Why Is Slavery Evil?
As an American citizen, I consider myself deeply blessed to have been born in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Although no land in this world will ever truly be free as long as sin reigns, the Christian principles on which this country was founded have given us a path by which to pursue justice and equality among men and to correct the evils arising from our depravity, inasmuch as we are willing to stay the course. And thankfully the legal institution of slavery is one of those evils that we as a nation have consigned to our past.
Having grown up in a post-slavery, post-civil-rights-movement America in a diverse, multi-ethnic, university town and in a family that recognized the dignity of all people, regardless of their skin color, culture, or economic standing, I have never understood slavery to be anything but evil, and I do not know of anyone, whether from my past or from my present, who would count it as anything else. Yet in recent days, I have come to contemplate more deeply this seemingly self-evident conclusion and found it to be dangerously oversimplistic. Many may have the best of intent when they condemn slavery as evil, but it is not difficult to imagine a modern sophisticate reassuring himself with this very thought as he systematically exploits his neighbor for his own gain. If a man can call slavery evil while committing the very sin that makes it so detestable, perhaps we might deem his focus rather conveniently misplaced. Going forward, I would like to explore the reasons that such a tragic irony is possible.
Before we can address these, however, we must first understand what slavery is in its most essential form. When we think of slavery, I suspect that most of us on this side of the world have in mind the Atlantic slave trade, during which men and women were forcibly abducted from Africa and brought in chains to the Americas to fill their masters’ pockets by the most unsavory sorts of labor. Such overt bondage and oppression can hardly be misunderstood as anything but slavery, and contemplating it will no doubt leave an emotional mark upon any empathetic soul who imagines how it must have felt to walk a mile in the shoes of the enslaved. Unfortunately, this very mark which causes us to identify with and resent the injustice suffered by those poor souls can also serve to blind us to lesser or less obvious forms of enslavement whose consequences are equally as grave but which fail to elicit the same emotional response. Thus I must insist that we focus on the essence of slavery and not any particular form which it may have taken in one historical instance or another, lest we find ourselves unwitting victims of slavery’s snare—or worse, willing participants in its horror.
What then might we say is at the root of slavery? I suspect that most of us instinctively associate slavery with a loss of personal freedom, but this alone is not enough. The laws of a society, which derive from the natural law that God has emblazoned on our consciences, all limit personal freedom in one way or another, and they do so for our mutual good. I as an individual benefit from not being free to murder my neighbor or to steal what God has alotted him or to slander him by deceptive speech, for by participating in such things I would be doing violence to my own soul. Of course, one might argue that I am free to do any or all of these things as I please—I would simply have to pay the penalty associated with each. But might we not say the same of a slave? Every slave is free in some sense to rebel against his master, but should he do so, he will have to pay a penalty for his disobedience. He is not free in the sense that he may do as he pleases without consequence. Yet none of us are free in this sense. Does this make us all slaves?
We might try to distinguish ourselves from the archetypal slave by suggesting that he is subject to the unjust laws of his master, whereas the laws of our society are just and worthy of respect. But what then might we say of the master who disciplines his slaves in the same manner as his own sons, so that they might one day have the same advantages when he finally sets them free? And what do we say of the many unjust laws upheld by our own society at one time or another? Might it not be a very good thing for the slave to obey his master in the former case and a very bad thing for us to obey our own government in the latter? Which of us in the end will be the freer for having done so?
If we define slavery in terms of a loss of personal freedom, then we must acknowledge that every one of us is to one degree or another in bondage, for none of us are free in the sense that we may do as we please without consequence. If we define it as a person’s being compelled to follow unjust dictates, then we must caricature all masters as men who would force such dictates upon their slaves and our own leaders as heavenly overseers who would never dream of such a thing. While such definitions may be emotionally satisfying as we lash out at the memory of our flawed forefathers, they are entirely unhelpful in distinguishing the supposed slave from the free man, for by these measures the difference between these two is only a matter of degrees, not of nature. We cannot define slavery in terms of freedom or law.
