Slavery: a boiling hot topic anytime it arises. We are a century and a half removed from the awful history of slavery in our country but time has not removed the ill-feelings towards it, nor should it. The current national requests for the removal of the Confederate flag, because it has such strong ties with supporting slavery, has only rejuvenated the discussions and debates and deep feelings and dark thoughts on the subject — that have been present all along, if only just beneath the surface.
How do Christians interact with and respond to this? From a human dignity position, the answer would seem unquestionably clear as to what position we take. But when we turn to Scripture for support, to try to find the verses that proclaim without a doubt that God and His people detest slavery, how do we wrestle with what Scripture has to say about slavery, or more pointedly, what it doesn’t say. Scripture doesn’t condemn slavery. That’s mind boggling because the concept of slavery seems so far removed from the gospel of love and grace and freedom that we proclaim. What room is there for slavery, especially racist slavery, in the message of God’s redeeming work?
That question, or the lack of a clear answer, has been enough to turn many away from God’s Word and the gospel. How can they embrace a God who neglects human dignity by allowing for slavery and even abusive slavery? The Mosaic law gave restrictions to masters and allowances to slaves in the case of severe injuries – losing eyes or teeth (Exodus 21). And a master earned death or punishment if he was responsible for the death of a slave. But in that same verse, the slave is called the master’s “property”. How does objectification like that fit into the picture of God creating humans in his likeness and with dignity? And even that there are laws to punish severe cruelty of slaves would suggest room for (or at least turn a blind eye to) modest cruelty and abuse towards slaves.
What about a man being permitted by God to sell his daughter into slavery? What about a male slave being forced to chose between his own freedom and his family? What about a female slave having no say over when or to whom she is wedded, or even worse, not wedded but still taken advantage of?
These are difficult, painful, dark questions. I’ve heard a handful of teachings that attempt to (sometimes successfully) explain and reconcile this, some with more historical validity than others, some with more understanding and compassion than others. But if the reality of slavery – in ancient history, modern history, and even current times – is truly examined, I don’t see how it can or should sit well with a believer.
But today it hit me. A light bulb turned on. A moment of understanding – that may not explain all of what Scripture tells us about slavery, or every aspect of this immense issue – but that illuminated this subject in a way I had never considered it before. It’s a light that says, YES God allowed slavery, YES God ordained His people to practice ethical slavery, but that NO God does NOT prefer slavery, and quite possibly even that YES, GOD HATES SLAVERY!
Galatians 4:22-31 tells us.
Particularly verse 24 which explains that Hagar and Sarah function as allegories (not to discount the historical accuracy of their accounts), illustrating the two covenants, slavery through the law (Hagar), and freedom through grace (Sarah). Which is the entire message of Galatians. And the entire message of the Bible. The Mosaic Law was given as a shadow of the law of Christ to come (Hebrews 10). The old testament sacrifices to repeatedly atone (pay) for sins were a picture that paved the way for the Perfect Lamb who would make the sacrifice and atonement (payment) ONCE AND FOR ALL. The Law of Moses served to reveal sin so that we could seek redemption and freedom from that sin (Romans 7).
And even though I’ve read it so many times in so many ways, the analogy of slavery and freedom for sin and salvation suddenly hit home. I mean, I’ve KNOWN the analogy is there, it’s undeniable all throughout Scripture. I’ve KNOWN what it means. I’ve KNOWN how it feels to pray, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). But suddenly all of Scripture unfolded before me. Suddenly I saw that I’ve been thinking about it backwards or inside out. Human slavery is not the source, the original truth, from which spiritual slavery and freedom borrowed the analogy. Rather, spiritual slavery and freedom is the source, the original truth, that God designed an analogy for when he ordained and allowed for human slavery.
From the first time in ancient history that one man forced his power and control over another, slavery was meant to demonstrate the depth of depravity of sin. God allowed slavery and even designed slavery to give us a real, tangible, first-hand illustration – NOT to degrade human dignity – but precisely to emphasize the depth of human dignity. That human dignity is not to be found in the fallen, sinful state we are inescapably born into, but that human dignity can ONLY be fully and truly found in being broken free from slavery, primarily slavery to sin.
So…God would allow millions of people, entire nations and people-groups, over the span of millennia to be deprived of choice & freedom, brutally abused, tortured, starved, raped, orphaned, widowed, murdered…all for an analogy?
Yes. Because that analogy would save billions from a far-worse slavery that would last for far beyond millenia, into eternity. I’m not trying to say this should be an easy answer that settles well with us. It should burden us unbearably. It should ache into our very bones. The curse of sin is horrendous. It IS sin that leads to slavery. It IS sin that causes human slavery to be painful and bitter and destructive, regardless of when in history it happened or with what people group. It IS that awful sin in the here and now that will lead to the eternal devastation of souls. And that is precisely why and how and where we seek freedom in the only source that will ensure true, eternal freedom. We seek it for the sake of human dignity. A human dignity that can never be truly reached in the state of sinful fallenness, but that must come from a rebirth that can only result from understanding the deep, dark reality of slavery and therefore the rich, bliss of freedom.
