This question is a bit of an old chestnut—but I thought it worth revisiting, not least in the light of an interesting Twitter exchange I had with an Australian academic (whom I do not know in person). Robert Myles is lecturer in lecturer in New Testament and Religion at Murdoch University, and has published academically on slavery. I don’t know what interest he has in the debate on sexuality, but the conversation started (as it often does) in connection with a a discussion about the recent revision of the basis of faith of the Evangelical Group of General Synod (EGGS) in relation to sexuality:
Just a question regarding your framing: Would you also label those Christians who came to believe slavery was incompatible with Christian ethics as "revisionist"?
— Robert Myles (@robertjmyles) July 3, 2019
and was sparked off again in a second thread by a comment I made on the TV programme ‘Too Gay for God?‘
After a rather unhelpful beginning (which you can trace if you want to follow the Twitter thread—though be warned: it has several branches, includes several hundred tweets, and continues over seven days!) we got to what I think is a key question:
I'll try again: The canonical texts include deep theological critiques of the practice of slavery (in creation, exodus, and NT anthropology) & these have regularly been drawn on in the tradition. Do you believe there are similar deep theol affirmations of SSS in text & tradition?
— Dr Ian Paul (@Psephizo) July 4, 2019
Are there texts in Scripture which offer a deep, theological critique of slavery, alongside the texts that appear to accept the practice? These are the texts and textual themes that I offered.
The first creation account, in Genesis 1 (running to Genesis 2.3), all humanity is created in the ‘image and likeness of God’:
God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1.26–27)
In contrast to other ANE texts, there is a universality here to the image of God in humanity; it is not confined to one sector or class of humanity. Despite the continuing debates about exactly what constitutes being made ‘in the image of God’, this foundational text has been appealed to in a range of contexts (including the debate about the relationship between women and men, and the status of the ‘disabled’) and offers a critique of any system which seeks to divide different groups of humanity into fundamentally distinct categories.
Flowing from the theological principle of God as creator and sovereign over the world, several texts make clear that human ownership of anything is strictly provisional.
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. (Ps 24.1)
This is appealed to explicitly in the principle of ‘Jubilee’ expounded in Lev 25.
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. (Lev 25.23)
This also applies to those who are ‘slaves’, who are also to be liberated at the time of Jubilee. It is important to note that the phenomenon represented by the term ‘slave’ does not exactly correspond to our later use of the term in English, so we need to be slightly cautious here. Within Israel, ‘slavery’ appear to have been much closer to what we would call ‘indentured servitude‘.
Rights of ‘slaves’
Within the OT texts on ‘slaves’, we find regulations which limit the ways that slaves can be used, including language about their rights and protection.
An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (Ex 21.26–27)
David L Baker comments on these laws:
This pair of laws is unique in the ancient Near East because slave abuse is considered in terms of human rights rather than property rights. Elsewhere slaves were treated as chattels, and abuse laws were designed to compensate the master for loss or damage to his property. Old Testament law, however, emphasises that slaves are to be treated as human beings and ownership of slaves does not permit a master to kill or injure them. (‘The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament‘)
The Exodus as Deliverance from Slavery
The Exodus is the major event of the Old Testament, and the major theological reference point that is constantly looked back to throughout Israel’s history. This is the key moment of redemption, and offers the key insight into the nature of Israel’s God: Yahweh is a God who sets slaves free. This becomes a practical reference point in relation to the discussion of the practice of slavery in Lev 25, and is the reason why Israelites apparently cannot become slaves (though the OT texts are ambiguous about this; see Jer 34.9).
The universal invitation of the gospel
One of the distinctive features of the early Jesus movement was its wide appeal, including every level of society from the richest to the poorest. It was clear that the movement included slaves as well as free people, and all the evidence suggests that they participated in gatherings of the earliest Christian communities. It is striking that Paul, in discussing the work of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12, emphasis the universality of the Spirit’s gifting, so that ‘all’ contribute to the ‘common good’.