Perhaps then we should define it in terms of active compulsion. The law, generally speaking, limits what I can do—it does not say what I must be about at any given moment—and within its bounds I, as a free man, can choose how I will spend my time. The slave, on the other hand, must use his time as his master sees fit. He cannot do as he wishes without threat of repercussion. While this distinction may seem at first to have inched us towards a definition, it too fails. How many men wake in the morning to work a job that they desperately wish to leave but are compelled by circumstance and responsibility to stay? How many housewives endure year after year of the blessed struggle known as motherhood with no option of escape? Are either of these really free to do as they desire? Perhaps they are less constrained than the slave whom we have conjured in our imagination, but less constrained is not unconstrained. Again, the distinction is one of degrees, and any declaration on our part of exactly how much compulsion constitutes slavery cannot help but be arbitrary.
Perhaps the best that we can do to define slavery, at least in worldly terms, is to defer to the legal definition, which presents the slave as the physical property of his master, to be bought and bartered like any other form of property. The slave by this view is legally owned by another man, whereas the freeman is not. While this definition does provide us with a clear distinction between the slave and the freeman, it is unhelpful for a few reasons. First, our legal definitions do not necessarily have any correspondence with reality. Until we have grounded the claim to ownership espoused by this definition in the real world, it can be of no service to us in answering this chapter’s question. Second, God does in fact own all things, including the souls of men (Job 41:11, Ps. 24:1, Eze. 18:4 ⟴). If men do not even own themselves, how can they legitimately be said to own other men? Third, even if one man can be said to own another in some secondary sense so as to obligate that man to his service, by no means does this give him the power to diminish the image in which God created him to a thing that can be bought and sold (Gen. 1:27). The idea that a man can be reduced to mere property has no basis in reality, and no definition that relies on this idea can be legitimate. Because the legal definition of slavery is built upon this fanciful notion, it can at best tell us what slavery appears to be. It cannot say what it actually is.
As all of our most intuitive attempts at defining slavery have failed, I would like to suggest a most unintuitive definition, which I believe both reason and Scripture will vindicate. Slavery in its most essential form is the willing, conditional, and moment-to-moment submission of a man to his master.
I suspect that anyone who is at all familiar with the history of slavery and the horrors that men have inflicted upon one another over the ages in its pursuit will instinctively recoil at my use of the word willing here, so I should explain what I mean. If a man is captured and placed in chains, this does not make him a slave, but a prisoner. If he is shipped off to an unfamiliar land and auctioned off to an unfamiliar people, this does not make him a slave, but an abductee. If he is tortured and starved to bring him into line, this does not make him a slave, but a victim. He only becomes a slave when he inwardly bends the knee and agrees to serve his master in exchange for the particular quality of life that his master offers him. The man who relentlessly refuses to do so and who remains in constant rebellion against his master can be imprisoned, tortured, or even killed, but he cannot be enslaved. Of course, in reality, every man has his breaking point, after which he will submit, whether to preserve his own life and comfort or that of his loved ones. But my point is this—when he finally does submit, he will do so willingly in exchange for the promise of his master. Without exception, all slavery involves the willing submission of the enslaved.
Slavery is also conditional. This may seem perplexing to many, since we typically think of slaves as rendering their service without condition, but the conditional nature of slavery flows logically from the slave’s willing submission. The slave does not submit to his master for nothing, but in exchange for the master’s promise of a certain quality of life for himself and any loved ones who remain with him. Would a man remain obedient to a master who arbitrarily murders his family members or who tortures and starves him on a whim? I think not. The slave’s continued submission depends upon his master’s faithfulness to provide a certain level of security, stability, and sustenance. Should a master fail to meet these expectations, he will no doubt find himself in the midst of an uprising. Because slavery involves the willing submission of the enslaved, it follows that slavery is conditional upon a master’s provision for his slaves.
And because slavery involves the willing and conditional submission of the enslaved, it cannot be anything but a moment-to-moment arrangement. The impression of permanence that many of us have of slavery is not the result of some immutable principle which binds one man to another, but of man’s tendency to grow comfortable with his circumstances and resistant to change, even when those circumstances are less than favorable. Should a slave find himself so moved to escape his bondage that he is willing to risk his master’s wrath to regain his freedom, he will prove just how fragile the reality of slavery actually is.
