Saturday, August 19, 2006

Paul on Slavery

Tom Gilson, in comments in the prior post, said this:

The Ephesians passage on slavery recognized or acknowledged the fact of slavery. It does not approve or condone it. In the historical situation, those who were slaves needed moral guidance appropriate to their circumstance, which is what you find in the passage.

I think the matter important enough to warrant its own post, for I think that what Tom says is what many inerrantist would (and have) said.

Let us have the passage from Ephesians again:

6:5-9: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

I believe that Tom's view falls prey to a decisive refutation. Paul does not simply recognize that slavery in fact exists. If that was all that he did, then of course nothing he said would entail that he tacitly condoned it. Rather Paul tells slaves and masters how they are to act, and this does entail that he must condone, if only tacitly, the institution of slavery. The argument is really quite simple. To make it, I'll build upon the analogy of rape. Let us say that I come to know that a certain acquaintance is a serial rapist. I might do a number of things. If a good man, I would report him. If a heartless man, I might do nothing. If an evil man, I might give him advice on how best to carry out his next rape. Indeed it seems that we have a tight relation between approval and advice. If I give you advice about how to do a thing, I thereby condone what you do; and if I think that you ought not do a thing, I ought not give you advice about how to do it.

Paul gives advice to masters and to slaves. Thus he must condone slavery, if only tacitly.

Let me drive the point home. There is simply no right way for a rapist to act, for rape is always and everywhere impermissible. Indeed the always and everywhere impermissibility of rape entails that there's no right way to rape a woman. Just so, the always and everywhere impermissibility of slavery entails that there's no right way to take or hold a slave. But Paul tells slave-owners how they are to treat their slaves and thus assumes that there's a right way to treat slaves. Thus again we must conclude that Paul condones slavery.

Wouldn't it be absurd to say some such thing as this:

Rapist, do right unto your victim. Do not kill or maim her. Do not make her shame known to men.

Of course it would. Why would it be absurd? Rape is always and everywhere an evil, and thus there's no right way to do it. Just so, slavery is always and everywhere evil and thus there's no right way to do it.

Paul was quite indisputably wrong. He was a great man, likely better than any today. But in this matter his moral vision was clouded. He should have condemned slavery instead of give out advice about how masters and slaves should treat one another.


C Grace said...


I think that comparing slavery to rape is a bad moral judgement. There is a hiearchy of sins Do you not think that some sins are absolutely forbidden because they cause a huge amount of irrepairable damage -like murder and rape. While other sins, while not being ultimately acceptable, do not require the same level of immediate action. (Like divorce for example - it is wrong and damaging but not so wrong it should be treated with the same absolutism as rape) Pual sees slavery in the latter category.

In Ephesians, Paul, recognizing the limits of his authority and influence responds one way, but read Philemon. Here Paul explicitely asks Philemon to free his slave Onesimus and treat him as a brother. (vs 16)

Franklin Mason said...


I did not mean to place rape and slavery in the same class. Rather I meant to show only that, if one gives advice to another about how to do a thing, one thereby thinks it permissible. The rape example, it seems to me, shows this quite nicely; and my plea is that, though the two might not be morally on a par, yet me must say about both that, if one gives advice about how to do it, one thereby makes known that one thinks it permissible.

For what it's worth, I do not see my way clearly when I attempt to compare the moral evils of rape and slavery. (Again, I made no claim in my post about this matter.) What's worse - a woman's rape or a life of slavery? I have a guess about what most would prefer, but I'm hesitant to express it for fear that I'll be told that I cannot possibly make judgments about the former.

Moreover, I think it clear that slavery is the sort of evil that does require, as you say, 'immediate action'. It is much worse than divorce.

Last, I was aware of the passage in Ephesians. It is speculation to draw the conclusion that Paul there thought the institution of slavery impermissible in all cases. Perhaps Onesimus was special in some way; and moreover it seems to me that we have the clear evidence that I cited before which shows that Paul thought slavery, at least in some cases, permissible.

C Grace said...

I would contend that Paul probably puts slavery on the moral level of those things that do not require immediate action. So yes I guess you could say he believes it permissible, though not good in an absolute sense.

"Moreover, I think it clear that slavery is the sort of evil that does require, as you say, 'immediate action'."

This is exactly where you differ with Paul- and I agree that you should differ with Paul as you will see below.

When, after Jesus condemned divorce, the pharisees asked him why God gave commands about how a divorce should proceed in the OT, Jesus replied, "God allowed it because your hearts were hard." The idea here is that God accepts the human race where we are.(although he does not leave us where we are). I would contend that in Paul's day slavery fell under this same 'judgement' by God. He allowed it and gave commands concerning it, because their hearts were hard. The first Christians had more important moral issues to deal with such as changing individuals. God changes things from the bottom up. The pagan worldview had to be uprooted, and the authority of His Church established, before any major cultural changes such as getting rid of the instituition of slavery could take place.

This however, does not give us an excuse to defend slavery. Our culture is such that we know better (our hearts are not hard- God has changed them) and therefore we must judge differently then 1st century Christians.

Franklin Mason said...

I've given your response a bit of thought on and off over the past week, and I've come the conclusion that I should blunt my criticism of Paul in the way you suggest.

But notice that we then seem committed to a certain liberal principle of Biblical interpretation: that the Bible gives commands about how to do a thing does not imply that the Bible condones that thing. Instead, it might be that the thing, whatever it is, contradicts the fundamental moral/spiritual principles at work in the Bible and ought on those grounds be rejected.

Perhaps we should say the same about the role of women within the Bible. We are told, among other things, that women should defer to men and that they should be silent within church. Perhaps this simply reflects the de facto status of women within society at the time and should not be taken by us now as reason to deny women a place of leadership in either the home or church.

My point is this: if you're right about in your interpretation of Paul on slavery, we cannot any longer interpret Scipture in the sort of paricularist way so common among Evangelicals. We can't just hunt for isolated verses about a thing and on their basis make our judgment. Rather we must know what the heart of the Biblical message is and makes our judgments based upon that.