What did Jesus Say About Slavery?

[This post is a Beagle’s Bark. It is part of a series on biblical slavery.]

Jesus was a great reformer. In an age of extreme class division and status-consciousness, he identified with the poor and urged us to do the same. During a time when the Holy Land was occupied by a foreign power, he taught his countrymen how to maintain their dignity. When the religious leaders were corrupt, he called them to account.

So I find it puzzling that he never spoke a word against slavery, as far as we know.

If he was divine, he knew it would be nearly 2,000 years until most of the world would realize how immoral slavery is. He also knew that slave-owners would use the Old Testament to justify the practice. One clear word from him could have prevented the misery of millions. Why did he not speak it? (And it’s hard to believe that if the Bible is inspired, God would not have inspired at least one of the four gospel-writers to record Jesus’ words on so important a topic.)

It’s not as if there was no slavery around to speak against. Jesus often illustrated his points with stories about slaves and masters. Everybody was all too familiar with the concept, and it was as brutal as ever.

Slavery Was Brutal, and Jesus Knew It

Since Jesus never condemned slavery, we might hope that he thought of slavery in the relatively benign forms that are sometimes found in the Old Testament. Not so. When he spoke about the relationship of slaves and masters, he assumed that violence and abuse were the order of the day. Typical is Luke 12:47-48, where even a servant who doesn’t know what he ought to do gets beaten.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.

That passage is part of a larger parable that is supposed to scare us into submission to God. Like a slave or servant, we will be physically harmed if we’re not good enough.

There are several parables like this in the gospels. Matthew 18:23-35 says we will be jailed and tortured. Matthew 25:14-30 says we will be cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24:45-51 says we will be cut in pieces. All of these indicate how Jesus pictured masters treating their slaves.

Jesus held no illusions about slavery, yet did not decry the practice. In fact, in his parables he cast God as a slave-owner!

The Golden Rule Evidently Did Not Apply to Slaves

One might say that when Jesus gave the Golden Rule he implied that slavery was wrong. If we’re to treat others as we want them to treat us, that means we shouldn’t enslave them, right?

That point was not lost on the abolitionists.

There’s only one problem. When Jesus presented the Golden Rule, he cast it as a summary of Old Testament Law. As we have seen throughout this series of posts, the Old Testament not only allowed but in some cases commanded slavery. Jesus made a point of saying that he supported the Old Testament Law 100%, and nothing he taught should be interpreted as contradicting or negating the Old Testament.

That point was not lost on the abolitionists’ opponents.

At a minimum, we can say that if Jesus meant the Golden Rule as a command to abolish slavery, then millions of slaves in the next 1800 years would wish he had made his intent more obvious.

Jesus Was a Reformer, But Not with Slavery

Might Jesus have thought it was not yet the time to speak against slavery? Was he afraid of upsetting the social order and bringing persecution on his followers?

On the contrary, Jesus did not hesitate to turn society upside-down. Sometimes he did so literally, as when he upset the tables of the money-changers in the temple (John 2:13-17). At other times, he made radical demands such as giving away all one’s money (Matthew 19:16-24). He did not hesitate to speak boldly to those in power (Matthew 23:13-36). Nor was he afraid of persecution, calling it a blessing (Matthew 5:10-12).

Jesus did not hesitate to speak his mind, yet he never condemned slavery. Clearly he either thought it was just fine or he didn’t care much about it one way or the other. Maybe he just took it for granted.

I am tempted to leave it at that. Even Jesus might have been a man of his times to a certain extent. He was a moral revolutionary, but abolishing slavery didn’t quite make it into his manifesto. If you are a Bible-believing Christian, however, I think you are forced into a much darker position.

An Even Darker Take

According to John 10:30, Jesus and God the Father are one. John 1:1-3, with verse 14 says that Jesus was with God from the beginning. In John 5:19, Jesus says that he does whatever God the Father does. Someone who takes these verses as Gospel Truth must believe some disturbing things:

  • Jesus was present and nodding in approval when God gave the command to take 32,000 virgins as plunder in Numbers 31 (discussed in the last part of this post).
  • Jesus was present and gave a hearty “Amen” when God commanded Moses to enslave distant cities.
  • Jesus was present and gave his blessing for Moses’ soldiers to force their most beautiful captives into rape-marriages (discussed here).

No wonder he never spoke against slavery or its brutality in the New Testament. He had already encouraged it in the Old!

Eternally present and of one mind with his Father, he approved every genocide; every stoning of man, woman, child and animal; every burning-alive; every death sentence for a trivial offense; and, yes, every enslavement that God himself commanded. That may seem far-fetched. I don’t believe it myself. But I don’t see how a Bible-believer can deny it.

