In the previous article, we began an investigation of a biblical view of slavery. This issue is of critical importance, since so much of how we view Western history in general and American history in particular is dependent upon how we view slavery. There is no question that there was a period of time in our civilization when black Africans were held in servitude. This period spanned approximately two centuries from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. This was a period of great expansion and accomplishment for our people, but by postmodern standards, it is considered an absolute blight due to slavery. In spite of the fact that slavery was legally abolished throughout Europe and North America by the mid-nineteenth century, whites of European descent are still routinely blamed for poor race relations today, as all differences in performance between the races are attributed to the so-called “legacy of slavery.”
The previous article investigated Old Testament passages pertinent to the question of the master-servant relationship. This is relevant to the slavery question, because the underlying assumption of the current opinion is that slavery is intrinsically unjust and sinful, based upon an uncharitable view of inequality. Most Christians presume that any view deviating from the politically correct idea of what constitutes rights and equality must be non-Christian, because they are so used to having political correctness preached to them from the pulpit. To counter this, we must turn to God’s revealed will in the Bible, for God and His standards of justice do not change (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17) and sin is defined as a transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4). We have seen that the Old Testament law does not consider servitude to be intrinsically immoral and regulates the institution to prevent its excesses and abuses. An Israelite could hold his fellow Israelite brother in servitude to pay off a debt only until Jubilee, at which time his servant would be freed to return to the inheritance and land of his fathers. Foreigners were allowed to be held in perpetuity; and this is closely analogous to what was practiced in the West from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. From this we can safely conclude that the Western participation in the institution of African slavery was not sinful in and of itself. While some of those involved in the slave trade were undoubtedly caught up in subsidizing the sin of man-stealing, it ought to be clear that the idea of holding members of other ethnic nations as slaves is not inherently wrong.
Many Christians might be willing to acknowledge that the Old Testament law indeed allows and regulates something akin to what was practiced by white European and North American nations, but they would say that the practice is still sinful for a variety of reasons. One reason is that while the letter of the law might allow for slavery or servitude, actually holding another person in servitude would violate the New Testament spirit of charity. Another reason that servitude is not permissible in the era since Christ is that the New Testament has altered or amended Old Testament precepts where they apply to slavery. A third reason, which has become more popular in recent years, is because of the dispensationalist hermeneutical paradigm. Dispensationalists are most commonly known for their strongly-held belief in the rapture, in which believers will be secretly taken up to heaven to be with Christ and the rest of the faithful depart, all while a seven-year tribulation ravages the earth prior to Christ’s second coming.
One aspect of dispensational theology is to attempt to categorize different parts of the Bible into different time periods, called dispensations. It is believed that the way God governs one dispensation has no necessary bearing upon the way that He chooses to govern another dispensation. Therefore, dispensationalists tend to perceive a radical discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New. Because of this, most if not all Old Testament data pertinent to the question of slavery is considered to be irrelevant to the Church in this dispensation. These laws were given to a distinct group of people, Old Testament Israel, and are therefore not to be applied today. We will examine these objections in turn by investigating what the New Testament has to offer on the issue of slavery. Many readers might be surprised to find what the Christ and the Apostles have to offer.
