How could good Christians have slaves? How could Robert E. Lee fight for the South and slavery? If the Bible is revelation from God, why isn’t it clearer that putting a person in chains is the sin of sins? The Reformation five hundred years ago ignited the fire of freedom in every heart, but somehow freedom for Africans was not included. Why did good Christians who loved their kids, read their Bible and hug their dogs not see a slave as his brother?
First of all, the whole Old Testament is about God freeing slaves from Egypt. World history is about people enslaving people but God steps into history to free His people, and He did it again and again. They would enslave themselves to sins which enslaved them to other nations. When Jesus stepped in, the Jews were slaves to Rome. When Jesus told them they were slaves to sin, they said they were slaves to nobody. Jesus might have uttered under his breath, “what about Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Greece, Rome…?” But Jesus announced the Spirit rested on Him to set all people free. He replaced the Jewish circumcision, only for Jewish males, to baptism in water, for all men and women, free and slave.
But how did the early church unpack this freedom? Half the Roman population were slaves. If you kicked the can and yelled “everybody free,” hell would burn in the streets. If Christians tried to go straight for the social reform, the society would have been one big Spartacus revolution with lots of blood but little change of heart.
Paul writes, “Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it.” ( 1 Corinthians 7:20-21). Then he tells us a slave is free in the Lord and the free man is Christ’s slave. We see Paul flesh this out with his friend, Onesimus, in the book of Philemon. He dreamed of a world order where there is no “free or slave” distinction. This should be modeled in the church, but 11:00 AM Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America. If the church starts modeling the kingdom, healing will come.
In the Roman Empire, slaves found inner freedom in Christ and lead other slaves, millions of them, to Christ. Slaves led their owners to Christ and many owners freed their slaves. In the waters of baptism, slaves and owners became family.
So, Jesus did not call the slaves to go up higher, but he called everyone else to go lower.
When John baptized Jesus in Jordan, Jesus was going low. The Jordan, which means descending, is geographically the lowest place on this planet. Jesus got down in the dirty waters with us. Now the way up is down. The way to rule is to serve. The way to freedom was to become a prisoner of love. And so slavery began to fall in the Roman world.
But slavery continued because we like to control other people. Over forty million people today are slaves—for cheap labor, sex or involuntary organ donations. Every man who has bought porn has helped slavery. Maybe buying cheap sneakers does, too. But the message of Christ is to serve, not control, other people. We just need to see it clearly.
William Wilberforce, called by Christ, dedicated his life to abolish slavery in the English empire. He succeeded by persistence and pictures. When the drawings of people crammed on slave ships hit the streets, the battle was one. Much in the same way today, over half of America is now pro life because the ultrasound crystallizes the baby’s face in the womb.
A hundred years before on the other side of the ocean, the Georgia legislature abolished slavery for eleven years. The economic pressure of surrounding states and the fiery preaching of George Whitefield turned Georgia back to slavery. Maybe the Civil War could have been avoided! I almost want to burn my Whitefield books.
Whitefield did exhort the slave owners to treat their slaves better than they treated their dogs, but his Calvinism convinced him that the African was predestined to be a slave. Whether you are an Arminianist or a Calvinist, you must admit Calvinism has the tendency to produce the “us – them” mentality instead of the “we all” from one blood mentality (Acts 17:26.) There is only one race, the human one.
In the chapel at Washington and Lee University, General Lee bowed down at the altar next to his black slaves. He fought for slavery and state rights but freed his own slaves ten years before the war. General Lee almost fought for the North; the war would have ended much sooner. The History here is muddy, but on thing is clear—before we pull down Robert’s statues, we need to demolish our own desire to control. The only way to abolish slavery is to become a slave of Jesus.
ABOUT TEAM MCMILLAN:
In 1994, the McMillan family traveled to the kidnapping, murder, and drug capital of the western hemisphere to plant a church and a foundation. God thought Medellin, Colombia a good place to raise a family. And turns out He was right (as He usually is). It became a very large family: The church, Comunidad (Community), is now the largest church in Medellin with over 8,000 members, the Foundation, Viento Fresco, cares for over 150 high-risk children, and a non-profit coffee shop, New Hearts Cafe, serves cups of caffeine and the love of Jesus to thousands of college students.
God is doing so much in Medellin, and we write about here on the Teammcmillan.org blog!
THERE ARE FOUR WAYS TO GET INVOLVED.
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