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Repealing Abolition

 (I thought I’d include something of a different nature on my blog—a sermon I preached on Christian slavery.)

Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

A lot of you may be familiar with the Andy Griffith Show. In one episode (“Andy Learns about America”), Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor is at the breakfast table talking to his son Opie about his history lessons.   Barney Fife, the inept, bumbling deputy, drops by.  Once he hears the topic of conversation, with great bravado, he announces that history was his best subject. 

 Andy is surprised. Barney challenges him to ask him anything. So Andy, with a twinkle in his eye, asks Barney to tell Opie what the Emancipation Proclamation is.

Of course, Barney is a history bluff, not a history buff

After hemming and hawing, Barney (rather awkwardly) says, “Are you kiddin’? Everyone one knows that.”

Andy: Then why don’t you tell us?

Barney: You’re kiddin’.  It’s one of the most famous proclamations in history.”

Andy: “I know.”

 After asking Opie and Aunt Bea for help, Barney finally says, “The Emancipation Proclamation was a proclamation’ is what it was”

Andy then asks: “What was it about?”

Barney rather impatiently responds: “It was about Emancipation! What do you think it was about? ‘What was it about’! Use your head, man! It’s common knowledge. There was these folks. And how else was they gonna’ get themselves emancipated, unless there was a proclamation. So they got themselves a proclamation, and they called it ‘The Emancipation Proclamation.’

Andy: “Yep,”

 Barney: “Yeah, I’m surprised at you for not knowing that, Andy! And I’ll tell you something else. I’m even more surprised that you think I don’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Andy: “We’re still waiting for you to tell us about it.”

Barney: Well, if you’re gonna’ get so smart-alecky about it, maybe I’m not even gonna’ tell ya’.”

Of course, the Emancipation Proclamation was the declaration by Abraham Lincoln that, effective 1 January 1863, “all persons held as slaves” within the rebel states “shall be then, thenceforth and forever free.”  Those who were abolitionists during that era wanted slavery to disappear.  So when I talk about “repealing abolition,” you might think this is a mistake.   Maybe you think I really mean “Repealing Prohibition,” which took place in 1933 after the thirteen-year government ban on alcohol.  Or perhaps you think I must really mean, “Promoting Abolition”—attempting as Christians to abolish oppression and even slavery in certain Muslim countries (like the Sudan, where Christians are literally enslaved).  And much could be said about this important topic, but that’s for another time. (Incidentally, I’m presently finishing a book that deals with a number of ethical challenges in the Old Testament—including slavery.) 

“Repealing Abolition,” I’m not talking about literally repealing of Lincoln’s strategic Emancipation Proclamation.  Rather, I want to encourage us to think in categories alien to our culture (which emphasizes rights and freedom—not responsibilities), but so familiar to biblical authors—that we are slaves of Christ and of one another.  If Jesus is Lord (kyrios) over each of our lives, this entails that I am his slave (doulos).  And if I am part of the body of Christ, I belong to you; I am to serve you in love.  Christian communities like ours should be slave communities. We are to be living out Scripture’s “reciprocal commands”—the one another commands in the New Testament (love one another, serve one another, accept one another, honor one another, etc.). 

 Sometimes we’ll talk of Christians as real “servants of the Lord”; we don’t use the term “slaves.”  Some biblical scholars have noted that many Bible translations have been too timid in their translation of doulos (“slave”) or syndoulos (“fellow slave”).  They tend to obscure the ancient significance of this term by translating it “servant” (or “bond-servant”) or “fellow servant” rather than the more appropriate term of subordination and ownership, “slave” or “fellow slave,” so well known in the first century. 

 Slaves belong to someone else, but servants can quit if they want to. If a slave master didn’t let you go, you had no hope.  That puts things in perspective. What would it do for our churches, for our homes, our schools if we thought of ourselves as slaves of Christ and one another?  Let’s repeal abolition and get back to slavery!  The Communist Manifesto says, “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” But for the Christian recognizes that we will be enslaved to one master or another. We are slaves by nature; we must serve one master or the other. As Christians, we express our slavery by saying, “Not my will but yours be done.” When we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we are saying, “I am his slave.”  So instead of throwing off our chains, we must think about putting them on—talk about political incorrectness!       

Let me first review important categories of slavery for Christians. Second, I’ll look at the context of Galatians 5:13. Third, I’ll address how we can apply this passage within the own Christian community.

I. CHRISTIAN SLAVERY (AND FREEDOM) IN SCRIPTURE:  Let’s look at the following passages (using the doul– word group). We’ll look at four particular categories or dimensions of slavery and freedom.

