Monday, 23 November 2015

Does God Allow Us To Keep Slaves? (New Testament)

The slavery debate has been settled in our society for a good while now. We know it's wrong to take a person and keep them as property that we can do whatever we want with. Thankfully slavery is now illegal after a lot of hard fighting by people including Christians like Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce.

But some people think that the Bible allows or even commands us to keep slaves. If that's the case that seems to mean that God of the Bible is less than perfect morally. Fortunately for us, God, Jesus, and the Bible do not allow keeping slaves. So there's your short answer.

How about a slightly longer answer? Try these:
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28
In Jesus' ideal world, all people are equally important. If everyone is meant to be equal, then slaves are a complete no-no.
"For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body--whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." 1 Corinthians 12:13
Just to reiterate a point...
And finally, in case so far it sounds like the New Testament is OK with slavery because one day slaves won't exist any more, here's an Old Testament verse to put it all in perspective:
"Anyone who kidnaps and sells another person must be put to death. If they still have the person with them when they are caught, they must be put to death." Exodus 21:16
The trouble I think most people have with seeing passages in the Bible about slavery is that they read them through 21st century eyes. For most of us, our understanding of slavery is completely based on the image of black people being taken from their homes in Africa and forced into hard labour by rich white people. They were seen as property, no better than livestock, and had no respect or rights. They were considered sub-human. When we hear the word 'slave', we think of the worst type of slavery, because that's what we're familiar with. We can call this kind of slavery 'chattel slavery'. Sounds a bit like cattle, if it helps you remember. (The word 'chattel' is derived from 'cattle' anyway).
But the above verse from Exodus clearly says that taking someone and holding them as property to be sold is wrong. If that doesn't describe slavery as we know it, I don't know what does.

In the Bible, several different words have been variously translated to mean 'slave', although closer inspection (e.g. the fact that we have lots of different words) shows that not all slaves are chattel.

Paul the Apostle was quite clearly against slavery. In 1 Timothy, he lists several of the worst crimes. Among them is 'andrapodistais', which translates to kidnapping or man-stealing or enslaving. In his letter to Philemon, Paul tries to convince the rich man to treat his bondservant Onesimus as an equal, and even hints that he should set him free. It's clear that the attitude Paul teaches about slavery is that people should not be seen as possessions and definitely not less than human.

The Greek word used in the New Testament (e.g. Corinthians and Galatians above) which has been translated to 'slave' in several English versions is 'doulos' (δοῦλος ). This word means 'bondsman', and is more closely related to our modern concept of a servant than a slave. Paul, Timothy, James, Peter, and Jude all describe themselves as "bondservants of Christ" (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; James 1.1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1).
Bondsmen were very common in ancient cultures. People needed employment, and often needed ways to get out of debt. One of the best ways for poorer people to get work was to become a bondsman/bondswoman.
If someone was in debt, they could have their debts paid off by someone with wealth. The bondsman would then have to work for that person until the debt was paid off. While they were working for the rich person, they would have all their food, clothes, and living needs provided for them. When a bondsman had been working for a Hebrew for seven years, they had to be offered freedom. For a lot of people, being a bondsman was a much better option than remaining a peasant in poverty. It was job security and a guarantee of having their needs met. A bondsman could choose to stay a bondsman for life if they wanted to, and many did.
It's really not all that different to the way people today go to work 9-5 (often doing things that they hate) so that they can make sure they have a roof over their heads and enough meals on the table.
Bondservants could be bought and sold, but so can modern day sports players.
A lot of translations tend to use the word 'servant' instead of 'slave' for 'doulos' because it is a better fit. 'Doulos' could quite accurately describe what Alfred's relation is to Bruce Wayne.
What you can take from this is that God does allow contracted employment. I'm sure many people nowadays would love to be guaranteed work and comfortable living for seven years.
"And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." Mark 9:35
Like in the above verse from Mark, the New Testament Greek also sometimes uses the word diakonos (διάκονος) to mean 'servant', which has evolved to become the English word 'deacon'. It's original meaning was 'someone who performs a service'. So whenever you get a haircut, your barber is your diakonos. You don't own them, but they are working for you. Also used are 'oikétēs' (οἰκέτης), which means 'household servant' and 'therapón' (θεράπων) which means 'attendant'. These words are never translated into 'slave' in English, so it's clear that there's a difference between simply working for someone, and being a bondsman. Being a bondsman ties you to your master legally, where the other types of servants are free to leave their jobs.

