Slavery is recognized as one of the great evils of our history. To many, this provides reason for rejecting what the Bible teaches. For example, some balk at the belief that Christians can put their faith in a book which, not only does not condemn slavery, but actually regulates it! Further, today people argue against the Old Testament and the Apostle Paul’s view of homosexuality because both sources include regulation of slavery rather than its abolition.
Why does the Bible allow slavery? At first glance this seems an irredeemable blemish to the goodness of the Bible’s message.
This is a challenging issue because our society brings with it cultural baggage which makes accurate interpretation of biblical texts on slavery difficult. We all are familiar with the African-American slave trade, and this is the kind of slavery that we envision taking place in the Bible.
As a proper foundation for understanding this issue, let me outline a few of the key components which define slavery as practiced in the New Testament. Then I will briefly note some items about Old Testament slavery.
1. In the NT world, slavery was not at all based on race.
This is a key point to understand. Slavery in the NT world was not contingent upon your ethnicity. People from every nation could be slaves. Initially slaves were made of conquered peoples, and then the children of those slaves continued the line of slaves.
2. In the NT world, slavery did not hinder one’s social status (for the most part).
Slaves were encouraged to be educated, and it was not uncommon for slaves to have education that exceeded their masters so as to be entrusted with being caretakers of everything on the estate. Slaves were often entrusted with important tasks of government business, education, scribal activities, etc. In addition, slaves were allowed to gather together, socialize, and own other slaves themselves.
3. In the NT world, slavery took place through a variety of means.
In accord with #1, slavery was not based on one factor. Certain individuals would sell themselves into slavery for various reason. Perhaps they owed a debt which they had no resource to pay, so they became slaves to pay it off. Or, parents would occasionally sell their children so that the children would grow up in a wealthier family. Additionally, some people would sell themselves into slavery to attain Roman citizenship upon their release from slavery (see #4).
4. In the NT world, slavery was usually limited in its extent.
It was the norm for slaves to be freed before they reached the age of 30. Once freed, these slaves joined the normal citizenry and owned their own slaves. This expectation of freedom on behalf of the slaves kept things civilized. In addition, sources of this time say that slaves were freed so often that the Roman emperor had to put restrictions on how many slaves could be freed during specific intervals.
A Word on OT Slavery
In a similar sense, OT slavery was different than our conception of slavery. It is also different than NT slavery in a few ways, but I will summarize two important issues here.
1. For the enemies of Israel, it was often death or slavery.
Deuteronomy 20:10 says that Israel was to offer a city terms of peace before attacking it. If they accepted, they would be useful workers for the people of Israel in all their projects. However, if they refused, they were to be destroyed (preserving the women, children, and animals as slaves). Being able to retain life and live as servants for God’s people was better than the alternative.
2. Hebrew slaves were to be set free after 6 years of work.
When an Israelite needed to take care of his debts, or was too poor to survive, he would have to sell himself to his fellow countrymen. This was a necessary means of survival for those who had no alternatives. The Law dictated that a Hebrew slave must go free of debt after 6 years of work (Exod 21:2).
In both the OT and NT, slavery was far different from how we envision it. In the OT, both foreign and Hebrew slaves were to be treated with compassion and given adequate rest (cf. Deut 5:14). In the NT, both slaves and slave owners are commanded to treat one another properly; the former working to please Christ through service to their master (Eph 6:5-8), the latter through being kind and fair to his slave (Eph 6:9).
Because in both the OT and NT the economic conditions necessitated a form of slavery, the Bible regulated it rather than eradicating it. That is part of the function of God’s laws. They are laid down to help navigate a fallen world. In other words, God helps us mitigate less-than-ideal conditions caused by the noetic effects of the Fall.
Yes, the Bible does not condemn the version of slavery that is found in the Bible. Instead, regulations are put in place to ensure proper conduct between slaves and masters. However, any version of slavery which matches what was seen in the American Civil War era (e.g., racially based, oppressively violent, abusive, etc.) is condemned completely and utterly by the Bible’s principles that are clearly outlined.
Note: This article was originally posted in June, 2014.