The New Covenant and Slavery

In this article, we’ll look at slavery, and in an upcoming article, I’ll discuss the subject of race. I think that because of recent events that have made headlines, this is a good time for us, as Christians, to examine the Bible and our hearts regarding race and its often closely associated practice of slavery.

The topic of slavery is now often associated with race, largely because of the transatlantic slave trade of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Tens of millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic during those centuries and sold in the New World where they were put to slave labor.

So, in many people’s minds, slavery has become nearly synonymous with the transatlantic slave trade and with the institution of slavery in the Americas. It is particularly associated with the slavery in the southern states of the United States that briefly broke from the Union and became the Confederate States of America. As I write, headlines are filled with the heinous murders of nine African Americans in a church in South Carolina. The accused, Dylann Roof, is a young, white man who apparently wanted to start a race war. After the murders, pictures Roof had posted of himself with the Confederate flag reawakened calls to end the display of the Confederate flag (and, possibly, some state flags that, it seems, have roots in the Confederacy) by people who see it as a symbol of slavery and racism. The link is understandable, yet, we should keep in mind that throughout the history of humanity, peoples of all races and nationalities have found themselves the victims and the masters of slavery.

The reason the question should be addressed in light of the Bible is because there were Christians during the time of the African slave trade who, from the pulpit and in writing, supported the institution of owning African slaves, egged on the secession of the southern states and the ensuing war to maintain their separation from the Union, and who continued to preach for slavery even after the defeat of the South. What’s more, there are people today who turn to the Bible to try to defend slavery as a godly institution that is taught in the Bible.

You might be surprised to learn that the defense of slavery as supported in the Bible comes largely from people who follow Reformed Theology. They are a minority in the Reformed camp, but they are usually Reformed. What is the connection between Reformed/Covenant Theology and pro-slavery arguments? I’m going to answer that, and I’m going to show you how a simple principle of New Covenant Theology deals a death blow to the pro-slavery argument.

Robert Lewis Dabney

In 1867, just two years after the end of the American Civil War, Southern Presbyterian pastor, Confederate States Army chaplain, and General Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff, Robert Lewis Dabney, wrote, A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party. Dabney, who came from French Huguenot stock and was Reformed in his theology, gives in this book his view of black people. Perhaps this quote would be more appropriate in an article on race rather than slavery, but I use it as evidence of Dabney’s mindset:

But while we believe that “God made of one blood all nations of men to dwell under the whole heavens,” we know that the African has become, according to a well-known law of natural history, by the manifold influences of the ages, a different, fixed species of the race, separated from the white man by traits bodily, mental and moral, almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus. Hence the offspring of an amalgamation must be a hybrid race, stamped with all the feebleness of the hybrid, and incapable of the career of civilization and glory as an independent race. And this apparently is the destiny which our conquerors have in view. If indeed they can mix the blood of the heroes of Manassas with this vile stream from the fens of Africa, then they will never again have occasion to tremble before the righteous resistance of Virginia freemen; but will have a race supple and vile enough to fill that position of political subjection, which they desire to fix on the South.
A Defense of Virginia, 352-3

Notice that Dabney quotes a Scripture (Acts 17:26) that tells us that God is the Maker of all people and that everyone, of all races, is really of one blood, and then he immediately dismisses the inspired Word of God for some nonsense about “a well-known law of natural history” that has supposedly made one race separate and inferior. This should cause anyone who holds the Bible in high esteem to suspect Dabney of being a false teacher. But the claims Dabney then makes are so wild that we have to wonder whether he wasn’t a raving lunatic.

Yet, there are people today who consider Dabney “A Forgotten Visionary” and a “Prince Among Theologians and Men” (this opens a pdf file). Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson, in Southern Slavery As It Was, quote Dabney positively several times and call him, “a godly man who fought for the South.”

Thankfully, there are writers, even Reformed writers, who are better informed. Of Dabney’s book, John Robbins wrote, “This embarrassing and inexcusable association of Christian theology with Southern slavery has been a stain on Christianity in the South and a hindrance to the proclamation of the Gospel for two centuries, (“Christians and the Civil War“).

