Slavery and the Bible

In the debate regarding homosexuality within the Church, the subject of the Biblical texts regarding slavery is often brought up.  The argument typically proceeds thus:

  1. Slavery is wrong.  Period.
  2. The Bible condones slavery.
  3. The Biblical texts regarding slavery were used to justify slavery in the United States until the Civil War.
  4. Because slavery is wrong, and because the Biblical texts condoning slavery were used to justify slavery in this country, we do not follow the Biblical texts regarding slavery today.
  5. Because we do not follow the Biblical texts regarding slavery today, and because slavery is wrong, we therefore admit that the Bible was in error in condoning slavery.
  6. If the Bible was in error on the account that it condones slavery, it follows that it could be in error on other matters on which it teaches, such as the sinfulness of homosexuality.

However, the argument breaks down because it posits slavery as an absolute wrong and does not consider that God might have had reasons to allow slavery in the context of Ancient Israel despite today’s general consensus that slavery is immoral in all its forms.

But why is slavery wrong?  Do we appeal to the Golden Rule and argue, “If I should not want to be a slave, then I should not condone anyone else being forced into slavery”?  But what if I would not mind being a slave?  Would it not follow that I would therefore not object to slavery because I would not object to being a slave?

Moreover, if the Bible was in error on account that it condones slavery, why does it not follow that it could be in error regarding the Golden Rule (Mt. 7.12, Lk. 6.31)?  If it is on account that it was Jesus who gave the Golden Rule, whereas it was Moses who gave the laws condoning slavery, it should be pointed out that Jesus also said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5.17-19, Lk. 16.17)  This implies that He gives His stamp of approval to the whole Old Testament, including the laws condoning slavery.  Why, then, should the subjective interpretation of the Golden Rule as it applies to slavery overrule the explicit approval of the Lord Jesus on the Old Testament Law, including, by implication, the laws condoning slavery?

The institution of slavery was a reality in the ancient world.  Those who became destitute often sold their children—and sometimes themselves—into slavery in order to pay off debts (Lev. 25.39,47).  Similarly, those who could not pay their taxes were taken and sold into slavery if they had nothing that could be confiscated and sold to cover their taxes (Mt. 18.25).  Also, a population that lost a war was often taken captive by the victorious army and sold into slavery (Dt. 21.10).  And still others were kidnapped and sold into slavery (Gen. 37.25-28).

The Old Testament Law, which served the ancient state of Israel as its constitution and body of laws, did not seek to abolish the practice of slavery but regulate it as far as the nation of Israel was concerned.  Israel, after all, was a sovereign nation, and as such, it engaged in international commerce with nations that bought and sold slaves.

The Old Testament texts dealing with the institution of slavery are as follows:

  • Exodus 21.2-11,16,20-21,26-27,32
  • Leviticus 25.39-55
  • Deuteronomy 15.12-18, 21.10-14, 23.15-16, 24.7

Israelites were permitted to own their follow countrymen as slaves (Ex. 21.2-11, Lev. 25.39-55, Dt. 15.12-18).  However, this was allowed only in the context where an Israelite had become destitute and was forced to sell himself and/or his children into slavery.  Kidnapping a person with the intent of selling him or her into slavery, or of keeping him or her as a slave, was expressly forbidden and was punishable by death (Ex. 21.16, Dt. 24.7).  Moreover, Israelite slaves were to serve as slaves for no more than seven years, and then they were to be released.  If an Israelite were to sell himself to a foreigner, his relatives were obligated to redeem him (Lev. 25.47-49).  But regardless, he was still to be released after no more than seven years of slavery, even if owned by a foreigner sojourning in the Land of Israel.  Furthermore, the masters of Israelite slaves were not to release their slaves empty-handed, lest their poverty should lead them shortly back into slavery.  Rather, the master was obligated to “furnish (the slave) 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.” (Dt. 15.12-18)  As such, the institution of slavery as it pertained to Israelite slaves was actually a form of indentured servitude, not of perpetual slavery.  Only if the Israelite slave said, “I love my master, my wife (whom my master has given me), and my children (born of my wife whom my master has given me); I will not go out free,” was he to be perpetually enslaved to his master (Ex. 20.5-6, Dt. 15.16-17).

Also, Israelites were permitted to own foreigners as slaves.  But whereas Israelite slaves were to be released after seven years, the foreign slaves were not required to be released and could be bequeathed as an inheritance to their masters’ children (Lev. 25.44-46).  Israelites were permitted to purchase slaves from other nations or from foreigners dwelling among them.  In certain cases, certain peoples captured in war were permitted to be retained as slaves for the nation of Israel (e.g., Josh. 9.22-27).  But as Israelites were required not to pervert the justice due to foreigners dwelling among them (Ex. 22.21-24, 23.9, Lev. 19.33, Dt. 10.18-19), the laws forbidding the kidnapping of individuals to make them slaves (Ex. 21.16, Dt. 24.7) likewise extended to protect foreigners from this abuse.

