Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paul & Social Mobility

As much as modern Christians may disavow slavery and racism, American Christianity has a clear historical connection with slavery and other ethnic injustices in America. Though this post will not explore these historical connections, I would like to touch on the Apostle Paul's advice regarding slaves.

Paul states in I Corinthians 7:17-24 reads:

But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so
let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. Is any man called being
circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision?
let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is
nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the
same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called [being] a servant? care not
for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use [it] rather. For he that is called
in the Lord, [being] a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is
called, [being] free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye
the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein
abide with God.
In I Corinthians 7, Paul attempts to dissuade the Corinthians from changing their social status in regard to marriage, conversion (Gentiles becoming Jews), and slavery. Paul clarifies that his instructions regarding marriage relate to, "the present distress" (7:26) and so it can be implied that Paul's instructions are limited to the "distress" of his generation. Don't forget that Paul is the earliest writer of the New Testament corpus, and he expected Jesus to return in his lifetime. In the above pericope, Paul instructs his readers to "abide in his [social] calling." Though this passage does not entirely imply that it is wrong to consider buying or obtaining freedom from slavery, it does nothing to ameliorate the practice or station of slaves in his readers.

In Colossians 3:22, it is stated:

Servants, obey in all things [your] masters according to the flesh; not with
eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God.
Here the author of Colossians (a pseudo-Pauline reworking of Ephesians), maintains that the servant-slave must work for his master as though working for God. This instruction does nothing to address the status of slaves, and it became, in the Christian South, a basis of a code of slave ethics taught by the slave holder to the slave. A similar verse in the more-likely Pauline work of Ephesians 6:5 reiterates this theme.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 offers the following imperative regarding a slave that escapes from a master:

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his
master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, [even] among you, in that place
which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt
not oppress him.
It is interesting that despite the humanness of this passage that Paul in book of Philemon, returns the escaped slave Onesimus to his master. Paul had an opportune moment to apply a biblical precept and demonstrate a biblical aversion to slavery. However, there is no such biblical aversion to slavery. Abolition was not served by Paul and his soft approach to slavery. His social ethics discourage social mobility and directly encourage the slave to stay where she is—serving the master as though serving God.

(original posted on on February 9th)

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