The gospel is more than just the good news that Jesus took the punishment for our sin, dying for sinners like us so that we may be saved. The gospel is also the good news of what the punishment has been replaced with – the kingdom of heaven. If the gospel is about a kingdom, our lives should reflect the values of our King and we should seek for others what our King would offer.
This post, another in the series on James 1:27 (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,”) is about that verse as an ethic that prioritizes the gospel over all other issues by looking briefly at the issue of slavery.
The period of the American Civil War was similar to modern times in its obsession over issues. While its naïve and vastly simplified to say the North was anti-slavery and the South was pro-slavery, it is not entirely false either. Those views were typical of many in each area. Both sides had a high conviction in their cause, using the Bible to justify why their side needed to win, and at what costs.
Paul’s Concern Was for Individuals
Part of the reason for this confusion comes from the apostle Paul’s comments on slavery, which seem ambivalent to many on the actual issue of slavery. One relevant passage is Ephesians 6:5-9, in which Paul writes:
“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
Verses like these were used to justify slavery during the American Civil War and at other times, by people claiming that Paul did not condemn it. Since the War, others have said that Paul was cruel not to condemn slavery and a few even refuse to read Paul’s words in the Bible, claiming they have no authority because of this cruelty. This topic goes way beyond what can be covered here, but the reason for Paul’s seeming ambivalence on the issue is that his focus was somewhere else: on the specific individuals involved in all aspects of slavery, including both masters and slaves. He even addresses them directly and separately: “Bondservants” and “Masters.” One group was to follow what was addressed to them, and the other group was to follow what was addressed to them. Why did he take this approach? Because people matter more than issues.
Having no power to end slavery, which still exists today, Paul did have influence and authority as an apostle to improve the lives of specific masters (who would have to justify their actions to God), and of specific slaves (who would have to do the same). Paul knew the real question before him was: If slavery currently exists and I have no power to end it, should I do nothing to improve the condition of slaves until slavery is 100% abolished? Should Paul have focused on ending slavery, or on improving the lives of people affected by it, and offering them a way to eternal life without slavery? Paul knew God’s heart goes out to individual souls, and the issue of slavery would be eliminated in eternity. However, many would condemn Paul for not going straight to an all-or-nothing, hyperbolic position we expect when talking about issues. Also, it’s not necessarily an either/or, but a matter of priority and emphasis.
Some approach contentious issues like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” These burdens take the form of ostracism, public humiliation, insistence on use of #hashtags and slogans, rude comments, and other means of hating others simply because those others don’t think the weight of all the issues in the entire world need to be on everyone’s shoulders. But Paul presents a contrast to this. He knew God called him to proclaim grace and peace to all people, in Jesus’ name. Paul’s ministry saved many souls for an eternity where slavery is no longer an issue, and in the meantime, slavery still exists as an issue people mistreat each other over. Yes, we should fight for peace and justice, but not at the expense of individuals, on either side.
D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said, “The overthrowing of slavery, then, is through the transformation of men and women by the gospel rather than through merely changing an economic system…In the final analysis, if you want lasting change, you’ve got to transform the hearts of human beings. And that was Jesus’ mission.”
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” This should be our main concern as well.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
To start the series on James 1:27 from the beginning, the first post is at this link.
 Matthew 23:4
 Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ (1998). P. 168