But What Would That Look Like?

David Burchard Christian Ethics, Writings Leave a Comment

In a previous article, I argued that slavery was a legitimate economic institution. By this, I mean that slavery itself is not inherently sinful, but is an economic institution able to be practiced righteously. The core of my argument is that Paul, the apostle who had no tolerance for sin in the churches of God, did not condemn slave masters in the church at Ephesus, but rather charged them to be righteous masters. This assumes that being a slave master and being righteous can be done together, simultaneously. The two pursuits are not mutually exclusive. Obviously, it is possible to be an unrighteous slave master, one who denies the humanity of his slaves in the way he treats them. And the disparity of authority in the institution means that damage done by abuse of authority is heightened. But owning a human, and having them work for you without monetary compensation, is not an image-of-God-in-man denial. The amount of money given in exchange for work or a service is no statement of human value. My boss is paid much more than I am paid, yet everyone in the company knows he and I are equally men under God. This principle means that a salary can be increased to a gazillion or decreased to nada without ever a statement of humanity being made.

A friend of mine who is currently in full-time pastoral ministry read my argument and was persuaded. But he was left with a question: If it is possible to righteously practice slavery, in a way that honors man as bearing the image of God, what would that look like? Can a positive picture be set forth?

Most Americans who think about slavery think about the abuses found within the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, a trade that was often fueled by manstealing and marked by obvious denials of the dignity of human life. Men and women were packed into the bottoms of ships to sit in their own filth for months. Marriages were ignored. Physical and sexual abuse went unpunished. Murder was treated flippantly. Lies were promoted that said God had genetically made a category of human as inhuman, fit only for a life of slavery, etc. These abusive actions are married to the institution in the minds of most American thinkers.

So the question remains, what would a righteous practice of slavery look like? Well, not surprisingly, God has not left us in the dark on this one. We can find an answer to our question in the Bible. Ephesians 6 is not the only place in the Bible that calls for righteousness in the slavery institution. In Exodus 21, God outlines the way slavery was to be practiced among his Old Covenant people. Now, while members of the New Covenant are not under the law of the Old Covenant, we should not think of the details of that law as a product of barbarism and ignorance, as if antiquity necessarily means unelevated thought. That would certainly be an unChristian, pagan way of thinking. No, all the details of the Old Covenant law are from the perfect God. All the details are part of what it meant for his people in that era to love him and love each other. All the details, therefore, are the fruit of wisdom and the practical demands of love. Thus, it is not outlandish even for a progressive covenantalist like myself to look to the Old Covenant law on this question and learn from the example provided.

Righteous Principles in a High-Risk Relationship:

  1. There was a built-in mechanism for the release of a slave on the 7th year, meaning that permanent submission to an unjust and malevolent ruler was not required by law. This aligns with the reality that slavery is an economic status, not a reflection of nature.
    1. Exodus 21:2, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.”
  2. In the context of some humans really and truly being owned by other humans, the marriage covenant was to be recognized and honored.
    1. Exodus 21:3-4, “If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone.”
  3. The benevolent master, he who wields his tremendous authority with the good of those under him in mind, was rewarded for his benevolence. In other words, righteousness was incentivized, as a slave was able to voluntarily give himself permanently to his master.
    1. Exodus 21:5-6, “But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”
  4. Commitments made between master and slave were to be carried out, fulfilled—precisely because the slave was recognized as a human, with dignity. The consequence of failing to fulfill marital commitments to a female slave was her redemption or free release.
    1. Exodus 21:7-11, “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”
  5. The murder of a slave by his master was to be punished as murder. So ownership of a life on the part of the master was not free license to take that life—for he did not create that life and is therefore not the fundamental owner of it.
    1. Exodus 21:20-21, “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
  6. Corporal punishment and discipline, far from being denounced in Scripture, is cited as having good use. That said, a master was required to be moderate in any corporal punishment, for if he was immoderate and hurt his slave severely, that slave was to be freed.
    1. Exodus 21:26-27, “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.”
  7. Convicted thieves, who were unable to appropriately repay the offended,  were to be sold as slaves, demonstrating that slavery can be entered in involuntary ways and can be used as a societally productive alternative to debtor’s prison.
    1. Exodus 22:3, “He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.”

In answer to my friend, I point to Exodus 21 as providing us with a codified example of how slavery can be practiced in a righteous manner. Seven principles are laid out that, if strictly enforced, wisely guard against abuses that deny men the dignity they are owed. Add to these principles the command for Christian slave masters to do their slaves good. Because slavery is an economic institution with significantly high authority disparity, good laws regulating it must be in place and enforced, so that when abuses come, as abuses always do in a world under the assault of man’s sin, they will be struck by justice’s solid blow.

Why does this discussion matter? For a fuller explanation of both why I believe what I believe and why it matters, read my previous article. But I will briefly write to the import of the matter here. These questions matter because many Christians take their presuppositions about morality and so impose them upon God’s Word, the Bible, that they insist upon the text saying something it doesn’t say, failing to wrestle with the Scripture on its own terms. This is inappropriate. We Christians are creatures in our Father’s world. Morality, goodness, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness are all determined by him. Far be it from us to try to overrule his perfect truth and wisdom. Far be it from us to be embarrassed by the ways and words of our Father!

Writing about this topic, specifically in the way I do, is likely to get me “blackballed” in some circles (I will be planted in the ground long before I have the opportunity to run in every circle). But the threatenings of the thought police are not to deter the people of God. While fallible teachers of God’s Word must always be open to Biblical correction, antagonism that doesn’t deal with the argumentation, but rather seeks to intimidate and eliminate careful and open Biblical thought and discussion, is quite honestly to be disdained and ignored. The righteous are to be as bold as lions. The world has enough cookie-cutter lemmings. It needs more men of courage and conviction, who don’t give a monkey’s offal if what they believe offends folks. Be zealous for God, His truth, and the real, robust good of your neighbors.

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