In a thread down lower, totally unrelated to this subject, slavery and the Bible came up and David Heddle made a comment that I want to reply to in full here. I want to move this up because I think this is a really important issue and, for me, it was hugely important. It was one of the key reasons why, as a young man, I ultimately decided that the Bible was not the word of God and left Christianity. I don’t intend this as a slam on David; it is entirely incidental that he happens to be the one making this argument, which could have been made by millions of others. When the subject was brought up, this is what he wrote:
What Paul is teaching is quite clear. Slavery existed and was legal at that time. Paul told slaves to obey the law which meant to obey their masters. End of story. There is no debate or controversy.
We can guess that neither Jesus nor Paul endorsed the Roman government, yet they both taught that Roman law was to be obeyed. So “slaves obey your master” is not teaching that slavery is morally acceptable any more than “pay your taxes to Rome” implies that the Roman government was moral.
The problem with this reasoning is that it requires that we condemn those who fought against slavery in America, where it was also legal at the time. We must bear in mind that Paul’s advice to Philemon was not one of mere practicality (don’t revolt because they may kill you if you do); for Paul, a Christian must obey the law because the lawmakers were endowed by God. Look at Romans 13:
1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to [execute] wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5. Wherefore [ye] must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
For Paul, clearly, human governments are ordained by God and if you do not obey them the punishment is damnation. This is a moral position for Paul, not merely a practical one. Just as clearly, then, this condemns the people who, for example, ran the underground railroad (a good many of them Christians, of course) and hid and helped runaway slaves. They were helping break the law.
Now, a Christian might reply that Paul’s admonition only applies when the government’s law does not violate God’s law, but bear in mind that there is not a single verse in the Bible that condemns slavery and dozens of verses that support it. At no point in the 1400 years or so that God was allegedly speaking to various authors and inspiring them to put his commandments into writing did he ever inspire one of them to write that owning another human being was a sin; all of them assumed, like all other cultures of their time, that slavery was normal and acceptable.
This is one of the primary reasons why I can no longer accept the Bible as the word of God, as I once did. It makes no sense that God could have found the time or interest to inspire men to pass on his commandments regarding the most mundane of things – whether to cut one’s hair, whether to wear mixed fabrics, how to dress, and so forth – yet never does he bother to say “don’t own slaves”. And this even when he had the perfect opportunity to do so when the events regarding Philemon present themselves to Paul. If God was indeed inspring Paul to write, why on earth would he not have Paul condemn slavery as contrary to the teachings of Christ? It simply makes no sense, nor do any of the apologetic rationalizations for it.