Someone once asked how I could be Christian knowing that white people used the Bible as a means to control our ancestors….
Much can be written on this question but simply, does one’s actions or usage of a thing determine its validity? Nothing can be judged by its abuse. The question concludes that since some white slave owners used parts of the Bible for control, then the Bible and Christianity isn’t true and shouldn’t be followed. But that’s an illogical conclusion. That would be analogous to a white person listening to a gangster rapper and then deciding not to trust any black person. See the inconsistency?
Let me actually go over one of the verses in question:
Ephesians 6:5 – Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
At first glance, this may look crazy. But that’s because we live in 2016 western America and therefore look at things in 2016 western American eyes. This causes us to automatically think about the African slave trade a few centuries ago. But the letter that contains this verse was written 2,000 years ago. When Paul (the writer of Ephesians) wrote this, he could not have and was not talking about the racial slavery we think of. Therefore we can see that a slave owner who may have used this verse would be misapplying this verse.
So then, what kind of slavery was Paul talking about? Slaves, or a more accurate term, bondservants, in that first century world were more like indentured servants. They were often people who sold themselves into slavery as a means for income. Many times it was only temporary. Some actually chose to remain committed to their master for life. It was more so a contract kind of thing. Though I’m sure some were probably mistreated and looked at condescendingly, the institution was totally different from people being kidnapped and enslaved (something that God actually forbids: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” – Exodus 21:16)
So what is Paul actually saying in this verse? Looking at the surrounding context of this verse, in this chapter, he’s addressing a Christian household. First, he tells children to obey their parents. Then he tells fathers to not provoke their children. Then he tells slaves (bondservants) to obey their masters (who they willingly obligated themselves to; it was their job). Finally, he then concludes by telling the masters this:
Ephesians 6:9 – And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him
Side-note, I think it’s funny when people quote verse five to argue that the Bible advocates slavery but always leave out the above verse which is only four verses down. That’s just dishonest. But anyway, we see that this verse isn’t talking about the African slave trade. It isn’t even referencing the kind of slavery that we automatically think. In fact, these verses speak directly against the actions of those slave owners. Paul is addressing what a Christian household at that time should’ve looked like: children being obedient to their parents, parents being gentle and not provoking their children, and if a family had bondservants, then bondservants upholding their duties and obeying their masters, and masters treating their bondservants with respect, not threatening them or treating them harshly.
Advice: One should not be so quick to make general assumptions. One cannot pass judgement on a whole race of people because of the actions of a few. One also shouldn’t just write something off because it looks weird. I, as a black male, am a Christian because Jesus Christ proved to be the person that he said he was. He rose from the dead 2,000 years ago and from then until now, it still has not been proven wrong. His followers were mercilessly executed because they did not recant. They died grisly deaths because all of them were utterly convinced that that they had seen Jesus after His crucifixion. A person may die for something that they believe is true, but a person will not die for something they know is a lie. For example, a terrorist may believe that jihad will gain them access into heaven but that is only a belief that is not absolute or falsifiable. Jesus’ followers stomped around that ancient Jerusalem land (the very place where Jesus was publicly executed) proclaiming that they had seen and physically touched Jesus after His crucifixion declaring him alive forevermore. They were emphatically adamant about this even when they were faced with torture and execution. So again, why am I a Christian even though some white people used the Bible as a means for control? Because it was misused, taken out of context, and used in a way totally antithetical to the biblical message. And their misuse of the Scriptures do not determine the validity of the Christian message. The Christian message did not support their claim and that is why you had many faithful white Christians who were opposed to slavery and fought to abolish it. It was the passionate William Wilberforce who hated slavery and openly professed it as immoral who made this statement:
God Almighty has set before me two Great Objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.
And referring to slaves:
If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.
He even made a reference to this same argument in the 1800’s:
It is however, most of all astonishing, that our opponents attempt to vindicate the slave trade on grounds of religion also…we are repeatedly and expressly told that Christ has done away all distinctions of nations, and made all mankind one great family, all our fellow creatures are now our brethren;…forbid our keeping the Africans, any more than our own fellow subjects, in a state of slavery.
He even quipped:
But really it would be consuming your time to no purpose, to enter into a formal proof, that fraud, rapine, and cruelty, are contrary to that religion, which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to do to others as we would have them do to us. I cannot persuade myself that our opponents are serious in using this argument, and therefore I will proceed no farther with this discussion.
There was also another white man who was a slave-owner and captain of many slave-ships in the 1700s. One day he was aboard a ship and was caught in a deadly storm. He said he cried out to God and they escaped unharmed. He began to read the Bible and became a Christian which led to him renouncing the slave trade. This is what he said in his book Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade regarding his former dealings in it:
a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.
This man was John Newton, the author of the world famous hymn Amazing Grace. The first stanza echoes worldwide saying:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see!
It was grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
It was the grace of God and the reading of the Bible that transformed his heart to renounce the slave trade and to partner with William Wilberforce (who was the leader of the Parliamentary campaign) to abolish the slave trade. It was a renewed heart and mind that caused him to shudder at what he used to be apart of. These white men (and many others) stood out and spoke out in a time where the norm was treating blacks as property. But it was the Bible that transformed their hearts and minds to see that all people were valuable and that no person should be enslaved. The Bible caused them to see the worth and beauty of those oppressed people, to realize that no race was superior. John Newton in Amazing Grace said that he was once blind, but that he received sight. He was blinded by supremacy, but the Bible removed that veil and he was made new by grace; the grace he sang about.
So rather than the Bible condoning slavery, reading it properly actually brought slave traders out of the profession; such as John Newton. The Bible’s true message is one of hope and is Good News for all. It’s the hope for the entire world. For all ethnic peoples.
Red, yellow, black or white, we are precious in His sight.