When it comes to slavery and the Bible, it can be quite an uncomfortable conversation. Does the Bible condemn slavery? Does it approve of slavery? Were Christian slave-owners in the United States justified in owning slaves? Let’s discuss that topic briefly.

Photo: Slavery memorial monument (Tanzania, Africa) | David Berkowitz

Slavery in the Old Testament

The Old Testament was the civil law for Israel. It did not forbid, and it even regulated, slavery. Though the reasons a person might be a slave were many and the laws about slavery were somewhat complicated, here are a few things to keep in mind about ancient Israelite slavery:

  1. In the absence of prisons, enslaving captives of war was an alternative to killing them.
  2. Many people became slaves when they found themselves financially bankrupt. Instead of going hungry, people were allowed to sell themselves into slavery (indentured servitude).
  3. The Law of Moses was not recommending, or even condoning slavery, but was ensuring the protection and fair treatment of all people—including slaves.

God did not invent slavery, but He did establish a legal system to help ensure that the poor, the foreigners, the prisoners of war, and the servants would be treated with fairness and mercy. As hard as it might be for us to fathom, becoming the slave of a God-fearing and Law-keeping Israelite would have been far better than many other possible fates in the ancient world.

These are not all of the laws concerning slavery in the Old Testament, but here are a few to consider:

  1. Hebrew slaves were only supposed to serve for six years and then were to be released with a generous supply of sheep, grain, and wine (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).
  2. In the year of Jubilee, all Hebrew slaves were supposed to be released (Leviticus 25:10, 47-54).
  3. It was illegal to kill a slave (Exodus 21:20).
  4. A slave who was permanently injured by his master was to be released (Exodus 21:26-27).
  5. If a man married a slave woman, he was obligated to love her and provide for her in the same way he should care for any wife; if he neglected or mistreated her, she was free to leave him (Exodus 21:10-11).
  6. It was illegal to return an escaped slave to his master; he was to live freely, wherever he chose (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).
  7. The punishment for kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery was the death penalty (Exodus 21:16).

Israel was a nation of escaped slaves. If anyone on earth had reason to be kind and compassionate to slaves, it was Israel.

Slavery in the New Testament

That being said, the coming of Jesus changed everything. When a first-century Roman slave owner became a Christian, his relationship to his slaves was turned upside down. This is the way His new King, Jesus, tells him to treat his slaves:

  • Treat them as he would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).
  • Love them as he loves himself (Matthew 22:39).
  • In humility, consider them more significant than he considers himself (Philippians 2:3).
  • Truly look out for their interests (Philippians 2:4).
  • Rather than threaten them, serve them out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 6:9).

It seems strange that the New Testament does not command masters to release their slaves; but if you think about it, what it commands is far more radical than that. Slavery is turned upside down, so that the master becomes the servant of his servant.

One of the best pictures of this is Paul’s letter to a slave owner named Philemon. Paul wrote to say he was sending Onesimus back home. Onesimus used to be Philemon’s slave. He had run away to Rome, met Paul, and ministered to Paul in prison. Paul was not sending Onesimus back to be Philemon’s slave. That would seem to violate the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 23:15-16); something Paul was not in the habit of doing. Paul was reconciling two equals, two brothers in Christ (see Philemon 1:16).

The gospel changed a master and a slave into family and that is one of the miracles of Christianity.

Slavery in the United States

With all of that said, I must say a few words about slavery as it was practiced in the United States by those often claiming biblical authority for their practice.

First of all, slavery in the United States was originally built upon slave-traders kidnapping Africans and selling them. This practice carried the death penalty under God’s civil law; not only for the kidnapper, but also for anyone found in possession of the kidnapped person (Exodus 21:16).

Second, the slavery practiced in the United States was founded on the deplorable idea of racial superiority. When the Southern States seceded, the Vice President of the Confederacy boasted, “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” This idea is irreconcilable with the biblical truth that all people are family in Adam, are image-bearers of God, and should be treated with love and kindness.

Finally, the type of cruelty, injustice and inhumanity that accompanied American slavery was condemned in the Old Testament, but was especially condemned under the new covenant of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I would argue that Americans who failed to genuinely love and serve their African American neighbors were not Christians. The New Testament clearly teaches, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The Bottom Line

Some will say, “You can’t judge people in the 1860s by today’s moral standard.” My response is: They’re not being judged by today’s moral standard; they’re being judged by Jesus’ moral standard.

If a slave-owner in 1860 read the Bible and became a Christian, he should have told his slaves, “Your family was kidnapped from your homeland. I cannot be right in God’s sight if I detain you against your will. Furthermore, I would not want to be enslaved and I must treat you the way I would wish to be treated. But if you choose to stay and work alongside me and my family, you will be family to us. We will love, serve, and provide for you as if you were our own flesh and blood.”

Perhaps some slave owners in America did something similar to that. But, sadly, most did not.

There is nothing we can do to change the past. But we can be opposed to the mistreatment of people in the present. We can truly love our neighbor as ourself. We can help break the cycle of violence, hatred, and strife that has plagued our world ever since the beginning. We can be Jesus’ covenant people; a people of love.

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams

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