In this article, Michael Bird picks up on some disturbing comments that John MacArthur made about slavery back in 2012. I agree with Bird, that the comments were troubling. MacArthur’s suggestion that benign slavery was possible is utterly wrong headed. There is of course a fundamental difference between sticking with a good institution like marriage even though there are bad examples and supporting a bad institution because some cases were not as egregious as others.
However, by going to William Webb’s Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic as a conversation starter, I believe Bird takes us in fundamentally the wrong direction as well. This approach assumes that Scriptural instructions are culturally specific and that to know how to live now, we should trace a trajectory set in Scripture and follow it beyond Scripture through history to the present day. Webb seems to offer an ethic better than Scripture and Bird seems wartm to the possibility. There are a number of problems with this.
First, there is a historical problem with it. As I showed here, the original abolitionists including Wilberforce, Newton, Clarkson and Wesley did not need to rely on such an approach. They did not believe that they needed an ethic that was better than Scripture. Indeed, they argued that Scripture set up a clear ethic which the church had quickly adopted against slavery and the slave trade. Indeed, they argued that history and tradition were on their side. They saw the slave traders and owners as the innovators bringing in something novel and unwelcome.
Second, doctrinally and therefore ethically, the argument is problematic because what it does is sets interpreters of contemporary culture over and above Scripture. It means that instead of Scripture being permitted to speak into our culture and to disagree with us, we have a situation where we can choose to ignore Scripture if we believe that we disagree with it and/or where it is seen as offensive to our culture.
Thirdly because I think, as did the abolitionists that both MacArthur and R-M-H advocates have played down and indeed missed the message of Scripture which is far stronger than they suggest. There are three reasons for this. First, where Scripture allowed for slavery as a temporary permission, it was constrained so that Israelites could not keep their fellow Israelites – their brothers – in perpetual bondage. Abolitionists realised that slavery created a conflict of interest because it worked against evangelism. As the carol puts it “chains shall he break for the slave is our brother” – we cannot keep as slaves those who have become or whom we want to become our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Then, there are the clear Biblical statements about “man-stealers” not inheriting the kingdom of God. It is clear that those who kidnapped, shipped and traded slaves fell into that category. Scripture clearly abolishes the slave trade.
Finally, Paul in Ephesians 6 gives two crucial instructions to slaves and owners. First he tells slaves to work in hope and expectation that they will receive a reward, if not in this lifetime then in eternity. In other words, God steps in to act as the guarantor and insists that the worker is worthy of their pay. Paul having told slaves to submit and obey to masters insists that masters should treat their slaves in exactly the same way. In other words, Paul teaches mutual submission here. The hierarchical/ownership relationship of master to slave is transformed into an employer-employee relationship with reciprocal responsibilities.
The Gospel transforms relationships, horizontal with God and vertical with one another. It leaves no place for slavery or racism. We don’t need a better ethic, we need the Biblical, Gospel ethic.