I ran across this 2011 post over at The Gospel Coalition (TGC) last week. It’s like an artifact of the past! It reminded me of a lot of nonsensical and offensive things evangelicals believe and teach about slavery, and so here we are! The post concerns the popular evangelical idea of everyone being a slave to something. In their Christianese, that means that non-Christians enslave themselves to sinful behavior and thoughts, while they, as TRUE CHRISTIANS™, enslave themselves only to Jesus. Pick your master, slaves, they caution. Today, let’s talk about why that’s an absolutely abhorrent idea–but one that they, as authoritarians, love enormously.
“Everyone’s a slave to something”: Christianese 101
Here’s how it goes:
Everyone is a slave to something. When we say that, we mean that there’s something that absolutely compels and commands everyone. It might be a literal slave-master, yes, but it also might be something metaphorical like sex, drugs, or rock-n-roll. (Let’s face it though: It’s sex. It’s always about sex, with evangelicals.) Nobody can get out of being enslaved to something. But what we can do instead is pick who/what our master shall be. Pick Jesus as a master, and slavery won’t be nearly as bad! Plus, when you die Jesus won’t condemn you to Hell, which all other masters will.
Heard that song and dance before? I sure did.
When I was just a teenager, some evangelical set this over-simplistic equation in front of me: pick your master, because you’ll always be a slave to something. Chances are good it happened at that first Southern Baptist Convention church I attended, and chances are good it happened during that teen evangelism event that set my feet on the evangelicalism path for the next decade.
Yes, the Bible definitely approves of slaves and slavery
This talking point is quite common. It derives from the Bible itself, of course, since the Bible’s writers completely approved of slavery.
In Romans chapter 6, we find a whole section popularly called “The Wages of Sin.” Here’s how it goes, starting at verse 15:
Do you not know that when you offer yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves to the one you obey, whether you are slaves to sin leading to death, or to obedience leading to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you once were slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were committed. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. [. . .]
For when you were slaves to sin, you were free of obligation to righteousness. What fruit did you reap at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The outcome of those things is death.
So there you have it. Non-Christians are “slaves to sin.” They can’t help but offend Jesus with their noncompliance! Christians are slaves to “righteousness,” meaning Jesus and Christianity. So Christians don’t ever sin, ever, nor find sinning impossible to avoid like heathens always do by definition.
And I fell for it–hook line and sinker
At the time, I was only about 15. I didn’t know any better. That’s all I can really say in my defense. The idea of a completely effective defense against unwanted, intrusive thoughts just enthralled me.
I was a really late bloomer, so at 15 I was still cresting the wave of puberty. In my teens, I felt absolutely gobsmacked by the changes I was experiencing, but even more so by the feelings sweeping through me.
Though I hadn’t had sex yet, the idea of sex hovered in my mind like an omnipresent stormcloud. Feelings and sensations I’d never experienced and didn’t understand washed through me constantly. Of course, I don’t even mean just horniness. These were strong emotions of all kinds. And they bothered me enormously. I couldn’t conquer them with the tools I had at my disposal. Y’all, I just wanted to read and play tabletop games and mess with the school computers. Adulthood loomed, and I wasn’t at all sure I was ready for it yet.
So the idea of being enslaved to uncontrollable feelings and urges made sense to me.
And the equally overly-simplistic solution offered by evangelicals, enslaving myself to “righteousness” as defined by them, made sense as well. I’d always been Christian, but now it looked like I needed something higher-octane than my family’s sedate and ritualistic Catholicism. So I dove into evangelicalism.
Authoritarians glom right onto slave/master talk
The real solution here, just not having anybody be slaves to anything, didn’t even occur to me. Nor does it occur to evangelicals today. They have an authoritarian streak a mile wide and many miles deep. Authoritarianism is baked right into their entire worldview. So, it’s very easy and natural for them to hear something like “everyone’s a slave to something” and just nod right along.
To normies, though, and increasingly in the modern age, this kind of talk is monstrous-sounding. Yuck, how could anybody ever go for a religion that openly allows and encourages slavery and talk of enslaving oneself to anything?
Indeed, around the 2010s when the so-called New Atheists began squabbling online with evangelicals, this whole talking point became a big skirmish in their war.
But it did not go the way we heathens expected. No, not at all. Not even a little.
A truly evil book
That’s where we come in with this TGC post I found. It’s from 2011, so right near the beginning of the Atheist-Evangelical online fights.
That’s when a whole lot of atheists began making a whole lot of noise about the various atrocities in the Bible. We’re not just talking about slavery, of course. We’re also talking about stuff like Yahweh genociding the planet, annihilating almost every adult and child on Earth along with almost all plant and animal life as well. And about Yahweh deliberately cursing Adam and Eve for committing an offense they didn’t even know was bad yet; though obviously these curses are purely metaphorical, it would have been, were it real, responsible for the deaths of many billions of people.