Someone shared the point with me yesterday that if the Messiah that the Jews had awaited for so long had come as they expected him to come – an earthly King who would save them politically from Roman oppression, and not as the perfect lamb to die – that the entire nation, and earth for that matter, would be obliterated. The religious Jews were expecting “Thy Kingdom come” but God’s kingdom was for the redeemed – those who had been made imperishable by the blood of the Lamb (including Old Testament saints whose faith rested in the fulfillment of that promise). If the Messiah did not disappoint their expectations, by coming instead to die and make all things new, there would be no one to bring into the kingdom. No one on earth would be made imperishable and the coming of God’s Kingdom would cause them all to perish because it could not be tainted by the Kingdom of the imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:50)
Some of the most precious hymns, and really the entire genre of gospel music, originated from black slaves who desperately sought freedom from oppression in the American South. I can only imagine how much they wished and hoped and desperately dreamed that the freedom they sang about would come in a tangible form during their lifetime. But the hymns often reflect an admirably eternal perspective, acknowledging that even if they weren’t freed from human slavery here on earth, they would receive true freedom from sin and oppression when they faced death.
“Oh, soon to glory we will go/
Down by the riverside”
“When I’m dying/
Do remember me/
Do Lord, remember me”
“Oh, when I come to die/ Give me Jesus”
“Goin’ meet King Jesus in the air/ I thank God I’m free at last”
In that way, slaves must have had an immensely deeper understanding the gospel and the freedom that the gospel brings, than those of us who haven’t experienced any form of human slavery. Because they understood the bitter turmoil of the effects of sin more than most of us ever will, it’s sure that those who trusted Christ are experiencing a blissful freedom from sin and human anguish beyond what we can ever comprehend (Luke 7:47). I know I have absolutely no place to speak to a slave’s experiences, either to try to relate to the weight of the negative they experienced or to try to project positivity. But I do know what Galatians teaches us. And now I understand it better.
“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking: for these women are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sanai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written,
‘Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear;
Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor;
For more are the children of the desolate
Than of the one who has a husband.’
And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say?
‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son,
For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.’
So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.”
In short, this passage is saying: You are saved and given true, lasting freedom entirely by the promise of God’s grace through the new covenant of Christ, not based on the rituals or actions of the old covenant of the law of Moses that try to earn salvation but that will never grant true, lasting freedom. AND SLAVERY IS THE GOD-GIVEN ALLEGORY FOR THIS.
(Notice Hagar was a bondwoman. To put it bluntly: a slave.)
In the words of John MacArthur explaining the casting out of Hagar, in his chapter on Sarah from the book Twelve Extraordinary Women: “Harsh as it may have seemed, there was a very crucial, necessary, and positive spiritual principle in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. This symbolized the important truth that the kind of religion that is dependent on human effort (symbolized by the carnal scheme that conceived Ishmael as an artificial fulfillment of God’s promise) is utterly incompatible with divine grace (symbolized by Isaac, the true heir of God’s promise). And the two are so hostile to one another that they cannot even abide in close proximity.”
The account of Abraham and his heirs is an odd one for our culture to comprehend, and maybe for any culture. It’s hard to process what the individuals in the account must have experienced. So much personal anguish and injustice in the story, from every perspective. It can’t really be explained from a human dignity perspective, why God would allow it. Unless God had something bigger going on. Unless there was something more at stake here than Abraham or Sarah or Hagar or Isaac or Ishmael (which takes a bit of humility to accept).
Among other, obvious, big-picture plans, God very specifically wanted to use this instance of slavery (Hagar) to illustrate salvation by grace alone. This wasn’t an afterthought. God didn’t spell out this Genesis account just to think back to it while he was inspiring Paul to write Galatians and tell Paul, “Oh hey, this works as a good allegory, use this!” It was God’s intention from the beginning of Abraham’s life to work out the details to provide the Galatian believers (and all believers to follow) an allegory of freedom through grace-based salvation versus slavery through works-based attempts at salvation. It was God’s intention from the beginning of time when he allowed sin to penetrate this world –knowing all of the devastating affects it would have — to allow sin to lead to human slavery and even wretchedly abusive slavery, in order to paint the very real and very grotesque picture of what slavery to sin looks like so that he could draw His children away from the terrors of being enslaved to sin and into the comfort and peace of true freedom from sin that comes by grace alone. That’s why God would permit and not condemn slavery — a representation of the captivity to the sin which he hates — even among His people Israel, and later among the church His bride. He needed the illustration to persist and its filth to convict and speak to our needy hearts.
I know there’s still plenty of loose-ends to work through in these thoughts on slavery and salvation but God’s big-picture use of slavery throughout Scripture and history is undeniable. He’s consistently revealed Himself and His ways through Scripture in such a way that we know He sovereignly causes all things to work for His good and glory (Romans 8:28, Genesis 50:20) even when others mean them for harm and destruction and pure wickedness. But neither in any way does God commit evil nor condone evil. And in every way His character is absolutely upright and just and good. The only conclusion then, when discussing any sin, tragedy, travesty, disaster, you name it, is that God justly ordained it (designed it, not just allowed it, because He’s bigger and bolder than that) and that the end results (even a very far away end) will be absolutely good and God-glorifying. The same is true of the wretched history of slavery. Since slavery illustrates sin and it’s devastation, God absolutely hates slavery. But what He hates more, and what He simply can’t tolerate, is letting sin triumph. So neither will slavery triumph. Hence why God gave our world slavery, to draw His children away from sin and to provide ultimate freedom beyond our comprehension.
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.”
Disclaimer: I’m NOT AT ALL intending this post to be an exhaustive analysis of the Scriptures (NOR history!) on this topic, NOR imagining I am considering all the questions to be answered. I know it’s a massive discussion to be had and I’m only touching on the tip of the iceberg. But for me, it was the tip that revealed the potential rest of the iceberg to me. So this is a personal reflection on one passage (Galatians 4) and a proposed theory of how that passage enlightens our understanding of topic of slavery and how it relates to the rest of Scripture.