In explaining why he wrote his book, Dabney says,

It is enough for us to place ourselves on this impregnable stand; that the relation of master and slave is recognized as lawful in itself by a sound philosophy, and above all, by the Word of God. It is enough for us to say (what is capable of overwhelming demonstration) that for the African race, such as Providence has made it, and where He has placed it in America, slavery was the righteous, the best, yea, the only tolerable relation.
A Defense of Virginia, 25

Dabney says that slavery is recognized as lawful by the Word of God. Is it?

Slavery and the Word of God

There can be no doubt that slavery is in the Bible, and that God actually instituted rules concerning its governance. In Deuteronomy 15, for example, God gave the Israelites, who were once slaves in Egypt, instructions for the relatively humane treatment of fellow Israelites who fell into slavery due to debt and for their eventual release. In Deuteronomy 20:10-15, God detailed rules for putting captured enemies to forced labor. Elsewhere, God specifically condemned the kind of slavery practiced in later centuries, in which people were kidnapped and sold into slavery: “Anyone who kidnaps someone and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).

Why did God allow for slavery in the Old Testament? I’ll frame my answer in two short principles. The first is that slavery in the Old Testament conforms to the same general rule Jesus taught in Matthew 19:8. Just as Moses had to institute laws to regulate divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts (that is, their carnal lack of conversion), so also, God had to institute laws for putting impoverished debtors to work as slaves and for the treatment of the captives of war.

The second principle is found in 1 Corinthians 10:11: “Now all these things happened to them by way of example [tupos—”types”], and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come.” Physical slavery pictured humanity’s spiritual slavery to the law, to sin, and to death, and it should make us realize that our job is to proclaim liberty from these things through our Redeemer, Jesus Christ:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord
Luke 4:18-19

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent out his Son, born to a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of children.
Galatians 4:4-5

But, if we are supposed to proclaim liberty, wouldn’t keeping slaves be inconsistent with our message? Of course it would!

We Live in a Different World

The slavery laws of the Bible were part of the Old Covenant. The Bible makes plain statements that God made the Old Covenant with physical Israel, the people whom He took out of Egypt:

The LORD said to Moses, “Write you these words: for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”
Exodus 34:27

“Hear, Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in your ears today, that you may learn them, and observe to do them.” The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD didn’t make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive today…. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Deuteronomy 5:1-3, 6

What do the laws that God gave on Mount Sinai to ancient Israel have to do with us today? Except as historical documents and types, nothing. These laws, including the laws God gave concerning slavery, are not our laws. To Christians, the writer of Hebrews wrote,

For you have not come to a mountain that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and to blackness, darkness, storm, the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which those who heard it begged that not one more word should be spoken to them, for they could not stand that which was commanded, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned;” and so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, “I am terrified and trembling.” But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable multitudes of angels, to the general assembly and assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel.
Hebrews 12:18-24

Jesus, although He didn’t come to destroy the Old Covenant law, came to fulfill it, and, thereby, end it (Matthew 5:17). He accomplished that (John 19:30). (See “In what way did Jesus fulfill the law?“). For believers, Jesus instituted the New Covenant, which is a covenant of freedom. Slavery has no place in it. The Old Covenant never applied to any people but the Jews, but it doesn’t even apply to them anymore (though most of them don’t know it). No matter how many long books Dabney and his modern advocates write, the principle point is this: Jesus fulfilled and ended the Old Covenant, and, therefore, none of the slavery laws are still in effect.

Slavery in the New Testament

But wasn’t there still slavery in the New Testament times? Yes, but we must remember that some of the New Testament describes the time before Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant, and the rest deals with a transitional period during which Jesus’ followers were still discovering and getting used to the changes ushered in by the New Covenant.

Before His crucifixion, Jesus used slavery in some of His parables because it was a convention with which the Jews to whom He spoke were very familiar (see, for example, Matthew 18:25 and Luke 12:42-48 [“servant” is from the Greek word doulos, which means “slave”]).

After Jesus’ crucifixion and fulfilling of the Old Covenant, Paul wrote instructions concerning how masters and slaves should treat each other (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 4:1; and 1 Timothy 6:1-3). Why didn’t he just tell the masters to let their slaves go free? It might be tempting for us living two thousand years later to criticize Paul for not doing so. But we must remember that slavery was protected by Roman law, and, as we will see, there might also have been another reason. When he wrote those passages, Paul was primarily concerned that masters and slaves who were Christians understood that they were to treat each other justly.

