Does the Bible condone slavery?

SKEPTIC: “You know, your Bible contains scores of verses that mention slavery. But no where does it ever condemn the practice, per se.”

Response: I agree.

“Well, why not? If the Bible is the word of God, why wouldn't it condemn such evil?”

In a sin-fallen world, the battles we fight have to be chosen carefully. The same thing goes for the manner in which those battles are going to be fought.

“Explain.”

The Bible was never designed to serve as a manifesto on controversial political issues. It is rather primarily the story of how God, over time, has worked His sovereign will in this universe, and is still able to do so, through the hearts and minds and lives of those who trust Him.

“But slavery isn't just a political issue. It's a moral issue. Isn't the Christian Bible supposed to be a moral guide?”

Of course. But as a rule, the best way to change moral behavior is to transform moral views. And guess what. Beginning in the second century, many masters, upon converting to Christ, began to release their slaves. Slavery was abolished in Great Britain after people began being converted to Christ under the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield.

“But why doesn't the Bible just come right out and condemn slavery in so many words?”

Did you know that in the Old Testament, slaves were often prisoners of war? The law of Moses in fact served to regulate the care of slaves by their Hebrews masters, i.e. Exodus 21:20 and 26, Leviticus 25:40. Consequently, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the Phoenicians and Philistines.

“But what about in New Testament times? Why didn't Jesus, as a moral authority, speak out boldly against slavery?”

“Well, numerous New Testament texts, such as Colossians 4:1, Galatians 3:28, and the Book of Philemon, make the case for the inherent spiritual worth of slaves, which effectively laid a base for deep down authentic change in social practice, over time. God's way is often to work from within, dealing primarily with the spiritual component. Jesus was typically apolitical. Otherwise, encouraging direct confrontation over such a hot button social issue may have fomented revolution, providing Rome with a political excuse for persecuting Christians.”

“Well for me, slavery is slavery. It's wrong, it's immoral, and the Bible should be against it.”

On the contrary, slavery in Bible times significantly differed from slavery in modern times. It was not based on race. It was often less imperialistic. Some believe that in many cases it was actually more of an indentured servant type arrangement.

“In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus 25:44-46, slaves are actually referred to as possessions. And Jesus Himself sometimes used analogies that seem to tacitly condone slavery.”

Again, the Bible primarily details the account of how God has chosen to deal with the tragic results of a sin-fallen world down through the ages. While recognizing the reality of slavery as it existed in various forms, the Bible never actually condones it. It rather gives slaves, both then and more recently, a spiritual basis for worth, dignity, equality, and hope to face difficult circumstances. In the end, at a deeper level, its position is clear.

Key sources and resources

Author: Daryl E. Witmer of AIIA Institute.

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