Evaluating the Dispensationalist Argument on the Continuity of the Law
First, we should investigate the dispensationalist claim that there is a radical discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of God’s overall government of society and of the Church. Hopkins asks, “But did not our Lord substantially repeal the old law, by the mere fact that he established a new dispensation?” and answers, “Certainly not, unless they were incompatible. And that he did not consider them incompatible is clearly proved by his own express declaration. ‘Think not,’ saith he, ‘that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17). On the point, therefore, this single passage is perfectly conclusive.”1
Hopkins was writing in a time in which dispensationalism was not nearly as popular as it has become today, but his argument nevertheless is equally as strong and meaningful. Christ explicitly states that He has not come to do away with the law that God chiefly revealed to Moses, but has rather come to fulfill that law. Christ continues, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:18-19). While it certainly is true that God has chosen to accomplish different things at different points in history, it is not true that the law has been replaced as God’s standard of justice since the coming of Christ. The notion that the law has been replaced as a standard of justice under the New Covenant is one of the single most destructive impulses in Christian thinking today. Arthur Pink writes succinctly of the error of dispensationalist hermeneutics:
This modern method of mishandling the Scriptures—for modern it certainly is, being quite unknown to Christendom till little more than a century ago, and only within recent years being adopted by those who are outside the narrow circle where it originated—is based upon 2 Timothy 2:15, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Very little or nothing at all is said upon the first two clauses of that verse, but on the third one, which is explained as “correctly partitioning the Scriptures unto the different peoples to whom they belong.” These mutilators of the Word tell us that all of the Old Testament from Genesis 12 onwards belongs entirely to Israel after the flesh, and that none of its precepts (as such) are binding upon those who are members of the Church which is the Body of Christ, nor may any of the promises found therein be legitimately appropriated by them. And this, be it duly noted, without a single word to that effect by either the Lord or any of His Apostles, and despite the use which the Holy Spirit makes of the earliest Scriptures in every part of the New Testament. So far from the Holy Spirit teaching Christians practically to look upon the Old Testament much as they would upon an obsolete almanac, He declares, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the (Old Testament) Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
Not satisfied with their determined efforts to deprive us of the Old Testament, these would-be super-expositors dogmatically assert that the four Gospels are Jewish, and that the Epistles of James and Peter, John and Jude are designed for a “godly Jewish remnant” in a future “tribulation period,” that nothing but the Pauline Epistles contain “Church truth,” and thousands of gullible souls have accepted their ipse digit—those who decline so doing are regarded as untaught and superficial. Yet God Himself has not uttered a single word to that effect. Certainly there is nothing whatever in 2 Timothy 2:15, to justify such a revolutionizing method of interpreting the Word: that verse has no more to do with the sectioning of Scripture between different “dispensations” than it has with distinguishing between stars of varying magnitude. If that verse be carefully compared with Matthew 7:6, John 16:12 and 1 Corinthians 3:2, its meaning is clear. The occupant of the pulpit is to give diligence in becoming equipped to give the different classes of his hearer “their portion of meat in due season” (Luke 12:42). To rightly divide the Word of Truth is for him to minister it suitably unto the several cases and circumstances of his congregation: to sinners and saints, the indifferent and the inquiring, the babes and fathers, the tempted and afflicted, the backslidden and fallen.2
Pink easily establishes the inaccuracy of the dispensationalist understanding of the Apostle Paul’s statement, “rightly dividing the word of truth” in 2 Timothy. Dispensationalists like C.I. Scofield believed that this meant that Christians were to study what the “right divisions” were and call these divisions “dispensations.” This is clearly a misunderstanding based upon the language used in the King James Bible. That to which the Apostle Paul refers is the right application and interpretation of the Bible. The dispensationalist method of interpreting the Bible is indeed revolutionary, and it has led to many errors. Chief among them is that the law is not continuously applied throughout the Old and New Testaments, and is thus not applicable for today. This has culminated in most evangelical Christians’ being powerless to stand strong against the prevailing moral relativism in our day. The result has been that secularism, rather than biblical principles, dictate the answers to the moral questions that our society faces. This is part of the reason why many evangelical Christians feel the need to constantly apologize for slavery and support the Israeli ethno-state, even as it commits genocide against the Palestinians, while opposing any concept of white ethno-states in historic European homelands.
Slavery, Servitude, and the Golden Rule
One of the first observations we can make regarding slavery is that Christ never alludes to the practice. In all of Christ’s preaching, He does not mention the practice of slavery even once! Hopkins observes, “Not one word of censure upon the subject is recorded by the Evangelists who gave his life and doctrines to the world. Yet slavery was in full existence at the time, throughout Judea; and the Roman empire, according to the historian Gibbon, contained sixty millions of slaves, on the lowest probable computation! How prosperous and united would our glorious republic be at this hour, if the eloquent and pertinacious declaimers against slavery had been willing to follow their Saviour’s example!”3 The fact that Christ did not denounce slavery when He was quick to condemn the evils of His own time demonstrates that Christ did not view slavery as something that was intrinsically wrong.