In 1 Corinthians 7, however, Paul does take a couple of steps against slavery. In this chapter, Paul is giving his judgment concerning questions of marriage, circumcision, and slavery that the Corinthians had written to him. His answers are predicated on his belief that they were living in troubled times and ought not, if possible, to bother changing their outward circumstances (verse 26). In verse 29, Paul specifically says that he believes “the time is short.” This may then be another reason why he didn’t address ending slavery in the other verses in which he speaks of it.

With that in mind, let’s see what Paul answers concerning slavery: “Were you called being a bondservant [doulos]? Don’t let that bother you, but if you get an opportunity to become free, use it. For he who was called in the Lord being a bondservant is the Lord’s free man. Likewise he who was called being free is Christ’s bondservant. You were bought with a price. Don’t become bondservants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23).

Notice that central to Paul’s answer is the fact that the spiritual is more important than the physical. This is always true. Even if we must remain physical slaves, we should keep in mind that, in Christ, we are spiritually free. Yet, Paul says that if a slave gets the opportunity to be free, he should use it. Considering that Paul is, in this chapter, telling people to not change their circumstances, his telling slaves to take the opportunity to be free if they are able to shows that Paul has developed the understanding that slavery is not good. Another point that shows Paul’s perception of slavery is at the end of the passage: “Don’t become bondservants of men.” Many commentators insist that Paul is here not talking about literal slavery but about spiritual subjection. But Paul has said this in the immediate context of physical slavery and in the general discussion of outward, physical circumstances, such as marriage and circumcision. Surely, Paul is telling those who are not slaves to avoid becoming slaves.

It is in Philemon that we learn most fully Paul’s attitude toward slavery. Philemon is a letter from Paul to a Christian named Philemon. Paul is sending this letter with Onesimus, a slave who has run away from Philemon. At some point, Onesimus has become a Christian and found Paul. In verses 12 and 17, Paul tells Philemon to “receive him.” Let’s read verses 15 and 16: “For perhaps he was therefore separated from you for a while, that you would have him forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much rather to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Robert L. Dabney wrote that the lesson we are to learn in this letter is Paul’s “enjoining on the newly-awakened conscience of Onesimus, the duty of returning to his master,” and, “this instance proves, beyond a cavil, that the relation of master and servant was moral.” Dabney apparently did not see what is clear in this epistle: Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother rather than as a slave (verses 16-17). As for why Paul told Onesimus to return to Philemon, the answer is found in Roman law:

A runaway slave (fugitivus) could not lawfully be received or harboured; to conceal him was Furtum [theft]. The master was entitled to pursue him wherever he pleased; and it was the duty of all authorities to give him aid in recovering the slave. It was the object of various laws to check the running away of slaves in every way, and accordingly a runaway slave could not legally be the object of sale. A class of persons called Fugitivarii made it their business to recover runaway slaves. The rights of the master over the slave were in no way affected by his running away (Dig. 11 tit. 4 De fugitivis: there was a Lex Fabia on this subject, and apparently two Senatusconsultaat least; see also Varro, de Re Rust. III.14; Florus, III.19, and the note in Duker’s edition).
William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875, “Servus”

So, instead of risking punishment upon both himself and Onesimus, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master with a letter from Paul asking Philemon to grant Onesimus freedom. And, as evidence of how much Paul wanted this, he even included a little arm twisting. He first offered to pay Philemon anything Onesimus owed and then added parenthetically, “(not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self besides)” (verse 19). That is, Paul is saying, I want you to change Onesimus’s status from slave to brother (free him). If he owes you anything, I’ll pay it, and I won’t even mention that you owe me your life. It was Paul’s not-too-subtle manner of getting his way. Still, he did all of this while not violating Roman law.

The Royal Law of Love

Jesus taught, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31). He also taught us, “Love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In a synagogue, Jesus read this prophecy from the Old Testament, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis mine). Then, He said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). How blind does someone have to be to think he is following Jesus Christ while being a slave owner?

