The Bible is clear: God endorses slavery.

There are at least seven passages in the Bible where God is depicted as directly permitting or endorsing slavery. Two of these are in the Law of Moses: God permitted the Israelites to take slaves from conquered peoples permanently, and the Israelites could sell themselves into slavery temporarily to pay off debts (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). The other five passages are in the New Testament, where slavery as a social institution is endorsed and slaves are called to obey their masters “in everything” (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18-20).

But slavery is viewed positively in Scripture well beyond these commands. Owning slaves was seen as a sign of God’s blessing (Gen 12:16; 24:35; Isa 14:1-2), and there are literally dozens of passages in the Bible that speak of slavery in passing, without comment. Slavery was simply part of life, and most people saw it as just the way things always were, even the divinely ordained order of things.

slaveAnd yes, in case there is any doubt, this was real slavery: “the slave is the owner’s property” (Exod 21:21). Both Old and New Testaments called for better treatment of slaves than many of the peoples around them, and the Law of Moses in particular called for better treatment of fellow Israelites as slaves. But slaves could be beaten (Exod 21:20-21; 1 Pet 2:18-20), and slaves could be taken as concubines (Gen 16:3-4; Exod 21:8-11) or even raped without serious consequence (Lev 19:20-22).

These passages are all pretty straightforward. One could even say that the Bible is clear on this: the institution of slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing. This has in fact been the Christian view through history: it’s only in the last 150-200 years that the tide of Christian opinion has shifted on slavery.

So why do Christians today believe slavery is wrong? Why don’t we believe “slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing,” even though the Bible is pretty clear on this?

Well, there are two main reasons, it seems to me.

The first reason is simply that our society has shifted on this. The reasons for this are complex, but in basic terms this shift has happened because 1) a vocal minority first called for the abolition of slavery, which 2) eventually prompted governments to enact legislation abolishing slavery, and 3) the simple passage of time has normalized this disapproval of slavery among us as a western society.*

It is instructive to read arguments back and forth between Christians on African slavery during the 19th century. Christians in support of slavery—mostly powerful white landowners—pointed to all the biblical texts I’ve outlined above, along with things they saw in the Bible that supported the inferiority of Africans in particular.

But a segment of Christians—former slaves and white activists—joined others in opposing slavery. These Christians emphasized biblical teachings like “love of neighbour” and the Golden Rule and all people created in God’s image and “there is no longer slave or free in Christ.” It took decades of arguing their case, often being shamed and vilified by opposing Christians—the dispute even touched off a bloody civil war—but eventually their view won out.

The passage of laws legalized their view, and the passage of time has normalized their view. We no longer worry about the social instability that abolishing slavery might cause, nor are we concerned that somehow we’re being unfaithful to God by not following the biblical teachings on slavery.

This points to the second main reason Christians today believe slavery is wrong in spite of the clear biblical passages that permit or endorse slavery: we have developed a different hermeneutic, a different way of reading the biblical texts on slavery.

The early Christian abolitionists paved the way. Rather than emphasizing the specific Bible passages that directly approve of slavery, they looked at other biblical texts and themes that they saw as more big-picture, more transcultural and timeless: the creation of humanity in the “image of God,” the “liberation” and “redemption” themes of the Exodus, the love teachings of Jesus, and the salvation vision of Paul. That is, they set the stage for a way of reading the Bible that was not grounded in specific texts of Scripture, but in a trajectory of “Exodus to New Exodus centred on Christ,” or “Creation to New Creation centred on Christ”—a larger biblical narrative with Jesus at its heart.

Nicolas Colombel, Hagar and Ishmael
Nicolas Colombel, Hagar and Ishmael in the Wilderness

And so when Christians today read the slavery passages in the Bible, this is what we do. “Sure,” we’ll say, “the Bible says this here—but we know from Genesis 1 that all people are created in God’s image, and we know from Galatians 3 that there is no longer slave or free in Christ, and don’t forget about God redeeming Israel from slavery and Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour as ourselves.”

In other words, we no longer take the slavery-approval passages as direct and straightforward teaching for all times and places. Rather we take these as instances of the way things were done in the past but not the way God really wants things to be. They are descriptive of what once was; they are not prescriptive of what is to be.

So the next time we hear someone talk about the “clear teaching of Scripture” on women’s roles, or saying that “the Bible is clear” on homosexuality, or whatever the topic might be, think about this: the Bible is at least as clear on slavery, yet thank God we no longer believe that slavery is God’s will. We’ve read the Bible, and we’re following Jesus.

