The Bible and Slavery

Bible2I continually see Scripture being attacked on the basis that it either endorses the practice of slavery or that it fails to explicitly denounce the practice of slavery. I’ve seen skeptics, atheists, and even self-proclaimed liberal Christians use this argument as a means to charge the Bible with immorality, irrelevance, and atrocities. A few years ago, I offered a response to such claims in an online discussion forum and thought I would share them here.

Does the Bible Endorse or Fail to Denounce Slavery? 
It is a mistake to assume the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery and if such an assertion is to be made, it deserves careful and critical examination.

First off, the word “slavery” as it occurs throughout the Bible refers to a wide spectrum of servitude from “leasing” ones service where both parties enter into the agreement willingly to situations that far more resembled slavery as we know it in this country. Biblically, the word “slavery” refers to a wide range of stuff from servitude to outright slavery.

I believe there is sufficient evidence that the Bible condemns the latter forms of atrocious slavery. First, consider the plagues that fell upon the Egyptians for refusing to free God’s people from forced, atrocious slavery. Of all the slavery portrayed in the Bible, the Egyptians rule over the Hebrews can certainly be compared to the racial slavery we experienced in our country. In this situation, I think God made it evident He condemned such a heinous act. Extracting the Hebrew people, as lowly as they were seen in the eyes of the Egyptian people, establishing them as God’s chosen ones, and pouring curses out on the Egyptians was as definitive a statement as God could have made. Certainly, any sane person can deduce that God is not in favor of such forms of slavery.

Couple this situation with the following verses:

  • “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).
  • “But we know that the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately. We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching” (1 Timothy 1:8-10).

The word “kidnappers” in the above passage is alternately translated as “man-stealers” or “enslavers” depending on the translation you are using. These verses when juxtaposed with the Hebrew slavery in Egypt clearly reveals that God does not condone or endorse the heinous, forced, and atrocious forms of slavery. Period. In fact, suggesting God endorses such acts does Him and His Word an injustice and reveals a poor working knowledge of Scripture.

Now this brings us to the more mild forms of slavery (where both parties entered into the agreement willingly). In these situations God’s Word speaks into the hearts of both slave and slave-owner. The method God’s Word uses to initiate social reform in this case is to speak into the hearts of individuals. Social change occurs one conversion at a time in the heart of believers. With this is mind, examine the following verses:

  • For the slave master: Ephesians 6:9, “And masters, treat your slaves the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.”
  • For the slave: 1 Peter 2:19-20, “For it brings favor if, mindful of God’s will, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if you sin and are punished, and you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.”

In the culture of the New Testament, slavery was engrained. So the writers of the New Testament encouraged social reform one heart at a time. When this is taken into account, no form of “Christian slavery” would resemble what comes to our mind when we hear the word slavery. Consider Paul’s interaction with the slave Onesimus.

In the first chapter of Philemon, Paul writes that Onesimus is “no longer a slave, but more than a slave” (v.16). He refers to Onesimus as his “son” (v. 10). In verse 17, Paul encourages Philemon (the master) to receive Onesimus as a partner in Christ just as he would Paul himself. Paul even goes as far as to assume any debts or charges that Onesimus may have built up against Philemon (v. 18)!

Does any of Paul’s words resemble the heinous, atrocious images that we associate as Americans with slavery? Paul is encouraging social reform by appealing to the hearts of both Onesimus and Philemon. In no way is he “endorsing slavery” as skeptics suggest.

When Scripture is examined, the Christian can take confidence that neither God, nor His Word, “endorses” the heinous and atrocious act of slavery or human trafficking. We can stand on God’s Word when we oppose such practices and when we do, we will glorify God in the process.

 

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