The Bible and Slavery

This morning I was asked a question I’ve been asked many times before. Since it’s a common question, I thought I might as well go ahead and share the answer more broadly. Christians are often troubled when they read the Bible to encounter various texts that deal with slavery. These scriptures never out and out condemn slavery, something that we all do (and should do). Slavery is wrong, so why doesn’t the Bible ever say “slavery is wrong”? Or does it? The short answer is: it doesn’t, but it does. Here is a longer (and more informative and less contradictory) answer:

1) Old Testament Law – Reducing Evil. It’s true that in the Old Testament slavery was part of the Law, given by God to Moses. The Law lays out stipulations for owning slaves, how long they may be kept in slavery, how they are to be treated, etc.  That seems terrible to us because we believe slavery is absolutely wrong. Why did God not just say “no slavery” then? It is necessary to consider these laws within their broader historical context. These laws may seem cruel or harsh by our standards, but in the context of the surrounding nations and other law codes (like the Babylonian Hammurabi law code) the biblical laws are remarkable for their humanizing impact.  In other words, in its historical context the Law of Moses did a great deal to limit and reduce the evils of slavery.  It is very common in other Law codes of the Ancient Near East for slaves to lose their hands or ears, for instance.  Not so in the more gracious and compassionate Hebrew context.

2) No Racial Dimensions. One major difference between slavery as we see it in the ancient world and slavery as we think of it in an American context is race.  We can’t help but think of slavery in racial terms – white people enslaving black people.  That is our (terribly ugly) history.  But in the ancient world there was nothing racial about slavery.  You were a slave most likely because your nation had been overrun by your more powerful neighbors.  You were forced to serve them.  Some of this slavery would have been cruel and bitter (rowing in galleys or digging in mines), some rather mild and (surprising to us) voluntary.  There is even provision in the OT law for a servant who decides at the end of his service that he desires to be a servant for life – the “pierce my ear” made famous by the praise chorus:  Exodus 21:5-6  5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.”

Unlocked Medieval Padlock With Key3) The Surprising Nature of Slavery in the Roman World. In the New Testament context, slavery was incredibly common – as much as 40% of the population of the Roman Empire may have been in slavery. Many aspects of slavery in this context are very different from what we may assume, such as:

  • Many people willingly sold themselves into slavery.  Why would they do this?  It could lead to a long-term improvement of their lot in life – education, improved social context, eventual Roman citizenship in some situations as “freedmen.”
  • Slaves could own their own property, and even own their own slaves!  This was not uncommon.  They could store up wealth and purchase their own freedom.  The verb meaning to purchase freedom from slavery was “redeem,” the noun form “redemption.”  These become key terms for understanding Christ’s saving work.  Our “redemption” is being purchased from slavery and bondage to sin and death in order to live freely in Christ (Paul is huge into freedom in Christ language).
  • Some slaves entered slavery through the exposure of infants.  There was no birth control such as we know it, abortion was known (and practiced) and condemned from the first century by Christians, but the practice of exposure was the preferred means of disposing of an undesired child.  This means what it sounds like: putting a baby out for starvation, food for animals, etc.  Anyone finding such a child had the right to claim the child as a slave.  Christians would often claim these foundlings – not as slaves but as adoptive children.
  • There was no social stigma attached to being a slave.  Slaves, freedmen, and those born in freedom interacted and mixed in all strata of society – including the highest strata.  Many of the most influential citizens of the Roman Empire were freedmen, including the governor of Judea, Felix, who (in addition to providing a popular cat name) was one of Paul’s judges in the book of Acts.
  • It was unusual to live your whole life in slavery.  Slaves would generally have been manumitted (set free) by the time they were in their thirties or forties.  This was the normal and expected pattern.
  • None of this means that slavery was a good, or no big deal, just to point out that it isn’t necessarily the same thing we may assume when we hear the word “slave.”

4) Slavery and the Early Church. As the earliest Christian church was established the New Testament authors instructed those who found themselves in slavery to be as good a slave as they could be: to serve their masters faithfully, to obtain their freedom if possible, to consider their labor as unto the Lord, etc.  The New Testament makes no call for the abolition of slavery as such. This failure to address the larger, systemic issue of slavery was used by slave owners in the American context (and beyond) in modern times to justify slavery (and that by “Christians”).  This is a great shame.  The slave owners got it wrong, and the abolitionists (also Christians, and better ones) got it right.  How so?

  • The fact that Paul and Peter failed to address slavery as an institution is hardly surprising.  There were a great many societal evils (like the exposure of infants) that they failed to address.  The urgent business they were about in that first generation of the church was the preaching of the gospel, the ordering of the first congregations, rooting out controversy and error, etc. (read Acts).  It wasn’t about addressing every systemic social evil.
  • Even if it had been their purpose to take on slavery, how could they have gone about it?  How could the early church have materially affected the institution of slavery throughout the Roman Empire?  The church was a small and beleaguered minority, facing frequent persecution for the most rudimentary affirmation of the faith.  It was hard enough to stay alive and tell others about Jesus; there was no opportunity to take on the issue of slavery.  In this light, the focus was on personal witness – you find yourself in the condition of slavery, what ought you to do?  How should you live out your life?  Slavery needed to be abolished, but there was also a need for better hospitals, justice for the poor, more humane prison systems, better sewage, more equitable educational opportunities, etc.  Does it make sense to expect the biblical authors to have directly addressed these issues? They were all addressed in turn as the faith made headway in the broader culture in the centuries which followed.
  • Though the biblical authors do not directly call for anything like the abolition of slavery, the bible sets the moral trajectory which leads to the necessary conclusion that slavery is an evil that must be abolished.  You see the logic of this in Paul’s short little letter to Philemon, a slave owner, carried by the runaway slave Onesimus.  In this remarkable letter Paul gives the gift of a Trojan horse that ultimately undoes slavery.  His argument demonstrates the logical end of the Christian gospel – Onesimus must be treated as what he is: not property but a brother in Christ.

5) In time the implications of the biblical worldview became increasingly obvious, leading inexorably to the abolition of slavery:

  • All humans are created in the image of God and therefore have inherent worth – they can’t be reduced to another man’s property!
  • The gospel is the good news of being redeemed, set free from the bondage of sin, death, the Devil.
  • As redeemed people we must live out the logic of our redemption in all areas of our lives – how can we still enslave others when God has set us free?  There is an absolute incompatibility between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the institution of slavery.