So I caused a little Facebook/Twitter disturbance yesterday when I pointed out that by the current trends many Christians may be surprised to find out that Abraham owned slaves. I suggested maybe a committee be formed to study the matter and bring back an appropriately remorseful report or perhaps at the next Big Eva conference Q/A panel discussion, the question could be raised as to whether we ought to quote Abraham anymore in our sermons. Then Facebook and Twitter discussion ensued.
The point of this and why I think it worth pointing out is that conservative Bible believing Christians really are backing themselves into untenable corners. Somewhat more liberal Christians see the corners and are far more clear. They see the options: either we must admit that the Bible is “immoral” by modern woke standards or else we must abandon old school notions of biblical authority. And several folks on Twitter were kind enough to point those options out – opting for looser standards of biblical authority themselves.
What the Bible Says
Of course one reasonable question in return would be: but didn’t lots of Bible characters do bad things? Just because a Bible character does something, we don’t hold that up as an example to emulate. Description is not the same thing as prescription. Take Abraham’s shacking up with his female slave, Hagar, and trying produce an heir that way – not exactly his shining moment. So right, this isn’t a blank check to write for anything somebody in the Bible did. But my point is that specifically with regard to buying, owning, and inheriting slaves, the Bible has quite a bit to say prescriptively and explicitly permits, regulates, and even implies in at least one place that owning slaves can be considered a material blessing from God:
“The LORD has blessed my master [Abraham] greatly, and he has become great; and He has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen. 24:35).
Likewise, later in the law, “And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have– from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves” (Lev. 25:44-46).
And the New Testament echoes this basic stance: “Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 3:22-4:1).
What is particularly striking about this portion of Colossians is that this letter was sent by the hand of Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7-9). Onesimus was a runaway slave who had met Paul and been converted to Christ, and Paul was returning him to his master, Philemon, who was a Christian and a member of the church in Colossae. So Paul wrote what he wrote in general to the whole church in Colossae, Christian slave owners included, and then on top of that, he wrote a personal appeal to Philemon in the book of Philemon which was almost certainly hand delivered by his runaway slave, now converted, Onesimus. A careful reading of Philemon reveals Paul clearly requesting that Philemon forgive Onesimus and receive him as a brother, with the clear implication that Philemon set Onesimus free, but Paul does not command Philemon to do so or demand it immediately. In other words, while Paul makes a play on the principle of justice, alluding to a debt that Philemon owes him (Phlm 19), that play itself suggests Paul understood that Philemon had some legitimate claim on Onesimus. But regardless, Paul makes it clear that Onesimus’s freedom is not a matter of absolute justice and therefore Paul did not consider it appropriate to make that decision himself. Rather, he recognized Philemon’s right to make that decision willingly (Phlm 14).
Standards of Woketudeness
Now, if you don’t yet see how the Bible ain’t woke, you’ve clearly not been paying attention. By modern standards of woketudeness, Paul is so unwoke, he probably thinks Samson and Jephthah were heroes of the faith. But this is the point: the Bible clearly teaches that owning a slave, inheriting a slave, even buying a slave was not in itself sinful, evil, wicked, or necessarily wrong. This is not to say that slavery was good, ideal, or not attended with all kinds of sin and evil. But if the Bible is our standard, then we must receive it and submit to it as it stands, not as we wish it might have been. So my point in the original tweet is that it is simply not enough to note that Jonathan Edwards, the puritans, or the founders of Southern Seminary owned slaves. Far more work must be done to demonstrate that these men sinned in their treatment of their slaves. And furthermore, even where sin can be clearly demonstrated, there must be a bright and shining light of demarcation between disqualifying sin and the endemic sins of the human race. We must not pretend to be more holy than God. So for example, Hebrews 11 clearly lists a number of heroes of the faith that would have a hard time getting jobs at a modern conservative Reformed church or seminary. No asterisks, no footnotes, no qualifications: Samson, hero of the faith, Jephthah, hero of the faith, David, hero of the faith, and of course Abraham, hero of the faith – should we be quoting those men in our sermons and why has no one seriously asked this question yet? But the Holy Spirit’s authoritative appraisal of those men is faithful– flaws, warts, and all. That ain’t woke, bro.
Why This Matters
But this is why all of this matters: When we have conservative Bible believing Christians seriously entertaining the question of whether it is appropriate to cite fathers in the faith due to the mere fact of slave holding, we have joined forces with the enemies of gospel civilization. What is the standard by which we are judging? The standard is clearly not God’s word. The standard is worldly sentiment, humanistic whims, the muttering woke-priests of our American high places. And when we are in the process of exchanging God’s standard for a human standard, we are always necessarily in the process of exchanging God’s salvation for a human attempt at salvation, which is like exchanging a working parachute for six bricks in a briefcase. Moral codes and moral standards expose sin, expose failure, and then the follow up question in the face of sin and failure is always, what shall I do to be saved? The woke gospel is a false gospel because while it still frequently names the name of Christ (at least in conservative circles) it is in the process of subtly replacing Him. Like the Judaizing movement, it won’t be all at once, so it’s Jesus plus social justice, Jesus plus racial sensitivity, Jesus plus special rights for sexual minorities, etc., but when you add anything to the finished work of Jesus to make you right and clean and holy and just, you are denying the sufficiency of His saving grace. Sure, Jesus died for your sins, but you also need to get woke. You don’t really understand the gospel until you take remedial sensitivity training from one of our trained specialists. And if you refuse to do that, we’re not even really sure you’re a Christian.
