Was Christianity Wrong About Slavery?

Wouldn’t it be nice to outlaw Winter?

Personally, I prefer Winter to Summer, but I know that a lot of people prefer otherwise, and even more are tired of Winter after the Winter we’ve been having.  Unfortunately, outlawing Winter makes little sense.  It’s a feature of the world; we can’t change it.

This is roughly the challenge faced by Christianity with regards to slavery in the ancient world.  It made no sense to talk about abolition; slavery was a feature of the world, perhaps an inevitable feature of it.  They could no more intelligibly talk about outlawing it than we can intelligibly talk about outlawing Winter, or gravity, or breathing.  (They could have talked about it, but they would simply have seemed like madmen.  Would you listen to someone on the street loudly protesting against gravity?)

But they could subvert it.  They could change the assumptions involved.  They could change the relationships involved.  This they did.  In the Bible already we have talk of slaves having human value, of being equals and brothers.  The basic Christian beliefs, applied to slavery, undermine it.  People complain that the Bible doesn’t more clearly say that slavery should be outlawed, but at the time that would have been gibberish.

They said what they could though, and an interesting thing happened.  Because Christians had changed the discussion, because they had subverted slavery by changing the assumptions involved, slavery increasingly became something it made sense to challenge.  It stopped seeming like an inevitable feature of any society, and became something that society could and should abandon.

Within a few hundred years, slavery went from a fact of life to a moral evil.  Christians were the ones who effected that change, and then they opposed that moral evil until slavery in the Christian world was nearly eradicated.  It was a long and hard process, and not a perfect one, but from the beginning Christianity was on one side of the process, and the world was on the other.  Christianity wasn’t wrong about slavery, the Church wasn’t wrong about slavery, the world just dragged its feet.

Then another interesting thing happened, although this time it’s “interesting” in a tragic way.  As the world limped toward the modern period and an increasing number of people abandoned even a token affiliation with Christianity, slavery returned.  It had continued in non-Christian parts of the world the whole time, and without having Christian commitments to stop it, some folk even in the Christian world began to embrace it again.

They decided to reverse the process; they changed the assumptions in the discussion again.  It became a matter of economics, or practicality, of expedience.  Certain people were declared to be less valuable, less important, less worthy of respect.  Eventually, entire races of humanity were declared to be less than human.

Now among these folks and in the culture that followed, there were certainly many people who used the Bible as a defense.  When one wants to do something one knows is wrong, one tries to justify oneself.  If one’s primary authority is religious, one tries to justify oneself religiously.  Christians twisted scripture to defend the worldly evil in which they wanted to engage.  That happened, and it was rampant.  Slavery spread, and large numbers Christians participated, frequently with enthusiasm.

They participated though not because they were Christian, but because they were worldly.  Their beliefs only supported them to the extent that it they had been twisted and perverted from the Christianity that had been handed down to them.  That is to say, their religion supported slavery only to the extent that it stopped being faithful Christianity.

Of course, thankfully that isn’t the end of the story.  A group arose to challenge slavery again, to oppose it again as an evil worthy of eradication.  That group shouldn’t surprise anyone:  Christians.  Those Christians who were faithful to the Bible and the Church again recognized slavery as a moral evil, and again opposed it.  It was a long and hard process, and again not a perfect one, but it was again Christianity against the world.

So was the Church wrong about slavery?  Was Christianity wrong about slavery?  No.  Christians were wrong yes, but only because for a while in history they were very worldly about the subject.  Christianity and the Church opposed those Christians too, precisely because they were worldly.  The world was wrong about slavery, and when Christians became complicit, they were wrong too.

What does all this mean?  Well, it’s pretty common nowadays to hear people argue something like this:  “Christianity was wrong about slavery, and only slowly recognized that slavery was wrong, so maybe Christianity is wrong about [whatever] too.”  This shows a complete misunderstanding of history though.

Usually it shows an ignorance of history; the people who say it don’t look further back than a few hundred years.  They see Christians a few hundred years ago using the Bible to defend slavery and they assume that Christianity was in favor of slavery for the entirety of its history up through a few hundred years ago.  Then they assume that opposition to slavery was something that developed recently in history as new progressive understandings influenced stale archaic doctrine.

They only see the end of the story, and so completely misunderstand it.  Opposition to slavery in recent centuries was actually the triumph of ancient doctrine over the “new progressive understandings” which Christians had fallen into.

In fact, the Christians who were wrong about slavery were the one’s who submitted to the world and learned from it, not the ones who refused to learn such wisdom as the world offered.  They were wrong because they twisted the Bible to justify what the world wanted, rather than resisting the world when the world wanted evil.

So if you want to learn from history, if you want to look at the Christian relationship to slavery and use that as guidance in how to interact with the many social issues of the world today, here is the lesson:  the world will want evil, and it will be very persuasive in justifying it, so that even Christians will be tempted to it.  They will be tempted to twist and contort their beliefs to justify what Christianity has always opposed.

This isn’t development or growth though, it’s error.

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4 thoughts on “Was Christianity Wrong About Slavery?

  1. The Quakers were some of the most strident abolitionists and are usually at the fore of any anti-war movement. Worry not what the Bible says about slavery, an institution that was ever-present in the age the book was written in and worry more about the Bible’s ban on rounded haircuts.

  2. Perhaps you are aware that the Jesuits were commanded to leave South America by the then Pope precisely because they did defend and education the indigenous people’s, rather than surrender them to slavery.

    • Well, like I said, it wasn’t a perfect process, which doesn’t exclude even popes. Although, as a further note, it’s nearly never so simple as one issue when it comes to conflicts between the Papacy and the Jesuits. Or really, any conflict between humans.

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