One of the most common criticisms of the Bible is that it supports slavery. Why is this such a big deal? If people think the Bible got slavery wrong, then they think it’s wrong in other areas. Dan Savage spoke to a group of high schoolers at a journalism convention. He is openly homosexual and his main point was, “If the Bible can’t get slavery right, how can we trust it to get something more complicated like human sexuality right?” Before watching, you should know he uses foul language.
So what does the Bible say about slavery? Did the Bible “get slavery wrong?” Does the Bible support slavery? Let me answer these questions.
The Wrong View of Slavery
When we hear the word “slavery” we think of what we’ve read in books, learned in school, or watched on television. This generally entails the atrocities that occurred in American slavery during the Nineteenth Century. We see impoverished, abused individuals living in detestable circumstances, owned by masters experiencing luxury and opulence. But this is a distorted picture of the slavery in the First Century. The horrible abuses of human beings in American slavery made it much different than slavery in biblical times.
For example, slavery in the Bible wasn’t based on race. The one instance of slavery in the Bible based on race was the Hebrews in Egypt. The first twelve chapters of Exodus describe God’s great efforts in redeeming His people from that bondage.
In New Testament times, slavery was very widespread in the Roman Empire. Some estimate slaves constituted one-third or more of the population, which made it an accepted part of life. In Paul’s day slavery had virtually eclipsed free labor. Slaves could be doctors, musicians, teachers, artists, librarians or accountants. They were managers of estates, shops, and ships, as well as salesmen and contracting agents. They could be administrators of funds and executives with decision-making powers. Almost all jobs could be filled by slaves; therefore, a more appropriate picture of slavery in biblical times would be that of employment.
Most of the New Testament verses dealing with slaves and masters would almost be better understood in terms of an employee and employer context. People referred to as “slaves” or “bondservants” in the New Testament were legally “bound” to their masters, almost always for a limited period of time. A more fitting parallel than employment might be military service. Following college I was an officer in the Army. I signed paperwork essentially allowing the government to own me for a period of time. The same takes place with professional athletes who sign themselves over to teams.
How did most people become slaves?
- Many were born into slavery, and in earlier years up to Jesus’ day, the Romans had obtained slaves through conquest in war.
- Large numbers of people sold themselves into slavery for various reasons. The primary reason was it allowed people to enter a life w/ a number of benefits compared to free people:
- They were able to obtain special jobs and training in trades.
- They could enjoy a higher social status
- They enjoyed a better economic situation than free day laborers that had to search for employment each day (see Matt 20:1-7 where the master of a house goes into the marketplace to hire laborers at different times throughout the day). In other words, slaves enjoyed greater occupational security and a steady income.
- Some slaves enjoyed very favorable and profitable care from their masters and were better off than many free people b/c they were assured of care and provision, while free people might struggle in poverty. Becoming a slave often meant having all your needs met.
- Some people sold themselves as slaves when they couldn’t pay their debts or provide for their families. Bankruptcy wasn’t an option in the First Century.
- Many non-Romans sold themselves as slaves to become Roman citizens when manumitted (freed by the master). So for them slavery functioned more as a process than a permanent condition, allowing them to be integrated into Greek and Roman society.
- Capable slaves had an advantage over their free counterparts in that they were often given an excellent education at their owner’s expense.
This isn’t to say New Testament slavery was rosy though…
Slaves in New Testament times had no rights legally and were treated as commodities or objects. They weren’t considered persons, and therefore, they could be bought, sold, inherited, exchanged, or seized to pay their master’s debt. Masters had virtually unlimited power to punish their slaves, and sometimes did for even the slightest infractions. Slaves could be terribly abused and rarely treated well.
By the time of the New Testament, slavery was beginning to change. Most masters realized their slaves were generally more productive when treated well. It wasn’t uncommon for a master to teach a slave his own trade, and some masters and slaves became close friends. While still not recognizing slaves as persons under the law, the Roman Senate in 20AD granted slaves accused of crimes the right to a trial.
So what does the Old Testament say about slavery?
Slavery of the 19th century involved kidnapping. Slave-hunters kidnapped Africans and sold them to slave-traders who brought them to the New World to work on plantations. This behavior is strictly forbidden by God and punishable by death under the Mosaic Law: Exodus 21:16 says, “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”
Deuteronomy 15 contains one of the clearest passages in the Old Testament regarding the treatment of slaves. Verse 12 says, “If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.” Just like debts were canceled every seventh or Sabbath year, so were slaves freed every seventh year. This gave slaves a sense of hope.
Not only were slaves expected to be released, they were to receive a generous gift upon their departure to help them begin their new lives. Verses 13-15 say, “And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; 14 you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord your God has blessed you with, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today.” Basically verse 15 says the Israelites were to treat their own slaves as God had treated them when they were slaves in Egypt.
In Jeremiah 34:14 God criticized the Israelites for not obeying these commands in Deut 15, showing that centuries later it was still that important to Him.
Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” This verse doesn’t differentiate between any men. In other words, all men of all color and race are created in the image of God and are equal. God determined at the beginning of time that all people share the same value and worth.
So what does the NT say about slavery?
Just like the OT condemned kidnapping, in the New Testament kidnappers are listed with murderers, liars, sodomites and called “lawless”, “insubordinate”, “ungodly”, “unholy” and “profane” in 1 Timothy 1:8-10.