Many Christians begrudgingly acknowledge that Christ did not in fact denounce slavery as they might have expected, especially considering how bitterly slave owners were censured by nineteenth-century abolitionists. But they commonly retort that while slavery is not addressed directly in the recorded teachings of Christ in the Gospels, slavery does contradict the spirit of Christ’s teaching in what has become known as the Golden Rule. The great and eminent southern Presbyterian pastor Robert Lewis Dabney easily demonstrates how the abolitionists and egalitarians have distorted the meaning of the Golden Rule. Dabney summarizes the abolitionist argument:
One of these general objections to our New Testament argument is the following. They say, Christ could not have intended to authorize slavery, because the tenour and spirit of His moral teachings are opposed to it. The temper He currently enjoins is one of fraternity, equality, love, and disinterestedness. But holding a fellow-being in bondage is inconsistent with all these. Especially is the great “Golden Rule” incompatible with slavery. This enjoins us to do unto our neighbour as we would that he should do unto us. Now, as no slaveholder would like to be himself enslaved, this is a clear proof that we should not hold others in slavery. Hence, the interpretations which seem to find authority for slavery in certain passages of the New Testament, must be erroneous, and we are entitled to reject them without examination.
The basic premise is that since we should treat our neighbors the way that we would want to be treated (Matt. 7:12), and we would not want to be a servant, then it must be wrong to have servants. But this is, of course, an overly simplistic reading of what Christ intended. Dabney continues:
Abolitionists usually advance this with a disdainful confidence, as though he who does not admit its justice were profoundly stupid. But it is exceedingly easy to show that it is a bald instance of petitio principii, and it is founded on a preposterous interpretation of the Golden Rule, which every sensible Sabbath-school boy knows how to explode. Its whole plausibility rests on the a priori assumption of prejudice, that slaveholding cannot but be wicked, and on a determination not to see it otherwise.
Dabney points out that the Golden Rule cannot be correctly interpreted without taking into account God’s justice. In order to determine if the master-slave relationship is valid, we must determine whether or not it is just. Dabney elaborates by noting that the abolitionists,
seize on all such passages as those in the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ which refute Pharisaic glosses, and evolve the true law of love. This is the mint from which abolitionists have borrowed their objections against our Old Testament defence of slaveholding; such as this, that however it may have been allowed to the Hebrews, by their older and ruder law, ‘because of the hardness of their hearts,’ it is condemned by the new law of love, taught by Jesus.
As we read Dabney’s summary of abolitionist and egalitarian thought, we should give pause to consider how very relevant it is for us today. Whenever we approach almost any question on what constitutes a healthy society, we are consistently opposed by the same rationale. Anything that brings about inequality of any kind must be inherently evil, because Christ has established the “law of love” founded upon equality. Whatever the law in either testament might say about the matter, we are always forced to take an egalitarian stance based upon the supposed meaning of the Golden Rule. This is why it is so important to understand what Christ means when He tells us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”: not only for the question of slavery, but for every question of social import. Dabney refutes the egalitarian and abolitionist distortion thusly:
Now, our refutation (and it is perfect) is, that this law of love was just as fully announced by slaveholding Moses as it is by Jesus; in terms just as full of sweetness, benevolence, and universal fraternity. Yea more, the very words of Jesus cited by them and their Socinian allies, as the most striking instances of the superior mildness and love of His teachings, are in most cases quoted from Moses himself, The authority by which Christ enforced them upon His Jewish auditors was Moses’ own! Such is the shameful ignorance of these fanatics concerning the real contents of that Old Testament which they depreciate. Thus, Christ’s epitome of the whole law into the two commands to love God and our neighbour, is avowedly quoted from “the law,” i.e., the Pentateuch. See Matthew xxii. 36 to 39, and Mark xii. 28 to 33. It may be found in Deut. vi. 4 and 5, and in Levit. xix. 18. Even the scribe of Mark, xii. 32, Pharisee as he was, understood better than these modern Pharisees of abolitionism, that Christ’s ethics were but a reproduction of Moses’. He avows the correctness of Christ’s rendering of the Pentateuch law, and very intelligently adduces additional evidence of it by evident allusion to 1 Samuel xv. 22, and Hosea vi. 6.
