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Slavery & Christianity, by John Robbins: A Review

March 7, 2007
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In his briefest epistle, Paul writes to his friend Philemon and his house church, asking that he receive back his fugitive slave Onesimus as a free man and brother in Christ. In his reasoning and appeals to Philemon as a cherished Christian brother, Paul effectively defines both slavery and Christianity and demonstrates why they are incompatible.

Dr. Robbins’s book (Trinity Foundation, 2007) is both a commentary on Philemon and an exposition of slavery as unbiblical as practiced in the Roman Empire–and in the United States.

“Southern slavery was pretty good, and the Northern free labor market was evil–condemned, ironically, as ‘wage-slavery.’ Agrarianism is good, and industrialism is evil. Feudalism is good, and capitalism is evil. Legally enforced social (and perhaps racial) hierarchies are good; equality before the law is evil. In holding these views, Southern nationalists find common ground with both Romanists and Marxists, so it is not unusual or surprising to see Marxists and Romanists like Eugene Genovese and Thomas DiLorenzo defending the feudal, slaveholding South.”

It is possible that Dr. Robbins may overestimate the South’s enthusiasm for its own economic debilities and underestimate the North’s political oppression and economic tyranny, but we all have our biases. But nothing can change the fact that American slavery was unbiblical and unjust. Dr. Robbins’s treatment of American slavery is qualitatively a well documented sidebar in his exposition of the theme of Philemon.

God’s law supercedes man’s law, and the Roman fugitive slave law, Dr. Robbins observes, violated Deuteronomy 23:15-16:

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.

The same Scriptural reasoning applies to the Civil War fugitive slave laws, and to the Dred Scott decision. What many Southern defenders miss, and it must be willful blindness, is the obvious fact that, while slavery existed in the Bible, it was by right of conqueror over the conquered, and was never considered a just treatment of either fellow Israelites or strangers (Exodus 22:21). Slavery as practiced in the United States violated the Biblical injunction against manstealing (Exodus 21:16).

Dr. Robbins proceeds topically with his exposition of Philemon.   He deals with “Race and Christianity,” demonstrating the Gospel’s abrogation of racial distinctions.  He highlights Paul’s referral to himself as a prisoner, both of the Roman Empire and of Christ Jesus, and appeals to Philemon’s compassion as much as to his fraternity.  Paul appeals to Philemon as a fellow worker, not as to an adversary who needs to shape up.  Dr. Robbins emphasizes Paul’s reverance toward Philemon as a cherished brother.  He examines the respective roles of church and state, the providence of God, and the theme of substitution and imputation in his own promise to make good any debt Onesimus has left unpaid to Philemon. And, as debt is inconsistent with grace, Paul appeals to Philemon that slavery is inconsistent with Christian love and brotherhood.

“…what makes these Gentiles beloved to Paul, and now Onesimus beloved to both Paul and Philemon, is their common doctrine: Truth is the basis, the foundation, for Christian love.  Biblical love is not a warm feeling in the stomach, but the exercise of a good will toward another. That good will does not exist apart from a knowledge of the truth.”

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2 Comments
  1. March 7, 2007 12:18 pm

    I’ll have to read it too.

    “Agrarianism is good, and industrialism is evil. Feudalism is good, and capitalism is evil. . . .”

    I think arguing the other way is just as foolish, too. We have found ways to make everything evil, and nothing good.

    But I agree with the points made about the fugitive slave laws and manstealing. There are other provisions in scripture, too, that clearly state the requirement of equal protection under the law. Neither the North nor the South was particularly good at that one.

  2. Laura permalink
    December 22, 2008 7:38 am

    when the people appointed to management might as well be called nazis, i feel like i WORK FOR FREE, i cant even afford a place to live making minimum wage, what am I going to do when my mom stops supporting me, Im 26. In the mean time the big boss just made 2 billion dollars this year.

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