Freedom from Slavery
‘…If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed…’ (John 8, 36).
It seems that early Christians regarded slaves who converted to have been ‘set free’ spiritually; all Christians were ‘citizens’ of Christ's kingdom. However, slaves were also told to obey their masters "with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ."
It is evident that slavery was basic to the social and economic environment of the C1 Roman world. Hence, many early Christians were slaves. That is why in the NT, slaves are admonished to obey their masters, ‘as to the Lord, and not to men’. Basically, "you have the same Master in heaven, with him there is no partiality." The key text is Paul's declaration in his letter to the Galatian churches that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.", Paul's instructions to slaves in the Letter to Titus, appear among a list of instructions for people in a range of life situations.
The usefulness to the 19th century pro-slavery apologists of what Paul says here is obvious: "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour.” The prevailing view in NT times, as expressed by Paul, appears to be thus, "Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called." For slaves, however, he specifically adds this: "Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it. But if you are able to gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity." And then follows a wider principle: "For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ." Such language was often used by defenders of slavery prior to the American Civil War; hence it was Christian slave owners who were very much in the ‘firing line’ as far as C19 abolitionists were concerned.
“...I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land... I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of 'stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.' I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cow skin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus… The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.” (Frederick Douglass).
The Christian Church has had a long and uncomfortable history as far as slavery is concerned. As recently as 2007, the Council of the BUGB issued an apology in respect of the involvement of Christians from this country in the C19 slave-trade…
‘As a Council we have listened to one another, we have heard the pain of hurting sisters and brothers and we have heard God speaking to us. In a spirit of weakness, humility and vulnerability, we acknowledge that we are only at the start of a journey but we are agreed that this must not prevent us speaking and acting at a Kairos moment. Therefore, we acknowledge our share in and benefit from our nation’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade. We acknowledge that we speak as those who have shared in and suffered from the legacy of slavery and its appalling consequences for God’s world. We offer our apology to God and to our brothers and sisters for all that has created and still perpetuates the hurt which originated from the horror of slavery. We repent of the hurt we have caused, the divisions we have created, our reluctance to face up to the sin of the past, our unwillingness to listen to the pain of our black sisters and brothers, and our silence in the face of racism and injustice today. We commit ourselves, in a true spirit of repentance, to take what we have heard learned from God in the Council and to share it widely in our Baptist community and beyond, looking for Gospel ways by which we can turn the words and feelings we have expressed today into concrete actions and contribute to the prophetic work of God’s coming kingdom…’Earlier we prayed ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. Of course, it is true that to become a Christian is a truly liberating experience whatever one’s circumstances, but that liberating experience has to authenticate itself in the desire to see those presently enslaved to masters not of their choosing set free, liberated, from the living hell that such circumstances represent – and we have ample evidence that the ‘slave -trade’ is growing in C21 Britain. Anti-Slavery international catalogues a whole range of activities in which slavery flourishes: agriculture, hospitality, domestic service, the sex industry etc., It behoves us as Christians to seek not just its abolition but its eradication…