Results tagged “slavery” from Reformation21 Blog

Scripture, Slavery, and Social Activism

Last year I finished a short sermon series on the book of Ephesians. One of the sections of Ephesians which I approached with a sense of fear and trepidation was that which deals with the relationship between masters and slaves (Eph. 6:5-9). After all, in our racially super-charged culture, how does one even mention the subject of slavery without immediately losing his hearing? Nevertheless, we still have to face the thorny question of how the Apostle Paul seemed to accept slavery as an institution in his day--rather than insist that it is the responsibility of the church to overthrow it. While many related subjects on the issue of slavery in the Old Testament and in Paul's day deserve careful treatment (i.e. the Exodus, the deliverance built into the law concerning slavery in Ex. 21, indentured servitude vs man-stealing and the Apostolic teaching on abolition in 1 Cor. 7), I found Martyn Lloyd-Jones's sermons on Ephesians 6:5-9 to be among the richest and most carefully developed treatments of this subject that I came across. Of particular interest is the way in which he sought to balance the role of the church and the role of individual believers in regard to social activism. 

At the outset, Lloyd-Jones sought to explain the purport of Ephesians 6:5-9: 

"Christianity is not concerned to condone such practices as slavery, it is not here as a defense of the status quo....The Bible's concern, Christianity's concern, is as to how the Christian should react to these things, and how he is to live in such a world as this. That is the essence of the teaching, and we have it here. Paul, when he comes to 'servants and masters', does not begin to give his views as a Christian on the question of slavery. 'Servants', he says, 'be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye service...' In other words his one interest is as to how they are to conduct themselves as Christians in that situation. Likewise with the masters. 'You masters, do the same unto them, forbearing threatening.' He does not tell them to give up their slaves; instead, he says, 'Do not threaten them, do not be unkind, do not be cruel to them, "knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with Him".'1 

Anticipating the immediate reactions, Lloyd-Jones continued:

"Someone may ask, 'Well then, what about improving conditions? Are you not in reality simply taking up, after all, a defense of that status quo? You say you are not doing that, but in effect you are doing so. You are saying that the Christian is not be concerned about the conditions, but that he should concentrate on Christ-like behavior in the conditions'. The answer to this question is quite plain. It is not the business of the church to be concerned about improving conditions; her business always is to be laying down the biblical principles I have been expounding. She should never attack the circumstances and the conditions directly. But, at the same time, that does not mean that the individual Christian as a citizen of a country should not be concerned about improving conditions. There, it seems to me, is the dividing line. The individual Christian is never to take the law into his own hands, he is never to act as an individual. But that does not mean that as a citizen of the country to which he belongs he is not entitled to take part in improving the circumstances and conditions in which he and others live.2 

Of course, this still leaves the question opened as to whether or not Christians have a responsibility to work against the evils and injustices of a given society. Lloyd-Jones proceeded to answer this question when he said: 

"It works in the following way. The Christian message is primarily concerned to produce Christians. It preaches its Gospel, it convicts men of sin, it calls them to Jesus' blood, it brings them to this Word by which they can be born again by the power of the Spirit, it changes men. Then, having changed them in that way, it goes on to teach them these great principles. That is the direct task and business of the church. But as the church does that, she is indirectly doing something else; she is obviously influencing the whole personality of such people--their mind, their thinking, their understanding. And the moment that begins to happen to men they begin to see things in a different way and they begin to apply their thinking to daily living."3

Finally, Lloyd-Jones set forth William Wilberforce, the great 19th Century Brittish Philanthropists and abolitionist, as an example of this principle. He noted: 

"There is not a word in the Bible which tells men to abolish slavery; and yet we know that it was Christian men who eventually brought that to pass. And that is exactly in accordance with biblical teaching. There is no command to do it; the Bible does not deal with these things directly, and yet when men become Christians they begin to think, and they think on both sides of the question. I have given an example of how working men began to think. But on the other side look at William Wilberforce. He was a wealthy man, born in the lap of luxury. Why did he become concerned about the question of slavery? There is only one answer to the question. It was his conversion. William Wilberforce underwent a conversion as radical as that of the drunken miners outside Bristol. He was entirely changed, and from being a society fop he became a great reformer, and as his mind became more and more Christian, he began to look at the question of slavery and saw that slavery was wrong. Not because he found a specific command in the Bible but because of his general thinking and his general Christian outlook!...And so it has always happened! It is not the task of the church to deal directly with these problems. The tragedy today is that while the church is talking about these particular problems and dealing directly with politics and economics and social conditions, no Christians are being produced, and the conditions are worsening and the problems mounting. It is as the church produces Christians that she changes the conditions; but always indirectly."4