The laws permitting Israelites to own foreigners as perpetual slaves, whereas Israelite slaves were to be released after seven years, must be understood in the broader context of the lesson the Lord was teaching the Israelites about holiness.  At Sinai, He had told them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19.5-6)  And again, “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” (Lev. 20.26)  In the immediate context of permitting the Israelites to own foreigners as slaves, the Lord prefaced this permission by stating, “For (the Israelites) are my servants (Heb. ebed; the same word translated as ‘slaves’ in v. 44), whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.  You shall not rule over them ruthlessly but shall fear your God.” (Lev. 25.42-43)  And He concluded this permission by stating, “You may make slaves of (foreigners), but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.” (Lev. 25.46)  And at the conclusion of the section in Leviticus on slaver, the Lord repeated, “For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants (Heb. ebed).  They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 25.55)

We must not miss the significance of this: The Lord in the Old Testament was teaching His chosen people the concept of what it means to be holy, and He was using hard lessons to drive this point home.  That He used foreigners who neither knew nor trusted in Him to become perpetual slaves in comparison to the Israelite indentured servants must be understood as part of that hard lesson and not as a blanket permission to Christians to own slaves.  That God should choose thus to use some of His creatures at that time and place is His prerogative.  “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom. 9.21)  This permission was given at that specific time and place and under the circumstances that then existed in order to teach a hard lesson in holiness to the people of God—both then and now—and must not be construed as permission for the New Testament people of God to keep or sell slaves.

Now within the context of the permission granted to the ancient Israelites to own indentured servants and slaves, the practice of slavery was regulated—slaves were human beings with rights by virtue of their having been made in the image of God.  If a slave was beaten to death by his or her master, the master was to be put to death as just punishment (Ex. 21.20; cf. Gen. 9.5-6, Ex. 21.12, Lev. 24.17, Num. 35.30-31).  Likewise, an ox that gored a slave was to be put to death, just as if it had gored anyone else (Ex. 21.28-32; cf. Gen. 9.5-6).  If a master were to permanently maim his slave, he was obligated to set the slave free (Ex. 21.26-27).  And Israelites were not permitted to return escaped slaves to their masters (Dt. 23.15-16).

In the specific case of female slaves (both Israelite and foreigner), the master was permitted to marry them or to arrange their marriage to his son.  However, in the case of Israelite female slaves, their status as slave ended as soon as they were married, and they were to be afforded the same protection under the Old Testament Law that extended to all married Israelite women (Ex. 21.7-11).  Similarly, in the case of foreign female slaves, their status as slave also effectively ended as soon as they were married.  In the event that her husband wanted to divorce her, he was permitted to do so (cf. Dt. 24.1-4), but he was not permitted to sell her as a slave because he had humiliated her (Dt. 21.10-14).

In the context of the Old Testament Law, the laws permitting and regulating slavery are classified as part of the Judicial Law.  The Judicial Law included all laws that stipulated a penalty, such as death (Ex. 21.12-29, 22.18-20, 31.12-17, 35.2, Lev. 20.1-6,9-21,27, 24.14-17,21,23, Num. 15.32-36, 25.1-9, Dt. 13.5-15, 17.2-7,12-13, 19.11-13, 22.20-27, 24.7,16) or restitution (Ex. 21.30 – 22.15, 22.25-27, Lev. 19.21, 24.21, Dt. 22.28-29, 25.1-4), as well as laws regulating human relationships, such as slavery, divorce and remarriage (Lev. 21.7,14, Dt. 24.1-4), monetary lending (Ex. 22.25-27, Lev. 25.35-37, Dt. 15.2-6, 23.19-20), treatment of foreigners, widows, and orphans (Ex. 22.21-22, 23.9, 19.33-34, 25.44-46, Dt. 10.18-19, 14.29, 24.14-15,17-22, 27.19), and treatment of the poor and indigent (Ex. 22.25-27, 23.6,11, Lev. 19.9-10,15, 25.25-28,35-43,46-55, Dt. 15.7-18, 24.12-15).

