Perhaps you’ve been troubled, as I have, by wondering why the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery outright. Over the years I’ve come across several thoughts and quotes that have helped me in my own understanding of it.
I found that the Bible actually does condemn kidnapping and selling people: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death,” Exodus 21:16. “Enslavers” (in the ESV, “menstealers” in the KJV), defined by BibleGateway.com as “those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery,” were listed alongside liars and immoral people as sinners in 1 Timothy 1:8-11.
The main type of slavery mentioned in the Old Testament came about because of a debt that could not be paid in any other way, something like an indentured servant (which makes more sense than a debtor’s prison, where there is no hope of paying off the debt). In the MacArthur Study Bible notes for 1 Kings 9:21-22, John MacArthur says “The law did not allow Israelites to make fellow-Israelites slaves against their will (Ex. 21:2-11; Lev. 25:44-46; Deut. 15:12-18.)” But people could offer themselves as slaves to pay a debt. Slaves were to be released after 7 years (Deuteronomy 15:12): they weren’t ruined for life. They were not to be sent away empty-handed when they were released: they were to be supplied “liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (verses 13-14). Masters were told, ‘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 today” (verse 15).
There were also cases of slavery by one nation conquering another, and there were differences in dealing with slaves from other cultures. One source I read said that when one nation conquered another in those times, the conquered citizens were either killed or enslaved. Thankfully that is no longer the case for the most part, although there are areas of the world where it still is.
Slavery in the NT is usually this latter type. In Be Complete (Colossians): Become the Whole Person God Intends You to Be, Wiersbe says:
Slavery was an established institution in Paul’s day. There were sixty million people in the Roman Empire, and many of them were well-educated people who carried great responsibilities in the homes of the wealthy. In many homes, the slaves helped to educate and discipline the children.
Why didn’t the church of that day openly oppose slavery and seek to destroy it? For one thing, the church was a minority group that had no political power to change an institution that was built into the social order. Paul was careful to instruct Christian slaves to secure their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7: 21), but he did not advocate rebellion or the overthrow of the existing order.
Something should be noted: The purpose of the early church was to spread the gospel and win souls, not to get involved in social action. Had the first Christians been branded as an anti-government sect, they would have been greatly hindered in their soul winning and their church expansion. While it is good and right for Christians to get involved in the promotion of honesty and morality in government and society, this concern must never replace the mandate to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16: 15).
He shares how Christian masters and slaves were being instructed to treat each other in the epistles was a radical departure from the way things were in the Roman world at that time. He goes on to say:
The gospel did not immediately destroy slavery, but it did gradually change the relationship between slave and master. Social standards and pressures disagreed with Christian ideals, but the Christian master was to practice those ideals just the same. He was to treat his slave like a person and like a brother in Christ (Gal. 3: 28). He was not to mistreat him; he was to deal with his slave justly and fairly. After all, the Christian slave was a free man in the Lord, and the master was a slave to Christ (1 Cor. 7: 22). In the same way, our social and physical relationships must always be governed by our spiritual relationships.
Similarly, in the introductory notes for Philemon in the MacArthur Study Bible, John MacArthur says:
The NT nowhere directly attacks slavery; had it done so, the resulting slave insurrection would have been brutally suppressed and the message of the gospel hopelessly confused with that of social reform. Instead, Christianity undermined the evils of slavery by changing the hearts of slaves and masters. By stressing the spiritual equality of master and slave (v. 16; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2), the Bible did away with slavery’s abuses.
At least, it did away with them in instruction: it condemned mistreatment of other people in general with specific instruction on how slaves and masters were to treat each other, which rose above the standard of the times. But it took many years for the system to change. Some thoughts in regard to that:
1. God does not generally deal with everyone’s sins all at once, individually or as a people. I remember a few years after I became a Christian feeling convicted over something that I would not have thought twice about in my earlier life and being glad that God didn’t show me everything that was wrong right off the bat. That would have been so overwhelming. But as I read more of the Bible and sat under good teaching, I grew in Him, and then became more aware of things that didn’t please Him that I needed to confess and forsake. In the Bible there are things pointed out as sin in Exodus that aren’t mentioned in Genesis. Polygamy was tolerated for a time, though it was not how God designed marriage, and specific instruction was given later. In the gospels, Jesus goes beyond the mere letter of the law (thou shalt nor commit adultery) to the inner workings of the heart (if you look lustfully, you’re guilty. Matthew 5:27-28). As people have had more history and received more light, they’re more responsible.
