The Bible takes an interesting tact when it comes to social ills. It begins with the individual. Instead of taking on a major malady as a negative to be cured, it appeals to the individual to be positively transformed—in all areas of life. The obvious advantage is that hearts are changed and permanently improvement. The just-as-obvious drawback is it takes a long time.
It would be simpler to pass a law requiring everyone to follow a certain pathway. Governments do this. People like to say, “You can’t legislate morality.” Yet, virtually every law on the books attempts to do exactly that. As we all know, many of those laws have terrible, unintended consequences.
If you’ve read my last couple blogs (Inside Job and Loving Your Neighbor), you know that I’ve been using the topic of slavery to briefly explore how Scripture seems to deal with some of our major foibles. I won’t attempt to recap those postings for you, but I offer them for your perusal.
“There is no passage denouncing road rage…”
The subject of slavery is a great example of how Scripture deals with many specific evils. There is no passage that says, “Thou shalt not own slaves.” Some people extrapolate from that silence that it’s okay to put other people into bondage. I would remind you that there is no passage denouncing road rage either (maybe that’s a bad example, but very appropriate for our time).
The Apostle Paul wrote a short, one-page letter to a man by the name of Philemon. Philemon was a Christian brother who owned a Christian slave named Onesimus. Paul apparently knew them both rather well. In his letter, Paul urged Philemon to set Onesimus free.
In this letter (interestingly enough), Paul did not denounce slavery. The lack of such condemnation is conspicuous by its absence. I suspect many of us (if we were in the same situation) would go immediately to the point that slavery is evil. Paul does nothing of the sort.
An appeal to the heart.
What Paul did (and what Jesus always seemed to do) was appeal to the heart. He asked him to set Onesimus free “on the basis of love.” Paul, like Jesus, was out to change the world, one heart at a time.
It helps to remember that slavery was common during the centuries in which the Bible was written. This applies both to the Old and the New Testaments. When writing to slaves who were also Christian, Paul generally told them to do their best for their masters. Again, it was not an affirmation of the institution of slavery. It was another appeal to the individual, human soul—one heart at a time.
It’s like racial bias in our own time. We know it’s all around us. If we’re sensitive enough to it, we may even be aware of it when, and if, it arises in our own lives. Some people simply and loudly denounce it. Others look to change individual hearts, beginning with their own. It seems like a good place to start.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently the pastor of Smith Chapel, in Great Falls, VA.]