Slavery is a barbaric institution that the human race has thankfully all but rid itself of (though human trafficking is still a problem). Though this is the case, it is my contention that if a person accepts the doctrine of inerrancy, there was/is no biblical basis to end the practice. Why do I single inerrancy out? Because it could be argued by non-inerrantists that the overall thrust and “grand narrative” of the Bible moves toward redemption and freedom (See N.T. Wright for example), but an inerrantist cannot make this sort of argument because they are bound to affirm the inspiration of every specific text. An argument from general principles will not work if it can be shown that specific texts contradict those principles. It is no secret that many people charge that the Bible supports slavery, and use this (as well as many other things) to argue against it’s divine inspiration (See Sam Harris here). In this post I will seek to show that their charge is correct and that a consistent inerrantist cannot condemn slavery.
Reformed Perspectives on Disciplining Slave Owners
In the Old School  Presbyterian general assembly of 1845, the following conclusions were reached about the relationship of Church discipline and slavery:
“The existence of domestic slavery, under the circumstances in which it is found in the southern portion of the country is no bar to Christian communion…Do the Scriptures teach that the holding of slaves, without regard to the circumstances, is a sin, the renunciation of which should be made a condition of membership in the church of Christ? It is impossible to answer this question in the affirmative without contradicting some of the plainest declarations of the Word of God. That slavery existed in the days of Christ and his Apostles is an admitted fact. That they did not denounce the relation as sinful, as inconsistent with Christianity; that slaveholders were admitted to membership in the churches organized by the Apostles; that whilst they were required to treat their slaves with kindness, and as rational, accountable, and immortal beings, and if Christians, as brethren in the Lord, they were not commanded to emancipate them; that slaves were required to be obedient to their masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, with singleness of heart as unto Christ, are facts which meet the eye of every reader of the New Testament. This Assembly cannot, therefore, denounce the holding of slaves as necessarily a heinous and scandalous sin, calculated to bring upon the Church the curse of God, without charging the Apostles of Christ with conniving as such sin, introducing into the Church such sinners, and thus bringing upon them the curse of the Almighty…since Christ and his inspired Apostles did not make the holding of slaves a bar to communion, we, as a court of Christ, have no authority to do so” .
From the point of view of scripture, was this pronouncement of the assembly right? Did (does?) the church have the authority to call slavery sin and to discipline its members accordingly? There are two main objections to this pronouncement:
- Slavery is always a sin unless God positively commands or allows it (The OT)
- 1 Timothy 1:10 condemns slavery in the NT period
I will come back to these as I unpack their argument. The first thing that must be noted is that the statement argues exclusively from the data of the New Testament. The assembly was well aware that God had encouraged Israel to purchase people from the nations around them to become their property as slaves for life, and they could be passed down to their children as inherited property (See Leviticus 25). However, they were interested in what the responsibility of the church was in a non-theocratic context. First, they point out that it is an obvious fact that slavery was a reality during the time of the early Church. Why does this matter? Because we can observe how the apostles deal with slavery when it is not from the positive command of God. As the Assembly notes, slavery, or the relationship between slave and master, is never denounced as a sinful relationship or institution. Nowhere is it implied that this is inconsistent with Christianity. When we read the New Testament, we find that masters are commanded to be kind to their slaves, not release them. In addition, slaves are always commanded to obey their masters and accept their lot. What else do we see when we look at the New Testament? Paul commands the saints who are in Ephesus  to stop threatening their slaves because Jesus is the ruler of both slave and Christian master . Similarly, the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae  are to treat their slaves fairly since even the masters have a master in heaven . Paul explicitly tells slaves that their Christian masters are brothers . Philemon, a Christian slaveholder, is called a fellow worker . Paul then returns Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. But to what end? Philemon is not requested to set Onesimus free, but…to love him, and to see in the converted slave his brother in Christ . What does this mean? It means slaveholders were admitted into membership in the churches of the Apostles. They are regularly addressed as part of the congregations. Why is this so important? It is possible to justify the slavery (and many other things) in the Old Testament by arguing that outside of the positive command of God, these things are always wrong. But if the Apostles admitted slave-owners into the church, that means that owning slaves in a “non positive command” context is not considered an unrepentant sin. This is why the statement concludes by saying that the church does not have the authority to bar from membership those whom the Apostles allowed in under analogous conditions. What of 1 Timothy 1:10? Paul includes kidnappers in one of his lists of sins . But why is this surprising, and how does it prove that slavery is wrong? The Old Testament law said that kidnappers should be put to death , while allowing for the type of slavery in Leviticus 25 and for virgin women to be taken as plunder. Obviously the law has a very narrow meaning regarding what constitutes as kidnaping. Kidnapping in this context, and in Pauls context, is the stealing of someone else’s slave or the false sale of a freeman . There is no reason to think that Paul is suddenly expanding the meaning of the biblical concept of kidnapping, especially considering the fact that slaveholding is not considered an unrepentant sin to be disciplined. Given all of this data, on what authority could a consistent inerrantist living in the south bar slave-owners from church membership? On what authority could they be disciplined for owning slaves if they treated them according to Pauline instructions? Does the church have the authority to discipline someone for something that the Bible does not say is sin? This is the dilemma for the consistent inerrantist, and one reason among many that I find this way of looking at the Bible untenable.
- A group led by Charles Hodge that was skeptical of revivalism and was concerned with the “spirituality of the church”
- Quoted In: John Murray, Principles of Conduct, Appendix D
- Ephesians 1
- Ephesians 6
- Colossians 1
- Colossians 4
- 1 Timothy 6
- Jac J Muller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon, P. 169
- See the NASB translation
- Exodus 21:16
- Calvin’s Complete Commentaries, 1 Timothy 1:10