Invitation to a Dialog on Biblical Slavery

In my wrestling with the Christian faith, one of the most difficult things for me to face — literally the last thing I was willing to face — was what the Bible actually taught on some subjects. Among those subjects was slavery.

In a nutshell, it appears that the Old Testament not only allows but commands slavery, while verses against it in the New Testament are conspicuous by their absence.

This issue troubles me so much that I am still unable to let it go, two years later.

In this series of blog posts, I’d like to have a dialog with my readers about biblical slavery. I especially invite Christians to comment. Please tell me where I have gone wrong in my analysis. Please tell me how you have come to terms with these passages. To be honest, I do not expect my faith to be restored (many additional questions would have to be answered), but I do promise to listen carefully to everything you say. Any comment that shows integrity and thoughtfulness is welcome.

As a framework for discussion, I’d like to use the arguments from a Christian ministry called the AIIA Institute, Their article on slavery makes the points I see on many Christian sites, while being more fun to read than most. The full text is here, and I would summarize it thus:

  • It’s true that the Bible never explicitly condemns slavery.
  • However, in a fallen world, God can only fight so many evils at a time. Slavery was not high on his list in the days of the Old Testament. In New Testament times, God may have kept silent about the issue so as not to provoke the Romans to persecute Christians.
  • God chose to combat slavery by growing mankind’s moral maturity over time. A change from within is the best and deepest way to produce changed behavior toward others. This is why many Christians were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.
  • Slavery in the Old Testament was not what we might think. It was not racial or imperialistic. Sometimes, it was more like indentured servitude. Other slaves were prisoners of war. [Some apologists justify the latter as God’s judgment on wicked, pagan nations.]
  • In addition, the Old Testament regulated the treatment of slaves, proscribing excess cruelty.
  • The Bible may not speak directly against slavery, but neither does it condone the practice. In fact, it gives even the slave a reason for dignity and hope.

Sounds reasonable, right?

In this series of posts, I will engage each of those arguments. I plan to publish a topic each Saturday, turning the schedule below into links as I progress. I hope this schedule will allow time for you to comment on each post. [5-Nov-11: The series is now complete, but please continue to comment!]

As an aspiring beagle, my interest is to sniff out the truth. Nobody can do that on his own, least of all me, so I will invite several Christian apologists to respond to my posts. [Update on this here.] I also invite you, dear reader!

This week’s discussion-starter: Does the AIIA’s article, summarized above, represent your own views? Is there anything else I should consider?

Next week we’ll consider the question, Was biblical slavery all that bad?

23 responses to “Invitation to a Dialog on Biblical Slavery

  1. it makes me think of Proverbs 22:7 (The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender)… Was that a warning for the 99% or instructions for the 1%? – just venting. Maybe Mark 8:36 answers my question. Nice article. Well thought out. Thanks for posting it.

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  5. nonstampcollector

    Thanks very much for this and for pointing me towards it. I’ll be mentioning this in the footnotes of the video I put,… hopefully next week.

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  9. My response to when God ordained slavery is “he is God, he can do whatever he wants”.

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  11. Wonderful post! We wil be linking tto thnis particularly great article on ouur website.
    Keep up thee geat writing.

  12. Read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and then tell us your opinion.

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  16. I was born and raised in a C.O.G.I.C family and we were taught never question God, but as I got older I really began to have questions about our faith and I think it but I’m scared I will be punished if I acted on it, I think it’s safe to say im very confused. And just after knowing how badly slaves were treated why would white Christian slave masters give us religion as a better way of life(?) why? And why does the bible tell us?….Slaves obey your masters(?) and it tells us not to worship anyone or anything but masters made our ancestors to worship them. I really just wish I could be certain what was taught to me and my ancestors is real bible past from God, this scares me because I don’t want to be punished for something I’m innocently confused about or who to pray to or what faith/God is correct. Please someone help I have 3 Children I would like to teach the truth, NOT to hate but truth.
    Thanks….Eb

    • Ebony, I’m so sorry that you are faced with this fear of being punished. What punishment do you fear? Is it hell or something that would take place in this life? If it’s hell, then think about whether it makes any sense at all for a just God to mete out infinite punishment for a sin that takes place in the relative blink of an eye that this life is. If it’s something in this life, then ask yourself whether it might be a sin to believe a falsehood because you’re too paralyzed by fear to seek the truth. I’m thinking here of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). You’ll recall that the servant who said to his master, “I knew you were a hard man…so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” was the one who was punished. The ones who took a risk and invested the money entrusted to them were rewarded. By letting fear rule you and failing to honestly seek answers to your questions, you may be acting like the servant who hid his money in the ground. Be bold! If God exists, and you are truly honest in your search, surely he will not punish you.