In short, slavery in this world is not what it appears to be. We tend to think of slavery as an unwilling, unconditional, and unending state, but it is not. To the contrary, it is because slavery relies on the willing, conditional, and moment-to-moment surrender of the slave to his master that the Bible is able to speak of it in such unexpected ways. Consider the following verses:
All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. (1 Tim. 6:1-2 ⟴)
Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. (Col. 3:22-24 ⟴)
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ, not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. (Eph. 6:5-6 ⟴)
If we read Paul’s instructions to slaves under the presumption that slavery is inherently evil, one cannot help but wonder how his conscience would permit him to assert such things. One would think that he would urge slaves to flee for their lives and demand that any who claim Christ free their slaves immediately, but he does not. If slavery were in itself evil, ought he not at least forbid Christians from owning slaves? And would it not be deeply blasphemous to present believers as “slaves of Christ” and thereby present Jesus as a slave owner?
As much as we may want to deny it, the clear implication of these verses is that slavery is not in itself evil. Like so many things in this world, it may be used for evil, but it may also be used for good, and in these verses, Paul is most decidedly concerned with slaves’ welfare. He instructs slaves to work heartily, “as for the Lord rather than for men,” not as pleasers of men, but “with sincerity of heart” as “slaves of Christ,” and they are to render their service in view of the inheritance that they will soon receive from their true, Heavenly Master, Jesus Christ. Paul’s instructions are not for the benefit of slave masters, but of the slaves themselves, for by their outward enslavement, they have the opportunity to pursue inward freedom by willingly and sincerely choosing to labor for the good of their masters and therein for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. And by their service, he assures them, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”
Of course, their willing service depends upon their masters’ requiring of them only that which they can do in good conscience and by which they may serve Christ. As the book of Daniel so powerfully illustrates, when an earthly master demands that we dishonor our Heavenly Father, we must resist him until he relents, even at the cost of our lives. And should he relent, we are to serve him again, for in our service of other men, we become like Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul instructs all believers:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:3-11 ⟴)
The word translated here as “bond-servant” is the same as that translated “slave” in the verses above, so we might also say that, though He is Master of all, He took the form of a slave in order to serve and save mankind. In this same spirit, Paul writes, “Though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more” (1 Cor. 9:19), and he urges us, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Now obviously, neither Jesus nor Paul was a slave in any sort of legal sense, yet both were slaves in a far deeper and more meaningful sense. The legally bound man, whose heart is against his master, will serve him grudgingly and will always be seeking opportunities to serve himself. The free man, whose heart is for his neighbor, will serve him joyfully and will always be seeking opportunities to serve his neighbor. Who then will be the more faithful slave, he who is only nominally so and serves out of obligation or he who voluntarily subjects himself and serves from the heart? And if a free man does well to make himself a slave to his fellow man in imitation of Christ and out of a love for God and neighbor, will a man who is outwardly a slave not do equally well to do likewise? If the end of salvation is that we should all be slaves of Christ inwardly and therein bind ourselves in service to other men, then the only real advantage that a free man enjoys over a slave is that he is able to choose whom and how he will serve, and I believe that it is for this reason that Paul advises slaves to become free if they are able to do so (1 Cor. 7:21)—not so that they may be free of obligation to others, but so that they will be free to obligate themselves to all men rather than a lone master. He continues, “He who was called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise, he who was called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:22-23 ⟴).
Clearly slavery in the sense of outward obligation to other men is not ideal, whether it comes in the form of owing a debt, perpetual dependency, or forced labor, and men who find themselves in such circumstances should do what they can to escape them, although only in a such a way that they honor those to whom they are obligated. And no one should obligate himself to one man in a manner that restricts him from serving another and in turn from rendering the greatest possible service to Christ. This is why Paul warns, “Do not become slaves to men.” Though, as slaves of Christ, we are to become slaves of all men inwardly (1 Cor. 9:19), we are to be outwardly enslaved to none, inasmuch as we have a say in the matter. However, should we find ourselves in such an unfortunate situation, we should serve our earthly master with the same heartfelt sincerity with which we would serve Christ Himself, for His name and Gospel’s sake (1 Tim. 6:1). Such is the power of Christ that men can live freely and joyfully in the midst of the harshest earthly servitude, and such is the power of sin that men can live shackled and despairing in the midst of the lushest earthly prosperity. Slavery neither redeems a man nor ruins him. It merely binds him to his master, and it is to our respective masters that I would now have us direct our attention.
