What More Can The Bible Say About Slavery?

indexMy last two posts considered the atheist’s question, “Why didn’t God explicitly outlaw ‘slavery’ in the Bible?” It’s a common enough challenge for those who have spent the time to learn about history. They know, for instance, that in Biblical times life was quite harsh with often a vast chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” This isn’t the way things ought to be, they conclude, so it’s God’s job to fix it, right? After all, isn’t he supposed to be “all loving?”

Christianity provides an answer to this challenge, but it’s not one that will fit into a sound bite. Indeed, though there is a temptation to do just that, Christianity cannot be reduced to sound bite answers. A combination of study, reflection and prayer are essential to making sense of the robust combination of doctrine and faith that characterize historic Christianity. Consequently, the believer risks sounding defensive, as he seeks to explain in long and sometimes complex ways why things are the way they are.

The student of history knows that man’s story did not begin two thousand years ago at that crossroads of civilization where Jesus was born. When people first abandoned their nomadic ways and commenced living in more stable communities, there was already inequality. Like much of nature, the strong dominated the weak…because they could. Over time, this led inevitably to “slavery” in a variety of different forms. Tragically, slavery continues to this day, because human nature remains fallen. So when God inspired the Bible, he did so in the context of an already evolving story. This must be kept in mind when considering the challenge that is brought. Practices that have developed over centuries cannot realistically be eliminated overnight, without first addressing the underlying causes.

And what are those causes? Just why were things so bad? Put simply, because God gave man free will and with that free will, man rebelled. He moved his focus from God, where it was meant to be and where for some it will eventually return, and redirected it to himself. He sought power, pleasure and control over his environment and those around him. Periodically, leaders arose who cemented the “rules.”  Tribes conquered other tribes, peoples dominated neighboring peoples, and in some cases even genocide was practiced. Could God have stopped this? Of course. He could have wiped us out completely or he could have removed from us the free will he had originally given us. He could have rendered us perfectly-behaving automatons, and could even have made us “happy” to spend eternity living model lives and worshipping him. But he did not. Indeed, he could not if he wanted us to be sufficiently free to actually enter into a loving relationship with him. Because love requires freedom, it cannot be coerced.  

The challenger persists: “Yes, mankind is fallen. But why didn’t God just say, stop practicing slavery in any form? I don’t care if it’s a period of servitude, or outright trafficking in people, I want it all to stop.”  The answer is that his plan was to redeem the individual human heart, not to create a model civilization. Do that and right behavior will result on its own. By contrast, if the human heart is unrepentant, then any outward “right behavior” is of no value to God anyway. So the Bible begins by laying out the basic rules of moral living, the ones we find in the Ten Commandments.  It could easily be argued that those rules alone were enough. After all, he did include “thou shalt not steal” in that list. When one man takes another man from his home, has he not stolen him? When he forces him to work without pay and he takes the fruits of that labor, is this too not theft? How much clearer does it have to be?

These basic rules tell us what not to do. In the New Testament, Jesus consistently spreads the message of universal love and brotherhood, dispositions of the heart that provide positive direction, rather than a specific set of things to avoid.  Indeed, he explained that we are defiled not by what we take in through our mouths, but from the heart, from which comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, and blasphemy. (Matt. 15)  All our behavior should flow from the greatest of the commandments, to love God with all one’s might and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. (Matt. 22) We should be “salt and light” to a broken world, preserving and displaying goodness. (Matt. 5) Jesus answers the question, “who is my brother?” in a way that shocked his people. He elevated the status of children through words and actions that no doubt confounded those that were used to putting children in a much lesser role. (Luke 18) He taught us that lusting or hating in our heart was really no different, in God’s eyes, than actually committing the act. (Matt. 5) He set his world on its heels, and the repercussions of his words still send ripple effects through us some twenty centuries later. He acknowledged the role of government, seeking not to overthrow or even to directly influence; “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Luke 20) And he explained that some of God’s rules – his view of marriage for instance – were modified not because God changed his mind, but because his people’s hearts were hardened and unwilling to obey. (Matt. 19)

