Making Sense of Slavery in the Scriptures
What are Christians to think of the regulation of slavery in Scripture?
There is a popular argument that goes something like this:
1. The Bible allows for slavery.
2. Slavery is intrinsically immoral.
3. Therefore, Scripture allows for something intrinsically immoral.
Such syllogisms sting a bit.
Some of the sting may be taken out when we bear in mind that Jesus Himself declares that God at times permits things which He does not approve. Speaking of divorce, Jesus says, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:8). In other words, Scripture points to the reality that at times God will regulate something which displeases Him. In His infinite wisdom, He determines to legislate at times what He might later prohibit—or at least clarify.
At the same time, the lack of a clear condemnation of slavery can be disturbing on the surface. After all, though permitted for a time, God’s will regarding divorce and polygamy is eventually clarified. What are we to do with the fact that no such definitive disapproval is explicitly expressed regarding slavery?
It is true that the Bible does not universally, explicitly, and absolutely condemn all forms of slavery. However, what is often overlooked in such conversations is the fact that all of the types of modern slavery which we think of when we think of the word "slavery" are explicitly prohibited in Scripture. This is an important point that we will unravel shortly and renders most objections to the biblical portrayal of slavery baseless. While Scripture may not condemn "slavery," it does condemn all the forms of slavery that we tend to think of when we think of slavery today.
The hope of this paper is to orient the practice of slavery within the contexts of Scripture and the ancient world in order to better understand what they do and do not say about the institution. In doing so, we will find that arguments regarding the Bible’s alleged approval of contemporary slavery are unfounded and unfair, and thus greatly misleading.
Types of Slavery:
To understand the Scriptural regulation of the institution of slavery, it is absolutely essential that we recognize a fundamental distinction between the slavery of the biblical world and that practiced within the 17th-21st centuries. When most of us think of the word “slavery,” we immediately picture the 19th century African slave trade in the United States or modern sex slavery. However, such conceptions represent not slavery in general, but rather particular evil variants of the practice. Such expressions of slavery are actually quite dissimilar at a number of levels to the institutions regulated within the Scriptures.
Though ancient slavery and modern slavery share a common word and some related features, we cannot simply assume that they refer to an identical institution. The differences between the use of the term "slavery" in modern and ancient contexts can be striking at times. While there certainly were slaveowners and examples of slavery in antiquity that were more similar to modern slavery, such was not the norm.
Let me be clear: that the Bible never explicitly condemns ancient slavery does not at all imply that it has nothing to say regarding modern slavery; rather, “modern readers must overcome their temptation to read into any ancient Jewish, Greek or Roman text their knowledge of modern slavery. The meanings of any familiar-sounding terms can be determined only by a close investigation of the particular social systems and cultural values the early Christian writers took for granted” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development).
With this in mind, let's look at some of the ways that ancient slavery differed from most modern forms:
Distinctive Elements of Early Types of Slavery:
1. An enslaved person generally could not be identified by appearance or clothing; racial or ethnic origins were not reliable indicators of social or legal status. This means that ancient slavery greatly differed from the race-based slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries in the States.
2. The cultural and religious traditions of slaves were usually those of their owners.
3. Education of slaves was encouraged, enhancing their value; some slaves were better educated than their owners. Rome’s cultural leadership in the empire largely depended on educated, foreign-born slaves who had been taken there.
4. Partially as a result, many slaves functioned in highly responsible and sensitive positions such as workshop and household managers, accountants, tutors, personal secretaries, sea captains, and physicians. An important minority of slaves had considerable influence and social power, even over freeborn persons of lesser status than the slaves’ owners.
5. By no means were the enslaved regularly to be found at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Rather, those free and impoverished persons who had to seek work each day without any certainty of employment occupied the lowest level. Some of them sold themselves into slavery in order to obtain job security, food, clothing and shelter.
6. Slaves could own property, including their own slaves. They could accumulate funds that they might use to purchase their own freedom.
7. Because slaves were owned by persons across the range of economic levels, they developed no consciousness of being a social class or of suffering a common plight. Thus no laws were needed to hinder public assembly of slaves.
8. In contrast to New World slavery, ancient owners did not regard their adult slaves paternalistically; they clearly distinguished the roles of parents and of owners and felt no need to justify the institution of slavery.
9. Persons often sold themselves to pay debts, to escape poverty, to climb socially or to obtain special governmental positions.
10. A large number of domestic and urban slaves, perhaps the majority, could anticipate being set free (manumitted) by age thirty, becoming a freedman or a freedwoman (see Acts 6:9, “the synagogue of the freedmen”). At any moment innumerable ex-slaves throughout the empire were proof that slavery need not be a permanent condition. And even ancient Greek commentators expressed astonishment that slaves freed by Roman citizens were usually granted Roman citizenship at their manumission. Notable in Acts 23–25 is the Roman governor Marcus Antonius Felix, who had been a slave until Antonia, the emperor Claudius’s mother, manumitted him (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development).
