Authority: The Example of Slavery

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Authority. Click here to see the entire series.


An argument that is advanced more than any other against what has been written above is that none of the New Testament writers ever told Christians that they could not be members of the Roman state.  Soldiers were not told to resign their commissions.  Tax collectors, minor governors, and other officials were never instructed that they were in sin.  Jesus had nothing to say about holding appointed office in the Roman state.  What is more, Paul used his citizenship to his advantage by appealing his criminal case to Caesar!  How could it be wrong to be a part of the state if all of these things are true?

To answer that question it is worth taking some time to consider the example of slavery.  The New Testament mentions slavery frequently.  Two passages speak directly to the issue of slavery:

I Corinthians 7: 20-21 says, “Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.  Were you called while a slave?  Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.”

Ephesians 6: 5-9 says:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eye service, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.  With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.
And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

It is fascinating that there are no specific statements anywhere in the Bible about the right of a person to not be owned by another person.  When Paul has the opportunity to discuss the topic of slavery he does not tell the slave that he has a God-given right to be free.  Neither does he tell the master to stop sinning and free his slaves.  No slave owner is ever rebuked for stealing the labor of another person nor is any slave owner ever rebuked for buying and selling human beings.

In fact, Paul does just the opposite.  Paul tells slaves to remain slaves.  Of course, if you can obtain your freedom it is better to do that.  But if you can’t, be content with your status as a slave.  Furthermore, Paul instructs masters to be good masters but he does not tell them to stop being masters.  Being a slave master never shows up on any of the lists of sins that need to be avoided.  In all respects, the Bible seems to wholeheartedly endorse the institution of slavery.

I suspect that, with very few exceptions, Evangelicals are united in their belief that slavery is a sin.  There might be a rare individual somewhere who would be willing to try and argue that slavery does not violate the moral law of God but I don’t think he would have much of a following.  The reaction of most modern Christians to the institution of slavery is one of abhorrence.  Evangelicals argue that slavery is the sin of theft in that it steals the labor of another human being.  They also argue that it is the sin of kidnapping in that it steals another human being.  They point out that slavery reduces other human beings to the status of mere property, this fact being in no way consistent with the reality that man is made in the image of God.  Evangelicals universally conclude that men have a God-given right to be free and cannot be owned, traded, or forced to work for any man.

Now this raises an interesting problem.  How can it be that slavery is such a heinous sin and yet it is endorsed by the New Testament?   One of two things must be true.  Either Evangelicals are mistaken and slavery is not a sin.  Or, slavery is a sin and the Church has, through time, advanced biblical theology past the point of development that existed at the time of the writing of the New Testament.  I conclude that the second option is correct.

Believing that the Church has learned how to apply the truths of the Bible to the culture in which it lives on an increasing basis through time is not the same thing as saying that God is giving new revelation.  The extant revelation of God contained in the Bible is complete, inerrant, infallible, and entirely sufficient for all matters of faith and practice.  There is no new revelation.  Understanding that slavery is a sin does not constitute a new revelation.  However, it does not follow that because the Bible is sufficient for all matters of life that Christians have figured out all of the areas of life that the Bible speaks to.  No doubt there are many areas of life that need greater illumination from the Word of God.

Recognizing that the Church has come to realize that slavery is a sin is not difficult for a modern believer to understand.  The modern believer has lived all his life in a world where that fact  is presupposed to be true.  However, for the vast majority of Christians throughout the history of the world, it would have been very difficult.  They lived in a world in which slavery was presupposed to be a legitimate institution.  The United States fought a bloody civil war, in part over the issue of whether slavery was a sin.  Southern Christians argued vehemently that slavery was not sin.  They pointed out that Paul never said that it was.  They pointed out that Paul actually endorsed the institution of slavery.  But they were wrong.

Those who first argued that slavery was sin were no doubt considered to be lunatics.  Undoubtedly they were told that their utopian worldview could never come to pass.  It won’t work, they were told.  It will change the nature of society too much, others said.  Most certainly they were told to focus their efforts on something that could have some immediate practical impact rather than talking about something that could never come to pass.  It is a very good thing that they did  not listen to their critics.

Many of the applications of the doctrine of authority to the world in which we live seem as dubious as the belief that slavery is a sin once seemed.  But those who believe that are wrong.  A doctrine is not wrong simply because it is difficult to conceive.  A doctrine is not wrong simply because it seems to “ideal”.  A doctrine is not wrong simply because it makes people feel bad, irritable, or agitated.   A doctrine is only wrong if it can be shown to be inconsistent with the Bible.  The example of slavery illustrates that it is possible for the Church to come to realize that something is true that was not specifically addressed at the time of the writing of the New Testament.

The doctrine of authority and its application to the world is that type of situation.  The desire of a Christian to not be bound by an oath to an immoral state is not a pipe dream.  Refusing to take an oath to bind the conscience and force the believer into the worldly mold of an immoral state is not an unreasonable or utopian behavior.  The job of the modern believer is to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which  is good and acceptable and perfect.”  (Romans 12:2)

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