On the Bible and Slavery

When it comes to biblical authority, slavery is the progressive’s favorite wedge issue. It’s not hard to imagine a conversation with a non-Christian or with a progressive Christian going something like this:

PROGRESSIVE: You hold to the traditional view of marriage?

CONSERVATIVE: Yes. Scripture is clear on that.

PROGRESSIVE: And you also hold to ordination of men only?

CONSERVATIVE: Yes. Scripture is also clear on that issue.

PROGRESSIVE: Well, why don’t you follow the Bible’s teaching on slavery then? It’s special pleading to ignore all of that material and claim that you are “biblical.” In reality, you are only selectively “biblical.”

A conservative who is unprepared for that argument and who holds to a surface level apprehension of the issues at stake might find himself taken in by the logic, ultimately leading to a shaking of his confidence in Scripture’s authority. With the image of African slaves being kidnapped, sold, and abused hovering in the background, the conservative may find himself at a loss to defend the authority of Scripture under the assumption that it clearly endorses such moral atrocities. And from there, the whole fabric of biblical authority might begin to unravel.

So, what do we do with the question of the Bible and slavery? It is actually a complex issue, one that could be addressed at great length, but for this post I will simply make four brief points:

First, the Bible does not present slavery as an ideal feature of God’s creation. When God created the world, the institution of marriage was there in the beginning, with the headship of Adam demonstrated in the order of creation (man and then woman), in the authority of Adam to name his wife “woman” (and later “Eve”), and in God’s direct dealing with Adam as the party primarily accountable for his household subsequent to the fall. Marriage was established and ordered at the origin of humanity. But the institution of slavery was nowhere to be found in the Garden of Eden, nor will it be present in the new creation. God did not design us for that institution, and Scripture makes it clear that, where the institution exists, it exists as part of a fallen world.

Second, where God gives laws pertaining to slavery in the Old Testament, those laws do not establish the institution, but they do regulate it in ways that offer protections to slaves. In the ancient world, if your people were defeated in a war, or if you ended up with a debt that you could not pay, slavery might have been the best option available to you. The alternative was often death. So the institution served an important social function, but God gave laws—such as mandatory Sabbath rest or limited terms of servitude—that regulated slavery in the Old Testament in humanitarian ways.

Third, the commands of the New Testament to slaves say nothing about whether slavery itself is good or bad. New Testament commands simply direct those already living under the Roman institution of slavery on how to live godly lives, given their situation. In the context of the first century Roman Empire, in which numerous injustices prevailed and in which Christians had virtually no power to do anything about them, the New Testament calls upon believers living under oppressive systems to endure with patience the injustices that they cannot change. It likewise calls upon those with power over others (e.g., slave owners) to wield their power for the good of those under their authority.

The New Testament does not advocate the overthrow of society’s established structures. Rather, it assumes that believers can live faithfully before God in the context of them, which would necessarily involve living distinctively as Christians with respect to some commonly accepted practices. For example, slave owners in the Roman Empire were accustomed to having sexual power over their slaves. The New Testament, following the Old, holds the sacred bond of marriage as the only legitimate context for sexual intimacy, and thus assumes that Christian slave owners should never abuse their slaves sexually nor violate their own marriage covenants. This ethical principle is an implication of Paul’s (radical) teaching that not only does a husband have authority over his wife’s body (which was commonly assumed), but that she also has authority over his body (1 Cor. 7:4). Whether he owned slaves or not, his body belonged to his wife alone. Thus, we have no direct mandate in the New Testament for immediate abolition of slavery, but we do have ethical assumptions and teachings that would clearly distinguish obedient Christian slave owners from the majority of pagan slave owners.

Fourth, while it is true that no New Testament author commands masters to free their slaves, freed slaves were often no better off in the first century Roman context. In fact, they could often be worse off. Freed slaves were not automatically granted the privilege of Roman citizenship, which in turn would have granted them the protections of due process. So a freed slave could end up being no better off socially, in addition to being cut off from the social unit (the household) that had formerly given him protection, provision, and at least some sense of belonging. The New Testament nowhere requires the manumission of slaves among Christians, but we shouldn’t assume that manumission in that context would have been the best legal option for slaves across the board.

In the modern world, many things have changed, and in the 150 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States, we can now look back on that event as a major step of moral progress for our society. First century Christians simply lived in a different world, where abolition was not a realistic goal to pursue, and where freedom did not necessarily provide any better opportunities for slaves, and often left them more vulnerable to harm.

Slavery is a complex issue, and that makes the Bible’s various teachings on it complex. So don’t let someone shake your confidence in the Bible by raising, in a simplistic manner, the slavery objection.

Published by Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.

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