A. We’re FREE (from spiritual death, bondage to sin, Satan, etc.) in Christ.

  • John 8:32, 36: and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
  • Rom. 8:21: For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”
  • Gal. 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
  • Gal. 4:7: Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
  • Gal. 5:31: So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman (cp. “slavery: v. 25), but of the free woman.

A: We’re SLAVES of God/Christ (who himself took “the form of a slave” [Phil. 2:7]).

  • Mat. 25: 23: His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
  • Lk. 6:46: Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?
  • John 15:20: Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.
  • Col. 3:24: It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.
  • 2 Tim. 2:24: The Lord’s slave must not be quarrelsome….
  • Jas. 1:1: James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.  (Also Paul [Rom. 1:1]; Peter [2 Pet. 1:1]; Jude [Jude 1]; John [Rev. 1:1])
  • Cp. Mat. 11:30: “Take My yoke upon you, for My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
  • Cp. 1 Cor. 6:19-20: Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

C. We’re FREE, yet SLAVES OF GOD/CHRIST.

Note the first two Old Testament verses that serve as a backdrop: There is freedom yet slavery.

  • Lev. 25:55: For the sons of Israel are My slaves; they are My slaves whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
  • Ps. 116:16: O Lord, surely I am Your slave [Greek OT: doulos] . . . .You have loosed my bonds.
  • Rom. 6:17-18: But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
  • Rom. 6:22: now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God.
  • 1 Thes. 1:9: you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God
  • Cp. Lk. 16:13: No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

D. We’re SLAVES of one another.

  • 1 Cor. 9:19: For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.
  • Cp. Eph. 5:21: and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.
  • Cp. 2 Cor. 8:5: They [the Macedonian Christians] first gave themselves to the Lord and [then] to us by the will of God.
  • Gal. 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” 

I want now to explore this passage—in Gal. 5:13—a bit and draw out some lessons for us as slaves of Christ and one another.

II. THE FOOLISHLY ENSLAVED GALATIANS:  When I was in Atlanta, I was heading home from work and said good-night to a couple of my work colleagues. I said, “Good night, Gentile-men.”

One of them replied, “Stay kosher”—to which I replied, “Will Jew.”

Paul is writing to Christian Gentile-men (and women) who have been “bewitched” (3:1) by the Judaizers.  These false teachers are claiming that Jesus’ death isn’t really sufficient for our salvation. It’s Jesus-plus:  Believe in Jesus, but you have to be Jewish too.  You have to preserve certain nationalistic boundary markers—eat kosher foods, keep the Sabbath, be circumcised.  (“Stay kosher.” “Will Jew.”)

 Paul tells these “foolish Galatians” (3:1) that they, as Gentile believers, are free from these constraints.  They aren’t under the Law of Moses given at Mt. Sinai since they are children of Abraham by faith.  (God had promised Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed.)   In Christ, the boundaries that have classically divided people—male/female, Jew/Greek/, slave/free (Gal. 3:28)—are irrelevant classifications when it comes to salvation.  Paul writes in Gal. 4:7: “You are no longer slaves but sons.

In the story Les Misérables, the police chief Jauvert who lives by the law and, following it to the letter, tries to hunt down a prison escapee, Jean Valjean, who finds forgiveness and a new start through a priest who forgives him for robbing him.  Jauvert is relentless. He thinks he’s found Valjean, but he can’t be sure.  Jauvert is ruthless—even though Valjean shows kindness to him, Jauvert can’t handle it. For him, there is the coldness of the law and conformity, guilt, and punishment.  There is no grace, mercy, or forgiveness. Jauvert painfully illustrates Paul’s point in Galatians: being a rule-follower means a joyless, guilt-filled, confining life—and, of course, this doesn’t make a person pleasing to God.

These Galatian Christians are free from Israel’s national laws at Mt. Sinai.  With Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Spirit, who is poured out on all people, the kosher and circumcision laws that created boundaries for Israel were irrelevant because the new creation/restoration had begun in Christ:  In 6:15, Paul declares, “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” 

III. THE FREE-YET-ENSLAVED SOLUTION:  Jim Morrison of the rock group The Doors once said, “I’ve always been attracted to ideas that were about revolt against authority. I like ideas about the breaking away or overthrowing of established order.”[1]  Well, the New Testament makes clear that Christ’s followers are free in one sense, but slaves in another.  Freedom for Paul doesn’t mean license. Paul anticipates the Judaizers’ response: If you get rid of the Law of Moses, you’ll be an antinomian—a lawless one. 

