Should a good, Bible-believing Christian be in favour of slavery?
There are many relevant passages. In Genesis chapter 9, Noah got completely stocious, and collapsed in his tent with his manhood showing. His son Ham thought this hilarious, and told his brothers; but Shem and Japheth, showing respect, went to their father with a cloak to cover him up, and approached him backwards so that they would not see him. Because of this Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan, who would be slave of Shem and Japheth. Again, not the kind of Bible story you hear in Sunday school. The journal of John Woolman recounts that this story was used as a Biblical argument in favour of enslaving Africans, the alleged descendents of Ham, when he was campaigning against it among Quakers in the 18th century.
(Yes, I know, different Philemon, but a beautiful picture.) The slave Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon, and the Apostle Paul got to know him during his imprisonment. Paul, at verse 12, calls Onesimus “my own heart”, a surprisingly intimate image which bears a great deal more resemblance to the loving, monogamous homosexual relationships which equal marriage would recognise than the gang rape and orgies which the Bible condemns. Probably, within a Christian community an escaped slave could make a living as a free man: the State would disapprove, but there would be no way of knowing. However, Paul sends the slave back to his master. This condones slavery.
That is consistent with other sayings about slavery in the epistles. 1 Timothy 6: 1-2:
1 All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. These are the things you are to teach and insist on.
The verse structure of the texts only dates back to the 16th century. The NIV places that last sentence of verse 2 in the following section, but Robert Estienne and his followers applied it to the words on slavery. Note that the slave owner is not asked to free his slave, and the slave is told to serve his master, whether Christian or not. Consider 1 Corinthians 7:21:
21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.
Is this merely a political, pragmatic stance, since Christians would be persecuted far more fiercely if they opposed slavery? No, because Christian masters kept Christian slaves. See also Ephesians 6:5-9:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. 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.
And slavery is supported when the Israelites ruled themselves. This is not a pragmatic submission to the mores of society, but the legislation of a free people, in Leviticus 25:44:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
The answer to my initial question is, of course, no. Good Bible-believing Christians should oppose slavery in all its forms wherever they may find it. However, it is difficult for them to argue that this is a Biblical way of proceeding, when slavery is so enthusiastically supported in the Bible. In the same way, good Bible-believing Christians should enthusiastically welcome equal marriage, given that it celebrates unions as loving and creative as that of Paul with Onesimus. Or, when they condemn gay Christians for showing that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as much as they pretend, they should realise that they too are reading the Bible to find their own prejudices, rather than reading it to find what it says.