In these sermons, we find MLJ adopting what has sometimes been called a "spirituality doctrine of the church." In his thinking, the best way to reconcile the totality of the biblical data on this subject was to insist that the mission of God for the church as the church is more narrow in scope than the mission of God for the Christian as an individual believer and citizen. The principles that MLJ applied to the issue of slavery in the 1st and 19th Centuries can be equally applied to the role of the church and the individual Christian regarding social injustices of our day. Whether or not one is fully convinced of the precise application of the worldview espoused by the Doctor, it's important to acknowledge that, if anything, he sought to deal honestly and faithfully with the biblical exegesis of one of the most difficult of biblical subjects. 

1. Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1974). Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home and Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18-6:9 (pp. 323-324). Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.
2. Ibid., pp. 325-326.
3. Ibid., pp. pp. 327-328.
4.  Ibid.

"Hagar, servant of Sarai." So the angel of the Lord addressed the Egyptian slave (Gen. 16.8) who had the great misfortune to be drawn into Abraham and Sarah's scheme to assist the realization of God's promise (Gen. 16.1-6). Upon the surface, this address -- and especially the appellation "servant of Sarai" -- may seem fairly innocuous. But Calvin discovers profound truth in these words.

"By the use of this epithet," he writes, "the angel declares that [Hagar] still remained a servant, though she had escaped the hands of her mistress; because liberty is not to be obtained by stealth, nor by flight, but by manumission." By addressing her as "servant of Sarai," in other words, the angel makes it clear to Hagar that her goal -- namely, riddance of a jealous and harsh master -- is not really within her power to obtain. She remaines a "servant of Sarai" no matter how much distance she puts between herself and Sarah; all she has really secured by her flight, then, is culpability for that flight. Calvin reinforces his reading of the angel's intent in so addressing Hagar by highlighting biblical texts which, to his thinking, confirm the responsibility of servants to remain subject to their masters, however "unjust" such masters might be (cf. Eph. 6.4).

Calvin's point is fair (though arguably curious in light of his previous claim, with reference to Gen. 12.5, that slavery as such constitutes a violation of the "order of nature"). The subsequent point he draws from God's address to Hagar is perhaps less (exegetically) obvious or persuasive, though may be more practical to at least the majority of present-day readers. "Moreover," Calvin continues, "by this expression God shows that he approves of civil government, and that the violation of it is inexcusable."

Given the absence of any obvious reference to "civil government" (or the Christian's responsibility toward the same) in the text, Calvin's transition to this subject seems strange. It's tempting to dismiss this as a random effort on Calvin's part -- largely unrelated to the biblical text in hand -- to reassure civil authorities (say, Geneva's small council or the French crown) that he and like-minded reformers (and their followers) posed no threat to any given state (i.e., that they were not Anabaptists). But as he continues, the logic of Calvin's transition becomes clearer (if not more compelling).

Calvin views the relationship between Sarah and Hagar -- the relationship, that is, between master and servant -- as paradigmatic for the relationship between "lawful authorities" of every kind and their rightful subjects. Thus he ultimately discovers in Hagar's flight and God's corrective to her assumed success in "shaking off the yoke" of Sarah's authority a lesson not only for other slaves (though he judges, somewhat prematurely as it turns out, the "barbarity" of slavery to be largely "abolished" in his time), but also civil subjects (in relation to civil authorities) and children (in relation to their parents). "If the flight of Hagar was prohibited by the command of God, much less will he bear with the licentiousness of a people who rebel against their prince; or with the contumacy of children who withdraw themselves from obedience to their parents."

Calvin is not blind to the reality that "lawful authorities" of each named kind regularly abuse, to some extent or another, the power they lawfully hold over others. "They who have proudly and tyrannically governed shall one day render their account to God." But abuse of authority provides no license to disregard or disobey the same: "meanwhile their asperity is to be borne by their subjects." Elsewhere Calvin qualifies this point ever so slightly by reminding his readers that obedience to God trumps obedience to human persons and institutions. He thus provides some space for (civil) disobedience, but only that which is entirely passive in form, and likely to lead to persecution if not martyrdom.

In sum, then, we gain a rather practical exhortation from Hagar's example: "Whenever it comes into our mind to defraud any [authority] of his [or her] right, or to seek exemption from our proper calling, let the voice of the angel sound in our ears, as if God would draw us back, by putting his own hand upon us." When tempted, in other words, to offer our parents, employers, and/or civil authorities anything less than proper obedience, or otherwise to challenge our station in life, let us hear the words "servant of Sarai" spoken over us and repent of our own rebellious flights (whether real or metaphorical in kind).

