The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Does the Bible Support Slavery? (Part 2)

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Defenders of Southern slavery appeal to Leviticus 25:44–46 to support their pro-slavery position since it describes the enslavement of pagans. Robert L. Dabney bases his argument for slavery on the Leviticus passage without considering a change in its application under the New Covenant.[1] Slavery of foreigners was legal in Israel. “These pagans were being purchased out of their covenantal slavery to demonic religion. They were being redeemed (bought back). They were being given an opportunity to hear the gospel and see it in operation in households covenanted to God. They were being given the opportunity to renounce paganism and thereby escape eternal slavery in the lake of fire.”[2]

The enslavement of pagan nations under the Old Covenant was tied to the jubilee laws described in the same chapter. The jubilee was fulfilled in principle by Jesus (Luke 4) and abolished historically when Israel as a nation ceased to exist with the destruction of its religious and civil governments in A.D. 70. Slavery of heathen nations was tied to the special character of the land of Israel in the same way that distribution of the land of Israelite families was tied to the special redemptive character of the land.

In addition, the Gentiles are given a new status in the New Covenant. The coming of Christ was “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32; see Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). Jesus began His public ministry with the reading of Isaiah 61:1, “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). We know that this release included Gentiles: “And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. . . . And in His name the Gentiles will hope” (Matt. 12:18, 21). Acts shows that many Jewish Christians had not accepted the fact that Gentiles were included in the covenant promises initially reserved for Israelites: “And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).

With the gospel’s breaking of national Israel’s old wineskin, a new means of foreign evangelism began. New Testament evangelists are to go to foreign lands as servants, not as slave-masters or their economic agents, slave traders. They are to warn men and women to submit to God’s rule voluntarily. . . . Christians are to bring the message of liberation which Jesus announced in Luke 4.[3]

The history of the enslavement of African blacks has been an impediment to the gospel. Instead of being fishers of men, many in the church supported the notion of being the enslavers of men, in particular, black men, women, and their children. The Bible, including Leviticus 25, does not support enslaving exclusively African blacks. Racism seems to be the motivating factor. Gary North writes: “Slavery as a system came to North America in the early eighteenth century, and it was grounded in the racist prejudices that increased with every shipload of victimized blacks. Racism seems to have been the foundation of slavery rather than the reverse.”[4] With the coming of Christ Christians are to preach the gospel to make disciples of the nations; making them “slaves to Christ,” not slaves to other men.

The NT and Slavery

We know that in the New Testament Paul condemns slave traders (kidnappers) in 1 Timothy 1:10. Revelation considers those who traffic in “slaves and human lives” to be immoral and destined for judgment (Rev. 18:13). Nowhere does the New Testament support trafficking in slaves. Paul’s letter to Philemon does not support the notion that the New Testament tolerated chattel slavery. Onesimus was probably a bondservant who owed a debt to Philemon. Paul encourages the runaway Onesimus to return to Philemon and encourages Philemon to release Onesimus upon his arrival. Paul promises to pay Philemon if Onesimus “owes you anything” (Philemon 18). Paul’s mention of a debt seems to indicate that Onesimus was an indentured servant.

Defending the Indefensible

The letter writer (see Part 1) concludes his argument in defense of slavery by quoting Dabney. Dabney, as we saw earlier, abhorred “the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade.” Then why did he continue to support the holding of slaves? Dabney writes: “When the property has been acquired by the latest holder, fairly and honestly; when, in the later transfers, a fair equivalent was paid for it, and the last possessor is innocent of fraud in intention and in the actual mode of his acquisition of it, more wrong would be effected by destroying his title, than by leaving the original wrong unredressed. Common sense says, that whatever may have been the original title, a new and valid one has arisen out of the circumstances of the case.”[5]

Dabney moves his argument away from the Bible to “common sense,” a clear indication that he does not have a biblical argument. While the slave trader may have acquired the slaves through immoral means, Dabney argues, the person who receives the stolen men, women, and children is not bound by the original illegality. In essence, he cannot be held accountable for the initial fraud since he purchased the “merchandise” in good faith. Dabney begs the question. How can the purchase of human beings for the purpose of using them for slave labor be done “fairly and honestly” when Dabney fully admits “that the original slave catcher” who “captured the African was most unrighteous”?

The letter writer attempts to bolster Dabney’s argument by citing a case of fraud perpetrated on him. He writes: “[I]n 1981 a fraud gave me a bad check for $2,000 worth of silver dollars, then sold them to another dealer. When I sued to recover the dollars from that dealer, the court found that, although the criminal had acquired them by fraud, title had been passed to the next owner who had bought in good faith and could not now be disturbed in his possession.”

The key is that the dealer purchased the coins “in good faith.” If he had known that the coins had been stolen, he would have been cited with conspiracy to commit fraud. Those who purchased slaves at auction in the United States knew that the slaves were kidnap victims. The slave owners were not operating “in good faith” since they knew “that the original slave catcher” who “captured the African was most unrighteous.” The coin dealer did not know that the first transaction was fraudulent; slave holders did.

Endnotes:

[1] Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, 117–121.
[2] North, Tools of Dominion, 145.
[3] North, Tools of Dominion, 173.
[4] North, Tools of Dominion, 180.
[5] Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, 288–289.

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