The early disciples reinforced this message.  Do not be conformed to his world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds through Christ so that you can do good; abhor what is evil and hold fast to the good, the Apostle Paul teaches. Overcome evil with good, and leave vengeance to God.  Set your minds on things above, put to death sexual immorality, lust, impurity, evil desires and greed. (Romans 12) We are to be ambassadors for Christ. (2 Corinth. 5) Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5) Peter reminds us that because he who called us is holy, we too must be holy in all our conduct. (1 Peter 1) John admonishes us to keep the commandments (1 John 2), commandments that prohibit theft and murder and coveting.

How much clearer must it be?  No honest person reading Jesus’ words can possibly conclude that owning another human being is consistent with his law of Love. No one reading the Sermon on the Mount could conclude that God wished to institute suffering and slavery among his people. No one considering Jesus’ lowly birth and tragic death on a cross could conclude that God wanted those of exalted means to lord it over the impoverished classes. Quite the contrary: we are to be measured by what we do for the least of our brothers – the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned – by the extent to which we live out the meaning of our faith.

God’s purpose never was to “fix” the world in the way the skeptic envisions, and a pronouncement that slavery should not be practiced would not have solved the problem. Both the spirit and the letter of the law already condemn such behavior. No, the solution God has in mind has more to do with the world to come, and the steps we take now that will decide for us where we will spend eternity. Conveying this plan is not possible in a sound bite culture. With an open mind, and a bit of reflection, God’s unfolding plan does make sense. Not perfect sense perhaps – to us, anyway. But enough to allow us, as Paul said, to not be “ashamed” of the gospel and its message of redemption. 

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    Again, al, I’m glad you choose to emphasize Jesus’ message of love and brotherhood. But that doesn’t change what DagoodS and I (and others in threads gone by) have said: although God found it fitting to condemn all kinds of behavior, from working on the Sabbath to yoking an ox with a donkey, He didn’t say one single word against slavery. I don’t see how anyone with a post-Enlightenment mentality (i.e. all of us here) can accept this as an “enlightened” moral position.

    • Al says:

      Zilch, is it your view that Jesus therefore approved of human bondage? By that logic, he also approved of mutilating animals, torturing children and polluting the earth, since he never “explicitly” condemned those things either. His radical message of love still resonates to this day. If followed, the world would be a completely different place; there would be no slavery, no sex trafficking, no violence, etc, etc, etc, yet you seem to be making the case that he was not sufficiently “enlightened” to satisfy you. Really?

      • zilch says:

        Al, mutilating animals, torturing children, and polluting the Earth were not mentioned in the Bible one way or another. Nor were abortion and pornography, so I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what Jesus would have said about any of them. Slavery, however, was mentioned many times in Scripture. And it was not condemned, but only regulated.

        • Al says:

          Zilch, you’re still missing the point. I can discern from the Bible that I should not be cruel to animals or children and that I should be a good steward of the Earth. Abortion is the taking of human life and pornography is inconsistent with proper marital love. The Bible speaks to these things, as it does to how we should interact with our “brother” regardless of whether the first Christians – or us for that matter – fully comprehend it.

          • zilch says:

            No, al, with all due respect, you are still missing the point. Your “discernment” from the Bible that slavery is wrong, while commendable, goes against what the Bible says directly and clearly about slavery: that it was expressly allowed.

            You are of course not alone in choosing to consider certain parts of the Bible to be the “core” or “central” message, and others no longer binding. I’ve been chatting with a very nice Christian guy in Metz who believes, as you do, that the Bible contains God’s message to us. But he, unlike you, sees that the consequence of that is that parts of the Bible are simply mistaken: they were understood and/or written down incorrectly due to human error.

            I don’t see how you can have it both ways.

          • JS says:


            Have you read the requirements for slavery in the Torah? If you have, then you already know that the way the Lord regulated it (as a way of paying debts for those who could not otherwise do so, and terminable after a certain number of years–rather than lifelong forced servitude) are a far cry from slavery in our “enlightened world” at any age.

