Skeptics criticize the Bible for not condemning slavery, with some taking it to such an extreme level that they refuse to recognize the clear historic good that Christianity has done in freeing slaves. I think we need to think more deeply about slavery and freedom.
Freedom has classically been understood not as freedom-from, but as freedom-to. Freedom-from has to do with restrictions: freedom from interference, from want, from boundaries, and so on. Calls for freedom of this sort are typical of the late 20th and early 21st century West: freedom from governmental interference, freedom from want, freedom from moral codes, freedom of “choice” as a euphemism for abortion, freedom from fear of foreign encroachment, and so on.
The list includes partisan positions from both the right and the left. It’s as if freedom-from were the highest good a society could provide its people.
The American founders had something else in mind, something that can be traced back to both the Bible and the Greeks: freedom-to, meaning the freedom to live according to virtue as each person understood it. There is obviously overlap between the two views of freedom, so that the Bill of Rights (for example) can be read as supporting both. But the Founders were manifestly more concerned with keeping government from limiting the exercise of personal conscience than with limiting the exercise of any and all options that might appeal to a person.
Enslavement denies both freedom-from and freedom-to, to different extents depending on the form and type of slavery, but its chief assault is on freedom-from. It is the polar opposite to freedom from restriction. The same cannot be said for freedom-to, for as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Victor Frankl, and others have testified, there can be freedom of conscience even in extreme bondage.
Freedom-from is predominantly a material sort of freedom. Freedom-to is predominantly freedom of character. Its chief proponents have often labeled it a spiritual thing.
Now it is clear in the Bible as well as to conscience that New World chattel slavery was evil. There have been other forms and extents of slavery, however, including the kind of service more typically practiced among the Hebrews in the Old Testament (something a lot like indentured servitude). It is very clear from Exodus 21 that not all servants regarded their status as onerous. Slavery wasn’t the worst thing in the world for them.
(As for slaves claimed by the Hebrews through conquest, there’s a whole lot of context surrounding that, which I don’t want to take time for today.)
Nor was slavery necessarily the worst thing in the first century, provided that masters obeyed the strong injunctions of Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1. But you could never tell that based on skeptics’ comments here lately.
I can’t help wondering if it’s because we give inflated importance to freedom-from these days. If freedom-from were indeed the greatest good a society could provide, then slavery of any sort would be the greatest violation. In a recent comment, though, Andrew reminded us that there are other goods and evils to consider.
The greatest good is to experience good now and eternally through life in Christ. (Skeptics may disagree, but if they do, they are no longer talking about the Bible or why it doesn’t condemn slavery. They’re talking about some non-biblical worldview instead.)
This life is much more closely associated with freedom-to: freedom to believe, freedom to worship, freedom to practice what is right, freedom to pray, freedom to give, and even freedom to sacrifice one’s other freedoms for the sake of others. Jesus said that to gain one’s life is to lose it. These are expressions of life in Christ; they are the living-out of the greatest good.
From a biblical perspective, too, there is new and wholly different level of freedom-from; regarding which the writers freely apply the term slavery: slavery to one’s passions, one’s evil desires, one’s sin. These are that which bind the most outwardly free of all men and women. Paul teaches on this in Gal. 3:23-5:1, and again in Romans 7 and 8.
Both passages speak of bondage to law, which for most of us, not having much care for OT Jewish law, is best understood as bondage to the convictions and accusations of our own moral standards (see Romans 2:12-16), and our failures in living up to them. There may be some among us who have so thoroughly shifted toward freedom-from that these failures are of no personal import. Most of us feel their weight, however. They can tie us up no matter what our circumstances are like on the outside.
Not only that, but they lock the door on our experiencing the ultimate good: God’s goodness, gained through life in Christ.
The good news in Christ is that we can freely experience the greatest good, whether we are bosses, employees, unemployed, or even in chains. The Bible never loses track of what goods are greatest and which are secondary. The same cannot be said for our contemporary culture.
P.S. This is not my entire set of beliefs regarding slavery; some things must go unsaid in a blog post. My experience leads me to expect some commenters to read things into this that I have not written, just because I have not specified that I did not mean such-and-so. Before you criticize, consider whether you have the freedom-to that allows you to read what I have written and respond to that, rather than to what you prejudge me to think or believe.