There are often exceptions to historical rules and certainly that was the case in ancient slavery. While the above examples do not demonstrate that ancient slavery was admirable, or good, or universally beneficial—or that masters were always charitable and kind—they absolutely establish a strong contrast to the picture of modern slavery. We might use the same word to describe modern and ancient slavery, but the underlying institutions are quite different.
Most Modern Forms of Slavery are Explicitly Condemned:
In highlighting distinctive characteristics of early slavery in contrast to modern forms, one should take notice that certain critical elements of modern slavery are explicitly forbidden within the Scriptures. For instance, both the antebellum African slave trade and sex slavery today are founded upon the kidnapping of men, women, and children while such a practice is expressly prohibited in the Bible.
Exodus 21:16 Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
Deuteronomy 24:7 If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
1 Timothy 1:10 …the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers [literally "man stealers"], liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine…
Western slavery in former centuries (and the majority of forms now) functioned through a trade built upon and fueled by abduction expressly and strongly prohibited within the Scriptures. Thus, the vast majority of forms of modern Western slavery are explicitly condemned within the Scriptures.
Furthermore, consider that in the antebellum South, the penalty for harboring a runaway slave was six months of imprisonment and a hefty fine of $1000 (over $30,000 in contemporary value) according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Contrast that with the commands of the Old Testament which declared:
You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him. (Deuteronomy 23:15–16)
Most likely this aspect of the Mosaic Law is presuming that a slave who runs away is doing so from injustice and thus he or she should not be returned to that same condition. After all, it would be highly unlikely in that cultural context to think that a slave of a good, kind, and generous master would desire to escape.
Regarding injustice in slavery, our conception is tainted by the vast abuses that exist in all the modern forms of which we are familiar. While those types are founded upon injustice, oppression, and abuse, the Scripture explicitly regulates slavery in such a way as to rob it of those deformities. Masters are told to "stop threatening" their slaves and are called to remember that they too are slaves of Christ and that He favors neither the slave nor free (Ephesians 6:9). Above all, they are commanded to treat their slaves "justly and fairly" (Colossians 4:1).
Yet again, we see that any and all forms of modern slavery relying on abuse, injustice, oppression, and kidnapping are explicitly condemned in Scripture.
Thus, rather than blindly interpreting the Bible’s regulation of ancient slavery as condoning our modern conception of the institution, we should seek to understand ancient slavery and how the Scriptures function within those particular frameworks. When understood correctly, we begin to see that not only was ancient slavery quite different from modern, but also that the Bible actually has quite a bit to say about the prohibition of such modern variants.
The Bible and Slavery
Not only does the Bible explicitly condemn modern slavery, but it actually says more than we might think about the ancient practice; within the Old Testament, there are clear regulations which were intended to curb abuses. Not only do we see the aforementioned regulation regarding not returning escaped slaves to their masters, but there were also opportunities for redemption and release for Hebrew slaves (Exodus 21:10), mandated rest on the Sabbath for all slaves (Exodus 20:10), punishment for killing a slave (Exodus 21:20), and the legal requirement of setting slaves who had been abused free (Exodus 21:26-27). Furthermore, when we read the New Testament, there is even greater emphasis on providing safe and good boundaries insofar as slavery is tolerated, though certainly not celebrated.
One example of this is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. As Paul petitions Philemon to forgive Onesimus, a runaway slave, what Paul writes is fascinating:
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 15–16)
Paul's hope is that not only would Philemon forgive Onesimus, but also release him from his slavery in order that he might serve in the work of missional ministry. While not a prescription for all masters to release all of their slaves, this is certainly an instructive example of a significant upending of cultural expectation. Apparently Philemon actually granted the request, for Onesimus functioned as one of the carriers of the book of Colossians (Colossians 4:7-9).
But perhaps even more instructive are Paul's words to the church in Corinth when he writes,
Were you a bondservant 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 bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:21–23)
It is the parenthetical comment and also the final clause that are most pertinent. Paul seems to uphold a vision of moving away from slavery where possible. Though not completely prohibiting the institution, Paul points people toward an ideal that he applies on an individual basis. That ideal is that none should be slaves of men in light of Christ's lordship. Slaves should submit to their masters (Colossians 3, 1 Peter 2, Ephesians 6) and not concern themselves with seeking release from slavery, but should also feel free to pursue freedom when available.
This movement from regulation of the institution toward envisioning its eventual waning influence is telling. Though Scripture does not prohibit slavery, in light of the movement from Old Testament to the New, neither does it give tacit approval.
Why Doesn't Scripture Completely Prohibit It?
Having worked through differences between ancient and modern slavery, we get to a fundamental question at the heart of the issue: Why doesn't Scripture, and (by implication) God, simply prohibit it completely?
That is a great question—assuming it is asked from a posture of trust and humility! At least two reasons come to mind.
First, the Bible was not written in a vacuum, but within a certain cultural context. The context of the first-century Roman Empire included certain laws regulating the release of slaves. For example, slaves who were freed under the age of 30 years old were not granted Roman citizenship and could only be freed through a formal legal process (Lex Aelia Sentia – 4AD). In addition, there were limits to the number of slaves that one could free. For example, a master who had three slaves could free only two; those who had between four and ten could free only half of them; those with eleven to thirty could free only a third, and so on (Lex Fufia Caninia – 2BC).