  2. DGS says:


    According to Christian doctrine, God communicated in a theopneustos writing, exalted above all other writings as being the sole written communication from God. Understandably, skeptics question what specific writing qualifies as theopneustos, inspecting the competing claims amongst various Abrahamic religions—including the disagreements between Jewish, Islamic, Mormon, Creedal Christians, Catholics and Christian Scientists.

    In a nutshell, what we see are documents that are products of their times—they exhibit the biases, prejudices, issues, beliefs, knowledge, culture and societal concerns present at the author’s time. The Tanakh demonstrates the scientific knowledge (a flat earth, geocentric solar system), the customs (polygamy, sacrifice, governments), and writing style (wiping out ALL the enemy, exaggerated claims, attributing failures and successes on how one pleases their god) of the 1000 – 500 BCE era. Utilizing captured enemies as slaves was accepted practice, unsurprisingly (being a book of its time), the Tanakh not only endorses the practice, but provides regulations regarding its use. Just like it regulated clothing, food, sacrifice, holidays, etc.

    The New Testament books are equally products of their time. Again, unsurprisingly, the authors address the issues of the day. Such as eating meat (Mark 7, Acts 10, Romans 14, I Corinthians 8 & 10) Or what women should wear. (1 Cor. 11) or Gold (1 Tim. 2:9). Whether to be circumcised or not. (Acts 15, Galatians 3).

    Now…2000 years later, such issues are irrelevant. When is the last time you worried about whether your meat was kosher or offered to an idol? Or what jewelry was on the pastor’s wife? In this limited writing, it seems extraordinary God would utilize so many words communicating via theopneustos about meat and pearls and hair yet skip over the fairly significant issue of slavery. Not even prohibit it in one little sentence or clause.

    Unless, of course, this was a human effort, addressing human concerns, with a human’s inability to predict slavery would become so contentious in the future. What is more likely? God muddied the moral about slavery being immoral while being crystal clear about how to eat meat? Or is it more likely the humans addressed the problems of their own times and not the future?

    Al Serrato: “No honest person reading Jesus’ words can possibly conclude that owning another human being is consistent with his law of Love.” [emphasis in the original]

    Rare a Christian apologist claims the early church fathers were dishonest. Paul certain accepted slavery. 1 Peter 2 accepted slavery. The pseudopauline literature accepted slavery. Ignatius, The Didache and Tertullian found slavery acceptable. So did Augustine. If it was so clear from Jesus’ language, how did all these early leaders and theopneustos writers get it so wrong?

    [Note, The Shepherd of Hermas, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa did advocate Christians freeing their slaves.]

    No, we are not claiming God was required to provide a written rulebook for society. We are claiming the books reflect the morals of the time—including acceptance of slavery—which further demonstrate the non-special, solely human effort in their undertaking. The Bible is wonderful literature, giving us interesting insight into a certain culture and era. But it is not a moral guide for today’s society, demonstrated by its failure to address today’s society’s concerns…such as slavery.

    • Al says:


      I’m not sure that we are that far apart. The difference, perhaps, is that you seem to view this as black and white: the bible is either a rule book that we can use today as a guide to modern living, or its solely a human undertaking. There is a middle ground that you have either not considered or have rejected: God inspired the writers in a way that fit his plan for the bible. It conveys a much larger story, and moral instruction is only part of its purpose. The other difference involves the use of the word “slavery.” Notice my language involved “owning.” Much of the slavery of that era involved servitude, not outright ownership. And when I said “no honest person reading…” I was referring to present day. That perhaps is the point I did not successfully convey – that the Bible remains relevant despite the passage of 2000 years and the totally different nature of our two cultures. There is indeed a moral guide that emerges from its pages, even if much of the bible is historically situated. Perhaps you would like to explain how an honest reading of the text would support ownership of other human beings. Yes, the bible reflects the history, the morals and the setting of its time; that does not surprise me. But that does not prove the point that you are attempting to make – that it therefore cannot be divinely inspired.