Next in this series: Are God’s ways higher than our ways?

[Postscript on December 9, 2012] In the year+ since I published this post, it has proven to be one of the most-read on my blog. I suspect many readers are interested in the topic of slavery and the Bible generally, and land here through a search engine because what’s uppermost in their minds is what Jesus said about it. Although he didn’t say much, the Bible says quite a lot — most of it disturbing. Evangelical apologists, in turn, offer many rationales. To get the lay of the land, I invite you to begin with the Introduction to this series. There, I summarize all the arguments I’ve heard and provide links to my responses.

23 responses to “What did Jesus Say About Slavery?

  1. Pingback: Feedback | Path of the Beagle

  2. Educative although strong

  3. Thanks. Your comments are thought provoking, I do disagree with your interpretation of the bible. Thank you for the work you put into your website. I well be a follower of your site. Keep it up!

  4. A simple case of a misunderstanding of semantics. You have to understand that in the bible, primarily the new testament that the word “slavery” does not mean what it does to us today. People would indenture themselves when they could not provide for themselves or their families. It would be comparable to a hired worker of today. There was rarely a concept of a labor force such as corporations or small business’s hiring people to do work for them. In those times there were no mcdonalds or wal-marts etc. Much the same as the term angel. The original hebrew and greek texts used a word which meant messenger. So instead of a messenger of god we now today have the word angel. Hence labor force to slavery.

  5. What the Old testament says about what we call slavery today.
    Exodus 21:16 Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.

  6. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible | Path of the Beagle

  7. Pingback: Did God Intend to End Slavery by Changing People’s Hearts? | Path of the Beagle

  8. Pingback: What would you expect them to do? | Path of the Beagle

  9. You bring up some good points but you are still missing the mark. Our Lord didn’t come to change society’s injustices and our social defects. He came to bring lost souls into the kingdom of God. His kingdom was not of this world. Our Lord spoke to the heart and soul not to their social issues.

    • The world was already a fallen world beacuses of our sin and slavery along with all the other fallen social things we were doing. God couldn’t change that! All he could do is restore us in the the eternal life to come by accepting him as Lord and savior. It’s obvious you are not a believer or you would know these things.

      • I’m having a lot of trouble with these two posts. What I get from the first one is that this god, whom you seem to feel is worth worshiping, doesn’t give a damn about how people live or treat each other while they’re alive. That a slave-owner whipping a slave until the skin is stripped off his back is A-OK in this god’s eyes as long as the owner agrees to worship correctly. Your god speaks “to the heart and soul”, but never once tells the heart and soul to stop thinking that owning other people is perfectly acceptable?
        Then, in your second post you say that this god, that every other Christian is absolutely convinced is all-powerful, “couldn’t change” the social ills which were and still are rampant in the world. You said “couldn’t”, not “wouldn’t”, though both are horrible. The only thing you believe he’s capable of (and apparently the only thing he cares about) is soul-collecting.
        It’s very comforting to me that there is absolutely no evidence that your god, out of all the thousands of other gods mankind has made up over the centuries, actually exists. Because the one you describe in your posts, and which the Bible describes at great length, is an abomination. If you’re going to insist on praying, I think your best bet would be to pray that you’re wrong.

  10. Pingback: Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity | Path of the Beagle

  11. thanks this actually helped because I am doing a slave project at school :D

  12. Pingback: Quora

  13. “There is a tendency to look at slavery as something of the past. But it is estimated that there are today over 12 million people in the world who are subject to slavery: forced labor, sex trade, inheritable property, etc. As those who have been redeemed from the slavery of sin, followers of Jesus Christ should be the foremost champions of ending human slavery in the world today. The question arises, though, why does the Bible not speak out strongly against slavery? Why does the Bible, in fact, seem to support the practice of human slavery?

    The Bible does not specifically condemn the practice of slavery. It gives instructions on how slaves should be treated (Deuteronomy 15:12-15; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1), but does not outlaw slavery altogether. Many see this as the Bible condoning all forms of slavery. What many fail to understand is that slavery in biblical times was very different from the slavery that was practiced in the past few centuries in many parts of the world. The slavery in the Bible was not based exclusively on race. People were not enslaved because of their nationality or the color of their skin. In Bible times, slavery was more a matter of social status. People sold themselves as slaves when they could not pay their debts or provide for their families. In New Testament times, sometimes doctors, lawyers, and even politicians were slaves of someone else. Some people actually chose to be slaves so as to have all their needs provided for by their masters.