  17. StandardDeviation

    Great series of thought provoking posts. Whether one believes in or follows your logic, if they reflect honestly on what you’ve written, it should be useful in their own spiritual journeys.

    To me, the questions of slavery and other moral concerns in the Bible have repeatedly caused me to question my faith. Indeed, at this point I’m left with believing the Bible is not inerrant. That is a difficult place to be. If it has errors, which part are errors and which parts are not? Which experts get to decide? If it has errors, how involved was God in its actual authoring?

    The most comfortable answer I’ve been able to come up with is this: If there are errors, the errors are human errors. In Gods infinite wisdom, he placed in humanity the capacity for spiritual evolution over time so that our trajectory is ultimately toward God. This trajectory has allowed a great many people (and I believe one day all people) over time to recognize that things like slavery, rape, domestic violence etc. are never okay not because the Bible tells us so, but rather, despite the errors that humans have imprinted into the Bible.

  18. Odd how you reach every intelligent and humane conclusion I would, while ignoring the most obvious, that the Bible offers no moral guidance whatsoever. You amply demonstrate the fact yet cannot accept it. Why are you not happy that your conscience alone is telling you what to do?

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  20. Christine Gates

    I am doing a response paper to the issue of slavery amongst Bible believing “Christians” in the 18th-19th century and stumbled onto this post. Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions here. I am no apologist and will probably fail miserably to explain my point but here goes all the same. Just because something happened in the Bible doesn’t mean God condones it. the book of Judges makes this clear. Another example, God didn’t condone the rape of Tamar or the way it was/wasn’t handled by David and her brothers, but it did happen. God actually lays out rules and guidelines for the good of slaves in the Levitical law (Exod 21:26-27) that coincide with his first and greatest command given in Leviticus and later reiterated by Jesus himself, to love the Lord your God with all your heart (in the Ancient Near East, this meant what we understand as the whole person), with all your soul, and with all your mind, and all your strength and love your neighbor as your self (Deut. 6:5, Lev 19:18, Mark 12:30/Matt 22:37). He laid out rules for dealing with a second wife (Deut. 24:1-22) but that doesn’t mean he condones polygamy. What if God was making provision for what was the result of what the Bible claims happened in Genesis…mankind sinned against a holy God and all of creation was cursed? What if slavery is a biproduct of that curse as is polygamy? You will most assuredly then ask well what of the genocide and enslavement of other nations? What if we are looking at these issues narrowly when we need to have a broader perspective? These biblical accounts, though horrific, came as a result of failure to repent and serve a Holy God. We see the flip of this in the story of Jonah. Here, a resistant prophet chooses to rebel and head in the opposite direction of where God sends him. Once he has what could be called a spiritual awakening and a moment of repentance we find him heading to Ninevah, a heathen city of vicious murders who were known for offering their living babies up in the fires of Molech. He preaches simple and reluctantly and the entire nation repents. God withholds judgment. Minimally, we see here a process of sin and repentance and forgiveness from a Holy God. If this is true here it could be assume that had other nations repented, judgement that came in the form of genocide or enslavement would have been equally averted.

    We must not forget that such judgement came also to the God’s own people as they both wondered the desert and once in the promised land. In fact, all of the prophets came calling the nation to repent of this number one commandment. The nation of Israel was not loving God with all of their heart nor were they treating fellow nations and countrymen with social justice (from a biblical sense, not a modern day sense of social justice) God sums up their treachery in various vivid pictures one being of a bride who goes prostituting herself after her lovers (Ezekiel 16 or Hosea).

    God uses his own people to set an example of what comes to those who don’t repent. They were sent into slavery and captivity. To further this thought, what if God’s whole story, the Bible, is an attempt to show those he created, us, humanity, that if we don’t repent of our rebellious ways towards him, we will be eternally enslaved? Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah in saying that he came to set the captives free, open blind eyes, and bind up the broken hearted (Luke 4:18, IS 61:1).

