The Sin of Manstealing

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It is always nice to receive constructive comments and questions from readers of ref21.  A question I received with reference to the sin of slavery (from my reply to Susan Wise Bauer) reads as follows: "Could someone kindly show me how this is so, especially given the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 17:12), Philemon, etc.?

Thanks for the question, and it is my pleasure to give an answer.

The question refers to Gen. 17:12, where Abraham is directed to circumcise the males of his household, including "every male... bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring."  Here, the Lord commands that slaves in Abraham's household be circumcized.  This is neither a command nor an endorsement of slavery, but rather an instruction regarding circumcision.  God is tolerating slavery, to be sure, just as he tolerated poligamy among the patriarchs. 

The other text deals with Philemon, to whom Paul writes with respect to his slave Onesimus, asking him to set Onesimus free.  In this case, Paul makes clear that he could require Philemon to free Onesimus, "yet for loves sake I prefer to appeal to you" (vv. 8-9). 

It is my belief that in both cases -- neither of which command nor explicitely endorse slavery -- God's toleration is a matter of progressive redemptive revelation.  In other words, first things first.  These passages neither endorse nor explicitely condemn slavery.  But elsewhere, the Bible does explicitely condemn slavery.  Where?  The answer is 1 Timothy 1:10, where Paul catalogs intolerable sins, including "the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjerurs, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine."  Here we have an explicit statement naming slavery -- literally, "man-stealing," that is, the sin of buying or selling human beings.

It is with this warrant that I look on other passages where the sin of man-stealing seems to be tolerated (or where Christians are asked to tolerate the injustice of slavery, such as Eph. 6:5-8) and understand that they do not constitute an endorsement of the practice.  Enslaving is a gross sin, right between homosexuality and habitual lying.  We may ask questions as to why God tolerated it or why Paul didn't come on stronger elsewhere -- questions regarding pastoral prudence, really -- but we do not have warrant to question the sinfulness of the practice.

I hope that is a helpful and clear answer.  I appreciate that the question did not include Old Testament slavery as another piece of evidence in support of man-stealing, since it was a completely different practice.  The slavery regulated under the old covenant really was something more like indentured servanthood as practiced by the original colonists of America.

P.S. Phil Ryken's upcoming commentary on 1st Timothy provides an outstanding treatment of the condemnation of slavery and our understanding of the issue.  Having read the commentary in full, I advise all our readers to buy when it comes out this summer.

Posted January 26, 2007 @ 1:34 AM by Rick Phillips
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