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Slavery and Submission in the Bible: A Case for an Update

This guest post was written by our friend Kollin Fields. Readers should remember that guest posts are not considered official positions of LCI.

Christian libertarians are probably the last people in the world who need to hear how the Bible has been used in the past to defend and all sorts of evil. Because of this, Christian libertarians have a difficult task in using the Bible to explain our unique political outlook. We believe the Bible to be God’s inspired Word, inerrant and binding on our lives. That being said, Christian libertarians should not be confused with literalists or antiquated fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible means exactly what it says. When Jesus says in Matthew that if we have faith as small as a mustard seed we can move mountains, should we take this to mean that we can literally move mountains? Was Jesus saying in the Gospel of Luke that in order to become a disciple we must literally hate our mother and father?

Of course, we know that the Bible, while inerrant, is not always black and white. It is not always literal, but it is not always figurative; it is sometimes descriptive and sometimes prescriptive; it is sometimes the result of faulty translating, and on and on we could go. We bring all sorts of innate biases and experiences into our reading of the Bible, and these predispositions color the way we find application for our lives. But the fault is with us as fallible beings, not with the Bible or with God. Because of this fallibility we should all the more endeavour to read the Bible and apply its message in the way God intended. And how do we know what God intended? This is not always easy to discern. We have the Holy Spirit, the church, pastors, mentors, logic, spiritual discernment, Godly revelation, and other faculties and means to aid our understanding of the Word. And even still, sometimes we are far off the mark in understanding what something in the Bible means. Consider, for example, the way many church leaders cheer America’s wars and those perpetuating war as if this were Biblical or God’s will.

Though we could explore endless examples of church leaders in America favoring and supporting sinful politics and politicians, the most obvious should be the mass killing involved in modern warfare. For every major conflict in the United States there has been a chorus of Christians pounding the war drums right alongside their unbelieving countrymen. Most egregiously, the rise of what some have termed the “Religious Right” has led to seemingly unqualified support among some Christians for America’s aggressive wars against Communism and Radical Islam.1 This is quite a sad indictment of American evangelicalism that the Republican Party is conceived, rightly or wrongly, as both the Christian party and the war party. Whether fighting Communism during the Cold War or Islamic extremism today, the Christians supporting the State’s wars see the U.S. government and military as the means to a righteous end. Many Christians see the United States as the embodiment of Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” except instead of Puritans stamping out vice, the U.S. military is dropping bombs in the name of democracy. Recently when John McCain passed away, even many Christians joined in lamenting the passing of a “hero” and “true American.” One prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention said on Twitter that McCain was a “hero … [and] has stood up for the ideals of democracy and freedom at home and around the world.”2 Christians should surely offer grace to others as it has been given to us, but this does not mean we should remain silent while church leaders endorse a man who supported violence and warfare most of his life.3 Christians should know better than to support someone who consistently fought and advocated for unjust, unconstitutional, evil wars. The Psalmist asks God to “Trample underfoot those who lust after tribute,” and to “Scatter the peoples who delight in war.”4 Sadly, too many Christians delight in war. Their tribute is a false sense of Christian activism; instead of sharing the gospel they are sharing support for death and destruction on a massive scale. Conceivably, either these warmongering Christians have not read the Bible closely enough to know that those who take the sword will die by it5, or they have read the Bible and have grossly misinterpreted its call to be peacemakers.6 The former is perhaps ignorance, while the latter is a trap all too many Christians have fallen into at one time or another when we use the Bible to justify our sin.

Uncritical support of war is but one example of wrongly applying the Bible to suit our personal or political agenda. In an even broader sense, cheering the State’s wars is simply one of many ways some Christians support the State because they believe we are called to unequivocally obey the government. Christians, from St. Augustine to today, misapply passages of the Bible to mean that we should always support our government no matter what. If our governing authorities want to tax half of our income, we should support it; if they want to launch a war on drugs which incarcerates tens of thousands of people for victimless crimes, we should support it; if they want to send our young men and women off to fight strangers in the Middle East, we should support it. But submission to governing authorities is not a blanket commandment. There are numerous instances in the Bible of men and women acting in accordance with their faith in a way that was either disobedient or disruptive to the government. Even the Apostle Paul, the one writing about Christians’ duty to be submissive to the governing authorities, was himself ostensibly contradicting this message when he continued to preach the gospel in defiance of Roman authorities. We must remember that the Egyptian government enslaved God’s people. Herod’s government killed babies. The Roman government put Jesus Christ to death at the behest of his own people who rejected him when he didn’t fulfill their conception of an earthly Jewish kingdom.

