Monday 7 January 2013

Is God OK With Slavery?

Christians often find it awkward to talk about slavery. It's seen as one of the fundamental injustices of human history and yet it's felt that we can't really speak out on it because...well, doesn't the Bible condone slavery? We're troubled by Old Testament passages like Leviticus 25:35-54 that discuss owning slaves but don't say that it's wrong. We might right that off as an obscure Old Testament passage. But then we're concerned to find Paul give advice in the New Testament like: "Slaves, obey your masters here on earth with fear and respect and from a sincere heart, just as you obey Christ" (Ephesians 6:5).

So is God OK with slavery?

It's obvious from the passages I've referenced above (and others which I haven't) that slavery was commonplace when the Bible was written, both for those who worshipped God and those who didn't. The Bible doesn't contain an explicit statement that slavery is wrong. Why might that be?

When we think of slavery today our minds tend to jump to the image of America and the slave trade. We think of cotton plantations and ships crammed to capacity with human cargo. And we're absolutely justified in being repulsed at the degradation of human dignity and barbarity that happened in the slave trade. We misunderstand what the Biblical authors mean by slavery, though, if we read this image into the text.

God is not OK with this.

In God's law the slave is very much part of the family. You thought of them that way - my wife, my daughter, my son, my slave. They were included in your household and as such you were responsible for them. You could draw a parallel with the domestic workers, doing cleaning and tidying, that are commonplace in some parts of the world today. Slaves did more work and could sometimes be treated cruelly but generally it was in your interest to treat your slaves well. If you beat your slave then he'll necessarily be unable to do his job well.

And the Bible contains the precedent for a radically compassionate treatment of slaves. Nowhere else in the world but in God's people were slaves entitled to one day off a week in law (the Sabbath). There are laws requiring you to release your slave if you mistreat him in certain ways. It was enshrined in law that Israelite citizens could only be enslaved for a maximum of seven years, no matter how great their debt. There's even an allowance for a slave to remain with a family upon release if he's grown attached to them (Deuteronomy 15:16-18). When you reach the New Testament the requirements are even more radical - treat your slaves like you'd want your real Master to treat you (Ephesians 6:9).

We can have peace with slavery as it's required to be practised in the Bible. When the master is fair and honest then the slave was little more than a domestic employee tied into a short-term contract. But what about modern-day slavery? Can't that be understood as Biblically wrong?

1 Timothy 1:10

As I said, there's no all-out statement condemning slavery in the Bible. But there is a passage that condemns trading in slaves. In a list of people who "are against God and are sinful" (1 Timothy 1:9) Paul lists those "who sell slaves" (NCV). The NIV and the NLT also use the phrase 'slave traders' whereas the NASB goes for 'kidnappers', the ESV for 'enslavers' and the KJV for the wonderfully archaic 'menstealers'. Why is there such a divergence of translations? The Greek word used (andrapodistes) appears to be a technical term stemming from the practice of enslaving defeated soldiers in war. It refers to those who stole other people's slaves in order to sell them on for profit, a practice already condemned in the Old Testament. This is slightly more than kidnapping. It's trading in human life for the purposes of money. And that is sinful and wrong. We can overstate the meaning of this - it doesn't say that owning slaves is wrong. But it does give us an indication about how God might feel about slavery today.

I think that Biblical authors like Paul would be horrified by human trafficking today. Enslaving someone for the purposes of sex or smuggling someone across a border with the promise of work and then exploiting them is sick, even by ancient standards. It's far from the family-based model of slavery practiced in the Bible. I'm proud that Christians were at the forefront of opposing the slave trade. Christians today have no reason whatsoever not to follow in their footsteps in rooting out slavery in the modern age.


