Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible?
by Rich Deem

Introduction

God condones slavery?

Skeptics claim that the God of the Bible approves of and encourages slavery. What they won't tell you is that selling a person into slavery was grounds for the death penalty, according to the Old Testament...

Rich Deem

The claim is often made that the Bible approves of slavery, implicating God as its supporter, since rules governing slavery can be found in the both the Old and New Testament. Since virtually everyone agrees that forced, involuntary servitude is morally wrong, how can Christians justify the Bible's apparent support of slavery?

What the Old Testament says about slavery

First, we must recognize that the Bible does not say God supports slavery. In fact, the slavery described in the Old Testament was quite different from the kind of slavery we think of today - in which people are captured and sold as slaves. According to Old Testament law, anyone caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed:

"He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16)

So, obviously, slavery during Old Testament times was not what we commonly recognize as slavery, such as that practiced in the 17th century Americas, when Africans were captured and forcibly brought to work on plantations. Unlike our modern government welfare programs, there was no safety-net for ancient Middle Easterners who could not provide a living for themselves. In ancient Israel, people who could not provide for themselves or their families sold them into slavery so they would not die of starvation or exposure. In this way, a person would receive food and housing in exchange for labor.

The Irrational Atheist by Vox DaySo, although there are rules about slavery in the Bible, those rules exist to protect the slave. Injuring or killing slaves was punishable - up to death of the offending party.1 Hebrews were commanded not to make their slave work on the Sabbath,2 slander a slave,3 have sex with another man's slave,4 or return an escaped slave.5 A Hebrew was not to enslave his fellow countryman, even if he owed him money, but was to have him work as a hired worker, and he was to be released in 7 years or in the year of jubilee (which occurred every 50 years), whichever came first.6 In fact, the slave owner was encouraged to "pamper his slave".7

What the New Testament says about slavery

Since many of the early Christians were slaves to Romans,8 they were encouraged to become free if possible, but not worry about it if not possible.9 The Roman empire practiced involuntary slavery, so rules were established for Christians who were subject to this slavery or held slaves prior to becoming Christians. The rules established for slaves were similar to those established for other Christians with regard to being subject to governing authorities.10 Slaves were told to be obedient to their master and serve them sincerely, as if serving the Lord Himself.11 Paul instructed slaves to serve with honor, so that Christianity would not be looked down upon.12

As with slaves, instructions were given to their masters as to how they were to treat their slaves. For example, they were not to be threatened,13 but treated with justice and fairness.14 The text goes on to explain that this was to be done because God is the Master of all people, and does not show partiality on the basis of social status or position.13, 14

There is an interesting letter in the New Testament (Philemon15-21) that gives some insight into the problems encountered in the early Christian church regarding the issue of slavery. Paul, the author of the letter, is writing from a Roman prison awaiting trial.15 He is writing to Philemon, who runs a local Christian church out of his house16 (since Christianity was highly persecuted at this point in time). Philemon, we find out, is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has escaped but has been converted to Christianity by Paul.18 In the letter, Paul indicates that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.19 However, Paul says that he has confidence that Philemon will "do what is proper"17 although Paul wants him to do it by his "own free will".20 Even so, Paul indicates that Onesimus would be a great aid in helping him spread the gospel.19 Paul ends the letter by saying that he has "confidence in your obedience" and indicates that he knows Philemon "will do even more than what I say."21 Although Paul did not directly order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery, it would have been difficult to come away with any other conclusion from his letter.

God does not distinguish between slaves and freemen

7 Truths that Changed the World: Discovering Christianity's Most Dangerous IdeasContrary to the claims of many skeptics, the New Testament proclaims that all people are equal in the eyes of God - even slaves:

Conclusion Top of page

The idea that God or Christianity encourages or approves of slavery is shown to be false. In fact, anybody who was caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed. However, since voluntary slavery was widely practiced during biblical times, the Bible proscribes laws to protect the lives and health of slaves. Paul, the author of many of the New Testament writings, virtually ordered the Christian Philemon to release his Christian slave from his service to "do what is proper". In addition, numerous verses from the New Testament show that God values slaves as much as any free person and is not partial to anyone's standing before other people.



References Top of page

  1. "If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished." (Exodus 21:20)
    "If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. "And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth." (Exodus 21:26-27)
    "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12)
  2. "Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Exodus 23:12)
  3. Do not slander a slave to his master, Or he will curse you and you will be found guilty. (Proverbs 30:10)
  4. 'Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment; they shall not, however, be put to death, because she was not free. (Leviticus 19:20)
  5. "You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. (Deuteronomy 23:15)
  6. 'If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. 'He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. 'He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. 'For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. 'You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God. (Leviticus 25:39-43)
    "If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment." (Exodus 21:2)
  7. He who pampers his slave from childhood Will in the end find him to be a son. (Proverbs 29:21)
  8. From the secular source, Pliny the Younger Letters 10.96-97 to Emperor Trajan: "They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god... Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.... Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished."
  9. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Corinthians 7:21-23)
  10. Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:1-8)
  11. Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. (Ephesians 6:5-8)
    Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. (Colossians 3:22-25)
    Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, (1 Peter 2:18-21)
  12. All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles. (1 Timothy 6:1-2)
  13. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Ephesians 6:9)
  14. Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1)
  15. Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, (Philemon 1:1)
  16. and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: (Philemon 1:2)
    Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1:3)
    I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, (Philemon 1:4)
    because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; (Philemon 1:5)
    and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake. (Philemon 1:6)
    For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Philemon 1:7)
  17. Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, (Philemon 1:8)
    yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you--since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- (Philemon 1:9)
  18. I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, (Philemon 1:10)
    who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. (Philemon 1:11)
  19. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, (Philemon 1:12)
    whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; (Philemon 1:13)
  20. but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (Philemon 1:14)
    For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, (Philemon 1:15)
    no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 1:16)
    If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. (Philemon 1:17)
    But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; (Philemon 1:18)
    I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). (Philemon 1:19)
    Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 1:20)
  21. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. (Philemon 1:21)
    At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you. (Philemon 1:22)

http://godandscience.org/apologetics/slavery_bible.html
Last updated May 18, 2011

 

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