      • zilch says:

        I hope you guys don’t mind if I sneak one more point in here. DagoodS- yet another detailed and well-supported historical perspective- thanks. But you say:
        We are claiming the books reflect the morals of the time—including acceptance of slavery—which further demonstrate the non-special, solely human effort in their undertaking.

        Al replies:

        Yes, the bible reflects the history, the morals and the setting of its time; that does not surprise me. But that does not prove the point that you are attempting to make – that it therefore cannot be divinely inspired.

        I’m going to have to agree with al here: the condoning of slavery in the Bible does not prove that the Bible cannot be divinely inspired. But it does show- if we assume, as many if not most Christians do- that the whole Bible is the Word of God, then God must have approved of slavery, at least in those times and circumstances. And there’s no mention in the Bible that slavery had a expiration date, as far as I can tell.

        So the conclusion we can logically draw is that if God exists, and the whole Bible is the Word of God, then slavery is expressly permitted, with restrictions. In fact, I’ve run across a few Christians who take this position, although it’s a rather unpopular one nowadays. It was a lot more popular in the past- say, in the antebellum South.

        Of course, you can also take the position that the Bible was the Word of God for that time and place, but has since been improved upon. Many people take that position as well, but they are not usually considered Christians.

        cheers from overcast Vienna, zilch.

  3. DGS says:

    Al Serrato,

    Are you indicating slavery, as practiced in the 1st Century Mediterranean, was (is?) morally acceptable within the regulated parameters of the New Testament Canon? That, despite your claim Jesus’ words regarding love would indicate no person could own another, Christians were not required to free their own slaves?

  4. DGS says:

    Zilch & Al Serrato,

    Let me clarify my position regarding inspiration/slavery. I agree the canon endorsing slavery could still be “inspired” by a God. (I hesitate to use the word “inspired” as this is not an exact translation and this is a rare instance where I prefer the actual Greek–theopneustos–even though I know it sounds horribly pretentious to use the Greek. It is…though…a truly unique word and therefore is entitled [in my opinion] to a moment of pretension.) But let’s look at the broader issue.

    We all agree there are a lot of human writings regarding God(s). And we very likely agree at least some of those writings are solely human efforts—human thoughts regarding God(s) that could be correct, partially correct or totally incorrect. Some people claim, however, there are distinguishable writings—writings whereby God was specifically, deliberately involved in a heightened manner beyond human pen-to-paper. Commonly referred to as “inspired” writings.

    This is no small doctrine. People esteem these writings to the point of killing other humans who deface the writing itself, or mold their entire lives around the writing, or exert incalculable effort to impose the writings’ contents on their own society and the world. People guide their opinions on issues such as women’s rights, marriage, divorce, same-gender marriage, war, abortion, slavery, global-warming, economics, science, education, and government based upon what they consider theopneuostos writing. We are informed these writings demonstrate objective morals imposed by the universe’s Creator, and we must look to the writing as a moral guide.

    Unfortunately, humans do not agree what writings are theopneuostos. The Jews would limit the writing to the Tanakh. The Protestants add the New Testament to the Jewish writings. Some Catholics add the Apocrypha to the Protestant writings. The Eastern Orthodox add other writings to the Protestant writings. The Mormons add the Book of Mormon. The Christian Scientist adds Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Need I mention the Qur’an? (And we have the additional mess of certain pericopes once considered theopneustos–like the Adulterous Woman, or the ending of Mark—that no longer qualify.)

    In short, even those who hold to theopneustos writings agree:

    1) There are some writings claimed to be theopneustos that are not; and
    2) There are some writings not theopneustos.

    So we need a method to determine whether a writing is theopneustos or not. Alas, the only method utilized is (excuse the expression) divine fiat—what this group declares is theopneustos is, and what it declares is not, is not. Only after the declaration are ad hoc methodologies developed to justify the original declaration.