These laws as formal rules and regulations are passed away with the state of Ancient Israel.  The punitive requirements are passed away in particular.  These were based on the principle laid down by the Lord in giving the Law, “If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Ex. 21.23-25, Lev. 24.19-20, Dt. 19.21)  At its root is the principle that the punishment should fit the crime, which is the message the Lord conveyed by it.  However, given the litigious nature of the human heart, man is wont to exacerbate the punishment, to desire to see the guilty suffer for their crimes.  In his desire for vengeance, man is prone to sin.  This is seen in its extreme example in the boast of Lamech, descendant of Cain:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech listen to what I say:

I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.

If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen. 4.23-24)

But in the New Testament, Jesus ended the abuse of this principle when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Mt. 5.38-42)

Likewise, Paul cited Deuteronomy 32.35 when he wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom. 12.19; cf. I Thess. 4.6, Heb. 10.30-31)

Moreover, unlike the nation of Ancient Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ is not a sovereign state with the responsibility of enforcing public conduct—that is the responsibility of the civil magistrate.  As the Lord said through the Apostle Paul, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13.1-4)  Ancient Israel at the time of Christ and the apostles was ruled by Rome, and it is very clear that Jesus and the Apostles expected Christians to submit themselves to the secular governing authorities—both then and now (Mt. 22.17-21, Rom. 13.1-7, I Pet. 2.13-17)—except to the extent that civil law contradicts God’s moral law (e.g., where civil law forbids Christians from assembling together to worship God or from preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, for “we must obey God rather than men”; Acts 4.18-21, 5.27-29).

In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus and the Apostles do not directly address the institution of slavery.  Neither do they give express permission (as in Lev. 25.44-46) to own slaves, nor do they condemn those who own slaves.  However, that does not mean that the Apostles had nothing to say about slavery, and what is more, they said nothing explicitly condemning the practice of owning slaves.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Slaves (Gk. doulos), obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.  Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.  You are serving the Lord Christ.  For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.  Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Col. 3.22-4.1, Eph. 6.5-9, I Pet. 2.18-20)

Likewise, Paul wrote an epistle to a Christian slave owner named Philemon, asking him to receive back a runaway slave named Onesimus, who had converted to Christianity through Paul’s teaching, “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” (vv. 16-17)

To the Corinthians he wrote, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.  Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.  For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord.  Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.  You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” (I Cor. 7.20-23)

And he wrote to Timothy that “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for,” among others, “enslavers (that is, those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery).” (I Tim. 1.9-10; cf. Ex. 21.16, Dt. 24.7)

Justification for the institution of slavery in the years before the Civil War was sought by appeal to Scripture.  However, in that appeal, a grave injustice was visited upon men, women, and children of African descent by a misappropriation of Noah’s curse in Genesis 9, by a failure to understand the limits and the purpose behind God’s permission to Israelites to own foreigners as slaves in Leviticus 25, and by failures to extend Biblically-rooted human rights to those trapped in the institution of slavery.

Justification for the enslavement of the sons and daughters of Africa was sought by an appeal to Noah’s curse on his grandson, Canaan.  Noah’s son, Ham, “saw the (drunken) nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.  Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father.  Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan:
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers. …

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.

May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.” (Gen. 9.22-27)

Those who sought the enslavement of the sons and daughters of Africa did so on the belief that they were descendants of Ham, whom Noah cursed by prophesying slavery.  However, Noah’s curse was not against all of Ham’s descendants, but only against his descendants through his son, Canaan, whose descendants settled in Ancient Palestine, and whose descendants were dispossessed and enslaved by the Israelites after the Lord gave His chosen people their land after they had forfeited it through grave, persistent, and unrepentant sin (Dt. 9.1-5), a land named after their ancestor, Canaan.  Noah’s curse did not apply to all Hamitic peoples, and it was an injustice to use it as a pretext to enslave the sons and daughters of Africa on account of their race.

Moreover, slave owners in the first century of this nation’s history failed to extend Biblically-rooted human rights to those trapped in the institution of slavery.  Slave owners faced no civil penalties if they beat their slaves to death or otherwise caused their slaves’ deaths through other ruthless punishments.  Neither were slave owners obligated to free slaves whom they maimed.  Slave owners faced no civil penalties if they committed adultery or fornication with their female slaves with the intention of producing even more slaves through reproduction—slave owners under the Old Testament Law were not permitted to engage in sexual intercourse with their female slaves unless they first married them.  And Biblical injunctions against those who crossed state lines to kidnap free African Americans for the purpose of selling them into slavery were not enforced in states where slavery was legal.

The human institution of slavery today has been abolished on account of the evils and abuses that have attended it.  Today, those who become destitute are not permitted to sell themselves or their children into slavery (or even indentured servitude) to extricate themselves from debt.  Neither do governments sell prisoners of war into slavery.  And the act of kidnapping people for the purpose of keeping or selling them as slaves, as is forbidden in Scripture, is illegal.