Yet, notice these appalling quotes from professing Christians:

Jesus Christ recognized this institution [slavery] as one that was lawful among men, and regulated its relative duties…. I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command; and second, I affirm, he has introduced no new moral principle which can work its destruction.
Reverend Thomas Stringfellow, A Scriptural View of Slavery, Culpeper County, Virginia, 1856

We have a great lesson to teach the world with respect to the relation of races: that certain races are permanently inferior in their capacities to others, and that the African who is intrusted to our care can only reach the amount of civilization and development of which he is capable—can only contribute to the benefit of humanity in the position in which God has placed him among us [as a slave].
Reverend James Warley Miles, God in History: A Discourse Delivered Before the Graduating Class of the College of Charleston (March 29, 1863)

If we prove that domestic slavery is, in the general, a natural and necessary institution, we remove the greatest stumbling block to belief in the Bible; for whilst texts, detached and torn from their context, may be found for any other purpose, none can be found that even militates against slavery.
George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! or Slaves without Masters, Richmond, VA, 1857

The Bible teaches that a man may be a faithful Christian and a slave-owner in a pagan slave system…. But if our churches had existed in the ante bellum South, and a godly slave owner sought membership, we could not refuse him without seeking to be holier than Christ. Such a desire would be wicked, and this wickedness was at the heart of the abolitionist dogma….
Wilkins and Wilson, Southern Slavery As It Was

How did they excuse these views? They held to the Reformed/Covenant Theology view that the New Covenant is merely a new administration of the Old Covenant and that those laws not specifically abrogated by the New Testament remain in place. They did not understand that the one act of Jesus’ crucifixion ended the entire Old Covenant. Or they held to Dabney’s view: “[T]he fact that God expressly authorized domestic slavery, among the peculiar and temporary civil laws of the Jews, while it does not prove that it is our positive duty to hold slaves, does prove that it is innocent to hold them, unless it has been subsequently forbidden by God” (A Defense of Virginia, 116). What is tragic is that Dabney never understood that the Old Testament laws ended at the Cross, and that, in any case, Jesus’ teachings of love and freedom contradict slavery.

In Matthew 5:43, Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.'” There is no Old Testament command that explicitly states, “Hate your enemy.” Nevertheless, Jesus was drawing a valid implication from what God had told Israel. For example, in Deuteronomy 7, God said, “[W]hen the LORD your God delivers them up before you, and you strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them, nor show mercy to them…. You shall consume all the peoples whom the LORD your God shall deliver to you. Your eye shall not pity them: neither shall you serve their gods; for that would be a snare to you” (Deuteronomy 7:2, 16). And again, in Deuteronomy 20:

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it. It shall be, if it makes you answer of peace, and opens to you, then it shall be, that all the people who are found therein shall become forced labourers to you, and shall serve you. If it will make no peace with you, but will make war against you, then you shall besiege it. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, you shall strike every male of it with the edge of the sword; but the women, the little ones, the livestock, and all that is in the city, even all its plunder, you shall take for plunder for yourself. You may use the plunder of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.
verses 10-14

Killing and making slaves of people were expressions of hatred against them. They were ways to “hate your enemy.” Let’s look again at what Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.” Jesus ended “hate your enemy.” He replaced it with love, bless, do good to, and pray for your enemies. How can you do that while kidnapping someone away from family and friends and forcing him or her to be your slave? You cannot! And the Africans weren’t even the enemies of the white people.

Some writers try to excuse slavery by saying that it gave the masters the opportunity to evangelize the slaves. But Jesus didn’t say to kidnap the world, bring it to you, and preach the Good News to it. How could anyone enslave people and then preach to them, “Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1) without feeling like a complete hypocrite?

Jesus said, “Go into all the world, and preach the Good News to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Christians are to go to the world, not bring it to them in slavery. In 2010, an estimated 48.3 percent of the population of Africa professed Christianity because some people took Jesus’ command seriously (“Christianity in its Global Context 1970–2020,” this opens a pdf document).

As Christians, we ought to understand the Bible before we write 356-page tomes “defending” Virginia and shaming Christ. We should know that Jesus Christ’s teachings go against slavery before we accuse abolitionists of being “driven by a zealous hatred of the word of God” (Douglas Wilson, Black and Tan). It is our business to understand the New Covenant Theology teaching that Jesus Christ died to end the Old Covenant of condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:9) that included the laws of slavery and set us “free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). Christians have no business defending such a demeaning, hateful, and despised an institution as slavery.

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