For this case study, I’d like to walk through the biblical data on slavery to see what sort of position we would form on the basis of that data, and then look at what has actually happened theologically in church history.
Obviously, slavery was an omnipresent reality in the ancient world, and it would be greatly anachronistic to expect any society to share modern views and values on the subject. But that’s part of the point – are the biblical laws about slavery meant to be understood within the context of their times and culture, or are they transcendent ethical standards meant to be applied by the faithful people of God for all time?
First on our stop is also a passage about circumcision – the covenant with Abraham:
Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised.
Genesis 17:12-13 (NRSV)
This passage does not make ethical injunctions about slavery per se, but it does show us that Abraham owned slaves, and this agreement is meant to last “throughout your generations,” which seems to foresee a rather long period of time when Abraham’s descendants would own slaves. Abraham is not asked to free the slaves as part of his covenant with God.
When we talk about slavery-related laws, there are lots of them. There are far more laws in the Old Testament related to slaves than there are to many other things, including homosexuality. Exodus 21 is illustrative of some of these laws, for example:
When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.
Exodus 21:2-3 (NRSV)
Here, we have instructions for what to do when you buy a Hebrew slave who is a man. He gets a year of jubilee. If he had a wife before you bought him, she gets to go as well.
On the one hand, given the times, this is a pretty progressive law. Given that slavery existed everywhere in the Levant, the idea that you would release your slaves on the seventh year debt free is liberal by comparison. Note, however, that this only applies to Hebrew slaves who are also male. This liberality takes an unfortunate turn in the following passage:
If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.
Exodus 21:4-6 (NRSV)
In this scenario, if the slave’s owner gives him another slave to be his wife, she and her children do not get released with the male slave. The master keeps them! But if the released male slave does not want to leave without them, he can instead pledge to be a slave forever and stay with them.
Does that make you cringe a little? We can only imagine the kinds of things slave owners might have done to make this stick, essentially using the slave’s wife and children as leverage into perpetual servitude. And if the master was a brute, we can only imagine what sort of man would leave his wife and children behind in such circumstances.
If you had any romantic ideas about the Old Testament laws on slavery not being that bad, I’m afraid the picture does not get much better.
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.
Exodus 21:7-11 (NRSV)
Here we have a scenario where a man sells his daughter into slavery. She does not get set free in the seventh year like the male slaves do. The “please her master” almost assuredly means in a sexual way because the owner designates her “for himself” as opposed to designating her “for his son,” thus treating her as a daughter in law, and other laws apply “if he takes another wife to himself.” But even if we could argue it doesn’t necessarily mean sexually, this still isn’t great. If the master doesn’t want to keep her, he must allow someone else to buy her as long as the buyer isn’t foreign. If he sends her to his son, he has to treat her as a daughter. If he takes another wife, he can’t shaft the slave her fair share of food, clothing, or “marital rights.” If he won’t do any of that, she gets to go free.
Once again, you see elements in here that would be very progressive for the ancient Levant, but it’s all under an umbrella of terrible, by our lights. It’s like a nation promising to torture their prisoners less than other countries might.
Then we get into laws about murder and the death penalty, and here we find a light:
Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.
Exodus 21:16 (NRSV)
If you kidnap someone, even (or especially) if you intend to sell them as a slave, you will be put to death. Here is where apologists might see a condemnation of modern day slavery or slavery in America the past few centuries.
This is interesting because it implies there is something different about the slavery regulated by the Torah and slavery as we’ve seen it in the past couple of hundred years.
And this is true. Slavery in the ancient Levant and slavery in the Roman Empire did not look in some ways like the slavery Americans are familiar with from our nation’s history. It was largely an economic arrangement that was entered into “willingly” by the person going into slavery. I put that in quotes because we can only use that term very loosely. Slaves who become slaves because they are in inescapable debt, or who are captured in war by victors and want to live, or who are daughters sold by their fathers can only be called “willing” in an almost ridiculously broad usage of the term. But it is true that the slavery the Old Testament describes is not someone kidnapping people from a specific people group to sell them to someone else, or professional slave trade as we would think of it, today.
Time to get back into not so great territory:
When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.
Exodus 21:20-21 (NRSV)
Once again, it’s very progressive for the time to mandate the death penalty if you kill a slave. But if you beat them and don’t kill them outright, everything is ok because the slave is your property.
Let that sink in for a minute. According to biblical law, a human being is property that you own and you can beat that human being as long as you don’t kill them. The Bible says this. God’s word says this.