This means that had Paul explicitly commanded masters to free all of their slaves, they could only do so by breaking the law and with the prospect of making their freed slaves socially and economically vulnerable. For example, had a slave owner freed a young slave of 20, this slave would have lacked citizenship and, thereby, would have lacked certain legal protections and privileges—and perhaps would have been susceptible to being enslaved to another (perhaps harsher) master.
So, let’s assume that you are a Roman citizen, with 30 slaves, and you come to faith. As a result, you certainly know that you are to be kind, compassionate, and generous to your slaves. But should you free them? If you free all of them, you are in violation of Roman law. So do you simply free 10 of them since that is all the law allows? If so, which 20 should you keep and how would you make the decision?
But what if you defy the law? Doing so might subject your slaves to the danger of being enslaved to a non-believing and unjust master. Is that ultimately better for the slave or more loving? While we could argue the ethics of the situation, at the very least we should be able to understand why some might think the most loving, gracious, and godly response would be to keep their slaves, thus keeping the families together, working toward the possibility of eventual release with legal rights and privileges, and being kind, generous, and just in the meantime. Even if this does not represent the ideal, it is perhaps better than all other available alternatives, and thus the most loving and gracious response given the context.
In addition to the above consideration of the cultural context, there is another potential reason for regulating rather than eradicating slavery: What if the institution itself, though rife with absolutely and essentially evil forms, can serve a larger redemptive purpose in providing a picture of something beyond slavery?
In the ancient world, everyone was a slave to someone. Servants were called slaves to their masters, masters were slaves to their king, and kings were slaves to their gods. In fact, translators of the English text have struggled to maintain consistency in translation given how slavery and servitude overlapped.
More importantly, all creatures are bound to some being or principle. There is no escape from enslavement, no existence in which absolute autonomy and unlimited independence are obtained. God, and God alone, is absolutely and truly free of any and all constraint. All creatures are ultimately enslaved; either to sin, Satan and fleshly desires, or to the true God and King, Jesus Christ (John 8:31-36; Romans 6:15-19). True freedom is not found in independence from our Creator, but rather in subjection to His sovereignty. There is no lasting liberty apart from captivity to Christ. It is in this “slavery” that our greatest joy is found.
Therefore, slavery as a historical concept was neither inherently good nor bad. To a great degree, judgment of the practice depends on who the master was and how he treats his slaves. Our Master treats us with compassion and kindness, and this is the basis for how the New Testament expects slave owners to treat their slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:33-4:1). Indeed, it is important to note that even within the Old Testament we find countercultural instructions regarding the treatment of slaves (Deuteronomy 15:12-15, 23:15).
Thus, slavery exists as a picture—even as marriage exists as a picture. Both institutions can be distorted through abuse and infidelity, but the opportunity yet remains for a picture which is good, right, and true, and portrays a deeper and better truth than the institution itself. It is within this framework that we should be able to understand why God does not universally condemn any and all forms of slavery, but also why He absolutely condemns any and all forms which are founded on injustice and oppression, as they distort our understanding of lordship, and thus distort our understanding of our Lord.
The Church and Slavery
There is no doubt that the Church has not consistently rejected the practice of slavery in general, nor even of the perverse versions of the past. Rather, Scriptural ambiguity and regulation has often been used to justify all kinds of corruption and oppression. It is certainly and regrettably true that many pastors and priests have argued for the permissibility of more modern forms of slavery on “biblical” grounds. This historical justification of an evil practice is certainly unfortunate, tragic, and incorrect, and is a blight on the Church's past.
At the same time, it must be asked, upon what principle was such slavery officially abolished? What overarching worldview led to the crumbling of the imperial and colonial slave trades? Men like John Newton and William Wilberforce led the charge, not on the basis of the “self-evident” equality of all men, but rather the dignity of man as an image-bearer of the Creator God Who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Consider the words of Wilberforce himself,
So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.
Never, never, will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic.
Christians who argued for Western slavery on the basis of the biblical text were simply wrong. Perhaps they themselves misunderstood the text, were sinfully motivated to act with hypocrisy, or were fearful of the cultural implications of dissidence. While we can certainly find fault in these errors, such faults do not invalidate Christianity, the Scriptures, or Christ.
The Scriptures do not explicitly condemn slavery in general, but they do regulate the practice in such a way as to expressly condemn the modern practice of the institution. By expressly forbidding the foundations of modern forms and all unjust expressions, the Scriptures offer a strong and loud word on the subject that we would do well to hear and heed. Though passages on slavery in Scripture might remain difficult to understand from our contemporary context, hopefully the thoughts above provide some clarification on a weighty subject that is more complex than it might initially seem. Without forbidding slavery, the knots are untied such that the institution was bound to unravel.
As we read the Scriptures, not only do we find the clear call for the Church to reject enslaving oppression, but we hear and see an exalted Son Who conquers all injustice and grants true redemption regardless of social status, ethnicity, or gender. In bondage to Him, we find life, liberty, and perpetual joy.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:28–29)
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)