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* I’m well aware that slavery still exists in the world, but I don’t know of any Christians who approve of it. Maybe that’s just because I don’t hang out with those Christians. I’m also well aware that the abolition of slavery has not brought about full freedom and equality and justice for people of African descent in the western world. My focus here is on the institution of slavery itself, but that’s just one side of the coin: racism, both personal and institutional, is the other, and is still ongoing. See also my comments below, in particular on whether recent western slavery was radically different in kind than ancient Greco-Roman slavery.

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6 thoughts on “The Bible is clear: God endorses slavery.

  1. I had a great question from a former student about this, essentially: “But wasn’t ancient Greco-Roman slavery different from recent western slavery? The latter was driven by racism and so was much nastier, but the former wasn’t and slaves could actually be pretty well-off.”

    Here’s my response:

    “Thanks for the note. Yes, I’m familiar with the perspective – I used to teach that…

    “However, I’m no longer convinced it’s actually helpful to make this kind of distinction between recent western slavery and ancient Greco-Roman slavery. Yes, it’s true that recent western slavery had a particular racist focus, which I noted in my blog post’s footnote (slavery’s been abolished, but the racism that was part and parcel of it still lingers on). But in the ancient Greco-Roman world most slaves were conquered peoples from the fringes of the Mediterranean – non-Romans, non-Greeks – and racism was certainly alive and well throughout the Roman empire. I’m not sure how different that particular aspect actually was between the two.

    “It’s also true that many ancient Greco-Roman slaves had it pretty good – household slaves were much better off than mine slaves, for example. But then, household servants in the US north could be treated almost like family, and were certainly far better off than those on the cotton plantations in the south. Again, not sure how helpful that distinction really is.

    “That’s especially so when you get down to the facts that I noted in the blog post. Ancient Greco-Roman slaves were slaves: they were bought and sold, the property of their owners. The basic perspective of that era goes back to Aristotle, who considered slaves ‘living tools’ who were born to be slaves (just as others were born to rule). Ancient Roman slaves were under the absolute authority of their master: yes, the expectation generally was that masters should be fair and kind to their slaves, but they could beat them, they could rape them, and in certain circumstances would be justified in killing them. Again, then, not really sure how helpful the distinction is between recent western slavery and ancient Greco-Roman slavery.

    “If I had to guess why some Christians feel compelled to make that distinction, I’d say it’s to make the Bible a little more palatable. But it is what it is, very much the product of the cultures in which its writings were written. Thankfully it’s also more than that, pointing us to Jesus.

    “My two cents.”

    Check out this Ancient History Encyclopedia article on “Slavery in the Roman World” for a nice summary of Greco-Roman slavery. This video by New Testament scholar Dale Martin is also helpful.

  2. Daniel Wallace

    As a young pastor and someone who works in the construction field I sometimes get questions surrounding the bible and slavery. Some of the questions I get are sincere but many are not, it seems that people are trying to diminish the relevance and authority of Scripture. For example “you say your God is good, doesn’t the Bible say slavery is good?” You would be surprised how much I get this type of question. I have responded in explaining that the two are quite different and the slavery we understood during the 1500-1800’s is not the same. For me the fact that Jesus or Paul or any other New Testament writer does not come hard against this institute but rather the actions within the institute reveal something. I believe that this reveals that the institute carried a purpose in society that was not evil (e.g. choosing to become a slave to pay off a debt). I owe money to the bank for my mortgage, if I cannot pay my debt they take my home. I work hard to make sure I make my payments, but one could say they own me (figuratively) until I pay my debt. I understand that there are similarities but I also know there are vast differences, slaves during the 1600’s did not have hope that after 6 years of service they would be set free (Jer 34:14-16, God condemns them for not following through with this). I appreciate your post in the comment section clarifying your position because I was a little confused reading your blog. I am not trying to be a jerk or condescending but I think your original post is misleading because the issue is not clear, there is too much biblical and historical evidence that suggests otherwise. For example, you said that you used to teach a particular view but recently changed your thinking, does that not point to the fact that the issue is a little more complex than “God clearly endorses slavery” ?

    I hope you don’t take my questions and comments as mean spirited, that is not my intent. I believe the Bible is both simple and profoundly complex, I will never fully understand all of its truths and thus I try my best to remain humble when talking about theology (I do not have it all figured out). I hold certain convictions that may be different than yours but am grateful that despite our differences we can celebrate the one clear truth: Jesus our risen saviour and Lord! Blessings on you brother!

