I was preaching a short time ago in the city of Nottingham in England, here in the United Kingdom. A man who obviously disagreed with the Bible but had a more than usual knowledge of the Scriptures questioned me. He finished by saying, “I suppose then you agree with slavery as well,” quoting a verse in Exodus chapter twenty one. When I replied that I didn’t have a problem with it he just stomped off in anger. End of conversation. This, of course, is a common problem when preaching on the streets, people ask questions but they don’t always want or wait for the answers. The question of slavery has not gone away. You are, without doubt, more likely to be questioned about this issue when preaching in North America. But wherever it is asked, the question needs to be addressed, historically and biblically. But, the answer is most certainly not, “that was then, not now.” For that often is the answer given by Christians to the issue. Oh, that was the Old Testament, but we’re in the New Testament now, so the practice of slavery is repealed. It is not. That just ain’t the honest to goodness truth. It is dealt with in both Testaments of the Bible. Abraham had slaves, the Mosaic law instructs slave owners and slaves how to conduct themselves in such conditions and the New Testament deals with it too (See the book of Philemon). The Apostle Paul’s writings deal with the behaviour of both slaves and masters. We will return to the Bible in due course. But let’s begin for our purposes here with the African slave business.
The African Slave Trade:
It goes back to the early 1500’s. The slaves themselves were taken captive by their own fellow Africans. They were then shipped to the coast where they would be sold on to the white slave traders. But rest assured were it not for their fellow Africans firstly enslaving their own countrymen, there would have been no slave trade out of Africa. Where were these slaves taken to? Thirty-six percent went to Brazil. Fifty-eight percent went to a mixture of France, Spain and Britain. The remaining six percent went to North America. To both the North and Southern states. What is interesting is, that the state of Virginia was crying out to Congress and to the British Parliament for an end to the evil of slave trading, thirty years before Massachusetts had even begun to think about the issue and before civil war had broken out. Alas, their pleas fell on deaf ears. But we have to ask the question, why did it end in civil war, with the death of four hundred and thirty thousand Americans? Well, it would be down to those whom the Southern states would have referred to as the ‘Infidel Abolitionists.’ They were the problem, the cause of the civil war. Absolute abolition was not the answer. Think about this for a moment. Just supposing an edict had been passed by the President or Congress, and there was an absolute and immediate end to slavery, finito. Where would those many slaves go? Return them to Africa? Which part? How would they survive? Many of them were American born. Or just let them loose? How would they have survived, found employment, the necessities of life even? But then another question must be asked and answered. Why did the Northern state’s war against their fellow countrymen over the issue of slavery, or was there something else, a more deep-seated problem than that?
The Seed of the Woman versus The Seed of the Serpent:
By around the year, 1805, Harvard University had been captured by the Unitarians. A deep and widespread apostasy had set in. When it came to the 1860’s the intellectual leadership in the North had thoroughly departed from the word of God. I think, from personal experience that apostasy remains, in the Northeast. The South meanwhile was still predominantly Christian. It was the old war against the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, that old antithesis established by God himself way back in the day (Genesis 3:15f). The war between the world and the church, the saints and the sinners. That the Northern states should come against the Southern states can be explained in no other way. Why was the North fighting their own countrymen whilst during the Civil War they were heavily dependent on trade with France, Spain, Britain and Brazil, countries that were heavily committed to and involved in the African slave trade. Why did they not go to war against them too? Then, of course, it must be noted that the North had their fair share of slaves too. The word hypocrisy comes to mind. Not, of course, to forget that Abraham Lincoln himself was a self-confessed white supremest.
Reformation & not War:
That the American Civil War was a judgment of God is indeed unquestionable. But who you ask was being judged, the South or the North? The short answer is both. The march of Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah was, without doubt, the judgment of God on the Southern states for their harsh treatment of their slaves. They had their Bibles, and they used their Bibles to defend the practice of slave ownership. But the problem with having Bibles is, that it makes you more culpable, better we don’t have them than not obey them. The South, by and large, but not altogether, did not obey God’s clear instructions as to how they should have treated their slaves. That is, with respect, kindness, compassion, and mercy. Now let’s be clear many God-fearing, Christian men did so treat their slaves. The caricature presented by the leftwing media today, including Hollywood on slavery, will just not do, it does give you a clear and fair picture. The destruction of the Southern General Robert Lee’s statue recently and what lay behind that action defamed him. General Lee was a Christian, an officer and a gentleman and fine soldier at that, magnanimous even in defeat. Why do you think the North wanted him to command their armies? But, the North was also being judged, for its apostasy. The Pilgrim Fathers who brought and planted the seeds of the gospel in New England had long gone. Decline and a forsaking of the covenant of God had taken place. The Bible makes it very clear, “now it shall be, if you diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 28:1). Otherwise, “but it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). The Northern apostasy led inevitably to the judgment of God. It is an interesting footnote, that in the midst of the Civil War, an amazing revival broke out amongst the Confederate, Southern troops. So if a war wasn’t the answer what was? Well, for starters the ‘Infidel Abolitionists’ should have been silenced altogether. The answer lay in the Scriptures that the North had forsaken and the South still clung to. Reformation with the Scriptures as the basis was the answer. In the mid-eighteenth century, godly men were calling for this reform. “Arthur Dibbs; Joseph Ottenghi; Noble Jones; William Stephens; George Whitfield and Samuel Davies, among others, accepted slavery as neither sinful nor necessarily impolitic, but they also insisted that it must be brought up to the standards of humanity described as Scriptural or Abrahamic or Christian…Whitfield darkly suggested that the slaves would be morally justified if they rose in rebellion…Davies preached in Virginia during the mid-1750’s with a strong emphasis on God’s stern punishment of those who did not repent of their sins. Specifically, Davies invoked God’s wrath against those who were treating their slaves inhumanely” (Prof E.D. Genovese). These godly men who cried out for reform got no encouragement from the “immediate abolitionists,” instead all they got was denunciation. If in North America, it had been dealt with in this way, both political and ecclesiastical reform, it wouldn’t be the problem that it is today.