Dabney points out that Christ was not overturning the ethics taught by Moses in his Sermon on the Mount. He was rather refuting Pharisaic misapplications of and unauthorized additions to the law. Christ brilliantly corrects the Pharisees using Moses, the principle author of the law and the man from whom the Pharisees claimed authority! Since the Golden Rule is a part of the Sermon on the Mount narrative, we ought to interpret this precept in congruity with the general message that Christ is delivering throughout his address. Neither the Golden Rule nor any other part of the Sermon on the Mount is intended to overturn the law, but, rather, both are intended to clarify its original meaning against Pharisaic distortions. In many ways, the discontinuity that liberal theologians, such as the abolitionists, saw between the Mosaic Law and the so-called “law of love” is similar to the discontinuity that dispensationalists see between the dispensations. Dabney continues:
The Golden Rule, as stated by our Saviour, is but a practical application of the Mosaic precept “to love our neighbours as ourselves,” borrowed from Moses. In Matt. vii. 12, Christ, after giving the Golden Rule, adds, “for this is the law and the prophets.” That is, the Golden Rule is the summary of the morality of, the Pentateuch and Old Testament prophets. We repeat that there is not one trait of love, of benevolence, of sweet expansive fraternity, of amiable equity, contained in any of Christ’s precepts or parables, that is not also found in the Laws of Moses. Their moral teachings are absolutely at one, in principle; and so they must be, if both are from the unchangeable God. To say otherwise is a denial of inspiration; it is infidelity; and indeed abolitionism is infidelity.
Dabney clearly sheds light on an issue entirely lost by modern Christians. Christ never overturned the just and righteous precepts that God revealed to Moses in the Old Covenant. He upheld them all, and they all find their fulfillment in Him. This is not an example of a Christ introducing a new concept. Consequently, the Golden Rule must be interpreted in this light: how does this apply to the issue of the morality and ethics of slavery? If Christ is simply reaffirming the law of love derived from God through Moses, and this law sanctioned some form of slavery (and indeed it did), then we must conclude that the master-servant relationship does not contradict the law of love that Christ himself defended. Dabney concludes:
Our reply, then, is, that Christ’s giving the law of love cannot be inconsistent with his authorizing slaveholding; because Moses gave the same law of love, and yet indisputably authorized slaveholding. We defy all the sophisms of the whole crew of the perverse and destitute of the truth, to obscure, much less to rebut this answer, without denying the inspiration and even the common truthfulness of Moses. But that they will not stickle to do: for what do they care for Moses, or Christ either, in comparison of their fanatical idol?
Dabney completes his explanation of the Golden Rule:
Surely the principle of the Golden Rule binds the slave just as much as the master. If the desire which one would feel (mutatis mutandis) must govern each man’s conduct, then the slave may be very sure that, were he the master, he would naturally desire to retain the services of the slaves who were his lawful property. Therefore, according to this abolition rule, he is morally bound to decline his own liberty; i.e., to act towards his master as he, were he the master, would desire his slave to act.
