Culture,  New Testament,  Old Testament

Slavery—Why Does the Bible Allow It?

Why does the Bible allow slavery? At first glance this seems an irredeemable blemish to the goodness of the Bible’s message. Slavery is recognized as one of the great evils of our history. To many, this provides a significant reason for rejecting what the Bible teaches. Some balk at the belief that Christians can believe God revealed himself in a book which, not only does not condemn slavery, but actually allows it. How should we think about the fact that the Bible allows slavery?

photo of hands bound in slavery

This is a challenging issue because our society brings with it cultural baggage which makes accurate interpretation of biblical texts on slavery difficult. Those of us who live in the Americas and Europe are familiar with the African slave trade, and this is the kind of slavery that we envision taking place in the Bible. But there are some key differences between the Bible’s picture of slavery and what we often imagine. It is important to delve into some of the key components of ancient slavery.

Slavery in the New Testament World

Slavery in the New Testament world is synonymous with slavery in the Roman empire. Many people acknowledge that the Roman empire was built on slaves. Slavery was so widespread in the Roman Empire that some estimates put the number of slaves in Italy at 30-40% of the total population. Although the total slave population was probably less in the Empire at large (perhaps 10-20%), at any given time you had a large contingent of slaves and former slaves coexisting in harmony. Unsurprisingly, there are a few key differences between American forms of slavery and the New Testament world. Here are some of the most important.

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, a slaves social status was unhindered (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 service 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, the duration of enslavement 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.

Slavery in the Old Testament World

It should not be a surprise that, similar to the New Testament Roman form of slavery, the Old Testament description was different than our African-American conception. Old Testament slavery is also different than the New Testament in a few ways. I will summarize two of the important issues here.

1. For the enemies of Israel, it was often death or enslavement.

Deuteronomy 20:10 says that Israel was to offer a city terms of peace before attacking it. If the city accepted peace, 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 of death.

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. There were no banks or social services, so the only way to earn a living was to enslave oneself to another in exchange for working off debts. However, regardless of the debt or money owed, this was not a permanent status. The Law dictated that a Hebrew slave must go free after 6 years of work (Exod 21:2). That is of course assuming he had not paid off his debt prior to that.

Summary on the Bible and Slavery

In both the Old and New Testaments, slavery was significantly different from how we envision it in the Western world. In the Old Testament world, both foreign and Hebrew slaves were to be treated with compassion and given adequate rest (cf. Deut 5:14). In the New Testament, 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).

In both the Old and New Testaments, the economic and cultural conditions facilitated forms of slavery. Thus the Bible regulated it rather than eradicating it. That is part of the function of God’s laws. God’s laws are laid down (in part) 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.

photo credit: Imagens Evangélicas via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • J.P. Kerber

    In the Old Testament, slavery was allowed, like divorce, because of the hardness of heart of Israel, who did not have the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit as we do now. It would have been too much to impose the requirements of full righteousness without Israel rejecting the burden of the Lord altogether. In the New Testament, it is because Christians cannot be expected to have the power to change social institutions and can’t be called to do that. Taken to its logical extent, Christians would have to change the entire system of the world, and that is not our calling. It is not because slavery back then really wasn’t so bad. Would you want to be owned by someone else?

    • Peter Goeman

      Well, I agree with most of your comment. But it seems you might be saying that slavery back then was the same as slavery we know about. However, that is not correct. Israelites enslaved themselves to other Israelites voluntarily at times because it was that or death (starving to death). The Israelites were mandated to love and care for their brothers in such a system, but it was still technically a form of slavery (just much different than African slave trade).

      All that to say, I think in the majority of cases in the world where slavery was utilized, it is, as you say, the world system which was not possible to change short term. Good comment, thanks for the interaction.

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