Today, the institution of slavery is almost universally rejected. However, that wasn’t the case for most of Christianity’s history, or for most of civilization’s history either. The discussion of slavery in the Bible, often cited as the moral authority for Christians, is often controversial for many Christians today, especially since both slavery advocates and slavery opponents have used the book to support their opinions. In this essay, I will discuss the relationship between slavery and the Bible by first examining the Old Testament, then the New Testament, then reactions to the Biblical mentions of slavery, before concluding.
To put it briefly, T. David Curp, a history professor at Ohio University, wrote, “Slavery is regulated in the Old Testament, but there’s no sense therein that God disapproves of the institution per se.”
The Old Testament provides multiple Mosaic laws regulating Hebrews owning other Hebrews – but, to be clear, it in no way seems to have an issue with slavery in and of itself. For example, Exodus 21 lays out rather specific rules for buying “a male Hebrew slave” and how to treat them. While male Hebrew slaves can “go out a free person, without debt” after serving for six years, when a daughter is sold into slavery, “she shall not go out as the male slaves do” (Exodus 21:7).
However, not all mentions of slavery in the Old Testament are in complete agreement; Deuteronomy 15:12, for example, says, “If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.” So while this verse advocates treating a Hebrew woman similarly to a Hebrew man (in contrast to the distinctions in Exodus 21), it’s still okay with the institution itself.
Although the Hebrew Bible promotes preferred treatment for fellow Israelite slaves, foreigners were not granted the same protections. In Leviticus 25, after advocating against treating “any of your fellow Israelites … with harshness,” Leviticus 25:44 clarifies that “it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves” and even treat them “as property” that your children can inherit.
Throughout the Old Testament, slavery seems to be acceptable to God, since slaveholders like Abraham and others (whom God seemed to bless) were never condemned for having slaves. The Old Testament, it seems, does advocate certain protections for Hebrew/Israelite slaves, but has no problem with foreign slaves, or slavery as a system in and of itself.
For some Christians, the Old Testament lacks the authority of the New Testament, because the life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity were different in many ways from the teachings of the Old Testament. Unfortunately for abolitionists, the New Testament was a particularly thorny place.
Since the Old Testament is pretty clear regarding slavery, it should be noted that Jesus, according to Matthew 5:17, said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Some could interpret the claim that Jesus didn’t “come to abolish the Law” as an implicit acceptance of the Mosaic Laws, including those regarding slavery.
To be clear, similarly to the Old Testament, “The New Testament, too, is without anything like a formal condemnation,” according to Professor Curp.
Specifically related to slavery, Jesus (according to Luke 7:1-10 as well as Matthew 8:5-13) recognized, applauded, and helped a Roman soldier who was also a slave owner. Far from denouncing the man for owning slaves, Jesus highly praised the soldier’s faith. Far from encouraging the soldier to free his slaves, Jesus rewarded the soldier’s faith by healing the soldier’s slave.
Similarly, in Luke 12:47-48, Jesus seems to be completely fine with a master beating a slave, even if the slave isn’t aware of what he did wrong: “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating.”
While Jesus said very little regarding slavery, Paul discusses the institution in various letters, and at times with significant clarity. The Epistle to Philemon in the New Testament, in particular, is considered Paul’s most extensive discussion of slavery. Paul’s letter is written to Philemon regarding his runaway slave, Onesimus. While Paul send Onesimus back to his master Philemon, he seems to at least encourage Philemon to treat Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. It could even be argued that Paul implicitly urges (but does not force) Philemon to “do even more than I say,” which arguably means freeing Onesimus (Philemon 1:21). However, while Paul seems to encourage freeing Onesimus, a Christian slave, he clearly doesn’t explicitly reject the institution of slavery as a whole.
In addition to Philemon, Paul seems to accept slavery in multiple other letters. For example, Ephesians 6:5 states, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” In Colossians 3:22, a similar statement is made. Additionally, slaves are told to be content with their current position as slaves (1 Corinthians 7:21), and “accept the authority of your masters” even if they “are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18-21).
Arguably the clearest discussion of slavery in the Bible is 1 Timothy 6:1-5. In 1 Timothy 6:1, slaves are encouraged to “regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” While that statement itself isn’t especially unique within the New Testament, it seems to hold more weight since it’s immediately followed by 1 Timothy 6:3-4, which claims that “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 morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” So while the statement that slaves should obey their masters (even non-Christian masters) appears in other places, 1 Timothy 6 follows the statement by unquestionably claiming that anyone who teaches otherwise is wrong. Essentially, it would appear, according to 1 Timothy, that if one opposes the idea of a slave obeying his master, they are essentially opposed to God.
After reviewing what the Old and New Testaments say about slavery, it would seem, as Vaughn Roste of the United Church of Canada put it, “If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I’m afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution.”
However, it should be noted that, according to Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, “Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures — Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman — but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others.” So, although the Bible lacks any clear condemnation of slavery, almost no one during Biblical times rejected slavery as an institution.
Additionally, Carey notes that if Christians openly and actively rejected slavery, it would be extremely problematic for their movement: “[I]dentifying Christianity with slave revolt in the Roman Empire would have been the fast track to corporate suicide.”
It should also be noted that, although the Bible doesn’t reject slavery as a whole, it did promote the radical idea of a spiritual equality. For example, Galatians 3:28 reads, “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.”
As many proslavery authors noted, the verse didn’t literally advocate abolishing slavery, since writing that “there is no longer male and female” didn’t change the fact that the genders were still expected to be treated differently; women were still expected to obey their husbands. Still, for most cultures at the time, slavery was not only a socioeconomic condition, but “a state of absolute spiritual inferiority,” according to Curp.
So while the Bible didn’t free the slaves, it did benefit slaves in some ways, such as Onesimus, who, despite being a slave, was to be treated as a brother in Christ by his master Philemon.
On a larger scale, the abolition movement in the 19th century, led and supported by many Christians, radically changed the way that many people read the Bible. Since the specific texts of the Bible seem to accept slavery, many Christians took a more holistic approach to the Bible that promoted a “Christian ideal” over specific rules. For example, while the Bible seems to accept slavery, Jesus’ message in Matthew 22:39, “love your neighbor as yourself,” could override other verses that accept the institution of slavery, because in order to treat others like we would like to be treated, we wouldn’t enslave them.
In conclusion, although it does suggest treating slaves with kindness and care, the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – never seems to explicitly reject slavery as an institution.