2. God redeems people, not institutions. A former pastor said this about a different modern-day situation, but it applies here as well. As Warren Wiersbe put it in Be Faithful (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon): It’s Always Too Soon to Quit!:
Was Paul hinting in Philemon 21 that Philemon should do even more and free Onesimus? For that matter, why did he not come right out and condemn slavery? This letter certainly would have been the ideal place to do it. Paul did not “condemn” slavery in this letter or in any of his letters, though he often had a word of admonition for slaves and their masters (Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22—4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10). In fact, he encouraged Christian slaves to obtain their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21–24).
During the American Civil War, both sides used the same Bible to “prove” their cases for or against slavery. One of the popular arguments was, “If slavery is so wrong, why did Jesus and the apostles say nothing against it? Paul gave instructions to regulate slavery, but he did not condemn it.” One of the best explanations was given by Alexander Maclaren in his commentary on Colossians in The Expositor’s Bible (Eerdmans, 1940; vol. VI, 301):
First, the message of Christianity is primarily to individuals, and only secondarily to society. It leaves the units whom it has influenced to influence the mass. Second, it acts on spiritual and moral sentiment, and only afterwards and consequently on deeds or institutions. Third, it hates violence, and trusts wholly to enlightened conscience. So it meddles directly with no political or social arrangements, but lays down principles which will profoundly affect these, and leaves them to soak into the general mind.
Had the early Christians begun an open crusade against slavery, they would have been crushed by the opposition, and the message of the gospel would have become confused with a social and political program. Think of how difficult it was for people to overcome slavery in England and America, and those two nations had general education and the Christian religion to help prepare the way. Think also of the struggles in the modern Civil Rights movement even within the church. If the battle for freedom was difficult to win in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, what would the struggle have been like back in the first century?
3. God often works from the inside out. Some of the quotes above touch on this concept, but in addition, in Be Faithful, Wiersbe says, “Christians in the Roman Empire could not work through local democratic political structures as we can today, so they really had no political power to bring about change. The change had to come from within, even though it took centuries for slavery to end.”
It does seem that, long before the Civil War, people in general and Christians in particular should have realized the problems with slavery and certainly should have realized that just because slavery was in the Bible doesn’t mean it was an example we should follow. There are examples not to follow in the Bible as well as examples to follow. Someone once said that the “Golden Rule” alone, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31), should have been enough to stop people from having slaves.
In the Civil War era, and likely before, some people used passages in the Bible about slaves being beaten as justification for their mistreatment of slaves (Solomon Northup tells of a situation like this in Twelve Years a Slave). But I think by and large those passages are just expressing what would happen in those days to disobedient slaves rather than justifying slavery and beatings. To pick out isolated verses to justify slavery as it was before the Civil War is to misuse the Bible: reading the whole Bible and reading in context within the big picture would avoid that problem.
Northup also said of one kind, Christian master, whom some might wonder at having had slaves, “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different.” Booker T. Washington said something similar in Up From Slavery, not excusing slavery, but understanding that the economic system and years of history had masters firmly enmeshed in the system.
Thankfully God raised up people like William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln and others who worked against slavery until it was finally broken, at least in England and America. Unfortunately it still goes on in other areas, and even in our country people enslave others in other forms, like the horrible sex trafficking trade. I have no idea how to help, but Scripture encourages us to:
Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:3-4
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Isaiah 58:6-7
Before I leave this subject, there is one more aspect I must consider. Throughout the Bible, our relationship with God is described in various aspects: father/child; shepherd/sheep; groom/bride; king/subjects, and others. I wrote more on this here. One of those aspects is a master and slave or bondservant. Some have said that because we’re God’s children, we’re no longer slaves, and there is a sense in which that is true. But all through the New Testament, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude, who very much preached our sonship in Christ, also called themselves servants. Jesus Himself was called a servant and took on a servant’s duty when he washed the disciples’ feet, even though He was the Son of God (Philippians 2:5-8).
In the Old Testament, there was provision for a situation in which a servant who was due for his freedom but wanted to stay with his master because he loved him could be bound to his master forever. I think this is one picture of our relationship with Christ. He doesn’t forcefully snatch us up or forcibly make us obey Him. He wants us willingly to yield ourselves to Him out of love for Him and acknowledgement of Who He is. It is an atrocity for any man to think he has a right to own anyone else, but God does “own” us, because He created us and because He paid the price for our sin. But He wants us to yield ourselves in complete trust and obedience to Him. And He wants us to serve others in love (Galatians 5:13). We were “servants of sin” before believing in Christ; now He wants us to become “servants of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18).
Studying out what the Bible says about our servanthood would probably take another blog post, but it involves realizing that He is Lord, that He takes care of all our needs, that we owe all to Him, that we really have no rights apart from Him, that He deserves our all.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.“ Mark 10:45
And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35
If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.John 12:26
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 2:24-25.
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:15-16.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13.
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:10-11.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8
Some other good sources on this issue: