With hands tied above and his battered body hanging from a beam, the shirtless young black man absorbed punishing whiplashes until he placated his white owner by uttering his new name. Such images from the TV miniseries Roots imprinted on the minds of a generation the brutality of slavery.
Since slavery is today considered a great moral evil, some wonder why the Bible doesn’t categorically condemn the practice. Critics even insist that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) condones, if not promotes, slavery. Some “new atheists” proclaim that the Bible can’t serve as a basis for morality because it fails to condemn the primitive and barbaric practices of humanity’s past—especially slavery! It is true that the Bible does not formally and explicitly condemn slavery as an institution. So how do we account for this? Just what does the Bible say about slavery? Several important points warrant careful consideration.
- The forms of servitude and slavery practiced in a biblical context bear little resemblance to the tyrannical type of slavery found in the American antebellum South and in other modern Western countries. Certain moderate forms of “servitude”—for example, indentured (voluntary) servitude—were considered morally beneficial before God under certain circumstances in the Old Testament. Examples of this are seen in voluntary indenturement in order to earn a living or to learn a trade. It could also include the indenturement of a criminal in order for the offender to render restitution. But in none of these moderate cases, nor even the more extreme case of foreigners captured by the Israelites in war, would the so-called slave or servant be viewed as a mere piece of property without human rights. Nor would the time of servitude be constituted as a life term of bondage (Deuteronomy 15:12-13). Many slaves in the ancient world, and especially those held by the Hebrews, were able to earn their freedom.
- The institution of slavery was so deeply rooted in an ancient culture that it could not be dismantled overnight. Old Testament scholar Gleason L. Archer notes: “As to the moral status of slavery in ancient times, it must be recognized that it was practiced by every ancient person of which we have any historical record: Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Syrians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Greeks, Romans, and all the rest.”1 Furthermore, Christian apologist Paul Copan states: “During the first century A.D., approximately 85 to 90 percent of Rome’s population consisted of slaves.”2 Slavery was viewed as playing a critical economic role for society. Nevertheless, the Old Testament Mosaic Law limited and regulated the practice and sought to correct its inhumane abuses (Exodus 20:10; 21:20-27). Unlike with slavery in other cultures, the masters in a biblical context did not have absolute rights over their slaves. Forms of slavery and servitude were permitted in the Old Testament, but it was never considered the moral ideal (Deuteronomy 15:18).
- Unlike some ancient cultures, and certainly unlike the American South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the slaves in the Old Testament were recognized as full persons who possessed human dignity and basic rights (Deuteronomy 5:14; Job 31:13-15). Abusing one’s slaves and servants was viewed as being both imprudent and immoral (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). A group of biblical scholars provide this perspective on the Old Testament’s true position concerning slavery: “Nowhere was the institution of slavery as such condemned; but then, neither did it have anything like the connotations it grew to have during the days of those who traded human life as if it were a mere commodity for sale.”3
- The New Testament indicates that in God’s sight there is “neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11) and that both are part of Christ’s church and equally accountable to God (Ephesians 6:5-9). In fact, in the apostolic church, slaves were granted all the rights and privileges of free men (see the book of Philemon).
- The likely reason that the apostolic authors of the New Testament did not categorically condemn slavery was because they placed the preaching of the gospel and the redemption of lost souls ahead of societal reform. Yet that very biblical teaching about humankind and their relationship to God through Christ was the inevitable moral and spiritual force that showed the fundamental injustice of slavery in the Western world.
- God’s way of eliminating slavery was to allow the biblical teachings (the “Good News”) to spread throughout all cultures. Indeed, it was the Judeo-Christian teaching that human beings have intrinsic value and worth as a result of being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) that brought an end to slavery. Many in the abolitionist movements of England and America in the nineteenth century were Protestant evangelical Christians. And they viewed slavery as being fundamentally inconsistent with the historic Christian view of man’s creation and redemption.
So while the Bible doesn’t formally and explicitly condemn slavery, neither does it condone it. It was the unique ethical message contained in Scripture concerning human dignity and redemption that provided the moral and spiritual force that ultimately succeeded in eliminating slavery as an institution. The gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ remains a powerful force against human evil and social injustice. It is also the only antidote for each human being’s slavery to sin and death.