We are called to obey Christ first, no matter what. All other authorities in our lives—family, spouses, employers, and the government—come after our allegiance to Christ. We may logically conclude then that if any earthly authorities in our lives are doing something which is contrary to God’s law, or if they are asking us to do the same, we are not under an obligation to obey. In fact, we are called to resist such ungodliness.

The difficulty in challenging the status quo is in breaking down Americans’ active and/or passive allegiance to the State. We Christian libertarians must educate others of the evil being perpetrated by the State and show how this is incompatible with our call to serve God and love others; we cannot serve two masters. If our brothers and sisters claim to be in Christ, then their highest call is to God. Their faith comes before politics. Christian libertarians, for example, are Christians first and libertarians second. In attempting to spread a libertarian message to Christians, then, I think it is useful to appeal to this primary allegiance to Christ. In other words, we persuade others to let their faith inform their politics, not the other way around. If non-libertarian Christians agree that their first loyalty is to Christ, then it becomes a matter of convincing them that peaceful interaction and voluntaryism is what God intends for our lives.

Whether they would admit it or not, most Americans and even American Christians have made an idol of the State, replete with pledges, anthems, and forced tribute in the form of taxation. They may disagree with the man or party in charge at a particular time, but would never question the holy legitimacy of the State as an institution. They combine their belief in original sin with the need for a monopolistic watchman. Like the Israelites in 1 Samuel, many Americans prefer the king they can see, to God whom they cannot.

Returning to the topic of war once more, many Christians believe that since God sanctioned wars in the Old Testament that He must, at the very least, permit them as some sort of global retribution today. While it is true that He allows modern wars (just as He allows us to freely choose sin), this does not mean He approves of wars or sanctions them as a righteous cause. Of all issues today imbued with a semi-divine impetus, it is hard to imagine a Biblical defense for the mass murdering that is modern warfare. Our Biblical understanding of war, and consequently our attitude toward it, must be updated. By “update,” we do not mean literally changing portions of the Bible. As we have said, God’s Word is inerrant; it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”7 However, inerrancy does not mean that popular understanding of a Biblical topic is inerrant. In other words, just because many Christians interpret a Biblical concept incorrectly, the original text remains infallible, it is just that the application has been distorted. For example, our understanding of slavery has of course been updated since the Apostle Paul wrote on the topic two thousand years ago. In Part II of this piece we will explore the issue of slavery in more detail, and make a case for updating our attitude toward “submission to governing authorities” just as we update our attitude toward slavery.

We no longer condone or approve slavery even though the New Testament often speaks of the duty of slaves to be obedient and subservient.8 Paul and other writers were writing at a point in history when slavery as an institution was ubiquitous. Nearly all major civilizations and people groups had either owned slaves or were enslaved themselves at one point, such as the Hebrews by the Egyptians in the Old Testament. We see then that slavery was, unfortunately, normal to authors of the Bible, and therefore their thoughts on the subject were a reflection of historical context. That being said, it would not follow that “the Bible is inerrant” so we must continue to support slavery and demand obedience from slaves. I would posit that even though we no longer condone slavery, there is application in the premise of obedience to authorities. Although it would be disingenuous to pretend Paul was writing to a twenty-first century audience living in a capitalist economy, we nonetheless see a relevance to the idea of obeying authorities in our lives whom we do not always get along with. We can honor God by being obedient to authorities, so long as the authorities are not demanding we oppose God’s law. To return, just because the Bible mentions slavery and commands slaves to be obedient, we surely would not take this to be a sweeping defense of slavery for the rest of time. This seems obvious, but has a radical implication: our understanding of certain Biblical commandments can be updated to reflect our historical context. We look at American slaveholders’ use of the Bible to defend racial slavery as abhorrent, and yet so often we refuse to reconsider our ingrained understanding of other Biblical issues.

Admitting that slavery’s inclusion in the Bible should not be used as a defense of it today is to say that some parts of it were products of its authors’ exact positions in history and were not prescriptive for posterity. If this is the case, what else could be updated while maintaining a faithful attitude the inspiration of scripture? Many Christians today are pushing for more prominent roles for women in the church. Despite the early church’s male-dominated hierarchy in the New Testament, there are those presently who believe that this too is antiquated and was not intended to govern all churches for all time. Rather than only allowing women to serve in minor roles, many are open to female pastors. My intent here is not to take a stance on this particular topic, but only to show that there are issues in the church today which challenge the traditional understanding of what the Bible says. Other points of controversy today include church membership and/or leadership roles for gay Christians; gender identity issues among churchgoers; cohabitation of unmarried Christians, and various others. We do not mean to say that because slavery is no longer tolerated, the Bible can mean anything anyone wants. Our attempt and struggle with properly understanding the text is part of what makes spiritual maturity an ongoing process. But if we were to dogmatically assert that something is “in the Bible” so it must be preserved, where would that leave something like slavery?