So Back to the Bible:
The Old Testament law is very clear as to how slave owners and slaves are to conduct themselves. Also, we must not forget that in the Bible God is addressing a fallen humanity, a world that is ruined by man’s sin, and not some imaginary utopia. In that world of sin, until the renewal of all things, the heavens and the earth, there will always be evil of one kind or another. But rest assured God has declared war on sin, it is going down, it is going to be judged. The Son of God has been appointed that task and that day has been set, “because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Until then slavery of one kind or another will always be a problem. Back in the Old Testament era, slavery was a safety net for the poor. It was limited, freedom was always in sight. Some would argue, yes, but, when a man was due to be set free he could go but if he goes his family must remain, that is, if he has one. But ask yourself the question, what is kinder? To let the man go and take his family with him with not a hope of being able to provide for them? Or to leave them with the master who under God’s instruction has compassion, care for and treats them as God commands him? For some people who were utterly destitute, perhaps up to their eyeballs in debt, with no way of providing for themselves and or their families it was an opportunity for them, and escape route. For some an opportunity to learn how to provide for themselves. He or she would perhaps learn a new set of skills equipping them for their future freedom. But the Divine law was very clear concerning the contracts of employment, how both owners and slaves were to conduct themselves, and the punishments for disobedience, i.e., harsh treatment. Perhaps some corporations today, such Amazon, could do with reading those terms, as to how to treat their slaves.
Moving into the New Testament it is no different, the terms are clearly expounded by the Apostle Paul. There were in those early church times millions of slaves within the Roman Empire. If you know anything about Roman rule then you will know how they would have dealt with any revolt against their form of slavery. They would have ruthlessly and mercilessly crushed it. Therefore, those masters and slaves alike are instructed as to how to conduct themselves within their new-found spiritual freedom as Christians. For the Apostles to have created an attitude of anarchy would have led to even more rebellion, and even a breakdown of the social order. No, the biblical answer in both Testaments is the fair treatment of slaves, with kindness and compassion, leading to reform and restoration and the hope of future freedom. But it was that element of kindness and compassion that was absent in a lot of cases, not all, in the Southern states, and for that God judged them. The evil was not the slavery itself, it was the man-stealing, kidnapping, and the slave trading that went with it that is condemned by God, and it was this that was condemned even by the state of Virginia long before Massachusetts woke up to the issue. Imagine a scenario with me for a moment. You’re a Christian man of wealth and influence, and it’s 1860, you’re in the place where slaves are being sold, say, in South Carolina, or some other Southern state. There is a man for sale, but he is not wanted, so what would have happened to him? This. He would have been shipped out to either Haiti or Brazil where he would have been treated much worse than in a Nazi death camp. So you’ve got the power, the money, you can use this man, give him employment and a future. Under God’s instruction, you can make him feel human again, feed and clothe him, perhaps even evangelise him, in kindness turn him into a trophy of grace, a child of God. Or, you could just stiffen your neck, walk away saying, “not my problem, don’t agree with slavery anyway, should be abolished” and that, knowing what will happen to him next? Which, I ask you, is the kindest, most loving course of action for you to take?
So is slavery done with now, completely abolished? I mean apart from my cynical dig at how Amazon treat their employees? No, it isn’t. For the last three to four years I have been ministering in Ukraine during the summer. A couple of years ago I happened upon a society in Ternopil who was seeking to make people aware of the number of people, mostly young women, who were being abducted in Eastern Europe and transported where ever they could be sold on to. No prizes for guessing what for. The figures for just Ukraine alone were over a hundred thousand, and that’s just one Eastern European country. Sadly it wasn’t a Christian society that was engaged in this excellent endeavour. After all should not we be engaged in seeking the Reformation of society as well? Working towards a realistic end of slavery wherever and by whoever? By bringing the word of God to bear upon every echelon of the society of which we are a part? Reformation is our aim, not rebellion. According to God’s law, as recorded in the Old Testament, kidnapping comes with the death penalty. “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 24:87). Many Americans in both the North and the South should have been faced with this indictment by both the State and the Church. Many Southern Christians should have been excommunicated from their churches because of their treatment of their slaves. Sin is an evil that is yet rampant and as long as there is sin there will be slavery, with men treating their fellowmen in the harshest and degrading ways. But it will be met with God’s judgment, his fierce judgment, every time, either sooner or later.
There is though an even worse kind of slavery, and that is the slavery that we are all of us born into. The slavery to sin. And the only Person who can liberate us from that bondage, break the chains and set us free, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He came to die for slaves and slave owners, he came for sinners, he came to set them free from the law of sin and death. “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed“ (John 8:34, 36). Without Jesus Christ, we are all of us slave born and in need of God’s redemption through his Son. It is only in Christ that we can look forward with hope to God’s promised future, with him forever, in the new heaven and the new earth, where there shall be no slavery because there will be no sin.
So, Christian man or woman, when someone says to you that the Bible sanctions slavery, please, please, please do not answer, “that was then not now.” Rather say, yes it does, so what’s your point?
# For further & helpful reading on this subject:
Prof Eugene D Genovese “A Consuming Fire” & Pastor Doug Wilson “Black and Tan.”