Saturday, July 2, 2011

Slavery and the Bible

For one raised in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement of the last century, the topic of slavery remains a sensitive issue.  With the official emancipation of African-American slaves in the 19th century, dealing with the issue of slavery in modern America concerns discussions of past events more than present realities.  Recently Dr. Matthew Becker, in a tribute to Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), decided to invoke the subject while inserting a passing jibe at the founder of his synod.  He writes:

At a time when people like the first president of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, C. F. W. Walther, who was born in the same year as Stowe, argued that slavery was ordained by God and a positive, biblically-grounded good, Stowe set forth a minority position that was also biblically-grounded: slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings about human equality and dignity, about human freedom and responsibility, about Christ's love for "the lowliest members of society."

It was tempting to simply pass over these comments recognizing Dr. Becker's inclination to take a jab at the Missouri Synod if given the chance.  However, in rereading the above statement it occurs that clarification is needed.   We will affirm that C.F.W. Walther did not outright condemn all slavery as sin.  He surveyed the many instances of slavery in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and demonstrated that a slave-master relationship is not considered intrinsically sinful.  Abuse of slaves is a sin and masters guilty of hurting and harming those serving under them are rightfully called to account and condemned.  However, to jump now to the conclusion that Walther "argued that slavery was ordained by God and a positive, biblically-grounded good" seems at best a stretch and at worst a misrepresentation of this honorable leader.  He wrote that God did not institute slavery any more than he instituted absolute monarchy.  Walther differentiates between the  relationship and the conditions under which that relationship exists.  He recognizes that these things came into being in a sinful world.  They are not perfect any more than any relationship in this world is, including governments of any type.  In fact, he quotes a Lutheran theologian who states: "Slavery is indeed a yoke under which one suffers. It is a lowly and terrible state, for nothing is lower and more terrible than to be given to another as his own, and if one obtains something, it is obtained for the other" (Friedrich Baduin, d. 1627).

If, as Becker claims, "slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings about human equality and dignity, about human freedom and responsibility, about Christ's love for 'the lowliest members of society,'" what is one to say of all that Paul himself wrote in the New Testament regarding the relationship between slaves and masters, especially the situation of Onesimus and Philemon?  Furthermore, slavery needs to be examined and discussed in a complete historical context, not in a vacuum or single historical instance.  Slavery in the Bible sometimes involved people who deliberately sold themselves into that condition for the sake of debts or security.  Many slaves enjoyed a relationship with their masters that was much like family (See the article "Does the Bible condone slavery?" for more detail.) To simply state that "slavery is contradicted by the Bible's teachings...." is to offer poor biblical teaching on the matter.  This demands a far better survey of the material and a more nuanced examination of the subject.  Given our natural sensitivities to this subject in light of our checkered history on the matter, it is easy to draw simple conclusions that fail to fully wrestle with all the details.

Well, this was not intended to be a full treatment of such an exhaustive subject, merely a note clarifying a comment elsewhere.  We'll leave it at that.

2 comments:

Norman Teigen said...

I have been working on this matter for a while now. My conclusion is that Walther was quite wrong about slavery but that he can still be regarded as a great theologian.

The Rev. Donald V. Engebretson said...

Thank you for your comment. Our theologians were not/are not infallible on all topics, to be sure, and we can disagree with some things and still affirm them as true men of God. I'm sincerely hoping that is what others are doing of me :)