Paul’s use of doulos to describe himself and Jesus
My conversation partner Robert Myles dismissed this idea out of hand—but it can hardly have been of no consequence for slaves in the early Christian movement to have read Paul’s consistent self-description as a ‘slave of Christ’ (at the beginning of most of his letters). And in the so-called ‘Christ hymn’ in Phil 2 (which I think was written by Paul rather than quoted by him), the key movement of Jesus from heavenly pre-existence to incarnation was that ‘he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (Phil 2.7; most English translations soften this by using the term ‘servant’). This pattern becomes the template for all Christians; we were slaves to sin, but have been set free (here again the Exodus motif of a God who sets slaves free) and are therefore (willing) slaves of God (Rom 6.22)
The ethical language about slaves and masters
It has been widely recognised that, in the modern context, the simple application of the haustafel, household codes, in the New Testament letters raises practical and ethical problems, since these are set in a very different social context from our own. But it is important to note that slaves are appealed to as ethical agents, and addressed directly; that the scope of the power of masters is strictly limited, not least in the light of the fact that all, slave and master, have one Master in heaven to whom they are both accountable:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ… because you know that the Lord will reward each one of you for whatever good you do, whether you are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him. (Eph 6.5–9)
Even though this text appears to accept the institution of slavery in a way that we might find problematic, there is a radical theological critique of the underlying assumptions of the slave practice in the first century Roman Empire.
This perspective is found gain in Col 4.1, where masters are called on to treat slaves ‘with equality’; the term isotes is softened by English translations, but also occurs in 2 Cor 8.13 where its meaning is clear. And Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus back ‘no longer as a slave, but as a brother’ (Phlmn 16).
Robert Myles quite right when he says that these texts do not automatically or unambiguously lead to the practice of manumission (freeing) of slaves, and the history of Christendom has had an ambiguous record in this regard. But there have been significant voices arguing against slavery in the way it has been practiced, or at times against slavery as a permissible institution at all, and these are not mere modern voices. Will Jones summarised these in a previous article:
The formal line amongst Christian teachers was that slavery was contrary to God’s true intention for the world, and not part of the natural law. It was in the world because of sin, taught Augustine (City of God, Book XIX), and Aquinas (Summa Theologica, Q57), Luther (Erlangen, Vol. XV, 2) and Calvin (Commentary on Jeremiah 34) followed him. However, it was in that capacity permitted and thus had a just form and was to be regulated. John Chrysostom described it as ‘the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery, the fruit of sin, and of human rebellion against our true Father’ (Homily XXII). He did, however, recognise a just form of it, and within that enjoined masters to love their slaves in imitation of Christ (Homily II). Gregory of Nyssa was the standout exception who outright condemned slavery in all its forms, asking: ‘What price did you put on rationality? How much did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God?’ (Homilies on Ecclesiastes).
The general tolerance of slavery amongst Christians did not prevent particular places and peoples from taking extra steps towards its suppression and prohibition. In England, for example, the slave trade was banned by the Christian Normans in 1102. Likewise slavery largely died out in Europe (especially in the North) by the later Middle Ages, though it did persist more strongly in areas which bordered on non-Christian lands (e.g. the South and East) because of its connection with the conquest of non-Christian peoples. The Roman papacy, for its part, restated on numerous occasions its prohibition on the enslavement of Christians in most circumstances, and in some circumstances of non-Christians as well. Its record was far from unblemished, however, and it sanctioned the enslavement of Africans by the Portuguese and Native Americans by the Spanish at the start of the terrible Atlantic slave trade.
It is worth noting that these negative evaluations of slavery precisely pick up on the themes and texts that I have cited above.
Myles points out that there are parallels to Paul’s language of slavery elsewhere in the ancient world; a good example is Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, Letter 47, in which he questions the dehumanisation of slaves:
1. I am glad to learn, through those who come from you, that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. “They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. “Slaves!” No, comrades. “Slaves!” No, they are unpretentious friends. “Slaves!” No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike…
17. “He is a slave.” His soul, however, may be that of a freeman. “He is a slave.” But shall that stand in his way? Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear. I will name you an ex-consul who is slave to an old hag, a millionaire who is slave to a serving-maid; I will show you youths of the noblest birth in serfdom to pantomime players! No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed.
Seneca is an almost exact contemporary of Paul, and is a Stoic philosopher; there have regularly been comparisons between Stoicism and Christian belief. It is also interesting that Seneca appeals in his comments to the universalist of the way Fortune treats people, and the common humanity that slaves and masters share—yet, again, he is not making the case for manumission.
Does this demonstrate that the NT was simply happy to allow slavery to continue, and accepted slavery without question? This is hardly the case; Paul’s most radical statement, such as Gal 3.28, reveal a much more fundamental conviction about the eschatological destiny of humanity as equal in the eyes of God, a destiny which would one day be realised. But the actual ethical texts we have show Paul wrestling with the tension between that ultimate goal, and the reality of the present social situation.
Either way we take this, there are texts in tension on the question of slavery—something that is not in any way mirrored in the texts on sexuality, which are consistent and unambiguous in their affirmation that marriage and sexual union is between one man and one woman. The nature of the texts, the later debates in the church, and the theological issues at stake are quite distinct one from another.
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