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December 2011 Issue

The Temple and the Church

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Question & Answer

How widespread was slavery in the New Testament era?
Unfortunately, in the New Testament era slavery was entrenched in the culture, and slaves were a substantial part of the Greco-Roman world. Class lines between the rich and the poor were sharp and pronounced. There was virtually no middle class because slaves did most of the work. Some people were born in slavery; authorities condemned others to slavery because of debt or crimes. Some were prisoners of war. The system itself was evil, and was evidence of human sinfulness.
I am a Christian, but through the years Bible verses that promote slavery have troubled me deeply. I have discussed my concerns with pastors and ministry leaders, but I have not received a satisfactory response. The verses that deal with slavery seem so unfair to me. Does the Bible promote slavery?
No, the Bible doesn’t promote slavery! In the first century, the gospel reached people of various backgrounds, including slaves and masters. As the church grew and the truth of the gospel was taught, it impacted slave and master relationships. Several passages in the New Testament address these relationships, including the letter to Philemon (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-4:1, 1 Tim. 6:1-2, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Christian slaves and Christian masters needed guidelines about how to function within an oppressive system. Though Scripture did not attack slavery directly by saying “Slavery is morally evil!”, the implications of the gospel slowly undercut the system. If both slave and master could be brothers in Christ by believing the truth about Jesus, then the system of slavery could no longer make sense or be justified. In no case do these passages defend slavery as system. The Bible never defends slavery. It is a glaring abuse of Scripture and a misrepresentation of God Himself to say that these texts defend slavery.
Did God really create the entire universe in six days? Are we to understand the days of Genesis 1 as literal 24-hour periods?

Before I give what I believe is a biblical response to your question, there is something I must say first. Godly followers of Christ throughout church history have understood the days of Genesis 1 in different ways. Some, for example, maintain that the days are actually “ages,” long periods of time that might range from years to even millions of years. But one’s position on this issue should not be a litmus test of orthodoxy and evangelical commitment.

That being said, I do not see anything in Genesis 1 to suggest that the days mean anything other than a 24-hour period. God could have created the universe in other ways, but He did it in six days to accommodate His works to us. His work of creation also serves as a model to us of the rhythm of work and rest (Ex. 20:8-12).

Additionally, it seems that the first readers of Genesis would have understood these days as literal 24-hour periods. We can also assert that it is consistent with our theological understanding: the fact that God created the entire universe is six days is an indication of his infinite power and wisdom. If you desire more research with the view I have set forth, I highly recommend that you read The Genesis Record by Henry Morris.

Why did God accept Abel’s offering and disapprove of Cain’s offering in Genesis 4?
The Bible says in Genesis 4:4-5 that “the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.” The book of Hebrews gives us some help with your question. The writer to the Hebrews says, “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11:4). The issue was a matter of heart and inner attitude. Abel offered his sacrifice in faith, giving God his best, the first of his flocks and the fat parts. Faith did not motivate Cain in his offering. Cain attempted to approach the Lord in his own way and on his own terms, presenting an offering to the Lord that was born in self-righteousness, self-confidence, and unbelief. We must approach the Lord through faith in Christ, on God’s terms and not ours.
Does everyone, including unsaved people, have a spiritual gift or gifts?
Spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit to Christians at conversions (1 Cor. 12:4). Unsaved people have talents and other abilities, but only Christians have spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:7).
I heard someone say that the incarnation of Christ has huge implications. Could you state what some of those implications are?

The term incarnation refers to the event when the Lord Jesus Christ became human, embracing humanity in its fullness without sin. The fact that Jesus became human does have wonderful implications. (1) God so loved us that His Son became human to die on the cross and be raised from the dead in order to save us; (2) our physical bodies are valuable; (3) the physical world has value in God’s eyes.

The coming of Christ into the world is a visible and tangible reminder that we as whole persons matter to God. I trust that this Christmas season will remind us of the coming of Christ into the world and the precious implications of His coming.

By Dr. Winfred O. Neely, Professor of Pastoral Studies