    The slavery of the past few centuries was often based exclusively on skin color. In the United States, many black people were considered slaves because of their nationality; many slave owners truly believed black people to be inferior human beings. The Bible most definitely does condemn race-based slavery. Consider the slavery the Hebrews experienced when they were in Egypt. The Hebrews were slaves, not by choice, but because they were Hebrews (Exodus 13:14). The plagues God poured out on Egypt demonstrate how God feels about racial slavery (Exodus 7-11). So, yes, the Bible does condemn some forms of slavery. At the same time, the Bible does seem to allow for other forms. The key issue is that the slavery the Bible allowed for in no way resembled the racial slavery that plagued our world in the past few centuries.

    In addition, both the Old and New Testaments condemn the practice of “man-stealing” which is what happened in Africa in the 19th century. Africans were rounded up by slave-hunters, who sold them to slave-traders, who brought them to the New World to work on plantations and farms. This practice is abhorrent to God. In fact, the penalty for such a crime in the Mosaic Law was death: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Similarly, in the New Testament, slave-traders are listed among those who are “ungodly and sinful” and are in the same category as those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, adulterers and perverts, and liars and perjurers (1 Timothy 1:8-10).

    Another crucial point is that the purpose of the Bible is to point the way to salvation, not to reform society. The Bible often approaches issues from the inside out. If a person experiences the love, mercy, and grace of God by receiving His salvation, God will reform his soul, changing the way he thinks and acts. A person who has experienced God’s gift of salvation and freedom from the slavery of sin, as God reforms his soul, will realize that enslaving another human being is wrong. A person who has truly experienced God’s grace will in turn be gracious towards others. That would be the Bible’s prescription for ending slavery.”

    http://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-slavery.html

    • Thank you for that copy of the article from gotquestions.org, Shona. Unfortunately, it suffers from exactly the misconceptions that I have addressed in this series on slavery. Specifically:

      >> People were not enslaved because of their nationality or the color of their skin.

      Because of the color of their skin? True. Because of their nationality? Absolutely false. In Leviticus 25:44-46, God makes a specific distinction between buying foreign slaves (OK) and enslaving other Israelites (not OK). This is to say nothing of God’s *command* to enslave foreign cities in Deuteronomy 20:10-15.

      The distinction based on nationality, then, was that one could and even should enslave members of other nations, but not fellow israelites (at least for the worst forms of slavery).

      >> In Bible times, slavery was more a matter of social status. … The key issue is that the slavery the Bible allowed for in no way resembled the racial slavery that plagued our world in the past few centuries.

      Aided by half-truths such as these, conservative Christians have failed to face up to what’s actually in the Bible. Please see my post, Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad? (http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/09/14/was-biblical-slavery-all-that-bad-2/)

      >> In addition, both the Old and New Testaments condemn the practice of “man-stealing” which is what happened in Africa in the 19th century.

      Really? What should we call invading a distant city and, when it chose to fight back, killing all the men and taking the women and children as plunder? This is what God *commanded* in Deuteronomy 20. Again, please read my post, Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?

      >> Another crucial point is that the purpose of the Bible is to point the way to salvation, not to reform society. … A person who has experienced God’s gift of salvation and freedom from the slavery of sin, as God reforms his soul, will realize that enslaving another human being is wrong.

      I have dealt with this, too, in my series on biblical slavery. Please read my post, Did God Intend to End Slavery by Changing People’s Hearts? (http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/10/13/did-god-plan-to-end-slavery-by-changing-peoples-hearts/).

      Shona, I would be very interested in your thoughts upon reading the posts I have mentioned above. Do you agree that they rebut the points in the gotquestions.org article?

    • After posting my first reply, I followed the link to your site and saw that you have posts about many of the scripture verses that bother me the most (Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20 and 21, etc.). I would love to correspond with you about them after you’ve read my entire series on slavery. The introduction at http://pathofthebeagle.com/2011/09/10/invitation-to-a-dialog-on-biblical-slavery/ is a good starting point.

      You’re one of the few people I’ve ever “met” who even acknowledges these passages in the context of slavery, let alone attempts to deal with them. Would you please read my posts and leave comments? While I appreciate links to articles (or copies of them, as above), I would be most interested in your specific rebuttals to what I’ve said. Articles like the one above tend to make claims that I think I’ve adequately refuted. That’s why I’m interested in someone like you refuting my refutations — taking it to the next step.

  14. Andrew Curtis

    Holy shit, Beagle you must be smarter than God… or just maybe God allowed these awful things for reasons beyond our human understanding. God is eternal, remember, he sees an infinitely bigger picture than we ever could. As a committed Christian I have no trouble in believing that God allows all manner of evil to take place – dark for the body, light for the soul.

    • God allowed.. no, commanded these primitive practices to take place, they’re just beyond our understanding.. That’s it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s