When we say that slavery in itself is evil, we conflate the master with his means. The master is not his means, but only uses his means to accomplish his purposes. If the master’s purposes are evil, then his means will take on the appearance of evil. If they are beneficent, then his means will have the sheen of altruism. But his means are neither good nor evil, for they are merely the hammer in the hand of the craftsman, used by one man to build up and the next to tear down. When we think to fault the hammer on account of the defective heart of him who wields it, we make it impossible for the good craftsman to employ it for our benefit. If slavery has the appearance of evil to us, it is not because it is evil in itself, but because the broken men who wield it over others are evil and use their power with evil intent, thinking to repair their own miserable souls by tearing away at the lives of their brethren. No matter how many laws we make to restrain such men, we shall never legislate them to love their neighbor, and they will always find a new and more subtle way to exploit others to their service. As long as we insist on attributing evil to the means of a man’s sinning instead of the man himself, not only do we expose ourselves to the danger that he poses when handling other less suspicious implements, but we cheat him of the opportunity to repent of his wickedness by our refusal to challenge him directly. Furthermore, we create a cover for ourselves, should we in our weaker moments wish to follow after him in his sin. By no means can we afford such a costly mistake.
If we can concede that slavery is not inherently evil, then we must also concede that slavery can potentially be used for good. This is a dangerous admission indeed when spoken in the presence of selfish, power-hungry men such as we, so I think it appropriate that we remind ourselves of how Jesus responded to the rich young ruler. When asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:18-19 ⟴), and Paul makes it abundantly clear just how “not good” we men are in Romans 3:9-18. We sinful people are in no position to handle well the pervasive power that slavery grants one man over his neighbor, and no matter how subtle its form or enticing its benefits, we would do well to release our grip on such an instrument of power before it further sears our already scarred souls. But just because we dare not touch it ourselves on account of the evil deeds that it tends to elicit from us does not mean that it might not be used for great good in the hands of a truly good man.
Jesus alone is just such a man. He says, “I am the good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father, and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15 ⟴). He “did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), having Himself taken “the form of a slave” (Php. 2:7). Jesus, who in the beginning was with the Father and who was and is our beneficent Creator by whom we live and move and have our being, is truly a good man, without taint of sin and overflowing in the life that we empty men need to flourish (John 1:1-5, 14, Acts 17:24-28, Heb. 4:14-16 ⟴). What might slavery be in the hands of a truly good Master, who makes Himself the slave of all men, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), who desires to know each man in His service as intimately as He knows His own Father, and who cares infinitely more for the health and welfare of His ever-wandering sheep than they care for themselves? In the hands of a man such as this, slavery is salvation. It is the means to eternal life and the purest freedom that we lowly creatures can know.
Perhaps this rather sounds like a paradox, but it is not. We are bearers of the divine image of God, and all of our humanity and significance is predicated upon this reality. But an image has no life in itself. Its existence depends entirely on the One who has cast it into being and who sustains it from one moment to the next. For the image to be free from its Caster would be its death, while being interminably bound to Him is life and health and all the fullness of the divine experience of which a created being is capable. Idolaters that we are, we tend to think of freedom in such a way that it can only be had by making gods of ourselves and casting the true God aside. But we are not gods. We are ever-dependent, created beings who can do nothing apart from our Creator (John 15:5), and just as Jesus, who is the living image of God, imitates His Father in all things, so we who are fashioned in His likeness ought to imitate Him (John 5:19-20, Heb. 1:1-4 ⟴).
Freedom from God is the fantastic absurdity preached by dying men destined for the stillness of spirit that is the death of the human soul. Freedom in God through the veil of Christ is the only freedom that exists (Heb. 10:19-22 ⟴). He alone is the Light of the world, and what is an image without light (John 8:12)? If we images are to glow with the full brilliance of our Caster, we must reserve no part of ourselves for the shadows but must instead commit every facet of who we are to reflecting His light. And above all, we must never forget that every dancing ray of that light, which is our beauty and joy and life, belongs to Him, and it is only in returning to Him what He has shone upon us that we are able to shine. We were created to be slaves of His light, and by serving the God who first served us and who continues to serve us with every undeserved breath, we shall be as free as the Son who made us.