We still have miles to go before we sleep, here, but the point I’m trying to make is this: these biblical laws are formed in and conditioned by particular historical circumstances that occur under a particular worldview. To us, the idea that a human being is property and you can hit them because of this is horrendous. In the ancient world, it’s a given. Nobody in Moab would read Exodus 21 and go, “What an incredible human rights violation! This is disgusting!” They would read it and go, “Wait, you kill a master if he kills the slave? Huh. Interesting.” The idea that a slave becomes property is inherent in the worldview at the time and the laws are conditioned with that idea and, more pertinent to our discussion, do not challenge that worldview.
You might bring up points like all mankind having a common ancestor in Adam or all humans being in the image of God. All well and good, but where is that in Exodus 21? Remember, this is not the law of the land that Israelites happen to find themselves in; this is their own Law – the Torah. This is their Law in their Land, and nobody seems to find an incongruity between being in the image of God and beating your slave because that person who can feel pain and cry is your property.
Are you beginning to see how reasoning about ethics from the Bible begins to be more complicated than reading the words on the page?
Here, we might notice that some verses are coming up that limit the beating clause somewhat:
When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.
Exodus 21:26-27 (NRSV)
This is the lex talionis as applied to slaves. If you injure them permanently, they go free. Once again, progressive for the times.
But consider this: if you destroy the eye or knock out the tooth of a non-slave, you will lose your own eye or tooth.
Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.
Leviticus 24:19-20 (NRSV)
The other laws in the Old Testament with regard to slavery directly or the consequences for laws as they apply to slaves do not get any better, I’m afraid. What’s interesting is that these are the laws for a people who used to be slaves in the land of Egypt. It perhaps reminds us that, although there may be some legislative nods to trying to be more humane to slaves than the Egyptians, the core premise of slavery is completely unchallenged: slavery is completely permissible, and a slave is property.
There are those who come to the defense of the view of slavery depicted in the Bible by stating that the Bible is interested in personal salvation and not social reform. I think this is about 90% wrong, but even were I to agree with this, that excuse doesn’t work here. These are laws for Israel to be Israel in Israel. Laws by Israel for Israel prohibiting slavery wouldn’t be social reform; they would be Israel defining their own behaviors as a nation.
And Israel having practices distinct from the nations around them is par for the course, not some revolutionary oddity. It’s actually part of their identity.
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.
Deuteronomy 18:9-14 (NRSV)
All the nations around you do these practices, but God forbids you to do them because He finds them abhorrent. In fact, this is the very reason annexed to the laws prohibiting homosexuality in Leviticus 18:
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.
Leviticus 18:2-5 (NRSV)
So, clearly, there is no impetus in the Law to make provisions for what everyone else is doing. This is not simply a matter of making a legal concession to the pervasiveness of slavery in the ancient world. There are other laws where God says, “The other nations do this practice, but I forbid it for you.” That does not happen with slavery.
Jesus does not say anything directly about the practice of slavery, but he clearly presupposes it. He tells parables involving slaves and, in one example, posits that ignorant slaves will only be punished a little bit by their master (Luke 12:47-48).
Certain biblical interpreters are fond of telling us that, if Jesus doesn’t specifically countermand it, we should assume he has the traditional Jewish view of things, if not stricter. If we follow that principle (and I’m not saying we should), then those same people are basically forced to have Jesus thinking slavery is ok and beating them is ok as long as you don’t kill them or injure them permanently. And those little girls sold into slavery by their fathers should think about pleasing their masters.
We have no direct evidence that Jesus thought differently about the Old Testament laws concerning slavery unless we appeal to broader principles espoused by Jesus, such as his instructions that those who would be greatest must become slaves of all, or that part of the greatest commandment is loving one’s neighbor as oneself, or his passion for the poor and downtrodden over and against those in power or the rich, or many other broader views and principles that would seem not to mesh well with the view of slaves and human beings we find in the OT slavery laws.
But think about what you’re doing when you do that. You’re using the broader principles Jesus taught and demonstrated to establish that he must have thought differently than the Old Testament laws. Is this because you don’t believe the Bible? Is this because you want to permit sin? Is it because you have capitulated to modern culture and sensibilities instead of accepting the God-inspired word on slavery? No, it is because the man Jesus Christ appears to you as someone who operates under different governing principles than Exodus 21. Keep this in mind the next time you’re talking with someone about Jesus’ views of same sex marriage.
