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Slavery In The Bible

By Steve Lutz

In conversations with college students (and others), one of the frequent objections I hear to the Bible is that it advocates slavery. I’ve written this to summarize the Bible’s position on slavery. Some of the material below is from carm.org and commontary.com.

1. The Bible is fundamentally against slavery.

Most references in the Bible to slavery are negative–to the liberation of Israel from slavery to the Egyptians.
Exodus 6:6 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.

Redemption from slavery to sin is a common theme in the New Testament: Romans 6:15-22

Being freed from slavery is perhaps THE central metaphor for Christian experience in the Bible.

2. The Bible is a true story, and as such, deals with slavery as it exists.

It helps real people deal with a real situation. If you’re looking for an abolitionist tract, you’ll be disappointed. In the cultural contexts that the Bible was written to, calling for abolition made as much sense as you or I calling for the abolition of cars. It existed before the Jews were formed as a nation and it existed after Israel was conquered. Slavery, like divorce, is not preferred by God. Instead, it is allowed because of the hardness of men’s hearts.

God permitted slavery to exist in both Old and New Testament times. But this does not mean that slavery was a God-ordained system. Slavery was an invention of fallen man, not of God. Nevertheless, God allowed it to exist the way He allows other things to exist that He does not approve of: murder, lying, rape, theft, etc.

God also works within the system of fallen man and makes allowances for the freedom and failures of mankind within that system. We see this, for example, in Jesus saying that God allowed divorce because of the hardness of peoples’ hearts (Matt. 19:8). The fact is, people are sinners and do things contrary to the will of God. But, even though people have murdered, lied, raped, and stolen, God has still used people who’ve committed these sins to accomplish His divine will. Moses murdered an Egyptian but was used by God to deliver Israel. David committed adultery but was promised to have the Messiah descend from his seed. This is proof that though God desires that people not do much of what they do, He permits them their freedom, yet uses the system and the people according to His divine will. [from carm.org]

3. The Bible–as a story–restricts slavery, by giving slaves rights.

Where many nations treated their slaves very badly, the Bible gave many rights and privileges to slaves. So, even though it isn’t the best way to deal with people, because God has allowed man freedom, slavery then exists. God instructed the Israelites to treat them properly.

(Exodus 21:20-21) – “And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.” The Bible acknowledged the slave’s status as the property of the master (Ex. 21:23; Lev. 25:46). (Like “eye for an eye,” it limits evil).

The Bible restricted the master’s power over the slave. Ex. 21:20).
The slave was a member of the master’s household (Lev. 22:11).
The slave was required to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; Deut. 5:14).
The slave was required to participate in religious observances (Gen. 17:13; Exodus 12:44; Lev. 22:11).
The Bible prohibited extradition of slaves and granted them asylum (Deut. 23:16-17).
The servitude of a Hebrew debt-slave was limited to six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12).
When a slave was freed, he was to receive gifts that enabled him to survive economically (Deut. 15:14).

The reality of slavery cannot be denied. ”Slave labour played a minor economic role in the ancient Near East, for privately-owned slaves functioned more as domestic servants than as an agricultural or industrial labour force.”1

1. Achtemeier, Paul J., Th.D., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1985. [via carm.org]

4. The Bible introduces a “New Creation” Ethic to Guide Christian Society.

GALATIANS 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

COLOSSIANS 3:9-11 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

PHILEMON 1:15-17 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

Interesting Question: Was Paul asking Philemon to manumit [liberate] Onesimus? This is perhaps the hardest hermeneutical question that faces readers of Philemon. I believe John M.G. Barclay gives us some wise words of caution when he says, “In pursuing this enquiry we need to undertake careful exegesis of the details of the text; but we must also keep a firm grasp on the realities of slavery in the Graeco-Roman world. Inevitably, also, many interpreters will be influenced by their own theological perspectives on the relationship between Christianity and social change.” (Colossians & Philemon, pg. 113)

We may be tempted by our modern setting and theological commitments regarding social change to say Paul must have been urging Philemon to manumit Onesimus but the problems such a view would cause us elsewhere in Paul surface almost immediately. Why did Paul and Peter for that matter not confront slavery head on in the household codes found in Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, and 1 Peter?

A biblical scholar who’s academic and conservative credentials are held in high esteem by many, N.T. Wright, has in his own commentaries on the letter found himself caught between two varying interpretations. In his Tyndale series commentary he says Paul didn’t ask Philemon to free Onesimus, whereas in his For Everyone series he says he did. We may never know whether Paul did intend Philemon to manumit (give him his free status) Onesimus but what we do know is that Paul, as elsewhere in his writings, gives Philemon a new creation ethic where worldly distinctions are merely the husk that holds the real transformation that has taken place in people’s lives. Slave, freedman, or citizen; no matter he is a beloved brother in the gospel and must be treated in light of that.

5. The Bible Commands New Ways of Conduct for Both Slave & Master.

EPHESIANS 6: 5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.

COLOSSIANS 3:22-25; 4:1

22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favouritism.

4:1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

1 Timothy 6:1-2 1 All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them. These are the things you are to teach and urge on them.

Titus 2:9-10 9 Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.

1 Peter 2:17-19

17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king.18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.

It is precisely THIS kind of new creation ethic, which radically changed master-slave relationships by regarding slaves as human beings, that led to men like John Newton and William Wilberforce to push for the abolition of slavery, out of their deep Christian convictions. Christianity is often blamed for slavery, when in fact it existed before Christianity, and it is because of Christianity that we have a morality, ethics, and impetus to regard ALL human beings as equal and created in the image of God.

6. The Bible Condemns Certain Behaviours.

1 Timothy 1:9-11 9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.


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