Notepad Apologetics, Short Lesson #5 (part 3): Slavery and the Bible

Rick Mattson Apologetics, Bible, Church 2 Comments

In my last post I presented the idea of God as a gradualist. He works on social reforms incrementally — at the speed of humanity rather than the speed of divinity. The incarnation is the ultimate example of God “walking at our pace.”

This post is about God’s work on the problem of slavery.

Main Point: The Bible shows forward progress on slavery and thus points ahead to an ideal of freedom and equality, but without realizing that ideal in its own time period. 

  1. The Bible takes as a starting point the cultures of the ancient world, where slaves were treated brutally.
  2. The Bible then significantly upgrades the conditions for slaves in ancient Israel and the church, providing them with sabbath rest, seventh-year release (for some), restraints on harsh treatment, refuge for runaways, and judgment against traders. This puts the Bible out ahead of the cultures of its day.*
  3. But slavery is still not eradicated. That is left to us. God is still working on the problem of slavery, and he’s called the church to be his primary instrument of reform.

Redemptive-movement: This gradual way of working on social problems is sometimes called a redemptive-movement because it takes the “redemptive” spirit of the biblical texts and projects it forward (the “movement”) into the work of the church.

So we are back to gradualism. God works on the problem of slavery incrementally, at the speed of the church, rather than simply snapping his fingers and eradicating a social ill by divine fiat.

* * *

Note: No doubt God does in fact work directly on the issue of slavery in ways we cannot know — at least in restraining (if not eliminating) evil. This may be happening in the sex-slave industry, for example.

Even so, his main instrument is still the church. The flawed, often slow-moving church.

The critical question is: Are we in the church cooperating with his work?

Suggested resources

  • Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan
  • Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William Webb.   *See pp 74-76.

Photo by Manuel Sardo on Unsplash

Comments 2

  1. What a great way of looking at this issue of social reform especially in regards to slavery. I love it as usual.

    My question is how do you think the church is doing in regards to the current social reforms that are happening especially in regards to the black lives matter and the overarching accusation of institutional racism that we are finding today. To me it seems that there is more being done by people who have no affinity in a church to fight for equality and in fact often the stumbling block for progress seems to be the demographic of “white evangelicals” who would rather throw a fit and protest some football players kneeling for the anthem than black men being wrongly killed by police. I do think that I am included in this demographic and often find myself wondering if the way I look at the world is being shaped by the Holy Spirit or if it is just the product of being raised in a predominantly “white evangelical” area.

    What needs to change?

    1. Post

      Spencer, thanks for your thoughtful comment. My thought is that the church has been too slow to work on issues of racism in general and slavery in particular. Majority culture in the church tends to say, “We’re good. What’s the problem?”

      The problem is that we’re called to reconciliation and justice — as defined by Scripture, not secular culture. Not that there can’t be overlap. There certainly can be, and sometimes culture gets it right. But I’m unwilling to simply take my cues from the latest standards of cultural justice, which are ever-shifting. Rather, we need to pay attention to God’s standards of justice, and seek to advance and uphold them.

      Recently I had a conversation with a black leader who encouraged me by saying that I’m doing more than I give myself credit for. Wow, that really lifted me, gave me hope, and made me want to work on these issues ever harder.

      You ask, “What needs to change?” My view is that the church needs to dig into the Bible for teaching on justice and reconciliation, and put it out there in sermons, SS curricula, youth ministry, conferences, retreats, devos, etc., at the same level as that of similar topics such as mission and evangelism — which are ubiquitous in church teaching.

      Lastly, I’ll mention that sideline critics of the church have become disillusioned and abandoned the church in protest. That’s precisely the opposite of what we’re called to! We need to “stay in the marriage” and work for reform. Walking away from the church (flawed though it is) is walking away from God’s primary instrument of eradicating slavery and racism in all its forms.

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