But whether or not we are slaves to God, we will be slaves, for such is our nature. Paul tells us in Romans 6:16-23:
Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, resulting in death, or of obedience, resulting in righteousness? 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. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Yet what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now, having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Every one of us will have one of two masters: the righteousness that comes from faith in Jesus and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit or the moral rot of sin, which seeps from our own spoiled souls as they fester in frigid emptiness. We shall either serve the goodness that lies only in God’s heart (Mark 10:18) or the wickedness that naturally forms within our own hearts in His absence (Rom. 16:18).
While we are free from God, who is the root of all goodness, we are like broken branches strewn on the ground, our fruit hopelessly lost to the elements and our life dwindling by the day (Rom. 11:17-24 ⟴). This is the freedom that we have in sin—a binding freedom which constricts and warps and depletes and which, in truth, is no freedom at all, but death. But when we become slaves of the living God, having been grafted into the Vine of Christ (John 15:1-11 ⟴), we become living, growing, thriving branches, full of His fruit and strengthened by His constant nourishment. This is the yoke that we bear in Christ—a loosing yoke which trains us to stand tall, disciplines us when we stray, and teaches us to walk in His perfection (Mat. 5:48, Heb. 12:3-11 ⟴). Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Mat. 11: 28-30 ⟴). Christ’s burden is not meant to weigh us down, but to strengthen us in love and righteousness. His yoke is not meant to bind us, but to guide our sin-hardened hearts in the blessed enjoyment of His goodness. These implements of slavery, which evil men use to bring ruin, Jesus uses to bestow life and set men free (Gal. 5:1). They are necessary instruments of our formation as sons of God, healing us of the deformities which sin has left in us and preparing us to go forward in love for time everlasting. And so shall every one of us who makes himself a slave of Christ.
Slavery then is essential to human freedom, for Christ can only free the man who has wholly committed himself to His service and to the long and strenuous process of becoming perfect (Mat. 5:48, 1 Pet. 1:14-16, 1 John 4:16-18 ⟴). Jesus tells us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). This command is not for God’s benefit, but for ours. It is not only for a time, but for all time. It is the end of all our labors in this life and the foundation of all our joys in the next. We are to be bound to God forever by chains of love, and in that love we shall be free.
The key then to freedom is love—not aimless, arbitrary pursuits of personal pleasure or childish quests of self-realization and feigned exaltation, but simply love. A man who is nominally free from all obligation and who serves only his own interests does not love, and in his loveless self-absorption, he becomes an empty man, cut off from the goodness of God and bound to the service of his own dying heart’s distorted longings. But a man who loves and serves God and neighbor also loves and serves himself in the same motion, only he does so selflessly in a manner that builds others up, that they might in turn build him up and all together glorify God. Now love that is not given freely is not love. If we are to love in such a way that sustains, we must be so wholly committed to God that we cannot imagine anything but obedience, which is the proof of love and of the perfecting work of God within us (John 14:15, 1 John 4:17 ⟴). If we are to love, we must be reborn, our deepest longings transformed and brought into conformity with God’s goodness, that in acting out of them we have no other desire but to do His will. Our hearts having been remade, in all that we do forevermore we shall do His will, not under compulsion, but freely and out of love. Therein lies the freedom of knowing God through Jesus Christ.
Now if the true freedom inherent to love and necessary for its outworking can only be known by becoming a slave of the God who is love (1 John 4:15-16 ⟴), how can slavery in itself be evil? Clearly it cannot. Thus, it would appear that we have been asking the wrong question. The question that we should have been asking is this: Why does slavery so often have the appearance of evil in this world? Given the discussion above, our answer should be forthcoming. Slavery in this world appears evil because it rests in the hands of evil men, who are themselves enslaved to the harsh taskmaster of sin and are acting according to the demands of their master. They themselves are not free. Or if Christ has freed them, such as is the case of the believing master mentioned in the book of Philemon, they are still plagued by the power of sin resident in their bodies and, though they have the desire to do what is right, haven’t the ability to carry it out (Rom. 7:13-25 ⟴). How then can any fallen man—even a redeemed one—expect to be the master of others without adding the weight of his own sin to their shoulders?
