He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death (Ex.21:16).
The US Civil War brought the issue of slavery into sharp focus. Whilst it may be true that only about 6% of the white population in the South were slaveholders (300,000 out of 5.3 million,) the institution of slavery was a generally accepted aspect of Southern culture.
Not all slavery commenced with kidnapping, but Africans didn’t come to the US because they were tourists hoping for a good time. Because of this, slavery in the US was always morally a deeply flawed idea, as it was (and is) anywhere else.
How do we know this? The Bible says that “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you” (Deut.23:15). God considered escape from slavery both legitimate and desirable. Who was it Who brought about the Exodus?
It is true that God in the Law did permit slavery to occur amongst Israelites (Ex.21:1-11; Deut.15:12-18), but this was generally limited to six years’ duration. This fact was largely ignored by the South’s plantation owners.
Liberty with responsibility should be the goal of every godly community. God never endorsed what Egypt and Pharoah did to the children of Israel in enslaving them. God judged Egypt and delivered His people, and He uses the Exodus as an example of our deliverance from sin, the devil and darkness through Jesus Christ.
God instructed His people:
Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? (Isa.58:6)
Paul added to our understanding:
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it, but if you are able also to become free, rather do that (I Cor.7:21).
One of the South’s leading theologians, Robert Dabney, claimed that Negro Christians are “a subservient race…made to follow, and not to lead.” He warned that the “race of Washington and Lee and Jackson” must not be mixed with “this base herd…from fens of Africa.” Black Christians were prohibited from serving as pastors, elders and deacons in white churches.
The notion of Christians holding slaves involved a moral contradiction- an exercise in hypocrisy. Unfortunately it took a dreadful Civil War for the South to get the message.
The liberty of individuals is of great importance to God, and a logical consequence of the gospel. One of Jesus’ prime missions was “…to proclaim release to the captives, and …to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). To exclude the release of slaves from Jesus’ clearly stated ministry is no easier than squeezing an elephant through a keyhole. It wasn’t for nothing that God made kidnapping, or holding a person in one’s possession against their will, a capital crime punishable by death.
Christians have not always been observant of this fact: that there are personal, economic, ideological, sociological and political consequences of the gospel. This must change if we’re to be effective amongst the nations of the world.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery (Gal.5:1)