    I am looking for something different. Something distinguishing a work (beyond the fact every work is unique. Even this blog comment is a unique writing.). Something whereby we can establish a methodology to say, “This writing is different than others.” I am looking for, at least, the ability to say, “This is more likely or less likely to be theopneustos.”

    Could the Protestant Bible happen to contain the actual theopneustos writings? Sure…but so could a Hallmark card in a Walgreen Drug store in Topeka, Kansas. I would like (I would hope) we have a better methodology than “This writing could be theopneustos.”

    Bringing it back to slavery…what I am saying is slavery in the Bible is a demonstrative example of how the Bible is not different—not distinguishable—from other writings of its time, as I laid out in my previous comment. Could the actual God have “inspired” writings portraying His endorsement on slavery? Sure. Could the actual God have changed His mind since then? Sure. Could the actual God be really, really upset about all the gold-wearing women, ‘cause He put it in His theopneustos writing? And we are all going to be really surprised some day? Sure.

    Is this really the best argument one has to offer? The biblical books solely reflect the culture at the time of their writing, but they “could” still be theopneustos?

    • zilch says:

      Nice work again, DagoodS. I think you are correct, if not necessarily theopneustos.

      And I don’t think it’s pretentious to use Greek or another language if it offers the best word. I personally like kleduchos, or “key-mighty”, i.e. someone who has a (important) key. I try to work it into conversations as often as I can.

      cheers, zilch

    • Al says:

      DagoodS, thanks for the thoughtful response. I think it helps clarify where we disagree. I do not believe we can determine the level or quality of “inspiration” by examining the contents of the writing in question for “errors.” In other words, this isn’t a math or physics text in which a “wrong” equation would establish the author was not really an expert. This is what I meant about expectations when reading the bible. Some are easy – for instance, you would probably agree that reference to the “sun rising” would not invalidate the Bible because this is a figure of speech. Slavery, by contrast, leads you to believe that the author could not have been divinely inspired. This does not follow to me for a number of reasons, including: 1) the “slavery” in question was often economically based and perhaps in the best interest of the person involved (the alternative being destitution); 2) the Bible need not be free of error in order to be inspired, its purpose being something other than teaching or explanation; and 3) the Bible was not intended to be a science text. In this regard, for instance, we see Jesus saying that the laws Moses gave relating to divorce were a concession. In other words, God was not endorsing divorce as a positive good but was modifying his law’s application due to the fallen nature of the people he was trying to reach. In short, no one should be surprised that the bible reflects human nature in all its fallenness, as well as the times in which it was written. God chose this medium as a method of communicating what he thought was important. Again, it was not intended to be a blueprint for a model society. So, how should you test it? By the cummulative case: the prophecies, the words of Jesus, his miracles, his resurrection, the changed lives of his followers to name a few. No one thing in isolation, but all considered in their totality. Beyond the scope of this post, of course, but whole volumes have been written on it.

  5. BGA says:

    Making rules does nothing to hamper free will, especially the freedom to love someone. God said do not kill, pretty clear and yet believers continued to murder in droves, often thinking they were doing God’s work. Just like both sides of the American Civil War. You can say a lot of things about the Confederacy, but I don’t think you can say they weren’t Christians, and didn’t know about the teachings of Jesus.

    You are contradicting yourself. On the one hand God can’t make clear rules, because if he did this would eliminate our free will to chose good and god. On the other hand he did make a rule prohibiting slavery with thou shall not steal. Which is it?

    And of course God did make rules, very specific rules, about slavery, he said ” of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession” How much clearer does he have to be? I guess the Jews were supposed to exercise their free will and realize that when the Bible says the children that you “buy” and are your “possession” this is totally different than buying African children in South Carolina in 1842. That, in fact, what the Bible means by “buy” is “contract” and by possession, it means “employee”. But when you follow the meaning of the text “do not steal” this means do not buy (meaning purchase, not contract) children and make them your possession (meaning… possession).

    You are right, it does take a lot of explaining, interpretation and stretching of meaning to argue that the Old Testament does not condone slavery.

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