The only good Master is God Himself, yet even He uses slavery as a means to set men free, and in this fact lies the fatal foundational flaw to all forms of worldly slavery. No matter how good a man is relative to his peers, he is evil when compared to a holy God and will falter in his handling of others in whatever capacity he is given power over them. He cannot bear well the absolute power that slavery affords him. And because he is only a man, he cannot reach into another man’s soul and reorder that man’s desires to make his enslavement more bearable, whereas God leaves no heart in His domain unchanged. Sinful men cannot imitate God in His capacity as Master of men, but they can imitate Him to some degree in pursuing the central end to which He exercises His authority—the freedom of every individual created in His image.
Whatever gift or talent God has given us we should exercise in the liberation of our fellow men from whatever ties may bind them, beginning with the preaching of the living Word of God, which frees men inwardly, and continuing with whatever work our consciences dictate in the pursuit of their outward freedom (Heb 4:12, James 1:21-22 ⟴). Of these two, the former course isby far the more important. If we gain ground in the latter while neglecting the former, we merely liberate a man to go after his own godless appetites rather than those of his earthly master (Rom. 16:17-18 ⟴). But if we set the Gospel before him and he partakes, then we have gained a brother in arms with whom to do battle against the spiritual rulers of this world (Eph. 6:10-17 ⟴), and he will remain a brother now and forever, regardless of whether he ever escapes his outward bondage. Our primary aim must be to make men slaves of Christ, that they might be free from the bondage of sin and captive to the love of God, or we will not actually have helped them at all.
What does all of this mean in the context of our modern world in which most civilized countries have made open ownership of other people illegal?
First, it means that we must be watchful for other, less obvious means of enslavement. Though the legal institution of slavery is dead in most of the world, the reality of slavery is alive and well. We see it in the sex trafficking industry through which young women are convinced that their only value in life is as sexual objects for the men who defile them. We see it in the welfare state and generations of broken families, crushed by the moral weight of unending government “assistance” and robbed of their dignity by power-hungry politicians bent on weaponizing their dependency. We see it in our universities, which have become breeding grounds of ideological indoctrination whose only fixed virtue is conformity and whose retribution for independent thought is severe. Slavery is all around us, and its evils will be with us for as long as sin endures in the hearts of men. Therefore, we must be vigilant to identify it and oppose it wherever and in whatever form we find it.
Second, as we stand against slavery, we must remember that we are standing against every individual human being who brandishes its whip and the power of sin to which he himself is subject. We cannot win this battle on our own, for we haven’t the power to change any man’s heart. Only God, who created mankind from dust and who shapes men’s souls like clay, has the power to overcome the sin that dominates the hearts of our earthly masters. We cannot expect evil men to free their own slaves while they themselves remain captive. Therefore, our most powerful weapon against all forms of slavery is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of truth, whose indelible blade pierces men’s hearts and whose sin-killing blow brings healing to their souls (Eph 6:17, Heb. 4:12-13 ⟴).
Third, we must stand as individuals, each of whom is accountable to God for his own sin and daily in need of redemption. When we pretend that we are fundamentally knit to a particular group or class of people, such that their perceived sins or virtues become our own, we enable slavery on multiple fronts. By attempting to take on the burden of other men’s sins as our own, we willingly prostrate ourselves before all who would claim grievance on account of those sins, whether that grievance is real or imagined. Furthermore, we make any hope of release from those sins impossible, for the shadow of sin is particular to the heart that cast it. As much as we may try, we can never sufficiently repent of a sin whose silhouette is foreign to the shape of our own heart’s guilt. Guilt cannot be shared, but is allotted to each man as his conscience demands (Eze. 18:20). As long as we act as if it can, we shall never cease to find ourselves under someone’s yoke. On the other side of the coin, by upholding other men’s virtues as our own, we end up downplaying or ignoring our accountability for grievances which are legitimately ours to address, thus shielding the sin that drives us from detection and allowing it to bind us ever more intimately to its service—and “by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 18:19). Because groups have neither souls nor consciences, they can neither sin nor do good, can neither be aggrieved nor do penance, can neither be enslaved nor set free. Only the individuals composing these groups have any claim to such things, and that is where our focus must always return.