The criticism comes from the fact that the NT nowhere attacks or condemns slavery. In fact, a number of verses encourage slaves to obey and honor their masters:
- Eph 6:5 Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ
- Col 3:22 Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God
- 1 Tim 6:1 Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed
- Titus 2:9 Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters, to be well pleasing in all things, not answering back
- 1 Pet 2:18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh
There are verses to the masters too:
- Col 4:1 Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven
- Eph 6:9 And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him
- Paul told Philemon to welcome his slave Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother (verse 16) and that he should “receive him as you would receive me” (verse 17).
Now let’s look at some things regarding these verses…
Even though the New Testament encourages slaves to obey and honor their masters, it never commands people to practice slavery or to own slaves; rather, it regulates the existing institution by instructing masters to treat their slaves well.
In 1 Cor 7:21 Paul even told slaves that if they could gain their freedom they should. So the idea that the Bible encourages or promotes slavery is completely false.
The verses are simply encouraging slaves how to respond to the situations they find themselves in. Here’s a helpful example…
The author of Hebrews says believers “joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] goods, knowing that [they] have a better and an enduring possession for [themselves] in heaven” (Heb 10:34). That doesn’t mean the Bible supports the plundering of property or that it commands theft. It only means that if Christians have their property taken through persecution, they should still rejoice because of their heavenly treasure, which cannot be stolen.
The same principle is in place with slavery: when the Bible tells slaves to be submissive to their masters, it does not mean the Bible supports or commands slavery, but only that it tells people experiencing it how to respond. Christians like William Wilberforce finally brought about the abolition of slavery, but in doing so they didn’t modify or nullify any biblical teaching.
But why doesn’t the Bible seek to abolish slavery?
Everything we’ve discussed doesn’t answer this question, which is crucial to understanding the scope and purpose of the Bible in general…
One reason has already been discussed: slavery was much more like employment than the slavery we have in mind.
Second, also according to the Encyclopedia, “to have turned all the slaves into free day laborers would have been to create an economy in which those at the bottom would have suffered even more insecurity and potential poverty than before.” A. A. Ruprecht says, “85-90% of the inhabitants of Rome were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries” (“Slave, Slavery,” DPL, 881).
Third, if the NT condemned slavery the resulting slave insurrections would’ve been brutally suppressed and the message of the gospel hopelessly confused w/ that of social reform.
Fourth, all of us are “slaves” to one degree or another whether through our employment or citizenship. Consider the following:
- Most jobs expect us to obey our bosses and be at a certain place for a certain period of time and perform a certain amount of work. If you were truly free, you could show up to work when you wanted or not at all, and do as much or little work as you wanted. People who own their own businesses and are therefore their own boss will usually be quick to point out that they’re more of a slave to their business than employees. With the success of the business resting solely on their shoulders they have even more responsibility, making them feel even “less free.”
- We take pride in the fact that we live in a “free country”, but that’s really a relative term because of the number of laws restricting our freedom:
- If you want to drive, you need to first obtain a license. So we would say people are not free to drive when they want, and this doesn’t take into consideration all the laws that prohibit us from driving “how” we want, including not being able to go certain speeds, park certain places, pass people at certain times, etc.
- If you want to consume alcohol, you must wait until you’re a certain age; therefore, you are not always free to drink. Even if you are of age, there are still laws prohibiting consumption of alcohol at certain times and in certain places. More “loss of freedom.”
- If you want to enter someone else’s property, you must first receive the owner’s permission; therefore, you’re not free to go wherever you’d like.
- There are hundreds of laws regarding what individuals can make, sell, consume, trade, etc and all these laws remove amounts of our freedom.
- For those individuals who seek “freedom” beyond what’s afforded within our legal system they’re judiciously punished through fines or confinement, and this is the case whether these individuals agree with the laws, are unaware of the laws, or deny breaking the laws.
- While we think of the Constitution as a set of laws, it actually begins with a set of freedoms. The Bill of Rights doesn’t describe what we can’t do, it describes what we can do. Why is that? Because we recognize the need to restrict freedom to maintain an orderly society, but within that there are still some freedoms that should remain intact.
- The point is if a slave is defined as an individual lacking freedom, or an individual in some form of submission to another, then we’re all slaves.
The last – and probably main – reason slavery isn’t condemned in the Bible relates to the purpose of Scripture and the church. God’s desire through Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament is to reveal Himself and His plan of redemption to the world. To be more concise the purpose of the church is to spread the Gospel.
Some people mistakenly believe the purpose of the church is to go out into the world and do as much good as possible, which for some would mean abolishing slavery. While there are commands in Scripture to “do good”, primarily God wants His people focusing on the spiritual and eternal futures of others as opposed to their temporary, physical futures. Helping people physically, regardless of how desperate the need looks, in comparison with providing spiritual help is akin to arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
There are countless social issues, from world hunger, to wars, poverty, cancer research, the AIDS epidemic, and the list goes on. If the church attempted to deal with even one of these issues, the focus would be removed from the church’s primary mission. To be clear, the main reason the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery is God doesn’t command His church to focus on all the world’s social issues. God commands His people to focus on the Gospel, which changes peoples’ hearts. As the Gospel changes people and brings them into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ these other social issues, like slavery, poverty, world hunger, AIDS, etc are influenced.
We could say the Bible does attempt to abolish slavery by changing the hearts of slaves and masters.
One additional point. In 1 Cor 7:22 Paul said, “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave.” In the ways that truly count, nobody is more free than a Christian. No bondage is as terrible as bondage to sin, which Christ frees every believer from. While those who are free become slaves to Christ when they’re called.