It is here that we come to an important fork in the road compared to earlier case studies in this series. In the case of the Sabbath, we have New Testament scriptures that countermand the Old Testament Sabbath laws, at least somewhat. We also have New Testament scriptures that countermand the circumcision laws. Do we have such passages to countermand slavery?
No, we do not. We have the exact opposite, in fact. Paul is not only fine with slavery, he issues commands about keeping it running smoothly in a godly way.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
Ephesians 6:5-8 (NRSV)
If you are a slave, Paul commands you to obey your masters with fear and trembling as if they were Jesus, himself.
Now, like the Old Testament laws, Paul does have some progressive things to say about slavery. In the same passage mentioned above, Paul tells masters not to threaten their slaves because they both serve God and God does not distinguish between them. This is a real step up from being property that can be lawfully beaten, but slavery is not condemned or discouraged in any way. Instead, the slave-master relationship is actually cemented further in the New Testament.
Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.
1 Timothy 6:1-4 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
Ok, well, that doesn’t sound good. Not only are slaves supposed to honor and serve their masters, anyone who says otherwise does not agree with Jesus and teaches ungodliness.
Granted, there is a progressive element, here. Slaves are not supposed to be disrespectful to their masters if their masters are believers. This only makes sense if the church did not treat slaves and masters differently. The idea here is that this social distinction does not exist among fellow Christians, but that’s no excuse for slaves not to respect and obey their masters.
Once again, that’s an improvement, certainly, but masters owning slaves is still a present, condoned condition. In fact, if the early church really believed there was no distinction between masters and slaves, and slavery was wrong, we’d fully expect Paul commanding them to set their slaves free. That’s a logical implication, right? But, no, the institution of slavery gets to stand, and if anyone teaches that slaves do not have to serve their masters, they are disagreeing with Jesus, according to Paul.
Some have looked to other New Testament passages in an attempt to make Paul’s position more along the lines of dealing with a necessary evil. Paul doesn’t like slavery, in other words, but it’s a present reality in the world and he’s just trying to manage it in a godly way. For example:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)
And, indeed, it does seem that showing partiality in the church to this or that group was strongly discouraged. However, Paul does not consider this to be a social absolute. For example, he gives commands about men and women in the church, and this would make no sense if there were truly no longer male and female distinctions. In fact, this would be a great argument for same-sex marriage if Paul meant that, with respect to following Christ, there was no male or female, Jew or Gentile, free or slave.
Another passage we need to look at is the letter to Philemon. Here, Paul runs into a slave named Onesimus while he is in prison. Onesimus converts there, and Paul sends him back to his master (the aforementioned Philemon) and says:
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 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 15-16 (NRSV)
In the first place, it’s actually sort of unclear if Paul intends for Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery. Paul says in this letter he almost kept Onesimus for himself, and in 15-16, he may simply mean for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in the Lord, more than a slave, but not actually free him from his obligations.
There are some subtle digs that I enjoy in this letter, though, and they may indicate Paul intends for Philemon to set Onesimus free, such as:
but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
Philemon 14 (NRSV)
Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Philemon 21 (NRSV)
and my favorite
One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Philemon 22 (NRSV)
Yes, Philemon. Thanks to your prayers, I’ll be coming around in person to see how things are going, praise God!
But even if what we are seeing here is Paul urging Philemon to free his converted slave, this is obviously an exceptional case given Paul’s instructions to Christian slaves and masters, elsewhere, and it is perhaps the exceptional nature of this letter that caused it to be circulated and achieve canonical status.
So, what have we learned about the biblical data on slavery?
Old Testament: Slaves are property that can be bought and sold. You can also beat them as long as you don’t hurt them too badly.
Jesus: No data, but presupposes the existence of slavery. Does not speak for or against, but espouses principles and ways of viewing people that seem incompatible with the Old Testament view of slaves as property.
New Testament: Slaves can be bought and sold are commanded to obey their masters as if their masters were Jesus Christ himself. However, slaves and masters are equals before God and, therefore, are not allowed to treat each other badly. If you tell a slave he doesn’t have to obey his master, you disagree with Jesus and teach ungodliness.
In both testaments, slavery is not only permitted, but slaves are commanded to obey their masters, even though varying degrees of mistreatment are implied. There is not a single verse that addresses slavery that forbids it, overturns it, or even indicates that God doesn’t like it but is allowing it for the time being.