Fourth, we must never make the mistake of attributing evil to slavery itself, whatever its form, but to the men who perpetrate it. If slavery in this world has the appearance of evil, it is only because men in this world are in reality evil. Were men truly good, such that all men cared for the welfare of their neighbors over their own and actively sought ways to serve one another, the effect of slavery would be entirely nullied and the distinction between slave and freeman would be lost, for free men would serve their neighbors in the same fashion as slaves serve their masters, and neighbors and masters alike would reciprocate with the same holy zeal. What is slavery in a world where every man joyfully serves every other? It is a word so subsumed in cheer that it has lost its meaning, a few forgotten syllables that no man should ever again be tempted to utter. This is why Paul tells us that he is speaking in “human terms” during his discourse in Romans 6 (Rom. 6:19). It will never occur to any man, having been redeemed by the blood of Christ and entered into the eternal Heaven promised God’s children, to think of himself as a slave. By God’s grace, he will simply be a good friend and faithful son to a loving Father (John 15:13-15, Gal. 4:1-7 ⟴) and will relish in the fellowship and service of Christ forever (Rev. 7:9-17 ⟴). The goodness of God vanquishes slavery’s every ill effect and renders its mark a delight to every man branded by it (Rev. 14:1, 22:4 ⟴). But if we are to enjoy God’s goodness for what it is, we ourselves must become good. In human terms, we must become slaves of Christ.
Finally, we must remember that slavery in all its forms is the willing, conditional, moment-to-moment submission of a man to his master. No man truly becomes a slave to another until he willingly humbles himself to his lordship. Nor does any man remain the slave of another except by his persistent bowing of the knee to his master. This should be a great hope to those suffering the oppression of slavery in this world and a sober warning to those who call themselves slaves of Christ. If a man’s heart is made right before God, there is no worldly oppression that can hold him, for he will learn to find joy in fulfilling the demands of his master, who is his neighbor, in his service of Christ (Lev. 19:18). And should he be set free, he is freed only to the service of all men in imitation of Christ (1 Cor. 9:19). On the other hand, if a man claims to be a Christian, yet regularly chooses to pursue the rewards of sin, he cannot really be a slave to anyone but himself. In either case, it is the state of a man’s heart that determines his master. Until we are born again (John 3:1-21 ⟴), we will serve sin (Rom. 3:9-18 ⟴). But if we are slaves of Christ, having been born of imperishable seed through the living, enduring Word of God (1 Pet. 1:3-4, 22-25 ⟴), we will willingly and regularly submit ourselves to His lordship, confident that He will fulfill our every need in His own perfect way and time. And through the privilege of His service, we shall truly be free.
As I close, I would encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ with this final word. God is merciful! Thank God that He is merciful, or not a single one of us would ever pass Heaven’s gates! “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Ps. 145:8). “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Though we may be His slaves, that does not mean that we are particularly competent slaves, nor are we good. We will stray, and we will sin against our Master, and we shall do each of these in some manner and to some degree for the rest of our natural lives. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). As poor as our respective reflections of Him may be at present and as hopeless as the prospect of becoming like Him may seem sometimes, God knows very well that we are not where we ought to be, and day by day He is transforming us into what we are to become, as much through our failures as through our victories. What cause then do we have for despair, and what company has despair with our faith in the living God?
We need not become perfect to be His slaves, but must be His slaves to become perfect. Should we stray in one moment, we must recommit ourselves in the next, dwelling not on how terribly we have sinned in the moment before, but on how adamantly we shall love one another in the moments to come. “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment” (1 John 4:16-17 ⟴). So then, Love Christ, your Head, and love your brother, with whom you are being knit into Christ’s Body with a growth that is from God (Col. 2:19). Do not lose heart, but “put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col. 3:14), believing that God is able to draw us dry bones together into something truly magnificent and worthwhile (Eze. 37:1-14 ⟴). No doubt, the garment of God’s love will be ill fitting on us emaciated sinners at the start and will come with certain discomforts as He restores us to health, but as we make a practice of loving one another, He will strengthen us and mature us into the Body of Christ, that all of us together may fill out His love and one day don it in its final, perfect form. Until then, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” ever aware that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Php. 2:12-13 ⟴). Our good Master loves you as He loves His own Son. Even when you are faithless, He is faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). He will see you home.