We could also talk about the Bible’s treatment of rape victims, its careful instructions to men for how to settle a new sex slave into their homes, and rules for exactly how hard people were allowed to beat slaves. In many places, we see Yahweh ordering his Israelites to destroy whole tribes of people, steal their land, and then take their young daughters for slaves.
The Bible contains countless atrocities like these. You can find writeups of them over at sites like Evil Bible and Skeptics Annotated Bible. The writers of the Bible presented these atrocities simply as stuff that happened. Sometimes, they even praised Yahweh for ordering or causing them.
Atrocity apologetics: making slavery sound divine and good
For many Christians, they can absorb these atrocities. It might be hard, but they can. Perhaps they’re troubled by these stories, and perhaps they wrestle with them. They try to fit them into a moral framework that makes sense. But overall, most Christians accept that these atrocities are troubling, that they aren’t okay today and never were. They know that humans have evolved quite a bit since those days, and that now Christians must figure out a way to make peace with them.
But for others, these atrocities present particular and overwhelming problems.
Evangelicals need to have a Bible that is entirely accurate, entirely correct, and entirely authoritative. They can’t have a Bible that contains metaphors or evolving ideas and morality. That really bothers them as authoritarians. They need a yes or no, black or white answer about everything, especially when it comes to their religious beliefs.
So when they come face to face with the Bible’s many, many atrocities, they need to find a way to warp those things into being divine and good.
In the 2010s, heathens brought up slavery to these Christians. We thought it’d be a slam-dunk. Surely, nobody could ever, ever, ever retort that slavery was divine and good! We’d found a way to contradict Christian claims about morality in a way that nobody could deny. Right? Right?
In response, evangelicals simply evolved atrocity apologetics. They used apologetics arguments to try to make slavery sound like a wonderful thing that Yahweh had made as painless and fair as possible, and gosh, maybe America needs slavery again!
But no Christian ever stops being a slave to sin
The biggest contradiction to this talking point, of course, is that Christians still sin. In fact, out of all of the various flavors of Christianity, I’d be hard-pressed to think of worse hypocrites than evangelicals. They may talk a big game about not being slaves to sin, but they still sin plenty. There’s no real difference between their lives before conversion and after, except in maybe how they present themselves. Whatever offenses they committed before conversion, they still commit them afterward. They might just get better at sneaking around to do it.
So when an evangelical site like Got Questions blathers about this talking point, they have to step very carefully around the reality of post-conversion life. It’s hilarious how they try so hard to square that circle:
The apostle Paul, the author of Romans, goes on to say that he knows how difficult it can be to not live in sin because he struggled with that even after he became a follower of Christ. This is important for all Christians to know. While we’re now set free from the penalty of sin, we still live in the presence of sin while we’re alive on this earth. And the only way we can be free from the power of sin is by the power of the Holy Spirit who is given to believers at the moment we come in faith to Christ (Ephesians 1:13–14), and this seals us in Christ as a pledge of our inheritance as God’s children.
Yes, yes, whatever, but they all still sin. Literally all that happens is they declare allegiance to Jesus. The behavior doesn’t change. They’re not set free from anything at all, except now they can sin without worrying too much about Hell. Sorta. Generally. Ideally.
Trying hard to make slavery sound okay: TGC edition
In this TGC post (relink), it begins with the problem of slavery in the Bible. Their writer, John Starke, insists that those ickie slave-holding Americans were “sinfully” using Bible verses to rationalize their desire to own human beings. He italicized the word “sinfully,” even! He means it!
Then, he invokes Sam Harris. In the early 2010s, Harris emerged as a major combatant in the atheist/evangelical online fight. He had a good turn of phrase, and he thought quickly on his feet. That made him a popular debate opponent and public speaker.
For some reason, John Starke reprints something that megapastor Rick Warren said to Sam Harris during one of these debates: that Yahweh allowed slavery, but didn’t support it. That’s a bizarre distinction to make. It’s also a meaningless one that actually makes Starke’s religion sound even worse. But clearly, Starke liked it. Then, Starke concludes:
[W]e must be sensitive to concerns and respond seriously to objections that the Bible is primitive, irrelevant, and immoral. But how?
His solution was a common one at the time: that obviously, the kind of slavery that Yahweh “allowed” but didn’t “support” was vastly different from ickie American slavery. And then, Starke punts to moral leveling:
But everyone is enslaved to something to someone [sic], whether we know it or not. The Bible gives us only two options: either you’re a slave to the world or a slave to the God who created it.
There! Problem solved. Really, deep down we’re all slaves, everyone. Don’t worry about the actual disgustingly evil institution of slavery itself. Just focus on choosing the right master within that system.
You can almost hear him sigh with relief that now he’s all done with that onerous task. Whew! Hooray Team Jesus!
The thing about being a slave, however
In actual slavery, nobody gets to choose their master. That’s kind of what makes it slavery. Nobody wants to be there, and nobody would ever voluntarily choose it. It’s forced upon those who endure it.
