Meek Jesus the Lord

Tonight I watched the movie Amistad with a group of friends. It tells the story of a ship bearing slaves that eventually free themselves and then overtake their captors, only to be put on trial for murder and then claimed and counter-claimed by numerous would-be masters. I always find it hard for movies like this to move me, because the whole time I know that what I’m seeing isn’t real. I can see in Black Hawk Down a man whose body terminates at his waistline, dragged to safety by his friends, and be totally dispassionate, and then cut my thumb deeply and (even feeling no pain) nearly faint. Plus, as I get older and learn more of the Bible, I am less moved by movies, and instead ask myself why they would move me, and why they move other people.

All that to say, watching Amistad raised a nagging question I’ve dealt with for a while. Before I started looking at the Bible in a more Van Tillian sense, I would often be perplexed, and even scared, by various criticisms of the Bible that are merely rooted in modern culture. One such criticism would be that the Bible nowhere condemns slavery; it in fact gives instructions to masters on how to be better masters. For a lot of Christians, this can be extremely embarrassing. But as I’ve learned and grown, I now realize I don’t need to fear criticism of the Bible, because those that would attempt such a thing have no legitimate ground for doing it (e.g. a naturalistic culture has no way of justifying human rights in any ultimate sense).

It’s easy to react emotionally to a movie like Amistad, but its hard to find a biblical warrant for such a reaction if we think merely in terms of ‘slavery’. And dogmatism is what I want to avoid. I’ve always been afraid of discussing this idea because I’m afraid people will just think I’m a primate, a sad product of an archaic worldview. But it seems to me that Christians who make merely an emotional appeal and don’t seek for substantial biblical reasons (which I am convinced do exist, btw) they completely empty their argument of any strength. One can appeal to intuition to say that slavery is wrong, and so save face with a skeptic, but that isn’t a Christian defense.

After the movie, I decided to raise the issue, and a really fruitful discussion followed. A real help in my thinking about this had actually come just a few weeks ago, when I read 1 Timothy 1:10, which condemns ‘enslavers’, the literal Greek for which is ‘man stealers’, leaving no room for doubt: a slave trade is out. But when I was in school learning about the glorious outcome of the Emancipation Proclamation, we celebrated the end of slavery. But do we get to this celebration from the Scripture? Yes and no. Like 1 Tim 1:10 establishes, slaves aquired by ‘man-stealing’ are acquired sinfully. Even if a hundred percent of slaves in America weren’t acquired that way, it still seems prudent (props to Scott Nason for this label) to outlaw the whole enterprise. What’s interesting to me is that the master/slave relationship is not outlawed in the Bible, and in fact is analogous to the relation Christians have with God. We pretty up our translations with words like ‘servant’ or ‘bondservant’, but the meaning in Greek is clear: we are slaves.

One of the more interesting instructions to Christian slave-owners is to “stop your threatening,” (Eph. 6:9), and the reason given for this is that their Master is in heaven, and will show no partiality between earthly slave and master in judgment. So a good master doesn’t threaten (and would presumably do this to get obedience). So a good master treats his slave with justice and fairness (Colossians 4:1) and this kind of master is to be obeyed by a slave “with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as [they] would Christ,” (Eph. 6:5). Fear and trembling, but with a sincere heart. They are not to only do what may please the master by way of eye-service, but with sincerity and a fear of the Lord (Col 3:22). I think here it is appropriate to consider the parable of the unforgiving servant, as well.

This is how God would have us understand the relation of master and servant. The master is just and fair, and the servant fears and is sincere. Obviously this is not the full extent of our relationship to God; we could still talk of adoption, especially. But nevertheless, we don’t have to view slavery in itself as evil. Seizing and selling and enslaving are explicitly condemned, but it’s only a Western culture that idolizes freedom above anything else that would condemn slavery with no distinctions. They know nothing of the way Jesus is master. The servant he finds hopelessly indebted, he not only forgives — not only justifies even the ungodly — but he then enriches. He unites them to himself, and they share in his status as heirs of all things, as lords over heaven and earth for all eternity with Christ.

This is our answer to the skeptic who finds so painfully absent a prescription against slavery altogether. Instead of apologizing, we show them their desire for autonomy is sinful, and explain and exult in the kind lordship of Jesus for those who trust in him.