So, obviously, the conservative evangelical position on slavery today is that slavery is just fine, and that slaves should obey their masters, and neither slaves nor masters are allowed to mistreat each other, and in this way God is honored through how slavery is done. Right? I’m looking forward to the Council on Biblical Slavery and Mastery issuing a statement on the matter, because if anything else, our churches are preaching exactly what Paul told us not to. We need someone to stand up for the biblical teaching on slavery and remind us that slaves need to be obeying and honoring their masters as unto the Lord Himself and condemning that liberal, sin-loving secularist Abraham Lincoln.
No? No takers?
It may or may not surprise you to learn that the ridiculous situation I just described is, in fact, exactly what happened in America when the abolition issue was being debated. My white, male, Presbyterian theological forefathers overwhelmingly defended the practice of slavery on biblical grounds and asserted that anyone who disagreed was giving in to the culture, being liberal with the Scriptures, not caring what God said in His word, etc. The number of white theologians arguing for abolition basically defines the term “statistically insignificant.”
Every bit of “A Southern Christian View of Slavery” by James Thornwell is worth reading to get the barometer of conservative theologians on this issue. Allow me to quote a couple of passages:
In answering this question, as a church, let it be distinctly borne in mind that the only rule of judgment is the written word of God. The church knows nothing of the intuitions of reason or the deductions of philosophy, except those reproduced in the Sacred Canon. She has a positive constitution in the Holy Scriptures and has no right to utter a single syllable upon any subject except as the Lord puts words in her mouth. She is founded, in other words, upon express revelation. Her creed is an authoritative testimony of God and not a speculation, and what she proclaims, she must proclaim with the infallible certitude of faith and not with the hesitating assent of an opinion. The question, then, is brought within a narrow compass: Do the Scriptures directly or indirectly condemn slavery as a sin? If they do not, the dispute is ended, for the church, without forfeiting her character, dares not go beyond them.
Now, we venture to assert that if men had drawn their conclusions upon this subject only from the Bible, it would no more have entered into any human head to denounce slavery as a sin than to denounce monarchy, aristocracy, or poverty. The truth is, men have listened to what they falsely considered as primitive intuitions, or as necessary deductions from primitive cognitions, and then have gone to the Bible to confirm their crotchets of their vain philosophy. They have gone there determined to find a particular result, and the consequence is that they leave with having made, instead of having interpreted, Scripture. Slavery is no new thing. It has not only existed for aged in the world but it has existed, under every dispensation of the covenant of grace, in the Church of God.
Honestly, I almost copied and pasted the whole thing. It sounds exactly like the Nashville Statement and similar evangelical proclamations, articles, and books about homosexuality and/or same-sex marriage.
And Thornwell is not some isolated whackjob. His sentiments were echoed time and time again by conservative white theologians in the states. We have to turn to black theologians of the day to see counter-arguments, such as Theodore S. Wright.
We did see the banner being carried by revivalists, and it is among their number – Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley – that we begin to see respected white ministers (eventually) joining their voices to the abolitionist cause, but do you know who finally settled the arguments for the American evangelical church?
It was those great theologians Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
It is amazing to see how the church’s theology of slavery changed based on the strength of federal law in a given area.
Today, you will not find many conservative evangelicals arguing that slavery is fine as long as we do it in a biblical way – you know, in accordance with God’s perfect design. Instead, it is “clear” to them that the Bible opposes slavery. If they ran across slaves in another country, they would not tell them to obey their masters as if their masters were Jesus. But two hundred years ago, it was “clear” to American evangelicals that the Bible opposed abolition. Interesting, no?
As a side note, forty years ago, it was “clear” to American (Protestant) evangelicals that a fetus was not a person and abortion was not murder. Dig yourself up an evangelical book on biblical ethics and check it out. Funny what national politics does to biblical exegesis.
Nevertheless, when you ask Christians today on what grounds they think the Bible is opposed to slavery, the answers will revolve around two, main pillars.
Pillar One: the slavery described in the Bible is not the same as the slavery we’ve seen in the last few centuries. The cultural institution and expression of slavery has changed, so we can’t understand the OT laws or Paul’s instructions as applying to slavery as we see it, today.
Pillar Two: although individual proof-texts in the Bible can be marshaled to support slavery, the overarching, dominant biblical themes of equality, liberation, and loving your neighbor as yourself have to take priority over the individual, isolated texts.
I agree with both of those pillars, and if you think carefully, you might think of another issue where those pillars might be applicable to the conversation.