Answering Seth: My Exegesis Of A Few “Slaveholding” Verses

“Answering Seth,” rather than the title of a new indy flick, is my promised response to erstwhile Doug Wilson defender and crecmemes.com correspondent Seth B., who asked me to explain how it is that I fail to understand Wilson’s defense of slavery  in light of Bible verses that would seem to support it.  I appreciate the sincerity and respect with which Seth has asked me these things, and I would point out to him what you already know:  I am not a seminary-trained theologian.

Doug Wilson and I have that in common.  The difference is that no one’s employment, grades, or ecclesiastical security is dependent on their agreeing to my interpretation — which strikes me as the better way to engage with one another in trying to understand the Scriptures better.  “Iron sharpening iron,” as it were, rather than “iron leaving a bloody serrated edge” on the disputant, which in metaphor is preferable to the wounds Wilson actually inflicts on those who publicly disagree with him.

In addressing Wilson’s indefensible defense of Antebellum American slavery, which he has never withdrawn, Seth asks me to look at Philemon 12 through 16, Ephesians 6:5-9, and Colossians 4:1, all penned by the Apostle Paul and, Seth and I agree, the Spirit-inspired Word of God.  The Philemon passage is an appeal to Philemon on behalf of his runaway slave and newly-converted Christian brother, Onesimus, while the Ephesians and Colossians examples, from Paul’s pastoral letters, involve the first-century household code typified under Roman occupation.

Philemon 12-16 says, “I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart.  I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the Gospel.  However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure.  Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, that is, a dearly loved brother.  He is especially a dearly loved brother to me.  How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually, in the Lord!”  (Common English Bible)

Two things are significant here as we read Paul’s appeal.  The first is that slavery in Rome was entirely legal and that, in this pagan society, extending aid to a runaway slave or interfering with his return was a crime.  In fact, the slaveowner was legally allowed to execute a returned runaway.  The second is that Israel was only allowed to enslave foreigners for an indefinite time; Hebrew bondsmen and -women could only be enslaved for six years (Deut. 23:15), and that servitude looked much more like the “indentured servitude” once common in the U.S., not the kidnap-driven, race-based, generational, life-long, and abusive owning of a human being that typified the South.

It’s astonishing that, with such pronounced legal punishment levied against those who interfered with Roman slavery, that Paul acknowledges that he thought of “keeping him with me” in the service of the Gospel, and this hint of potential civil disobedience sets the context for, and is confirmed by, the rest of the passage.  Paul was not a champion of civil disobedience, insisting that the Christian could only rightly break the law when that law directly compelled him or her to sin against God.  But Paul is clearly requesting that Philemon not simply conform to the law that allowed him to retain ownership of an escaped, captured, slave, and he just as clearly assumes that Philemon, converted to Christ and filled with Spiritual understanding because of it, would step away from his “rights” to extend egalitarian fellowship — “no longer as a slave but more than a slave — that is, as a dearly loved brother” — to the man whose services he once owned.  Paul clearly believed that both Onesimus and Philemon would be better off as brothers than as slaveholder and slave.  No, it’s not a denunciation of Roman slaveholding — directly, that is.  Paul’s letter IS a clear appeal for the end of Onesimus’ entirely legal servitude — on the basis of Gospel fellowship that encourages a man not to exercise his own rights so that he might better defend the God-given rights of his brother.

We might wish — in fact, we do wish — that the New Testament were filled with thundering denouncements of slavery.  It isn’t.  But it’s important to remember that the infant Church was living and growing in hostile territory, where acts of temporal civil disobedience would ruin the eternal aim of the Gospel.  More important, the Roman slavery of the era was not the Christian’s concern, and the Hebrew slavery of the era was strictly guided by the Hebrew Scriptures — God-given rules almost uniformly defied by the South, which fed its slaveholding system through kidnapping, was based solely on the race of the slaves, lasted for a lifetime, extended through generations, and involved savage brutality, rape, exploitation, and a determination to keep slaves from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  THAT was the “Christian slavery” of the American South, and from root to fruit, it was a foul, despicable, evil practice that we can safely say Paul would have railed against, committed, as it was, not by an occupying pagan force but by men who took the name of Christ to do what Christ’s Word expressly said they must never.  Wilson seems unable to grasp that; I hope Seth can.