So telling people that they can just choose to be slaves to Jesus, thus freeing themselves of the mastery of sinfulness (without actually ending the sinning), just makes evangelicals sound like immoral, terrible people. They’re okay with the general idea of owning human beings. They just want it to be on their own terms. And slavery doesn’t work like that.
Some, like Joe Morecraft go much further than simply pushing atrocity apologetics to rationalize slavery. In 2013, just a couple years after TGC’s post about slavery, this evangelical pastor actually pined for a world where he could literally enslave and own and command atheists. For their own good. Of course.
Freedom, despite the Bible’s assertions
That’s why civilized countries don’t allow anyone to hold or take a slave. We outlawed slavery. And not because the Bible said we should, because nowhere does it say that. Rather, we ended slavery because it was simply the right thing to do. (And we did it over the vehement objections of the evangelical men who started the Southern Baptist Convention!)
One could say that despite what the Bible says on the topic, we recognize autonomy, liberty, and self-ownership as inalienable rights that all humans have simply by virtue of being human. In particular, Americans have our rights guaranteed by our Constitution and its amendments–not because of the Bible, but despite every single thing it says on the topic of rights.
But evangelicalism doesn’t deal well with human rights. Evangelical leaders like to cultivate a very authoritarian power structure, one that forces their flocks to obey and allows leaders to punish them brutally if they step out of line.
Likewise, a society that accepts and nurtures human rights doesn’t have any use for anything evangelicals are selling. That may well be part of why Christianity itself only continues to decline in membership and cultural power.
The backfiring of atrocity apologetics
You don’t really see evangelicals talking much about slavery or other atrocity apologetics. It took time, but eventually evangelicals learned that these conversations never go the way they want. Those arguments largely died out by around 2015. Every so often, you find a very ill-advised evangelical blog post warbling about picking one’s master as a slave, as in a 2021 blog post I found from someone named Joni Tada, who runs a group called “Joni and Friends.” Apparently, it’s some kind of disability ministry.
And boy oh boy, this Joni Tada is trying her very best to avoid even engaging with the disgusting reality of slavery. She just blithely parrots the expected talking point about not being a “slave to sin” anymore. To her, it just means nobody is “under sin’s control” after conversion. (Except Christians very clearly are! They are, they are in that chair!) And that is one of the very few blog posts or discussions I’ve seen that even engage that much with slavery.
The last thing I’d ever want is for anyone, even evangelicals, to ever find out what being a slave really means. I guess it’s easy for them to be so glib about slavery because it’s such a remote concept for most of us. Very few countries even allow slavery. (They’re authoritarian to the core, interestingly–places like India, China, North Korea, and Nigeria. None are exactly robust bastions of human rights.) Most countries’ justice systems get involved when we find out it’s happening anyway.
In a lot of ways, evangelicals thought they’d won that skirmish in their culture wars. They thought they’d found the perfect way to square an impossible circle. But all it did was make people disgusted with them. And we should be. Evangelicals are not okay. They think owning people is okay, and that there’s some magical way to make it fair and compassionate. But it isn’t. It is never okay, there is no magical way to make it okay, and weirdly, a god of love and justice didn’t realize that thousands of years ago–any more than his most fervent followers do today.
The reality of this talking point was way different, however
Most of all, though, the reality of this talking point about slavery just didn’t turn out to be true. Not for me, and not for anyone I knew. Rather than freeing ourselves, as the New Testament says should happen, we all found nothing but more restrictions set around us.
The further I went into evangelicalism, the more promises I heard about what it’d totally do for me. But none of those promises turned out to be true. Instead, I descended into more and more authoritarian structures and groups.
Worst of all, all those old thoughtcrimes and victimless crimes I committed before conversion, I still committed afterward. I felt absolutely helpless to stop doing any of it. For someone who was supposed to be no longer “a slave to sin,” I sure didn’t live like it. Nor did any other Christian I knew.
I guess it does Christian leaders good to have customers who’ll never, ever actually improve enough to not need their product anymore.
But that truth does not work in those customers’ best interest, that’s for sure.
I refuse to use this disrespectful term
Changing habits can be really hard. It requires work, not magic. And it can take years to untangle and learn new habits. Even then, if we’re tired or angry or feeling hurt, old habits can come roaring back.
But that doesn’t mean we’re enslaved to them. Even to use that terminology, to me, seems hugely disrespectful to the many people who actually were slaves all throughout history–and even today. I refuse to compare real slavery to simply having some bad habits. Slavery is evil and monstrous. Slaves had no choice at all about being there and couldn’t just leave for a new master.
By contrast, a few bad habits are just that: bad habits. They can be fixed. If we have trouble defeating them on our own, we can choose to find treatments and counseling that actually works to fix them, and we can choose to work on our faults instead of expecting imaginary friends to magic them away.
Also, the whole phrase “slave of sin” reminded me of the 1914 movie by that name starring Pola Negri. YouTube doesn’t have it, but here she is in a 1937 scene singing “Tango Notturno.”
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