We see that there are issues in the Bible, such as slavery, which have been or are being updated to reflect a modern understanding. This isn’t theological liberalism run amok, it is simply the application of logical and rational principles to Biblical issues; principles to which authors writing in the first century could not have been exposed simply as a matter of historical development. Should we expect those who wrote the Bible to have seen slavery as an evil institution when even many in the United States did not see it as such until the late nineteenth century or later? It is anachronistic to impute common sense views from 2018 to those living and writing in the first century. Furthermore, Christians cannot arbitrarily isolate these contentious issues to fit their politics. Although no one today favors slavery, there are surely other issues which modern Christians would be more reluctant to reconsider. We cannot dismiss these conundrums of Biblical inerrancy by saying, “The Bible doesn’t really mean that.” We must either admit that some of these issues should be updated, such as slavery, or they should not. Since surely no one today would defend slavery on Biblical grounds, this opens the door to other issues we must confront; namely, our attitude toward governing authorities in the form of the State.

If Christians should approach these difficult areas of the Bible with a combination of Godly discernment and a modern historical context, why can we not also apply this approach to “submission to the governing authorities”? Too many Christians believe that everything the government does is in some way justified or authorized by God. This is the result of a selective interpretation of Biblical passages such as Romans 13 which at first glance seem to demand submission to all governing authorities for all time. We cannot pretend that the text does not call for us to submit to the governing authorities, but like much else, this must be contextualized. As discussed previously, we cannot take something from the Bible and, simply as a result of its inclusion in the Word, assume that it is a blanket Statement and intended for everyone, everywhere, for all time. If I cannot literally move mountains with my faith, should I still submit to all governing authorities at all times, regardless of the activities of those authorities?

Christians must update their understanding of Biblical submission to reflect the political world we live in. Granted, at the time Paul wrote this passage in Romans the early Christians were being persecuted by Nero. But again, we must assess whether his instructions to the early church were a sweeping command for all Christians throughout all time, or simply Paul’s attempt to keep the fledgling church alive. Regardless, there are certain historical events in which we would not so simply tell those being persecuted to abide by the call to submit. Would we say the American colonists were breaking God’s law by seceding from the British empire? Were Northerners sinning by failing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act? Were those involved in the plot to kill Hitler failing to uphold Romans 13? These are weighty questions indeed.

To conclude, the point is not that the Bible can mean whatever we want it to mean. On the contrary, we believe the Bible is inerrant. A true understanding of the text and a proper application of its message should be our goal. The Bible should inform our politics and not the other way around. Our libertarianism, or conservatism, or liberalism will not save us from the penalty of our sins. For those of us in Christ we go through life under the covenant of God’s grace, attempting earnestly to know God and know his Word. All the while, we cannot pretend that the words in the Bible are as straightforward as many would have us believe. We cannot sit idly by while today’s metaphorical slave owner’s whip others into submission under the false pretense of Biblical authority. For Christians, the ends should never justify the means. Shall we continue sinning so that grace may abound? By no means. I submit then that if the State is predicated on sinful means – violence, theft, and murder – no end it brings about can be considered worth the price paid to achieve it. God is the only one who can redeem us and redeem the world’s brokenness. If it be His will, He uses us in this redemptive process, but our hope is not in earthly governments. We await a new heaven and a new earth.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
1 Samuel 8:4-18 (ESV)

Endnotes

  1. For a study of the Religious Right see Daniel Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010).
  2. https://twitter.com/drmoore/status/1033515000781066242?s=21
  3. https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/john-mccain-foreign-policy-even-worse-bush
  4. Psalm 68:30.
  5. Matthew 26:52.
  6. Romans 12:18; Matthew 5:9.
  7. 2 Timothy 3:16.
  8. Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-24; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:18; Titus 2:9-10.

Kollin Fields is currently a PhD student and holds a Master’s Degree in History from Sam Houston State University. He may be reached at kollinfields.com where he writes on topics of libertarianism and Christianity. He resides with his family in Dallas, Texas.

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