But the institution of slavery persists in the world today despite its illegality.  Men, women, and children are kidnapped for the purpose of enslaving them—they are set to prostitution, uncompensated forced labor, and serving in guerilla militias.  And it occurs not only in distant lands but even here in the United States, often run by the criminal underworld.  It is evil, illegal, and immoral.  Those who engage in the slave trade today will be judged for their sin, even if they are not brought to justice in this life, unless they repent of it.

To be clear, I do not advocate for the legalization of the institution of slavery, nor do I condone the enslavement of men, women, or children under any civil circumstances.  Nevertheless, as the Apostle Paul told the Church at Rome, we are all slaves:

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.  I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.  For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

“When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?  The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6.16-23)

Likewise, the Lord Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn. 8.34)

Although I do not advocate for the legalization of the human institution of slavery, I would wish that all were obedient slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the alternative is not freedom from slavery but rather slavery to the harsh master of sin.  “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures.” (Tit. 3.3)

Those who have been delivered from addiction—to nicotine, to alcohol, to chemical substances, to gambling, to pornography, or to a host of other things—perhaps can see this clearly, that they were enslaved to these things.  Those so enslaved feel helpless against the internal drive that compels them to desire and pursue the very things that that are destroying them.  And those who turn to Christ from addiction are often those who appreciate most Christ as their Master.  The one who has been forgiven much loves the forgiver much, whereas the one who has been forgiven little loves the forgiver little (Lk. 7.40-47).

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5.8)  But Christ did not die for us merely to show the Father’s love, as if He freed us only from sin’s penalty but leaves us free to conduct our lives as we see fit.  “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ … gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2.13-14)  Jesus Christ purchased for Himself at the cost of His own blood sinful men and women, like you and me, slaves to sin, in order to be His faithful, obedient, and loving slaves.

The Lord regarded Ancient Israel, which He brought out of the land of Egypt, as His own slaves (Lev. 25.42,55); and so, He likewise regards us who are called by the Name of Jesus.  As the Apostle Paul told the Corinthian Church, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body.” (I Cor. 6.19-20)  And again, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” (I Cor. 7.23)  Likewise, the Apostles identified themselves in some of their epistles as slaves (Gk. doulos) of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1.1, Phil. 1.1, Tit. 1.1, Jas. 1.1, II Pet. 1.1, Jude 1).  Moreover, we are called to “live as people who are free, not using (our) freedom as a cover-up for evil; but living as servants (i.e., slaves; Gk. doulos) of God.” (I Pet. 2.16)

The Lord Jesus proclaimed that He would be our Master.  Any master has a yoke and a burden for his slaves, and the Lord Jesus also has a yoke and a burden for those who would be His slaves: He said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11.28-30)  Likewise, He expects those who would be His slaves to obey Him, as a slave is obligated to obey his or her master.  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ (Gk. kyrios, which is also translated ‘master’; e.g., Acts 16.16,19, Eph. 6.5,9, Col. 3.22, 4.1) and not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6.46)  He also said that no one who was devoted to another master could own Him as Master.  “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt. 6.24, Lk. 16.13)  Or more broadly, one cannot be a slave of God and a slave of sin.  And although He told the Apostles, “No longer do I call you servants (Gk. doulos) … but I have called you friends” (Jn. 15.15, He told them, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant (Gk. doulos) is not greater than his master (Gk. kyrios).  If they persecuted me (i.e., the Master), they will also persecute you (i.e., My slaves).  If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (Jn. 15.20)  Moreover, slaves do not choose their masters, but the Lord Jesus chooses those whom He would have as His slaves, disciples, and friends: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (Jn. 15.16; cf. Jn. 6.44,65,70, 13.18)

Of course, the Lord Jesus will have no slaves who resent Him—we who are called by His name are called to intimately know and love Him (Dt. 6.5, Mt. 22.37, Mk. 12.30, Lk. 7.40-49, Jn. 15.9, 17.3), and on the basis of our intimate knowledge of and love for Him, we are to obey Him as our Master (Jn. 14.15,21,23-24, 15.10, I Jn. 2.3, 5.3, II Jn. 6).

Should we then reject His teachings regarding what constitutes sin, even as many in the world today regard as morally permissible certain actions the Bible declares to be sin?  God forbid!  All sin—even popular sin—is a wicked master that will bring about the destruction of those who remain enslaved to it until the bitter end.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves in the context of our loving devotion to the only Lord and Savior, our Master Jesus Christ (Mt. 22.37-40, Mk. 12.28-31), and it is not love that we show to sinners if we condone the sin that enslaves them.