If you were with us last Sunday you’ll recall we dealt with the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar their slave from Genesis 16. In the sermon I made the claim that the Bible never endorses slavery, and I thought I’d say a little more about why I think that’s true. This is an issue that seems to come up every now and then; one of the more famous cases was a few years back when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd claimed we couldn’t listen to the Bible on marriage because we don’t listen to the Bible’s pro-slavery stance.
Let me make three quick points.
1. The Bible is not a book full of examples and instructions on how to live. Often when I talk to people without a Christian background about the Bible, I realise pretty quickly they have the wrong idea about it. People assume it’s a list of rules, a list of instructions on how to live life, a list of examples to follow. The truth is a bit more complex than that; the Bible is a record of God’s dealings with a broken world and broken people. The more you read it the more you realise the only truly good person in the Bible is God. Just because someone does something in the Bible (e.g. Abraham owning a slave) does not automatically make that thing a ‘right’ thing. Of course, the Bible does tell us about how to live a good life, but it takes a bit more work to understand it’s message.
2. The Bible is happy to give instructions for living amongst brokenness. In the Old Testament you’ll find rules around how to treat slaves. In the New Testament you’ll find people like Paul giving instructions for how slaves should conduct themselves and how slave masters should treat their slaves. Is any of this the Bible endorsing slavery? It’s tricky isn’t it, but I would say the Bible is realistic, and understands that the world is full of brokenness, and so it gives instructions for how to live in various broken situations. Sure, it would be better if slavery was never there in the first place, but the people that Paul wrote too, for example, were not the sort of people with the power to change these things. They were mostly just ordinary people who had no choice but to live in the broken world that they lived in. And so the Bible gives instructions for how to live that kind of life.
3. The Bible does speak against slavery. While the Bible doesn’t include essays on the ethics of slavery or anything like that, there are clear indicators that the Bible understands slavery to be wrong. In Genesis 1 and 2 we see that all humans are made in God’s image and so we have a fundamental reason for human equality. In ancient times when selling oneself into slavery was a good option for those who faced financial ruin, the Bible put limits on how long a slave could be kept and opened opportunities for freedom. In the New Testament, Paul spoke out against his culture and called on slave masters to treat slaves with respect, and in Philemon even asks a Christian slave owner to welcome back a runaway slave as a brother. It’s for these reasons that through the centuries Christians have often been at the forefront of anti-slavery movements.
As we think about these things it’s worth remembering that slavery is not just an issue of the past. There are millions of people in various forms of slavery around the world today. Genesis 16 reminded us that God sees these people, and cares about them, and it’s important that we see them too.
*There’s obviously much more we could say on this issue, and more questions we could ask, such as ‘why doesn’t the Bible come out stronger against slavery?’ If you’d like to think more, Rebecca Mclaughlin has a great chapter in her book ‘Confronting Christianity’, which Cameron has advertised at Digging Deeper this week.
Associate Pastor | Trinity Church Brighton
Day off Thursdays