The playwright Oscar Wilde discovered that a life of license was in reality its own bondage.  He confessed:

The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease….Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took every pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and therefore what one has done in the secret chamber, one has some day to cry aloud from the house-top. I ceased to be lord over myself….I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.[2]

But Paul says that he opposes a life of license. He isn’t advocating the “deeds of the flesh”—dissensions, drunkenness, sexual immorality, outbursts of anger, envying, etc.  Rather, if you have the Spirit, you’ll have an internal motivation to obey God.  You’ll live a morally fruitful life—even if you don’t follow the laws of Sinai. 

In Galatians 5, Paul rejects the LAW or LICENSE alternatives. There’s a third way:  LIFE IN THE SPIRIT.  Paul says if we who have been made alive by the Spirit are guided by the Spirit, then his character is being produced in our lives; we won’t need to be rule-followers.  The historian Tacitus (AD 55-120) wrote of Rome, “The more corrupt the Republic, the more laws.”[3]  That is, if you don’t have moral citizens, people of character, then you’ll need lots of laws to keep society from falling apart.  Even in the Old Testament, what God was looking for was not sacrifice, but a broken and contrite heart—doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.  Just as the “deeds of the flesh” aren’t primarily internal drives/desires but social (destructive to community), so the “fruit of the Spirit” reflects communal virtues (not private ones).

Scot McKnight the author of the insightful book The Jesus Creed (which, by the way, my sister Lil edited J): http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2006/08/an-ode-to-lil.html) follows the theme Jesus laid out in summarizing God’s demands for us:  loving God, loving others.  All of God’s expectations can be boiled down to these.  So Paul says in Galatians 5:14: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’”  If you love your neighbor, you’ll fulfill the gist of the Law of Moses.  Through love, serve one another.  Yes, you’re free, but you’re called to be slaves of one another.

IV. BEING SLAVES OF ONE ANOTHER IN THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY:  What does being a slave of Christ and of one another mean for us in the body of Christ?

A. COMMITMENT TO COMMUNITY:  Each of us comes with his background and gifts, and we should learn from one another in community.  It’s easy to become individualists in an increasingly de-personalized age.  We can’t grow in isolation.  We must relate to, forgive, pray for, and engage in life with one another.

B. HUMILITY, GRACE, AND AWARENESS OF OUR SIN:  Churches can be hotbeds of gossip, pride, envy, division. Humility goes a long way. We should be careful about taking ourselves too seriously, as though we’re indispensable or always right. Also, as slaves of one another, we cheer on the successes of others. 

C. SHOW GRATITUDE FOR ONE ANOTHER:  We should also be alert to the various tasks and workloads of others within the church and affirm them in the roles that they have.  Some tasks are more public than others.  Express appreciation for those who work behind the scenes.

D. ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER:  Mark Twain said, “I can life off a good compliment for months.”  We know what he means. Encouragement goes a long way in moving us forward, to keep us from despair). Our words have power to build up or tear down: 

  • Prov. 12:18: the tongue of the wise brings healing.
  • Prov. 18:21: Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.

When you’re writing an e-mail, do more than just get down to business. Take a moment to encourage or thank a person. Be quick to encourage, quick to forgive, quick to apologize.

When we think of Barney Fife’s bluster about the Emancipation Proclamation, we chuckle inside. For us as Christians, instead of an “Emancipation Proclamation,” in our individualistic age of self-gratification, perhaps thinking about the theme of “Repealing Abolition” might help us remember that we have been emancipated, yes, but to serve our Master, Jesus Christ, who has bought us, and to serve one another, to whom we also belong.  Fellow Christians of the world, unite! You have nothing to put on but your chains—and the Lord Jesus Christ!

***An excellent book on this theme of serving Christ and others is Murray Harris’s Slave of Christ published by InterVarsity Press.

 


[1] Cited in Os Guinness, The American Hour, 96-7.

[2] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis. Found at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/wilde/prisonwritings.html. Accessed 21 December 2005.

[3] Annals 3.27 (or “laws were most numerous when the Republic was most corrupt”).

2 Responses to “Repealing Abolition”

  1. Paul,

    Thank you for a hard hitting, but very encouraging sermon. You are right, it’s not something we hear much these days.

    We all need exhortation and encouragement to “get on with” the life God wants us to live in His Spirit.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I have some problems with us being slaves of each other. I think that Paul saying that he enslaves himself for others can’t really be used in support given that it is A) being used in a metaphorical sense and B) he is saying this about what he is to unbelievers.

    I consider myself a slave to Christ but not to other believers. I think we can do A–D without considering ourselves slaves.

    For doulos, some translations use servant, others bondservant, others slave. With various reasons given for each word choice.

    Is there a voluntary component to the word? Would bondslave be an appropriate word?

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