But if we stand to learn, from Hagar's flight, a lesson on proper submission to "lawful authorities," we also stand to learn something about Almighty God's tender and fatherly care -- even for the runners -- from God's dealings with Hagar. Calvin discovers tenderness and grace in God's response to Hagar in at least three regards. Grace is evident, first of all, in the gentle, questioning approach the angel of the Lord takes towards Hagar. "Where have you come from, and where are you going?" the angel asks, obviously knowing the answers since he has just addressed her by name ("Hagar") and station ("servant of Sarai"). These questions are, of course, pointed, and intended to produce repentance, but nevertheless tender in comparison to more direct words which might justifiably have been spoken.

Grace is evident, secondly, in the angel's subsequent affirmation to Hagar that "the Lord has listened to your affliction" (Gen. 16.11). Hagar's plight with Sarah, in other words, is fully on God's radar screen, and he will take up her cause. Calvin deems God's interest in Hagar and her predicament all the more remarkable since "we do not read that Hagar, in her difficulties, had recourse to prayer." In other words, God heard Hagar's complaint even when such wasn't directed to him in the form of petition. "It is therefore to be observed," Calvin reasons, "that there are two ways in which God looks down upon men, for the purpose of helping them; either when they, as suppliants, implore his aid; or when he, even unasked, succours them in their afflictions."

But God's tenderness and grace is most evident, thirdly, in the instructions given to Hagar to "return to your mistress and submit to her" (Gen. 16.9). This is counter-intuitive, of course. How can it be gracious to send Hagar back into the storm (as it were) -- back into the hand of a master who resents her and has mistreated her? The profoundly gracious nature of this command stems from the true identity of that specific home towards which Hagar is here (re)directed. As Calvin explains, "that house ... was then the earthly sanctuary of God." In other words, the command issued to Hagar to "return to your mistress" was really a command to return to the bosom of the Church, the peculiar object of God's love and recipient of his promises. By sending Hagar back into "the earthly sanctuary of God," God was essentially situating her as an heir and beneficiary of those things he had pledged to Abraham -- namely, a Seed who would come to rescue God's people from guilt and sin, and a heavenly land in which God himself would be the principal joy and delight.

To put it another way, God sent Hagar back into slavery in order, ultimately, to make her truly free. Armed with that perspective, one suspects Hagar returned to her rather unsavory circumstances with much joy and confidence in her God (cf. Gen. 16.13).

Scripture's account of Abraham's trip from Ur to Canaan via Haran, subsequent ramble through the Promised Land, and short but eventful stay in Egypt before rewinding his course through Canaan, provides Calvin with ample opportunity to reflect upon the nature of human faith in response to God's vocation and promises. "All should form themselves," Calvin contends, "to the imitation of [Abraham's] example" -- his example, that is, of faith. No matter his wife's barren status, Abraham took God at his word when God pledged himself to multiply Abraham's progeny (Gen. 12.2) and make him the father of one particular Man, the long promised Seed (Gen. 3.15), who would bless all peoples with restoration from their guilty and depraved plight (Gen. 12.3; cf. Gal. 3.16). Of course, nothing short of a share in "heaven itself" is at stake in our own "imitation" of Abraham's faith in God's promises (see Rom. 4).

The same narrative affords Calvin the chance to reflect on the less significant, albeit intriguing, subjects of human slavery, travel/expatriation, and worldly wealth.

Comments on slavery follow from the reference to such in Gen. 12.5: "And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan." According to Calvin, "this is the first mention of servitude" in Scripture. Thus "it appears," he suggests, "that not long after the deluge the wickedness of man caused liberty which, by nature, was common to all, to perish with respect to a great part of mankind."

Calvin spends some time pondering how it came to pass that "a great part of mankind" found their natural freedom forfeit. Two possibilities present themselves: either men were driven to sell themselves into slavery by their own poverty, or the victors in some war "compelled those whom they took in battle to serve them." Regardless, "the order of nature was violently infringed" by the introduction of slavery into human experience," because "men," Calvin opines, "were created for the purpose of cultivating mutual society" -- not servitude -- "between each other." Calvin is not, of course, opposed to positions of authority in society: "It is advantageous that some should preside over others." But slavery, he believes, crosses the line into human oppression and violates the basic "equality" which "ought to have been retained" among men "as among brethren."

