In the age of 140 character arguments and memes, we have sometimes lost the ability to structure a coherent argument to argue for any particular ideological position, and, instead, simply throw out short pithy statements to defend our particular perspectives. Though I am, by no means, arguing that Christians are not also guilty of this, one of the groups that I most-often see utilizing short and un-researched arguments in memes, tweets, etc. are atheists. These misconceptions are then popularized, and brought up in casual conversations with opponents of the Christian faith. I’m often speaking to someone about Biblical morality when they throw out the objection, “but the Bible supports slavery,” as if this somehow negates Biblical morality altogether. Of course, if I asked these same people for a particular text which teaches this, they would usually be unable to do so. They’re just repeating something they saw on a meme, or heard from some talking head said on the history channel (which, remember, is also the channel that shows “Ancient Aliens”).
In light of this, I am going to answer the common question: Does the Bible support slavery?
The answer is yes, and no.
Or, perhaps, a better way to phrase this would be with two separate questions: Does the Bible support slavery? No. Does the Bible allow for slavery? (a highly qualified) Yes.
Slavery was common in the ancient world. It was simply part of how society itself was structured, how the economy worked, etc. God entered into human history to create the nation of Israel, whose laws he subsequently determined. The intent of these laws were threefold: first, to keep the people of Israel in check, and to promote justice and righteousness within the ancient near eastern context. Second, to symbolize the future atoning work of Christ, and point them to the coming Messiah. Third, to set the nation of Israel apart from other nations.
So here is the point: God worked within the current societal structure of the Ancient Near East. Because of that, there was an allowance of some kind of slavery in the Old Testament. However, strict parameters were set around the treatment of slaves, so that they were treated with dignity, and many aspects of slavery were condemned outright. The dissolving of slavery is simply the logical outworking of many of these principles which are apparent in both the Old and New Testaments.
Also worth noting is the fact that slavery, as it is existed in the American context, is outright condemned with the death penalty according to Old Testament civil law.
Here are some important factors to keep in mind when considering the issue of slavery in Scripture:
- Slaves were not viewed as subhuman. This much should be obvious, as the people of Israel lived in slavery in the land of Egypt. This is a fact that the civil law constantly points back to as justification for the right treatment of those who are mistreated and outcast in society (the orphan, widow, foreigner, etc.). See, for example, Deuteronomy 10:19. The New Testament explicitly places the slave and free person on the same level ground in the eyes of God (Gal. 3:28). Any system of slavery which argues that the slave is a lesser human being (such as was often the case in American slavery) is outright sin.
- In Scripture, slavery had absolutely nothing to do with racism. Because of the cultural baggage that exists in twenty-first century America, we automatically connect slavery with the abuse of a particular race. This is not how slavery was treated in the ancient world, and Scripture is clear that racism is sin (Gal. 3:28). The provisions surrounding Israelites marrying only fellow Israelites had nothing to do with race, and everything to do with retaining pure worship in the nation of Israel. Worshipers of YHWH were not to marry worshipers of foreign gods.
- The Old Testament law explicitly condemns the abuse of slaves. They were not to be treated as property, but as fellow human beings. If a slave is abused and injured, the law commands that they be set free (Exodus 21:26-27). The New Testament also encourages good treatment of slaves (Eph. 6:9).
- The kidnapping of a human being, and consequent sale of that human being, was punishable by death in the Mosaic law (Ex. 21:16). The American slave trade is, thus, explicitly condemned by Scripture. Had this happened in the nation of Israel, God would have required all people associated with the slave trade to be put to death. This is, in fact, more harsh of a punishment than exists in parts of the world today where the slave trade unfortunately still exists.
- The explicit reasons for permissible slavery in Scripture are a punishment for a crime (Ex. 22:3), or as a way for someone to repay a debt (Lev. 25:39). If one had a slave from among the Israelites, the maximum amount of time which that person could serve as a slave was six years. It is true that, like the other ancient near eastern cultures, the Israelites were allowed to keep slaves following a military victory. Several laws protected these slaves, however, in a way that differentiates the Jewish laws from surrounding near eastern cultures. These people were to be provided for and treated as humans, rather than abused.
- In the book of Philemon, Paul writes to a man whose slave (Onesimus) stole from him, and ran away. Paul writes to Philemon encouraging him to take Onesimus back and treat him as a brother. He states that Philemon will do “even more than I say,” which is likely a reference to Paul’s hope that Onesimus would be set free (Phil. 21). History testifies to this, as Onesimus eventually, supposedly, became a bishop.
Did God allow slavery to exist in some form for a time? Yes. This does not, however, mean that God desired for slavery to exist. Such an institution could only arise in a fallen world. Jesus speaks about certain evils that God allowed simply due to the hardness of heart of the people (Matt. 19:8). The common Old Testament practice of polygamy would be another example of this. What God did do surrounding slavery was set certain parameters around its practice, so that slaves were not kidnapped and sold, abused, or treated as anything less than human. This does not mean that God delighted in slavery itself.
The Biblical principles surrounding the equality of all people before God, the kindness that all people (including foreigners) are to be shown, the statements against abuse of others, and condemnation of kidnapping/selling people, naturally lead to the dissolution of the practice of slavery. This is why so many opponents of the slave trade in both Europe and America argued based upon their faith that such an institution was unbiblical.