Of Human Bondage
1 September 2017
The ancient institution of slavery has generated some debate in modern Christian circles. How do Christians account for the fact that the Pauline epistles seem to tolerate slavery as it was practiced in the ancient world? Slavery was not a part of the pristine world in which God placed Adam and Eve. Their fall into sin changed their situation over against other human beings, so that a great deal of human relationality became a matter of lust and the lust for power. Sin caused slavery. God did not create the world to be filled with masters and slaves. He did not intend that the world should have masters and slaves, only that all should be servants to all. Human dominion was intended only to extend to the animals. The patriarchs were not kings and lords, but shepherds. Even the Kings of Israel were to be shepherds of the people.
The world was created by God to be filled with those who gave themselves over to the needs of others without being compelled. Adam and Eve before the fall served one another with delight and great joy for the service given. This was not demeaning to them. The more they lowered themselves in their service, the higher they rose in the eyes of the other and the closer to God they became. The less they made of themselves the greater they became. Greatness could only come in humility. How that was shattered in the greed for ascendancy! This ascendancy began with the desire to become like God (Gn 3:5). Who should be surprised that this lust should be transferred to other humans? Those who lusted to be God, will certainly be full of lust for the control of other persons. And so it is to this day.
Slavery is a great evil. It begins with the spiritual slavery into which Adam and Eve fell when they sought to be free of their God and Creator. They, while seeking freedom, became slaves to their own grasping lusts. And ever after, our enemy, the devil, has called this slavery freedom. Our Lord Jesus Christ overturned slavery in His life and death, by, in His freedom, becoming subject to death. He who was the only truly free person by reason of His divinity now became servant of all. Paul was willing to live within the human context where humans exercised their lust for power over other humans so that he could proclaim the theology in which slavery was shown to be decisively overthrown by the work of Christ. For Paul there was a worse slavery than the human bondage that subjected one human to another. There was the bondage to sin and the father of sin, the devil. From that Christ freed us to free one another from human bondage.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

Augustine of Hippo

"God has created man to have dominion over the animals. For 'let them,' He says, 'have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth' (Gn 1:26). He did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation,-not man over man, but man over the beasts. Hence the righteous men in primitive times were made shepherds of cattle rather than kings of men, God intending thus to teach us what the relative position of the creatures is, and what the result of sin; for it is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word 'slave' in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name (Gn 9:18). It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature. The origin of the Latin word for slave is supposed to be found in the circumstance that those who by the law of war were liable to be killed were sometimes preserved by their victors, and were hence called servants. And these circumstances could never have arisen save through sin. For even when we wage a just war, our adversaries must be sinning; and every victory, even though gained by wicked men, is a result of the first judgment of God, who humbles the vanquished either for the sake of removing or of punishing their sins. Witness that man of God, Daniel, who, when he was in captivity, confessed to God his own sins and the sins of his people, and declares with pious grief that these were the cause of the captivity (Dan 9).
"The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow,-that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishments to every variety of offence. But our Master in heaven says, 'Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin' (Jn 8:34). Thus there are many wicked masters who have religious men as their slaves, and who are yet themselves in bondage: 'For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.' (2Pt 2:19). And beyond question it is a happier thing to be the slave of a man than of a lust; for even this very lust of ruling, to mention no others, lays waste men's hearts with the most ruthless dominion. Moreover, when men are subjected to one another in a peaceful order, the lowly position does as much good to the servant as the proud position does harm to the master.
"By nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin. This servitude is, however, penal, and is appointed by that law which enjoins the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance; for if nothing had been done in violation of that law, there would have been nothing to restrain by penal servitude. And therefore the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, and to serve them heartily and with good-will, so that, if they cannot be freed by their masters, they may themselves make their slavery in some way free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness pass away, and every principality and all human power be brought to nothing, and God be all in all."

Augustine, The City of God, 19.15
Philemon 1-21 

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you--I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus--I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother--especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it--to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. (ESV)
Lord Christ, preserve us from slavery to other humans but especially from bondage to sin and Satan. Free us to serve one another in true humility and obedience, that we might shape our lives like Yours. Amen.

For Maryann Murray, that the Lord Christ would be with her on her travels home
For Susan Narr, that she might receive the therapy necessary to regain her health
For Brenda Blackwell, that the holy angels would surround her
For all relief workers, that they would be kept safe in the conduct of their service to those who suffering 
Art: BOTICELLI, Alesandro,  Augustine of Hippo (1480)
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2017
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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