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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Does the Bible teach slavery?

Does the Bible teach slavery? Well, of course it does! Everyone knows that! Silly question! Or ... is it?

There is no doubt whatsoever that the word "slave" in its variety of forms (slave, slavery, bond-servant, servant, etc.) appears in the Bible. There is no doubt, either, that there are many regulations given in the Old Testament about slavery. I wish to point out first and foremost that nowhere does the Bible command slavery. So don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The biblical regulations around slavery limit slavery rather than command and endorse it.

One thing that should be noted right off the top is that biblical slavery was not the same thing that we moderns recognize as slavery. For instance, stealing a person and selling them was punishable by death (Exo 21:16). Further, the regulations in Exodus (ch 21) gave real protections to slaves. If a master knocked a tooth out, the slave was set free. Killing a slave resulted in the death penalty. They could only be kept for seven years unless they chose to remain. (Think about that. If slavery then was the same as the slavery we know, why would anyone want to choose it?) Note that slavery was primarily a means of paying off a debt. However, that debt was considered paid after 7 years regardless of how much was actually owed or paid in the transaction. In Deut 15, these laws are expanded. Not only did they have to release their slaves after 7 years, but they had to release them with goods. "You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him" (Deut 15:14). Slavery of a sort existed, but it was not the same thing that we know today. Did you know that it was a matter of divine command that you were not allowed to return an escaped slave to his master (Deut 23:15-16)? This is not your great, great grandfather's slavery. It was not a matter of kidnapping or force. It was not a matter of ownership or lifelong bondage. Hebrews sold themselves into slavery. Nor was it a matter of cruelty, but, rather, protection.

Another reason we know this to be true is the repeated terminology of the New Testament. James, Peter, Jude, and Paul all referred to themselves happily as bond-servants -- doulos -- slaves of Christ. Further, Paul assured us that we are either slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness, and that, obviously, we should prefer the latter. Now, assuming that slavery is the evil that we think it to be, in what possible sense would Paul be pleased to be a bond-servant of Christ? How could that be a good thing? So it must be that our version of slavery is not the same thing as their earlier version.

Does the Bible approve of slavery? The Bible does not forbid it. But is that approval? I don't think so. Paul says, "Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) " (1 Cor 7:21). Apparently "free" is better than "slave".

In spite of all this, we end up with a bottom line question. Slavery isn't good. No matter what we say -- "It was different" "It's not the same as today's slavery" "There were regulations and protections" all that stuff -- what we cannot say is that slavery is good. It begs the question. Why didn't God simply outlaw it? Why didn't He say, "No slaves!" The question, of course, requires a delving into the mind of God to which we aren't privy. However, I think there is a possible parallel that might shed some light. In the book of Deuteronomy God gives instructions on divorce. He doesn't command divorce. He regulates it. In fact, He doesn't regulate divorce, but remarriage. Later we read, "I hate divorce" (Mal 2:16). So, wait, God, if You hate divorce, then why didn't You outlaw it rather than simply regulate it? We get the answer to that from the lips of none other than Jesus Himself. "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt 19:8). Please note, then, that it may be that God does not approve of slavery (as He does not approve of divorce) but did not outlaw it (as He did not outlaw divorce) because of human hard-heartedness. As such, given what we know to be true about the parallel of divorce, it is not safe to say that the Bible approves of slavery just because it is not forbidden. Nothing in the Bible approves of slavery; it regulates it. It assumes it and gives rules for it. That is not "approval" like regulating divorce is not "approval".

One final point I wish to make. There are those who would like to say that the references to slavery were wrong and that the Bible is in error for it. I'm not speaking here about unbelievers. (From their perspective, the Bible is wrong about most everything.) I'm talking here about so-called believers. I need to point out Paul's statement on the topic.
Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim 6:1-5).
You can say what you wish about the biblical perspectives on slavery. Just keep in mind that Paul said that slaves were to honor their masters, and that those who held otherwise were teaching doctrines contrary to "the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ." That, by definition, is not "Christian".


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

You are giving me some great quick reference stuff! Can you keep going with this line?

Stan said...

More to come, I'm sure.

Stan said...


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I'll have to think on that!

David said...

Nice, I'd never seen the parallel between slavery and divorce. It always bothers me when people say divorce is okay for this reason or that, but I always look at that "for the hardness of your heart" bit and ask, do you really want to go along with your hard heart? Sure, its not prohibited, but the reason for the allowance doesn't strike me as a good thing.

Stan said...

I've wondered, too, about the "Are you sure you want to go with 'Yes! I have a hard heart!'", but what is so very, very often missed is Jesus's statement, "But from the beginning it was not that way."