  1. Matt,I can see that you are trying to think these issues through. You write things like 'In God's law' & 'We can have PEACE with slavery as it's REQUIRED to be practised in the Bible. When the master is fair and honest then the slave was little more than a domestic employee tied into a short-term contract.'
    Are you sure you have really through the WAY you are saying this Matt? Where is it 'required' in the Old or New Testament by God that we should enslave another human being? How can anyone 'have peace' with the concept of enslaving another person however much the 'slave' is cared for by the 'master/mistress'; or how can you say this is God's Law (e.g Jesus's summary viz Luke 10:27). Also, as I understand it, the condition of being a slave is hugely LESS than being a domestic employee tied into a short term contract. A slave has no wages,no bargaining power, no freedom. The 'Jesus of faith and experience ' & later NT teaching (viz in Paul's letter to Philemon where Paul sends Onesimus back 'no longer as a slave') came to bring FREEDOM , and , as I undersatnd the impleication of NT teaching aims to move on the culture in which the Old & New Testaments were written. Teaching by implication that the use of human power should lead to each human being is equally empowered.Hence when we read about slaves & masters in the OT and new we read with the background knowledge that lovers of God over the centureies e.g Paul were gradually discovering tha the master-slave relationship was one that WE SHOULD NOT BE AT PEACE WITH or CALL 'GOD'S LAW'. Loving my neighbour as myself could never include me enslaving my neighbour. Could it for you? Should it really have been an acceptable practice for the ancients? Other than accepting a cultural relativsim, where in a society that condoned slavery, at least it was better to be a kind master than a cruel one, I accept that, but it doesn't engender feelings of peace in me about the concept of salvery. Yours conversationally, Lois Mason, Newbury, Berkshire ( not sure about all the options to 'publish' so just going for 'anonymous'!

  2. Hey Lois,

    Thanks for your comment. I really value engagement on the blog!

    I don’t think that the Bible REQUIRES anybody to own a slave. You’re quite right about that. What I was arguing, however, was that IF you wanted to own a slave then Biblical slavery forces you to be a more humane master. A slave in a household practicing Biblical slavery will have a better life than a slave in a household that doesn’t practice Biblical slavery. But the requirement is on how you treat your slave, not that people should own slaves full-stop.

    You mention the idea that Biblical principles lead ultimately to a place where slavery is unacceptable. I think that there’s a lot in that and that passages like Luke 10:27 and Philemon go a long way towards pointing to a slave-free future. But there isn’t a specific Biblical passage that condemns slavery in any circumstances (although, as I said in the post, 1 Timothy 1:10 teaches that slave trading is sinful). That’s just being honest with what the text does and doesn’t say. I think that freedom is absolutely a central Biblical principle. But you have to ask, ‘what sort of freedom?’. Paul hoped that Philemon could accept Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a loved brother” (v16). Paul’s acknowledging that there are other forms of freedom that are important other than literal freedom. The spiritual liberation that Philemon’s received as a Christian means that he’ll behave differently towards Onesimus, who’s now his brother in Christ. Paul doesn’t command that he should set Onesimus free. That agenda just isn’t in the Biblical text. If you think that the proper application of the Bible today is that slavery is wrong under any circumstances then I think that that’s a fine position to take. Like I said in the post, there’s no Biblical reason not to campaign against slavery as it’s practiced in the 21st century.

    Why do I talk about slavery in God’s law? That’s really to do with canon (which books/sections we assign Biblical authority to). The reason I talk about passages in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Exodus as being in God’s law is because I’m not happy with a ‘pick-and-choose’ approach to the Bible. In other words, I shouldn’t just say that God spoke through the bits of the Bible that I personally am happy with and ignore the rest. That’s Biblical authority on my terms. I want to acknowledge the whole 66 books as God’s Word, even the tough bits. Yes, I think that means that slavery isn’t inherently wrong. That there’s no contradiction between loving your neighbour and having a slave, in whatever time period. I think that that approach respects both the timelessness of Scripture and the changing nature of culture.

    I hope that’s helpful. Please come back at me if I’ve not been clear or you disagree. Again, I value the questions and the conversation.


  3. Matt, I've read your reply above, so my next question is would you,personally, be willing to be a slave, or for any of your family members to be slaves? Say, you have a sister or good female friend and she moves to a country in the world where slavery is still legally acceptable, and she writes to you to say that she has of her own volition become a slave of someone else in that country. She now is the property of that person, she now has lost her personal freedom for the rest of her life, even if she is 'treated well' by her master or mistress. What would your reaction be? How would you apply 'God's Law' in thinking about her situation? We are of course looking at Biblical ethics here, and how we work out from Bibilical teaching the principles of godliness by which we can live in the 21st Century. Lois

  4. Hey,

    I think my response would be to ask her very seriously if her welfare and safety were being protected, that she was alright. I might question it fairly severely (depending on how well I knew her etc.) whether it was a good idea but I wouldn't say that it was inherently wrong. I'd definitely be surprised because, as far as I know, slavery isn't legal anywhere in the world today. Slavery as it's practiced today is necessarily secretive and exploitive (sex trafficking etc.); like I say, different from Biblical slavery. So I don't think that there's practically a modern-day application for the slavery laws we find in the Bible. I wrote the post more about having peace with how slavery was practiced in the (ancient) past. I think God's morality is consistent and fair but, when it comes to slavery, no longer directly relevant.

    What do you think?



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