Calvin's disapproval of slavery, however, does not lead him to endorse uprisings for those who find themselves victims of it. "Although slavery is contrary to that right government which is most desirable, and in its commencement was not without fault; it does not, on this account, follow, that the use of it, which was afterwards received by custom, and excused by necessity, is unlawful." This claim, of course, goes some way toward vindicating Abraham for having apparently possessed "both servants bought with money, and slaves born in his house." It's probable that Calvin also has an eye towards the apostle Paul's apparent instructions to slaves not to seek freedom through dubious means, but to submit to their masters. However much slavery might constitute a "violent infringement" upon the proper "order of nature," no rebellious corrective to such infringement is warranted.

Calvin's comments on travel and expatriation are more scattered, cropping up at various points where Abraham and family are on the move in the narrative. One gets the impression in reading Calvin's comments here that he was rather uncomfortable with the extent of Abraham's migrations, no matter their divine impetus, and wished to discourage his readers from imitating Abraham's movements in addition to Abraham's faith. Thus Calvin accents the divine word which demanded Abraham's initial exodus from Ur, and notes that Abraham and travelling company "were not impelled by levity" to leave their homeland, "as rash and fickle men are wont to be; nor [were they] drawn to other regions by disgust with their own country, as morose persons frequently are; nor were [they] fugitives on account of crime; nor were [they] led away by any foolish hope, or by allurements, as many are hurried hither and thither by their own desires." Calvin's fairly exhaustive list of inappropriate reasons for leaving one's homeland leaves few valid reasons for doing so beyond, of course, that of (like Abraham) being "divinely commanded to go forth."

Calvin is subsequently eager to make it clear that Abraham's migrations within the Promised Land were fueled by persecution from its Canaanite inhabitants, and ultimately served to orient him towards Heaven, and in no way sprung from his having been bitten by the travel bug. "It is certain that he did not voluntarily, and for his own gratification, run hither and thither (as light-minded persons are wont to do); but there were certain necessities which drove him forth, in order to teach him, by continual habit, that he was not only a stranger, but a wretched wanderer in the land of which he was the lord.... In this respect [Abraham] is very unlike many, who are hurried away, by every slight occasion, to desert their proper calling."

Calvin's comments on prosperity follow Scripture's observation that Abraham, following his exodus from Egypt, was "very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold" (Gen. 13.2). The Reformer capitalizes on this reference to Abraham's apparent wealth to observe "two extremes" which should be avoided in our own thoughts on prosperity. "Many," he observes, "[wrongly] place angelical perfection in poverty; as if it were impossible to cultivate piety and to serve God, unless riches are cast away." Calvin reprimands such "fanatics [who] repel rich men from the hope of salvation, as if poverty were the only gate of heaven," and astutely observes, without further explanation, that poverty "sometimes involves men in more hindrances [to true faith] than riches."

"On the other hand," Calvin notes, "we must beware of the opposite evil; lest riches should cast a stumbling-block in our way, or should so burden us, that we should the less readily advance towards the kingdom of heaven." Calvin's comments on poverty/prosperity demonstrate a good grasp of the truth that it is not wealth (or the lack thereof) per se, but how one deals with wealth, that dictates the degree of difficulty wealth poses to salvation. After all, Scripture names "the love of money," not money itself, as "the root of all evil" (1 Tim. 6.10), and Paul encourages his readers to imitate him in learning contentment (and, presumably, every other virtue) whether they discover themselves "living in plenty or in want" (Phil. 4.12).

In the end, Calvin's comments on slavery, travel/expatriation, and prosperity are more connected than they might seem, and more connected to the main theme of divine promises and human faith in this biblical passage than they might seem. There is an emphasis in Calvin's comments on each of these subjects upon accepting one's station and place in this life, and -- like Abraham -- setting one's sights upon the Heavenly Canaan that God still promises his children. Whether one finds himself slave or free, Spanish or French, scraping the bottom of the barrel or minted, he shouldn't chiefly busy himself with reconfiguring his earthly portion, but with fulfilling his duties, wherever God has placed him, in humble but confident hope of a heavenly inheritance that will render all earthly circumstances and stations deplorable by comparison. Such resignation, as it were, to one's place and station in life might prove a hard pill to swallow to present-day persons who are regularly sold (and regularly purchase) the gospel of self-reinvention which the modern world peddles. But Calvin's advice, as usual, might have merit.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

In honor of it's bicentennial, Reformed Presbyeterian Theological Seminary ( in Pittsburgh PA) is releasing digital copies from it's rare books room free to the public. This month, in conjunction with Black History month, RPTS is featuring Alexander McLeod's 1802 work, "Negro Slavery Unjustifiable: A Discourse".  In addition to the reading, a short documentary featuring excerpts from McLeod's work and Negro spirituals has been produced by the Seminary.