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Slavery in the New Testament – Interpreting the Law of God (58)

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Slavery in the New Testament

Interpreting the Law of God (58)

In Christ and the Kingdom, the institution of slavery was doomed.

For as many of you as were baptized in Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free…. Galatians 3:27, 28

The Apostle Paul understood that the coming of the Kingdom of God and the age of grace and salvation meant dramatic changes for culture and society as it was known within the Roman world. Christ was making all things new, reconciling the world to God, turning worn-out and sinful institutions and practices upside-down under His feet. This included the institution of slavery.

The Law of God permitted slavery, but it did so only because of the hardness of men’s hearts; from the beginning it was not God’s intention that men should be anything other than free before Him to fulfill their unique purposes and callings.

But the violence and cruelty of the ancient world, coupled with God’s insistence that His people remain a nation distinct from all others, made the practice of slavery in ancient Israel—strange as it may seem—a form of grace for pagan peoples. For as slaves in Israel they would have known a measure of safety, security, and prosperity they would never have been able to realize among the pagan peoples who had subjected them to bondage.

But even this condescension to the hardness of men’s hearts was not what God intended. With the coming of the Gospel, the institution of slavery was doomed, and Paul understood this. In Christ there is no longer any such category as human slave; all who believe are free in Him.

But Paul was not an abolitionist. Nor was his a ministry focused on political change. He shows us that we must proceed wisely in seeking and advancing the Kingdom, and he understood his calling to be focused on the work of building the Church, not overthrowing existing social or political institutions. Slavery, Paul knew, was doomed, and, if nothing else, he would establish the trajectory for its dismantling which later generations of believers would bring to fulfillment.

For now, he was content to make the point that, in Jesus Christ, a new kind of freedom had burst into the human situation. A new oneness between human beings was possible in the Spirit of God (Eph. 4:3), and that oneness would erase all known distinctions of race, class, or social status to create an entirely new people in the Lord. While Paul appears to have been content to allow the institution of slavery to continue among the churches, this was only for a time. As he himself would demonstrate, a new day of human freedom was beginning in the Gospel.

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In the Gates is a devotional series on the Law of God by Rev. T.M. Moore, editor of the Worldview Church. He serves as dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of twenty books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet).

Scripture quotations in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (c) copyright 2001, 2007 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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