In this sermon, Pastor Neil continues his series on “Whatever You Do.” Here he addresses the issue of slavery, giving some historical background and revealing what the gospel has to say about it. Here are some excerpts:
… You may wonder: “Well, why didn’t Paul and the other New Testament writers call for the abolition of slavery as it existed in the 1st century?” It is not an easy question to answer authoritatively, since Paul and Peter and the other New Testament writers do not tell us. I share with you John Stott’s answer to the question, because I think he has much wisdom and insight:
“If the New Testament does not explicitly condemn slavery, it does not condone it either. Although there have been varying degrees of degradation in slavery at different times and places, and although [African]-American slavery was worse than Roman, Roman [worse] than Greek and Greek [worse] than Hebrew, yet the Christian conscience must condemn slavery in every form. Its evil lies neither in the servitude it involves (for Jesus voluntarily made Himself a slave to others, and so did … Paul), nor even in the element of compulsion, but rather in the ownership by one human being of others which degrades them into subhuman goods to be used, exploited and traded, and in the cruelty which often accompanied this.”
There is a pragmatic reason, Stott says, why the New Testament did not advocate for the abolition of slavery: “Christians were at first an insignificant group in the Empire. Their religion was itself still unlawful, and they were politically powerless.” There were other reasons, too, such as the availability of means for Roman slaves to gain their freedom and the more humanitarian treatment of slaves in Roman society in the 1st century (Stott, 255-256).
That the relationship between a doulos and a kurios, between slaves and their masters, was a relevant issue is seen in the fact that both Paul and Peter speak directly to it. Peter speaks to Christian slaves in 1 Peter 2:18, urging them to “be good servants to your masters – not only to good masters, but also to bad ones” (MSG). That wouldn’t be easy to do, would it?
Paul, in addition to what he says in Colossians (3:22-4:1) and Ephesians (6:5-9), gives Titus instructions for Christian slaves (2:9-10). Perhaps most significant, the New Testament includes a letter from Paul to Philemon, a leader in the church at Colosse, about a runaway slave named Onesimus, whom Paul led to faith in Christ, and how this alters the landscape of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. No longer are they simply master and servant. Now they are brothers in Christ.
… Most of the followers of Jesus in the New Testament church were from the lower classes of society. But, as Paul declares in Galatians 3:26-28, writing not just to the believers in the Galatian churches but to all of us who belong to Christ: “You are all sons [and daughters] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Message says this: “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are in a common relationship with Jesus Christ” (3:28).
Do you hear that? Do you see that? It is not that distinctions of race or ethnicity or language or sex or age or social status or political influence don’t exist anymore. They still do. It is, rather, that in the church, where Jesus is Lord and every person counts, these distinctions do not matter. The ground at the foot of the cross is level. Everyone, regardless of social position, is invited to come to Jesus. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord in faith will be saved (Romans 10:13). Everyone.
Let there be no doubt that slavery in America was a stain on our national soul, a stain that remains long after the end of the institution of slavery. There is no doubt that many churches, pastors, and Christians wrongly tried to justify slavery on biblical grounds and were guilty of mistreating men, women, girls, and boys created in the image of God and endowed by God with dignity and worth.
They – those who defended slavery in America and engaged in it – were wrong. Just as anything short of opposition to racism in all its forms is wrong.
Lord, may our hearts be right with you. May our hearts be right in all our relationships and rightly understand Your Word. May we apply it rightly in every area of life.
Pastor Neil has a lot more to say about this topic. Please click on the link below to hear this sermon in its entirety.