In the English versions of the New Testament, when slavery is mentioned it is referring to bondservants. Being employed means having a job. That job can end when the employer or employee decides, or when work runs out. Being a bondservant means being employed, but also being committed to a contract that can't be broken. The master was just as tied in as the servant. Masters and their bondservants had to have mutual respect - they were stuck together for at least seven years. If the master didn't have work for the servant, he still had the duty to keep him safe. It's not about ownership. It's about mutual trust, working together, and fulfilling a contract.
It's not surprising then that the word bondservant is often used to describe the relationship of Christians to God. Jesus paid the debt for all humans, so Christians are meant to work as God wills, and in return he will provide comfort for eternity.
"Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven." Colossians 4:1
Nowadays we have an image of slavery being people chained up and forced to work in the jobs that no one else would ever want. But in ancient times, again it was a different story. Slaves could be anything from farmers and builders to doctors or teachers, depending on what their master had bought them for.

It's pretty obvious from what is said in the New Testament that chattel slavery is wrong. So why is it not obvious to many people reading it? Paul makes it clear in 1 Timothy that taking people and enslaving them against their will is wrong, and he echoes the law in Exodus. Jesus says in 'Luke 4: 18-19' that he wants captives (aichmalotois) to be free. A bondservant is not a captive, but a chattel slave is. It might not be repeated very often, but it's quite clearly there.
Part of the confusion is clearly about what bondservants are. A bondservant is in a contract with a master. A master can trade contracts with other masters, so we might see people being bought and sold as though they are possessions, but really it's no different to modern day football team managers trading their players.
You could even say that all of us today are bondservants to our governments. We have to work and earn our homes, food, and things, and we have to pay them taxes for the privilege. Do they own us? Do they have complete control over us? I guess that's a whole debate in itself, but we generally consider ourselves free people.
All in all, being a bondservant is completely different to being a chattel slave, which is why Jesus, Paul, and the rest don't condemn it, but simply urge people to have the right attitudes towards it.

Another part of the confusion is the difficulty in translating ancient Greek into English. They had plenty of words for various types of servant, but the word 'doulos' sometimes looks on the face of it as though it can mean either 'bondservant' or 'chattel slave'.

Of course the Greeks had a word that clearly meant a slave who was subhuman property. This makes it obvious that there's a difference between chattel slaves and bondsmen.

The most commonly used word for slaves in ancient Greek was 'andrapodon' (ἀνδράποδον) which literally means 'one with the feet of a man' which compares humans to 'tetrapodon' (τετράποδον) which means 'quadruped' referring to livestock. Calling a human being a 'two-legged animal' is pretty much identical to our modern day chattel (cattle) slavery!
Although this word doesn't appear in the Bible, we have already seen that 'andrapodistais', (or making someone into an andrapodon) is strongly condemned.

So the Bible clearly says chattel slavery is wrong, but voluntary lifelong service is fine.
  • doulos (δοῦλος) = bondsman
  • diakonos (διάκονος) = servant
  • oikétēs (οἰκέτης) = household servant
  • therapón (θεράπων) = 'attendant' also used by Homer to mean 'squire'
  • dmos (δμώς) = a general word for a male slave or servant taken in war
  • dmoi (δμωή) = a general word for a female slave or servant taken in war
  • aichmalótos (αἰχμάλωτος) captive: condemned in Luke 4:18-19
  • andrapodistais (ἀνδραποδισταῖς) = kidnapping/enslaving: condemned in 1 Timothy 1:10
  • andrapodon' (ἀνδράποδον) = slave - literally human cattle: condemned in 1 Timothy 1:10
It really is completely vital that when we read the Bible, that we look at it in the way it was intended to be read. It doesn't work to try and put 21st century understanding into it.
So even if some Bibles use the word 'slave' instead of 'bondsman' or 'servant', we should understand it in context of the original language and the ancient culture. We have to read it as though we were one of them.

J.P.Holding explains this final point really well:
Nor will it do to argue that the "Word of God should be perfect at all times and in all circumstances." If this is how "perfection" is to be understood -- if the Bible is supposed to be prepared for our every change in natural understanding of unalterable data -- then all we'd have to do to make the Bible "wrong" is change our terminology on things.
In other words, if the Bible says, "the sky is blue," we can change our definition of what is "blue" and then say that the Bible is wrong. So would it be seriously suggested that the Bible might have to say, for example:
This is what the Lord says: "The sky is blue -- although Joe Padooski, living in 1874 AD, will define this as others would define 'green' and he will call the color in question 'Fred'."
Those who make this sort of complaint don't want answers. The objection has no legitimacy.