I am currently reading Phyllis Tickle’s Emergence Christianity and I came across the following quote:
“In the years immediately preceding 1868, the disestablishment of slavery had delivered a major blow to the principle of biblical inerrancy and, thereby, to Scripture’s role as the absolute basis of authority in latinized Christendom. While the Bible does not require that one person own another, it clearly acknowledges that practice and clearly provides for its just application. And by 1868, there could be no question about the fact that abolition, whatever else it did, had declared that what was permitted in Holy Writ was wrong, egregiously wrong.” (pp. 37-38)
I must confess that I had read this section a couple of times to try and understand what was being said. It is not clear at all to me how the abolition of slavery takes away from biblical authority. That is not to say that I think slavery is good or that it should return (not that it has ever gone away).
The problem with this quote is that it both misunderstands slavery and the Bible. When we think of slavery, we think of the slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States and Europe. We think of the brutal slave trade, of the the beatings and killings and horrible living conditions. That is not the slavery that is spoken of in the Bible. There is no slave trade in the Bible. The slavery spoken of in the Bible is much different. The truth is that people often found themselves overwhelmed with debt. There was no bankruptcy or other social services to help out. If you could not feed your family, they starved to death. The only option was to sell yourself into slavery. That way you could work, your family would be fed and terrible tragedies could be prevented. Slavery was never ideal but it was always better than starvation. There is no suggestion that the Israelites should go into other lands, kidnap innocent people and sell them on the slave market. It just is not there. The Old Testament describes a slavery that was to everyone’s benefit and one that was temporary in nature. The New Testament is interacting with the Roman version which was somewhat more harsh than the Israelite form. Still, many Roman slaves enjoyed a much greater standard of living than many free people. In fact many people sold themselves into slavery in order to receive an education, get connected with important families and improve their lives.
Is any of that ideal? No, but that is a key to what the Bible is like. The Bible is not like Plato’s Republic, a picture of a hypothetical society. The Bible acknowledges that life is messy and harsh. Understanding the reality of life, the Bible injects godly values, transforming a bad situation into a better situation. The seeds of abolition are found in the Bible, but until that time arrived, the Bible gave guidelines by which people could be helped where they currently were.
There is no way that our current understanding of slavery provides any evidence that the Bible errs when it comes to slavery. The Bible does not commend slavery as a good situation. I wish that slavery even as it exists today would come to an end. Many of the people working to make that happen are people who accept the authority of the Bible.