This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Colonies, a triumph associated with the name of William Wilberforce.
Christians have been quick to celebrate not only the fact but the motivation; for Wilberforce was a convinced evangelical Christian, whose abolitionism was grounded in his belief in the created dignity of the human person and the necessity of freedom and security as the basis for a free and full response to the Gospel itself.
There is then a modicum of embarrassment or confusion when we encounter biblical texts clearly upholding the institution of slavery:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord (Col 3:22).
This is not an aberrant passage to be brushed aside as in conflict with the rest of the NT witness; there are parallels in Ephesians, Titus and 1 Peter, all of which urge slaves similarly to obedience, thus not only assuming the fact of slavery but also advocating its smooth operation.
What are we to make of this? Many scholars question the relationship between the Letter to the Colossians, the similar Ephesians, and the other letters of Paul. One obvious reason has to do with the approval Ephesians and Colossians seem to offer slavery, which is in some apparent tension with Romans and other letters (nb. Philemon). Whether the contrast between these positions is to be sought in the development of Paul’s own thinking, or by suggesting another author, a later follower writing in Paul’s name, is a matter for judgement. In either case, we must still account for this tension within the canon of scripture.
We could in fact say that this is a tension not just about one issue, but about how we are to face and grasp reality, whether nature, or society, or of our own existence.
On the one hand there is a visionary, prophetic Gospel that sees deeply and painfully the contrast between the broken world and its divine calling, and looks for change. This world-challenging message is a Gospel of redemption and judgement, of transformation and renewal. On the other hand, there is a Gospel that discerns faithfully and joyfully the beauty and goodness of God’s purpose despite the difficulties of human existence. Such a theology of wisdom and blessing does not despair of finding God’s good purposes in any society or system. This world–affirming message is the Gospel of creation and wisdom, of celebration and blessing.
In Paul’s unquestioned letters like Romans, we encounter an author preaching the need for judgement, redemption and transformation, and wrestling with things the way they are. He writes of creation itself as “subjected to futility”, “in bondage to decay”, “groaning with labor pains” and now “awaiting with eager longing” the revealing of God’s redemptive purpose (see Romans 8).
Colossians, however, exhibits the second, gentler and more conservative type of theological reflection, employing tools of wisdom and blessing, closely and positively tying God’s presence and purpose to the existing social order and the cosmos. In Colossians the creation itself is not struggling to come into being – it exists in Christ: “all things were created through him and for him...[and] in him all things hold together” (See Colossians 1).
Colossians asks how its readers are to live in their world. The answers are undoubtedly conservative. The author is not answering the question “should there be slavery” – this was not really a viable question. This author was not addressing the mass abductions often accompanied by slaughter which were the 18th century slave trade from
If the result seems unpalatable, this way of thinking is still familiar. The same theological principle and this same scriptural passage lies behind the beloved and apparently more benign poem “The Elixir” by George Herbert, where the poet asks “Teach me my God and king in all things thee to see”, invoking the same idea of finding God in all one’s experience. Herbert then states that “a servant with this clause makes drudgery divine”. Many of us who would want no truck with justifying slavery have been willing to accept this principle of dedication, which seeks the divine in all things.
But there are limits. You can make drudgery divine, but you cannot make oppression divine. That perhaps thin theological line is the line between truth and falsehood, between the Gospel and a gross parody.
The difficulty is illustrated by Wilberforce himself, who while deeply and sincerely committed to the abolition of slavery also opposed the extension of suffrage beyond the propertied classes, and supported the suppression of trade union activity. He did not see the abolition of slavery as a form of social transformation but as the removal of a hideous aberration from a divinely-ordered good society.
Ironically then, Wilberforce sought the abolition of slavery for reasons similar to those for which Colossians urges obedience within it; for both sought the best conditions under which the Gospel could flourish, and both viewed a benign but strongly hierarchical society as the best answer. The limits of this view are, I hope, obvious enough.
Each response the Church and its members make to the pressing issues of our day – war, human sexuality, treatment of refugees, indigenous interventions - will involve some interplay between the two principles of judgement and blessing, of critique and affirmation. These are not merely a paradox, or a basis for making complexity an excuse for inaction.
In our own public and private dealings the question that the Paul or Pauls of the New Testament, and the Wilberforces and Herberts, pose is whether we ourselves are prepared to look for what is most deeply true and most deeply necessary in our present and our future. To follow the message of scripture most deeply we may therefore have to look past its letter, as Wilberforce certainly did.