Excusing OT slaveryAugust 21, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
From my backlog file again, here’s Chuck Colson responding to Russell Glasser’s charge that God behaved immorally by condoning the practice of slavery in Old Testament Israel. Colson’s first response is to argue that God was just going with the flow. And besides, it was Old Testament, not new, so it doesn’t really count.
I also cannot justify the words of the Old Testament. It was a recognition by God to His covenant people of a practice that was wide-spread at that time in every culture, that His people would encounter. But it is in no way carried forward into the New Testament… To the contrary, as I pointed out in the book, portions of the New Testament condemn slave-trading, and the position of the church has been very consistent through the years… It is because we believe strongly that every human being is created in the image of God, and thus at every stage of life, regardless of race, color or creed, every human being is entitled to full God-given dignity.
Colson is wrong on at least 8 counts.
First of all, the Old Testament in general, and the Law of Moses in particular, does not limit itself to merely “recognizing” that a lot of cultures practiced slavery back then. According to Exodus, God not only gave His people permission to own slaves themselves, He told them how to go about doing it. For example, in Exodus 21:2-11, God allegedly instructs Israel on how to ensure that a slave’s children belong to the slavemaster from birth, how to use a slave’s family ties to force him to choose between remaining a slave and abandoning his loved ones, and further instructs fathers on how to sell their daughters into sexual slavery. Subsequent verses describe how a master can beat a slave to death and not be guilty of murder. Far from being a mere recognition that Gentiles might have slaves, Exodus promotes and perpetuates slavery from within Israel, with the imprimatur of God’s own Law to enforce it.
Secondly, there were plenty of things that were commonly practiced at the time, including polytheism, working on Saturdays and leaving your children’s genitals intact. If we take the Old Testament at face value, God had no qualms about demanding radical changes regarding things He allegedly cared about, and would not hesitate to impose the death penalty should any Israelite fail to give up his or her old habits to suit God’s demand. Whatever peer pressure might be exerted by common Gentile customs, it is absurd to suggest that the Old Testament God ought to have been so swayed by human fads as to compromise His absolute and eternal moral standards.
Thirdly, Colson’s argument contradicts the common Christian claim that the Ten Commandments represent God’s absolute and eternal moral standards. If we are to assume that Old Testament moral standards are part of some inferior and temporary morality that was displaced by the superior morality of the New Testament, then Exodus 20 is superceded along with Exodus 21 as part of an inferior moral system. But more than that, if we agree with Colson that the Old Testament was morally inferior, how can we account for the fact that this inferior morality is portrayed as having come from God Himself? If God has a perfect and eternal moral standard, why did it fail in the giving of the Old Covenant, to the point that it has God Himself condoning and promoting (sexual) slavery?
Fourthly, slavery is carried forward into the New Testament, Colson’s denials notwithstanding. Slaves are commanded to obey their masters, submit to them, and to remain slaves (though Paul grants that if they get a chance to become free, they should take it). Paul even sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his owner Philemon. Masters, meanwhile, are commanded to treat their slaves decently and not abuse them, but nowhere is it suggested that they should set their slaves free or stop owning slaves. Nor is there any suggestion, anywhere, that there is anything wrong with owning, buying, or selling slaves.
Fifthly, Colson is really stretching a point to claim that the Bible condemns slave trading, when the verse in question merely mentions “manstealers” among a list of the wicked. That’s not a New Testament condemnation of buying or selling slaves, that’s a reference to breaking the Old Testament commandment, in Exodus 21:16, against kidnapping, whether or not the victim is subsequently sold into slavery. The crime, you see, is not slave trading per se, but rather using violence to deprive a free man of the freedom he already has. By the time the New Testament came along, there were plenty of other sources for slaves, including those born to parents who were slaves, those taken as prisoners of war, and those who were slaves that were on the market just because their masters felt like selling them. And none of that is even morally questionable, as far as anything written in the New Testament is concerned.
Sixth, while it is true that Christians have gotten involved in the march towards greater respect for human rights, the credit for this enlightenment of the conscience belongs with men, who changed their minds about slavery, and not with the apostles and prophets, and/or their God, who show no signs (in Scripture) of having done so. This is a moral improvement that ordinary, uninspired men and women have imported into the Church’s teachings, not something that they received from on high via the medium of the Body of Christ. And it’s been an uphill struggle, as witness the reluctance many people still feel about the question of whether women, also, should be entitled to equal rights. (I won’t even mention gays!)
Seventh, the Church—meaning Christian leaders and laymen as a whole—has not had a consistent position on slavery throughout history, as the New Testament itself attests. At many points in history, some parts of Christendom have embraced and defended the practice of slavery as a God-ordained institution, even as other parts opposed it. Had the South won the Civil War, Confederate Christians might today be writing about how the Church has consistently supported slavery since New Testament times. Their argument would work just like Colson’s: sift through the writings of theologians through the ages, and find someone who supports your conclusion, and say, “See? The Church has always held this view.”
And finally, if it were really true that the Church had always opposed slavery, and had done so because “we believe strongly that every human being is created in the image of God, and thus… is entitled to full God-given dignity,” then what does God’s failure to oppose slavery in Exodus tell us about what God believes? Colson holds up a standard of human rights and human dignity that ought to apply all the way back to the Creation. If God can be so hung up on dignity that He would command the death penalty for a teenager who cusses out his parents, it’s inconsistent for Him to fail to uphold the “full God-given dignity” of all those allegedly created in His image, especially when He was giving them His “perfect” moral Law.
That was what Glasser’s original point was all about, and Colson hasn’t even come close to addressing it.