What Does the Bible Really Teach About Slavery?
Last Sunday evening at FBC Buffalo, our study of 1 Timothy brought us to the beginning of chapter six, which reads, “All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles” (6:1-2). The charge is often leveled that Christianity is pro-slavery, on the basis of this passage and other passages like it in the New Testament that command slaves to obey their earthly masters (Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5-8; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18). The question is often asked – why does the New Testament not condemn slavery as a social and moral evil? Why does Paul command slaves to render obedience to their earthly masters, and why does Peter command submission even to those who are harsh and unreasonable (1 Pet. 2:18-20)? These are good questions. Let me try to answer them briefly.
It is true that the Bible does not explicitly condemn all forms of slavery, and in fact provides regulations for how Christians should operate within the structures of slavery, whether Christians are the slaves or the masters. But the Bible is steadfastly opposed to the kind of slavery found in colonial and early America, in which human beings were kidnapped and forced into slavery entirely on the basis of their race or ethnicity, and then were often horribly abused, neglected, and treated as subhuman property. This kind of slavery the Bible abhors and treats as an abominable denial of the sanctity and dignity of human life. So, in the interest of finding out exactly what the Bible teaches regarding slavery, let me give you a couple of basic thoughts.
Old Testament Texts Cannot Be Used to Justify Slavery
Early American Christians often used Old Testament texts from the Mosaic Law to justify the African slave trade. But they were wrong to interpret and apply these texts in the ways they did. These texts cannot be used to justify the kind of slavery (or segregation) once found in America. There were two instances in which the Old Testament permitted slavery. First, the Mosaic Law permitted Israelites to capture (i.e. instead of kill) foreign slaves during holy war (Lev. 25:45-46). However, what God permitted and commanded of Israel during holy war is not normative for other peoples in other places and in other times. Israel was the unique instrument of God’s righteous judgment against these wicked and pagan nations (Gen. 15:14-16; Lev. 18:24-28). Therefore, it was right for Israel to exterminate or enslave the Canaanites, as they were acting as God’s agents, operating under God’s explicit sanction. The LORD God has the absolute sovereign right to give and to take life (i.e. the right of the Potter over the clay – Rom. 9:21), to enact laws over His creation and to execute judgment for the transgression of those laws. But it is wrong for anyone else to exterminate or enslave foreign peoples, because we do not have God’s righteous sanction to do so. That was a unique moment in redemptive history, under a unique covenant between God and His people Israel.
Secondly, the Mosaic Law permitted voluntary slavery in order to allow people to pay off their debts through service (Lev. 25:39-43). But this was only allowed for up to six years, after which time every slave was to be released. In either case, it should be obvious that American slavery is not justified by such Old Testament texts, because the African slaves were not captured in holy war, and their service was neither voluntary nor temporary.
It should also be noted that the Mosaic Law regulated slavery in Israel to prevent the very evils once found in American slavery. Kidnapping slaves was a crime punishable by death (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). Negligent homicide was also punishable by death (Deut. 22:8). This means that the entire African slave trade, which was built through the capture and kidnapping of African tribes, and included a horrendous and often deadly voyage to the Americas, would have been condemned by the Law of Moses. And nowhere does the Old Testament law give slave owners the right over their slave’s bodies, to starve, rape, maim, or kill them without severe (capital) repercussions from the law. On the contrary, the Old Testament commanded that justice and mercy be extended to the most helpless in society, including the “alien among you” (Lev. 19:34).
New Testament Texts Cannot Be Used to Justify Slavery
Furthermore, New Testament texts cannot be used to justify the kind of slavery found in America either. This is because the kind of slavery often practiced in the Roman world bore little resemblance to the kind of slavery practiced for centuries in America. For instance, in ancient Rome, slavery was rarely based upon race or ethnicity (except in the case of slaves captured in warfare). Rather, slavery was often based upon economic necessity – people were enslaved as a way of paying their debts or the debts of their families. Slavery was often voluntary – people sold themselves as slaves in order to learn a particular trade (like an apprenticeship, only more binding). And the life of slaves in the Roman world was considerably better than the life of African slaves in America. They often worked in highly-skilled positions, such as education or medicine or business, they enjoyed a higher social status, and since there were a variety of ways for slaves to earn their freedom, slavery was not necessarily permanent. In many cases, I suppose, slavery in the Roman world was more akin to indentured servitude than what we could commonly call “slavery.”
In fact, the New Testament explicitly condemns three of the greatest evils associated with American slavery – kidnapping, abuse, and racism.
- Kidnapping for the purpose of enslavement is condemned in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 – “The law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…” The word the NASB translates as “kidnappers” (andrapodistes), the KJV renders as “menstealers,” and the ESV renders as “enslavers.” Those who traffic in slaves are lawless, rebellious, ungodly, unholy, profane sinners.
- Abuse of slaves is condemned in Ephesians 6:9 – “And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” It should be obvious that sexual abuse is forbidden, but this verse also outlaws physical and verbal abuse as well.
- Racism is condemned by such passages as Colossians 3:9-11 – “Do not lie to one another, since you have laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him – a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” One could certainly argue from natural law that all men, regardless of race, are created in image of God and are therefore created equal (the Declaration of Independence so argues). But this verse makes plain that there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for those born of the Spirit to regard one race as superior to another. To harbor racism in your heart, and to justify it rather than to mortify it, is to deny the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And one more point… Just because the Bible instructs slaves to bear up under suffering from their masters does not mean that it is right for masters to cause suffering to their slaves. And just because the Bible gives instruction to slaves and masters does not mean that it condones slavery, anymore than the Bible’s instructions regarding divorce means that the Bible condones divorce. The Bible’s regulating the evils of a fallen, cursed, and sinful world does not mean that Bible condones everything that transpires in a fallen, sinful, and cursed world. In short, you cannot, in good conscience, argue for the legitimacy of slavery using Scripture for proof texts. The only slavery permitted by the Bible is that which is voluntary, peaceful, dignified, and respectful. In short, what the New Testament calls “slavery,” we might be more apt to simply call “employment.”
 In the following material I have been helped tremendously by a terrific section in Philip Ryken’s commentary on 1 Timothy. Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 237-240.