In one of my recent E-letters (Slavery Hits the Skids), I used the institution of slavery as a jumping off point to make a plea for prayer. One of my readers, an avowed non-believer, wrote a private response aimed at the slavery issue.
He presented a well thought out case as to how Scripture has been used to support the oppression of humanity. He’s correct, of course. The Bible has been used to back many vile things—human bondage is one of the worst examples of this.
He cited Old Testament laws on the treatment of slaves and New Testament passages encouraging slaves to be faithful to their masters. One doesn’t have to read very far to see how slave owners could easily justify their position using Biblical proof texting.
Of course to do this, one has to toss out the first rule of Biblical interpretation—context, context, context. I don’t have room here for a lengthy discussion of how the Bible treats this (or any other subject) in its entire context. Suffice it to say, the Old Testament laws were instituted in an era when slavery was a way of life. The laws were merely there to manage the situations that arose from such a practice.
Likewise, the New Testament passages directed to slaves were part of a general pattern urging people to be deferential to each other. This included husbands and wives, children and servants, Jews and Greeks, etc. The Apostle Paul (who wrote many of these passages) was not looking to entrench the institution of slavery any further. In fact, if one reads his letter to Philemon, just the opposite is expressed.
In this letter, Paul urges Philemon to set his slave (Onesimus) free. In doing this, he says he could order him to do so but would rather he do it on his own—out of the goodness of his heart—“on the basis of love.” (Philemon 8-9)
This displays the general crux of Scripture. The Bible seldom makes sweeping statements about what nations, cultures, and societies should do. Scripture is generally directed at the individual—the very personal. In the words of Dion DiMucci, it’s an “inside job.” It’s directed toward changing the heart of a person, one soul at a time. When enough hearts are converted, practices like slavery will dissolve into history (at least for the believers).
But that’s how it is for everything in life. I didn’t pick up my pocket New Testament one day and read, “Thou shalt become a pastor.” The calling on my life was an inside job. It was (and is) part of a journey. The Lord is remaking me from the inside out.
It’s that way with all of us. As we walk with the Lord, as we read his Word, as we grapple with what life is and who we are in Christ, we get remade from the interior of our being. It’s not a top-down process. It begins where we are and moves outward. (To be continued…)
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]