I’ll deal with Ephesains 6:5-9 and Colossians 4:1 together, again quoting from the Common English Bible:

“As for slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling and with sincere devotion to Christ.  Don’t work to make yourself look good and try to flatter people, but act like slaves of Christ carrying out God’s will from the heart.  Serve your owners enthusiastically, as though you were serving the Lord and not human beings.  You know that the Lord will reward every person who does what is right, whether that person is a slave or a free person …”  (Ephesians 6:5-8)

Verse 9 of Ephesiasns 6 echoes Colossians 4:1, and I’ll quote Colossians:  “Masters, be just and fair to your slaves, knowing that you yourselves have a master in Heaven.”  There is no substantive difference between Col. 4:1 and Eph. 6:9. — both enjoin slaveholders to be fair and kind to those they enslaved, because both slave and slaveholder were slaves to the Lord Jesus.

It’s worth repeating, precisely because it never is in Wilson’s argument, that Paul had no ability to effect change in the Roman system, and that both Roman slavery and Hebrew slavery were entirely different from the slavery of the “Christian” South.  Roman slavery had its own laws and practices, and, as a vital part of a pagan economy and culture, offended God.  Israelite slavery was strictly regulated by the Old Testament, and Israelites who enslaved Israelites could do so for only six years.  A “redemptive-forward” reading of Scripture sees a liberalizing continuum throughout the centuries in regard to slavery — from the nascent pronouncements of the Old Testament, which represented a vast improvement in humanity from the viciousness of the pagan Hammuraibic Codes to an implied undermining of slavery in the New and, in the Gospel message of egalitarianism so perfectly enshrined in verses like Galatians 3:28 that represent the continuing fulfillment of the kingdom-establishing work of God — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” — a stark incompatability with anything that promotes those hierarchical divisions in the Church.

Further, I would ask Seth to consider the “seventh-year Jubilee” freeing of Hebrew slaves commanded in the Old Testament.  The parallel to this is the “Christian” slaveholder who, after prohibiting his slaves’ access to the Gospel by prohibiting anyone from teaching slaves to read, and who regularly perverted that Gospel by insisting that the only “message from God” was the household passages in Ephesians that, in isolation, served to exalt the slaveholder and further chain the slave, nevertheless had a slave come to relationship with Christ Jesus.  I think Seth will agree that the record of history is not one of these “Christian” slave masters releasing their Christian slaves after six years, as the Scriptures insist, and that the record is, instead, of “God-fearing” slaveowners doing their damnedest, to the point of death, to make sure that the liberating message of Jesus Christ never reach them.  I think that speaks volumes; it certainly is voluminously recorded by trained historians and not blithering hacks who, in their insistence that they’ll “never be embarrassed by the Word of God,” nevertheless embarrass themselves and the Word with their sloppy, insensitive, reckless handling thereof.

Wilson defended a practice whose birth and whose sustenance was rooted in sin, based on the Word of God, whose victory was in its viciousness, in defiance of the Word of God, and whose adoption by “Christian” patriarchs centuries after Paul’s passionate plea for Onesimus’ and Philemon’s brotherhood, which, once realized, represented the promise of the Gospel, was and continues to be despicable.  I trust that Seth sees not only the difference between pagan Roman slavery, about which Paul, living under occupation, could do nothing; Israelite slavery, which rightly practiced was an indentured servitude with a six-year limitation for the brethren; and “Christian” Southern slavery, which began with the abomination of manstealing and ended by the grace of God working through the Christian, Bible-believing abolitionists Wilson scorns as unGodly “enemies” of the Cross.

It is in that — his understanding of unGodliness — that Wilson reveals his expertise, and I pray that Seth and his thousands of other defenders and followers come to understand that soon, before their souls become too calloused to hear reason or feel the rebuke of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

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