavery. That’s the point. When you and I see the word slave in the Bible, you immediately think of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century New World slavery, race based, African slavery. That’s immediately what you and I think of. When you do that, when you read what the Bible says, when you see the Bible’s slave and you read it through those blinders, you actually aren’t quite understanding what the Bible is teaching.
“Murray Harris was a historian who wrote a book about what slavery was like in the first century Greco-Roman world (the slaves Paul was talking to)…Interestingly enough, he says in Greco-Roman times,
- First, slaves were not distinguishable from anyone else by race, speech, or clothing. They looked and lived like everyone else and were never segregated off from the rest of society in any way.
- Second, slaves were more educated than their owners in many cases and many times held high managerial positions.
- Third, from a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free laborers and, therefore, were not themselves usually poor and often accrued enough personal capital to buy themselves out.
- Fourth, very few people were slaves for life in the first century. Most expected to be manumitted after about 10 years or by their late thirties at the latest. In contrast, New World slavery (seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century slavery) was race based, and its default mode was slavery for life. Also, the African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapping, which the Bible unconditionally condemns in 1 Timothy 1:9–11 and Deuteronomy 24:7.
“Therefore, while the early Christians, like Saint Paul, facing first-century slavery discouraged it (like Paul was always saying to slaves, ‘Get free if you can’) but didn’t go on a campaign to end it, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christians, when faced with New World-style slavery did work for its complete abolition because it could not be squared in any way with biblical teaching. The point is, when you hear somebody say, ‘The Bible condones slavery,’ you say, ‘No, it didn’t. Not the way you and I define slavery. It’s not talking about that. Maybe we ought to use a different word there when we translate it.’ You say (rightly so), ‘Oh, didn’t people in the South use those biblical passages (‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters …’) in order to try to subjugate the African slaves?’ Yes, but they were reading it through their cultural blinders too. It was an absolutely illegitimate twisting and perversion of what the Scripture taught. Therefore, please consider the possibility…that when you read something in the Scripture and it seems very offensive, you’re reading it through your cultural blinders.”
For tomorrow, Wednesday, September 16th: Hebrews 1