Scripture, Slavery, and Social Activism
November 18, 2016
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.