Does the Bible teach against slavery? Does the Old Testament or New Testament condone slavery? What does the Bible say about slavery?
Abolition of Slavery Started With Christianity
Long before the end of the Civil War in the United States, William Wilberforce began the effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire. In 1788 Wilberforce presented to the House of Commons one hundred petitions to end slavery and in 1792 it finally passed 230 to 85. Sadly, the House reversed its vote in 1793 due to growing fears of the French Revolution that same year. In 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill finally became law and it was declared illegal to buy or sell human beings throughout the entire British Empire. Wilberforce and the abolitionists cited biblical Scripture as sufficient reason to declare slavery sin. The two main verses mentioned were Acts 17:26 which says, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” and Genesis 1:26 which reads, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image,) in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Clearly William Wilberforce and the abolitionists saw Christianity and slavery and incompatible.
John Wesley’s last letter to William Wilberforce, who was converted under Wesley’s ministry, urged Wilberforce to end this “villainy” against men of different color. Christians were the first abolitionists to speak up and try to free the slaves. The fact that men and women were made in the image of God and that God had determined their boundaries clearly established that slavery was immoral and that humans were not intended to be bought or sold like livestock. It took almost 60 years and a Civil War to end slavery in the United States. The vast majority of American abolitionists at the time where Christians and most saw slavery as a scourge on society calling it sinful and a blight on society.
The Old Testament on Slavery
People might be surprised to learn that the Bible does not condone slavery at all, even in the Old Testament as many falsely claim. Even in the first laws that God gave, God abhorred the capturing of people to make them slaves. Exodus 21:16 states, “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” God not only forbids slavery, He gives them the death penalty for it. That’s how serious God sees slavery as. Slavery is no different than kidnapping to God. But what about the slaves mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament?
Leviticus 25:39-43 says, “If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God.” Here God says that a poor person sells their self to get out of debt but they are not to be subjected to them in service as a slave. They are also be freed after the year of the Jubilee. God calls them “My servants” and they are not to be sold in a slave sale. How clear is that?
In Exodus 21:2 it states, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” Here it says that if you buy a Hebrew servant, they are not to be considered a slave, and even after they buy this servant they are to go free in the seventh year “without paying anything.” That is nothing like a slave at all. Incidentally, the term slavery in the Hebrew does not mean what we think of slavery today. The word slave in the Old Testament actually refers to a position of being subordinate in the social ladder of the society. Any Hebrew scholar knows this. For example Abraham had servants. In the majority of places that slaves are mentioned in the Old Testament this is the proper context. To know that, one must read the entire chapter or better yet, the entire book to find out what the contextual meaning of the word slavery (better rendered “subordinate”) means.
The New Testament on Slavery
Paul speaks about slavery in the New Testament. The Romans were big on slaves but Paul clearly did not like it. In 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 he writes, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.” Paul said that “if you can gain your freedom, do so” and in verse 23 he says, “do not become slaves of human beings.” There is little doubt Paul detested slavery and wanted everyone to get out of it as soon as possible and desired no one to live in slavery.
Paul wrote a letter to Philemon which is one of the books of the New Testament. Philemon was a wealthy Colossian who likely had many slaves. He was a citizen of Rome and was not the only one with slaves. It appears that Philemon had slaves before his conversion but he also did not treat them harshly. Many slaves were endeared as members of family. Philemon was not alone in owning slaves because nearly one-third of the entire population of Rome were slaves. Paul‘s letter to Philemon was to display God‘s not being any respecter of persons by saying to Philemon that he should have a relationship with his slave Onesimus like a brotherly relationship in Christ, just as Paul was to Philemon. Paul also addressed Onesimus to tell him that he had a duty to return to his master Philemon. Paul emphasizes God’s teachings in the Old Testament that He is no respecter of persons in regard to their position or estate in life. The letter of Philemon gives believers the model with which to characterize what mutual love and respect should be embodied among the church membership. If you read the book of Philemon you will see that both Paul and Philemon loved Onesimus, regardless of him being a slave. Paul reflects this brotherly relationship in not using his apostolic authority to order Onesimus to go back to Philemon but to have him to do so out of love and respect for authority and as an example of being in submission to Philemon
By the way, this is an excellent analogy of the relationship between employer and employee. Paul was showing respect for authority in asking Onesimus to return to Philemon voluntarily as being in submission and compliance with Roman law. Paul writes in Philemon that Christians are to live in “humility [and] value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Paul models Christian relationships even in the way that he addressed Philemon as a dear friend. Paul considered Philemon as a co-heir and fellow worker and thus not trying to exalt himself over Philemon. In this regard Christians ought to consider believers as beloved friends, co-heirs, co-workers, and co-equals. This is evidenced by Paul calling Philemon’s wife (most likely) a “sister” and Philemon’s son a “fellow soldier.”
Paul uses love in modeling his relationships to pastors and to the church. He even models that of being a father figure to them. This implies that of being in a family-like relationship and his relationship to Onesimus, a slave, was like that of a brother which denotes an affectionate attachment and one of brotherly love. Paul regarded Onesimus as a child of his. By Paul’s use of such powerful language, even though Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon, Paul referred to him as a son. By reading Philemon you can see by Paul’s words that his love was deep for Onesimus and was evidenced by Paul’s statement that by his sending Onesimus he was sending “my very heart” back to Philemon. This is like the attachment that a father has for a son that is departing so Paul never treated Onesimus as a slave. The similarity of this family-like love relationship is displayed by Paul’s regarding Onesimus as a brother in the faith and a son to a father. How heartbreaking this must have been to Paul since Onesimus had been attending to the needs of Paul while he was imprisoned. Onesimus and Paul must have formed a strong, loving relationship with one another. By the way, Paul was not being presumptuous and never tried to use his apostolic authority in trying to keep Onesimus with him, even though he could have. To me, love is not presumptuous and not assuming; it is courteous, caring, and compassionate.
We can see that God abhorred slavery and in fact forbid it in the Old Testament. The New Testament mentions slaves as if they were family and Paul clearly did not like it and said “do not become slaves of human beings.” Many slaves eventually gained their freedom and could become Roman citizens with all the rights afforded to that privilege. Slavery was often a temporary situation. Neither God nor the Bible condone slavery. Quite the opposite is true.
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