It is clear, then, that our Saviour, by His Golden Rule, never intended to establish so absurd a law. The rule of our conduct to our neighbour is not any desire which we might have, were we to change places; but it is that desire which we should, in that case, be morally entitled to have. To whatsoever treatment we should conscientiously think ourselves morally entitled, were we slaves instead of masters, all that treatment we as masters are morally bound to give our servants, so far as ability and a just regard for other duties enables us. Whether that treatment should include emancipation, depends on another question, whether the desire which we, if slaves, should very naturally feel to be emancipated, is a righteous desire or not; or, in other words, whether the obligation to service is rightful. Hence, before the Golden Rule can be cited as enjoining emancipation, it must first be settled whether the master’s title is unrighteous. The Apostle Paul gives precisely the true application of this rule when he says: “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal.” And this means, not emancipation from servitude, but good treatment as servants; which is proven by the fact that the precept contemplates the relation of masters and servants as still subsisting.”4
Dabney brilliantly annihilates the argument that the practices of servitude or even slavery are contrary to the Golden Rule. Clearly, the Golden Rule establishes equitable treatment of everyone regardless of social class, but it does not establish equality. Dabney rightly points out that this knowledge used to be much more common, but has unfortunately become scarce in our day because of ignorance. The ignorance of the Bible’s teachings and their true application is the product of decades of willful misrepresentation of certain passages in the Bible, as well as the secularizing trends in Western societies. Nevertheless, the actual meaning of the Golden Rule has not changed, and it is no more useful to liberals in our day than it was to abolitionists in Dabney’s day.
Conclusive proof of this is seen in the Book of Philemon. This letter, written decades after Jesus’ law of love, by the Apostle Paul addressed to the Christian slaveowner Philemon explaining why Paul was sending his runaway slave, Onesimus, back to him. There are three important points to consider here. First, Paul has nothing but praise for Philemon’s character. In fact, Paul says in verse 5 that “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints“; would Paul, under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, really say that about someone who was actively breaking the law of love by owning slaves? Secondly, Paul asks Philemon to have mercy on Onesimus and to take him back as a fellow brother in Christ, but mentions nothing about Philemon being required to free him since slaveowning is intrinsically sinful. And finally, Paul specifically says that, far from nullifying the master-slave relationship, Christianity strengthens and sanctifies the bond. Matthew Henry in his commentary on Philemon puts this principle thus:
There is a spiritual brotherhood between all true believers, however distinguished in civil and outward respects; they are all children of the same heavenly Father, have a right to the same spiritual privileges and benefits, must love and do all good offices to and for one another as brethren, though still in the same rank, and degree, and station, wherein they were called. Christianity does not annul nor confound the respective civil duties, but strengthens the obligation to them, and directs to a right discharge of them.
The communion of saints does not destroy distinction of property: Onesimus, now converted, and become a brother beloved, is yet Philemon’s servant still, and indebted to him for wrongs that he had done, and not to be discharged but by free and voluntary remission, or on reparation made by himself, or some other in his behalf, which part, rather than fail, the apostle undertakes for him.
Those who argue that the law of love has nullified Old Testament slave laws must tear the Book of Philemon from their Bibles in order to do so.
In this edition, we reviewed the case that Old Testament teachings on servitude are applicable since the giving of the New Testament. We discussed the errors of the dispensationalist approach to introducing a misunderstood concept of “right divisions” into the text. The Bible presents one uniform message regarding both morality and the Gospel. This does not change from age to age. Finally, we discussed the proper interpretation of the Golden Rule, and why it cannot be used by abolitionists or liberals to support their ideas of truth and justice. In the next edition, we will discuss slavery in the epistles. It should not surprise any of us that the New Testament epistles teach us the same thing about the slavery question that we ascertain from the Old Testament and the Gospels. Abolitionists are no more effective in any appeal to the epistles than they are with the Law, Prophets, or Gospels. If anything, the abolitionist case is only further weakened upon an investigation of the New Testament epistles and is obliterated by the Book of Philemon.
This is not an example of a Christ introducing a new concept.
Read Part 3
- “The Bible View of Slavery,” by John Henry Hopkins. http://www.southernslavery.com/articles/bible_view_slavery.htm ↩
- See A Study of Dispensationalism by Arthur Pink. http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Dispensationalism/disp_01.htm ↩
- Ibid., Hopkins. ↩
- All Dabney quotes are taken from “The Golden Rule and Slavery” by Robert Lewis Dabney. http://www.southernslavery.com/articles/golden_rule_slavery.htm ↩