    What if the reason Jesus didn’t address slavery like he didn’t address polygamy, abortion, sex trade, gambling, addiction, and other such social crimes was because there was a greater crime that needed addressing. This crime is that of rebellion against a Holy God, his father? He states that his purpose in coming was to make the father known (John 17:26). He attacked the religious system of the day, one established by his own people. He demonstrated he was the only way to heaven. He stated matter of fact, that this life is full of troubles, wars, and things, that quite frankly, go against God’s original intent and design. The cross is the solution.

    There isn’t room here to go deeper. I encourage you to consider a book called God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenant followed by How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets, both by Peter Gentry. In our fast past, modern world of high technology, we approach everything with modern eyes. However, perhaps we should attempt to approach the Bible on it’s own terms the way we approach certain literature or languages? I don’t pretend to think I can convince you to faith in this short blog. However, consider that there may be a much bigger picture to consider than our singular focus on such an issue as slavery. The Bible promises that God, in time, will exact his right justice on all the evil of all the time of all the world. It is called THE DAY OF THE LORD. Although it almost seems to grand to hold to such a grand plan, I challenge you to consider it as one alternative view when considering slavery, biblical genocide, or any other matter in scripture. Perhaps the reason Jesus didn’t address it was because he was seeking to eternally save a rebellious lot already enslaved to their own sinful desires and in need of a perfect, holy, substitute to make them right before a Holy God.

    I encourage you to read the books suggested, if only for a different perspective. Reading the Bible on its own terms really does open up new possibilities, questions, and understandings that I haven’t even attempted to write about.

    Thanks for considering my perspective.

  21. notabiblethumperjustredeemed

    In my most simple explanation, I have found it to be accurate that for God to have demanded that no humans have slaves is close in comparison to a good-willed parent to demand a defiant child not to be so. Once a defiant child myself, my parents didn’t get very far at all trying to tell me what not to do. I was one who had to learn on her own, the hard way.

    History proves in the same way current events do, humans are selfish, usually ill-intentioned, and all around troublesome. For God to give us free will (the freedom to make our own choices) but somehow control the choices we make is impossible. When people say “God couldn’t,” it’s not because He physically (or spiritually couldn’t), it’s because it was inherently not possible. Fallacy. Contradictory. Whatever you want to name it. It is entirely human to blame God, who gave us the freedom we claim to be rightfully ours to make our own choices, good or bad, for the very choices we make. Nothing bad in this world came from God. The provisions God made in the Old Testament as a result of the abhorrent choices people made are far beyond our ability to understand. But in the same way, the judgments we make as humans that are entirely too similar in nature are somehow more acceptable? Really? If people so badly want to hold their own morals and values above those of God, they’ve seriously got to step up their game.

    Furthermore, for Jesus to have stood up and said that no one could have slaves in a time when the slaves themselves depended upon it for their livelihood, would have likely caused a collapse in civilization in it’s entirety. Think about it, really. My college history textbook (that is widely secular even though it’s a Christian college; that actually happens, folks, despite popular belief) states that the vast majority of many populations consisted of slaves, indentured servants, whatever you want to call them. For Jesus to have made the radical claim against slavery at this time would have left most cities, city-states, empires, kingdoms, communities, households, what-have-you with no trade, no way to generate revenue, no livelihood. I, in no way, reach out to justify the treatment of some of those people. I simple make the motion that they relied on aristocrats and other wealthy elites of the time as much as the other relied on them. In a time when trades and jobs were new and few, a “servant” or “slave” may have had a trade in something as benign as librarian or shop-runner. Not all incidences of servitude involved exploitation and brutal beatings. What Jesus did, though, is elaborate on previous moral teachings and set new foundations for what we should do as humans to right our wrongs. He “couldn’t” do that for us, because, as I said before, it isn’t possible to make our choices for us. Yes, I know the Bible says “with God, all things are possible.” Don’t be ridiculous to defend an argument.

    Choices have consequences. That is only questioned when it comes to 1. God’s justice, and 2. humanity’s selfish and faulty rationale and defense for doing what they want.

    With all of that said, I happen to be a Christian in a struggle with my own faith, as a result of Christian college, no doubt. However, a struggle I have never found is in distinguishing God’s provisions and the choice of the people.

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