Why Abraham Applies
Last thing: one of the points of pushback I received on Twitter was the claim that American race-based chattel slavery was something entirely different than what the OT or NT envisioned or sought to address. American racial sin, the claim goes, was so much worse and therefore Abraham’s slaveholding is irrelevant to Jonathan Edwards – there is no moral equivalence. But this misunderstanding is itself the propaganda of the woke gospel (and its Enlightenment predecessors). American racial vainglory and animosity was wicked, evil, disgusting. Full stop. And the lengths to which our forefathers went to justify the perpetual subjugation of fellow members of the human race based on skin color was atrocious, especially when done with Bible verses. And this is because the logic and efficacy of the gospel is all about setting all men free. But the fact of the matter is that we have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to understanding the nature of slavery throughout the rest of human history. The very real American racial sin (as well as all the other atrocities) attached to our institutions of slavery does not hold a candle to the brutality, violence, bloodshed, and ethnic and racial hatred that filled the centuries and millennia prior to the founding of the American colonies. The world of slavery that existed in Abraham’s day was far less humane, for more ruthless than anything Harriet Beecher Stowe could have imagined. Likewise, Greek and Roman slavery was far more cruel and degrading of human beings on a mass scale than the general climate and worst abuses of the Confederate States. In other words, the permission and regulation of slavery in the Bible did so in far more horrific circumstances than America ever saw. In the ancient world there was no such thing as human rights. While there were most certainly cruel and wicked men and cruel and wicked laws in the South, there was still a broadly Christian conscience that was pricked by abuses (even if frequently dulled and hardened as well) that was completely non-existent in the ancient pagan world. And our modern sentimentalism is simply a naďve and romantic myopia that does not fathom just how far we have come since Christ came. None of this justifies the real American horrors involved in the trans-Atlantic middle passage, the slave trade, murder and rape, the separation of families, Confederate hubris, and the Jim Crow aftermath. God damn all that and good riddens to it all. This is why Abraham’s situation really does apply to Jonathan Edwards, and if Jonathan Edwards is on the chopping block so is Abraham, so is Paul, so is Jesus.
This current social justice inquisition – and that is what it is, is built on a “gospel” that is every bit as false and tyrannical as the Roman Catholic beast that Protestantism gutted five hundred years ago. And this is because that beast, that reoccurring monster in human history is the false promise of human power, human works, human attempts at justification and reconciliation. But when man is in the driver’s seat you can never be sure you’ve done enough, never be sure you’re good enough, never be sure you’re clean enough, never be sure you’ve actually put things right. So you have to virtue signal a little more, bow and scrape before the cultural idols a little more, cross yourself and read another article, share another podcast, like another post. And you flatter the high priests and mince your words all the while afraid, terrified that you might still be a bigot, might still be a racist, might still be defiled, unclean, impure, and tainted by your ancestors.
So as a minister of the gospel, I call on you to stop it. In the name of Jesus, drop it. This grievance hustle is disgusting and shameful for those who name the name of Christ. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Full stop. No condemnation. No guilt. No shame. Nothing more to do. You are forgiven. You are covered in the perfect righteousness of Jesus – His perfect obedience, His sinless life, His perfect justice. There is no striving, no scraping, no grasping, no demanding, no condemnation. No condemnation at all.
The death of Jesus is the death of all slavery because it is the death of all animosity, all hatred, all pride, all vainglory, all guilt and shame, all prejudice and envy because in the cross of Jesus every tribe, every tongue, every nation has been put to death, has been publicly executed for their crimes against God and man. You are dead. You have already died. Your crimes have been paid for. The justice for your sin was exhaustively satisfied without any remainder. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because Christ was condemned for all our sin. He was beaten for our hatred. He was mocked for our vainglory. He was abandoned for our cruelty. He was spat on for our insolence and pride. He bled out for the sins we tried to cover up. He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
There is no other way out of this mess except by the cross of Jesus, except by Jesus Christ crucified for sinners. And therefore, if we would have the cross of Jesus, then we must have His Word expose our sin truthfully and nothing else will do. Female words cannot expose our sin, black words cannot expose our sin, male words cannot expose our sin, white words cannot expose our sin. Only God’s word can lay us bare and expose our sin in all of its blood-sucking mess, and only God Himself can say the word and make us clean and declare us free forever. There is no other hope, no other cleansing flood, no other perfect justice, no other reconciliation, no other Name by which we must be saved.