Our men’s Bible study is currently going through Tim Keller’s Gospel in Life group study, and last night’s section was about justice. After listening to Keller’s 10 minute teaching on doing justice and showing mercy to various groups, in our time of discussion, one man brought up something that he said had been bothering him for a while: “With all this talk about doing justice, why doesn’t the Bible explicitly condemn slavery?”
Truly, slavery is a terrible form of injustice, and it is a bit of a black eye on Western culture, that British and American people who considered themselves Christians propagated the African slave trade and even used the Bible to justify it. While it is true that Christians led the charge for abolition, there were many Christians on the other side who argued that the Bible condoned slavery. What are we to make of this, and what does the Bible have to say on this topic?
The Hebrew and Greek words used for “slave” are also the same words used for “servant” and “bondservant.” Essentially, there are two kinds of “slavery” described in the Bible: indentured servitude (a servant who was paid a wage or was working off a debt), and the enslavement of someone against their consent and without pay.
In general, the kind of slavery that the Bible talks about is the first kind (indentured servitude), and parameters are put around it to make sure it is fair and humanitarian – but in Leviticus 25:44-46, the Mosaic law allows for Hebrews to take slaves from the surrounding nations. This seems to be the second form of slavery.
Slavery in Historical Perspective
Slavery was a reality of the ancient world. Hammurabi’s code (2242 BC) discusses slavery, the Hebrews were subject to harsh slavery in Egypt as well as Assyria and Babylon later on. In the middle ages, the Moors enslaved Europeans and sold them in North African slave markets, and later the Norse sold other European peoples as slaves in Scandinavia. Roma (Gypsy) people were sold as slaves in Romania only a few centuries ago, and in our modern time, slavery is still practiced in Darfur in Sudan – as well as many exploited people around the world who live as de facto slaves.
As Christians, we believe that God hates the exploitation of the weak and wants us as His people to fight against it. But how then should we understand Leviticus 25? What about other places in the Bible that talk about slavery?
Slavery in the Bible
Bondservants, i.e. indentured servants, were paid a wage (Colossians 4:1), thus the injunctions that “slaves” obey they masters should be understood as speaking of the relationship between an employee towards their employer. In fact, it was common for educated people, including doctors, lawyers and people of other trades, to be “slaves” of wealthy people – a contractual agreement of employment which one freely entered into and was often limited to a designated period of time, but was sometimes for life. This kind of slavery was not based on race, but economics, and several New Testament writers instruct Christians that a person’s employment status should not affect their standing in the church.
Recently I taught about this at White Fields Church in regard to two of Paul’s travel companions from the church in Thessalonica: one an aristocrat and the other a slave; click here for the audio of that message.
The passage from Leviticus 25:44-46 needs to be understood in relation to the nature of the Mosaic Law. The reason there are some things commanded and permitted in the Old Testament which no longer apply today is because of the nature of the Mosaic Law and the nature of Israel as a nation in the Old Testament. Israel was a political and ethnic entity, with God as their king. It was a theocracy in the truest sense. The Law of Moses contains instructions which apply to all people at all times (the 10 Commandments) as well as civil laws which pertain specifically to Israelite society, much like the civil laws that govern our societies today. Furthermore, God actively asserted his justice upon various nations at various times by allowing or even sending another nation to rule over them and enslave them for a period of time. This happened with Israel specifically in Babylon and Assyria: their time as captives and slaves in those nations was the direct judgment of God upon them. Likewise, God says that he is using the Israelites to judge the Ammonites and other Canaanite peoples during the time of the conquest of Canaan. Thus, the permission to take slaves from the Canaanites during this particular period can be understood in this light, but it does not mean a blanket condoning a the practice of slavery.
Does the Bible explicitly condemn slavery?
If we are talking about the kind of slavery that took place during African slave trade, then the answer is: Yes.
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:16)
“Man-stealing” or kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery, or purchasing someone who had been enslaved this way, was considered one of the worst kinds of sin, those punishable by death.
This is found in the New Testament as well. In 1 Timothy 1:10, “slave-trading” (also translated as “enslaving,” and “kidnapping”) is listed among the most sinful practices, along with murder.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the shortest books in the Bible. Philemon was a wealthy man who had slaves working for him, as most, if not all, wealthy people in the Roman Empire did at that time. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had escaped and run away, presumably to Rome. Paul ended up meeting Onesimus during his travels, possibly during his imprisonment in Rome, because Onesimus had come in contact with Christians and had become a Christian himself. As they got to talking, Paul discovered that he actually knew the man who had been Onesimus’ master before he escaped: Philemon was also a Christian. So Paul encouraged Onesimus, who had broken contract, and thereby the law, by running away, to return to Philemon and be reconciled with him, and Paul sent him along with the letter which is now part of the New Testament.
In his letter, Paul instructed Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother. Furthermore, he told Philemon that if there was anything that Onesimus owed him, that he would like it charged to his (Paul’s) account, and he himself would compensate him for any loss that he had incurred because of Onesimus. One commentator says of this letter that this attitude towards the institution of slavery shows that from the earliest days, Christians were sewing the seeds to explode the institution of slavery.
William Wilberforce, John Newton and the Christian-led Abolitionist Movement
The Abolitionist movement to end “White” on “black” slavery was spearheaded by William Wilberforce, who was motivated by his Christian faith. In opposing slavery, Wilberforce recognized that the slavery mentioned in the New Testament was a slavery of a different kind than that being practiced by the British and Americans. “Racial” slavery was opposed because it was seen to be contrary to the value that God places on every human being, since all are created in His Image and the fact that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).
John Wesley supported the work of William Wilberforce to see slavery abolished. In a letter from Wesley to Wilberforce, Wesley described slavery as “execrable villainy.”
Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a “law” in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?
February 24, 1791 (6 days before Wesley’s death)
Wesley opposed slavery because he believed the Bible taught the inherent value of every human life, irrespective of one’s skin color or nationality.
John Newton, the hymn writer who wrote “Amazing Grace,” was a captain of slave ships, and actually continued to do so even after his conversion to Christianity because he was convinced by the prevailing attitudes of his time. He later changed his mind and repented of his involvement in the slave trade, becoming an anti-slavery activist who campaigned against it for the latter part of his life. He wrote a pamphlet titled “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade” which that the slave trade was what we would call in our day a “crime against humanity.” For Newton, like Wesley and Wilberforce, it was his Christian faith and the biblical value of human life which was a deciding factor in his opposition to slavery.
Acts 17:26 is interesting in the discussion of the equal value of all human life. It says that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth.” That means that all people, of all nations, of all skin-tones, share the same blood and come from the same origin. Therefore there is no room for looking down on anyone of a particular race or socio-economic class. All human life has value, and as Christians it is our call as the people of God to treat others with dignity.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?