In a fortune cookie I once read what was purported to be a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. In these current interesting times, everything one says or does, no matter how innocent the circumstances, seems to cause offense. Particularly, everything the Christian says or does; particularly on social media.
A friend of mine at work came to me seeking some advice after a nasty exchange on Facebook with one of his militant atheist friends. My friend, who is a Christian, but could not be considered a “Bible-thumper” by any stretch of the imagination, had posted a rather popular meme on his Facebook page. The meme elicited such a vigorous response in the form of comments attempting to “refute” Christianity that my friend was confused and troubled.
The meme (pictured above) depicts the thin blue line, and a Bible verse. The thin blue line is a symbol used by law enforcement around the world to commemorate fallen law enforcement officers and to symbolize the relationship of law enforcement in the community as the protectors of fellow civilians from criminal elements. The Bible verse was Romans 13:4, “…for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Anti-police sentiment in today’s political climate is hardly surprising, especially to most police officers. The comment which bothered my friend the most, however, was one which misused another verse of Scripture:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly (Leviticus 25:44-46).
The commenter went on to say how despicable it was for the Bible to advocate slavery, to instruct God’s Chosen People to oppress their neighbors, and that we certainly shouldn’t heed anything it has to say because we have evolved to become more enlightened.
My friend was unaware of such a verse in the Bible, and did not know how to respond. He came and asked me what I would say to his friend. Well, here goes…
Slavery was designed to pay a debt to a debtor, and once the debt was paid, the person was free. A slave could buy his own freedom from the profits of his selling his property. It is noteworthy that many people became bond-slaves (pledged to remain in his master’s household for life) because their situation was better as a slave than as a free person. We sometimes assume a modern frame of reference when we talk about these things, but one must remember that life was extremely hard during these times, and to be free meant you had no guarantees that you would have enough food to eat or even a decent house to shelter your family. Add to that taxes from the ruling governments, no protection from raiding parties or foreign invaders and the expense of buying tools to accomplish tasks and you can see how being part of a larger organization could be inviting. You would share in the collective efforts of many people and have access to the resources of a rich master – much the same way the feudal serf system was constructed in the Middle Ages (Esposito n.d.).
In fact, some theologians, such as Dr. John Nordling, suggest that slavery in antiquity, at least during New Testament times, may have been viewed by society as a morally ambiguous institution. Nordling goes on to make a connection between the New Testament type of slavery and the Christian doctrine of vocation.
Usually emphasized are certain undeniably negative aspects of slavery to which slaves were subject, such as violence and sexual exploitation. Although one may not dispute these findings, I find problematic the idea that gratuitous violence, disgrace, and degradation were endemic to ancient slavery as such. That opinion cannot abide the possibility that slavery—at other times and amid other peoples—may have existed far differently than it did among Americans in the antebellum South, for example. The first Christians offer a case in point: for them, slavery was arguably a morally ambiguous institution. One might say that slavery for them was neither completely good nor uniformly bad but simply the place where untold numbers of Christians demonstrated their faith in Christ by engaging in service to the neighbor. If this is approximately the role that slavery played among the first Christians, then one could reasonably argue that biblical slavery remains pertinent for Christians still today and so should be studied for its applicability to actually being a Christian in concrete situations (Nordling 2009).
Each slave kept his dignity as a human being. No Israelite could be forced into slavery. Even if he signed a contract to become another man’s servant, God’s Law cancelled the contract at the end of 7 years (Exodus 21:2-6). A slave became a member of his owner’s family. He enjoyed the rights of any other family member (except the right of inheritance, of course). If the slave was a foreigner, his owner could circumcise him and invite him to worship with other Jews (Exodus 12:44; Deuteronomy 12:18; 16:10-11)…Even though the Bible allowed slavery, its regulations reminded the Israelites that every person was created in the image of God – including the slave (Packer and Tenney 1980).
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:15-23).
Although many people consider freedom to be the ultimate human right, no one is truly free spiritually. We were slaves to sin and bound to death. Knowing this, Jesus came to serve us by giving His life on the cross and rising for us. Freed from sin, we can now serve God. Only when we are “slaves” to God will we have freedom to be the people he created us to be (Engelbrecht 2009).
Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
Esposito, Lenny. “Does the Bible Aprove of Slavery?” Come Reason Ministries. http://www.comereason.org/slavery-in-the-bible.asp (accessed March 12, 2016).
Nordling, John G. “A More Positive View of Slavery: Establishing Servile Identity in the Christian Assemblies.” Bulletin for Biblical Research, 2009: 63-84.
Packer, J. I., and M. C. Tenney, . Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980.
 John G. Nordling, Philemon, CC (St. Louis: Concordia, 2004), 43, 44, 59, 69-70, 138.