    1. Hi, Daniel. Thanks for the comment.

      It seems to me that the only way you can hold the view you do about slavery in the Bible is through selective reading of the biblical texts. Leviticus 25:44-46 states pretty clearly that ancient Israelites could acquire permanent slaves – not just related to “paying off debts” – from the nations around them. These were their property, and they could even pass them on as property to their children. Other biblical texts speak quite directly about slave owners being able to beat their slaves (just not to death: Exod 21:20-21; 1 Pet 2:18-20) and even to take slaves as concubines (Gen 16:3-4; Exod 21:8-11) or for their own pleasure (though if you rape another man’s slave you’ll have to offer a guilt offering: Lev 19:20-22). Again, I encourage you to click through my post and read the biblical texts.

      As for the Bible being “clear” on slavery, I don’t really think it is – or, at least, it also offers a “minority report” in opposition to slavery that runs alongside the overwhelming approval of slavery (as I also note in the blog post). But my rhetorical point in the blog post was this: the Bible is at least as clear in endorsing slavery as it is in prohibiting women in ministry or condemning homosexuality (or prohibiting divorce or remarriage, or teaching a geocentric view of the universe, or any number of other things Christians have thought were “clear biblical teaching” over the centuries). If you got to my conclusion, I think that’s pretty “clear.” 🙂

      The issue, as with many such disagreements among Christians, comes down to what we believe the Bible is and how we think we should then read it. (Here’s a summary of my thoughts on this.) I really don’t have a problem with saying that the biblical writings present some ideas that are simply wrong. In other words, I don’t buy into a modern Evangelical notion of biblical inerrancy. The Bible doesn’t have to be true in everything to be true in pointing us to Jesus and the gospel. This perspective doesn’t diminish my love or regard for the Bible one bit: in fact, I’ve spent my entire adult life reading and studying the Bible, and I read and study the Bible every day in order to know Jesus more fully, to follow him more faithfully, and to preach the gospel more boldy.

      So amen, brother: Jesus is our risen Saviour and Lord!

      1. Daniel Wallace

        Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comments and questions. I did re read your post and looked through the various texts. I did some further research on the history and institute of slavery and even looked extensively at Leviticus 25. I do believe that the language of bought, traded, and so on is very misleading. Paul Copan uses modern day athletes to illustrate the misuse of language, for example owners buy and sell players (obviously two very different things but the point is that language does not always tell the tale). Further, Boaz is said to acquire (the same verb used in Lev 25:44) Ruth and they were equals (Ruth 4:10). Also, if you read all of Leviticus 25 it shows that these slaves or bondservants could purchase their own freedom (vs. 47) if they acquired enough means. I could go on but I am sure you have heard all the arguments considering you once taught this position so me writing them out is probably not going to convince you. I do want to thank you for making me think critically of the text, I have really enjoyed studying this and reading through various old testament passages. I may have come out with a different conviction than you on this but I am grateful for being sharpened (Prov 27:17) by a fellow brother in Christ.

        I did read through a few of your blog posts and appreciate your passion for Christ and the Gospel (His kingdom coming, among other things). I admittedly hold a much different hermeneutic than yours and we likely would disagree on quite a few outside the fence issues but nevertheless I am thankful that we share the most important common ground 🙂 I think too often within Christianity we can isolate ourselves from anything that disagrees with us and we end up missing out on growth. I hope to always be in dialogue with those that hold different biblical positions than me, keeps me humble, on my toes and a better pastor. Blessings on you and your ministry.

        Your brother in Christ

  3. Henk John Kuipers

    As i read your blog the whole “homosexual” question was in the back of mind. I struggle with the idea that two loving people of the same sex, who have committed their lives together is wrong. Yet there are 7 seven texts in the bible that state that to some extent or another. Some of these seven texts can be dismissed as referring to gang rape which is obviously wrong and not within the dynamics of a committed relationship.. Others can be questioned because of translation issues, but there are two or three that just cannot be ignored. Yet, i have always struggled why would God consider a committed loving same-sex relationship wrong?
    Like you related on our present day views on slavery, despite the specific passages that say otherwise, we may need to take a more over arching view on these type of relationships. Yet, i am worried about the slippery slope of going down that road.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom,
    Still wrestling.

    1. Yes, that’s the concern a lot of Christians share, isn’t it? But this isn’t a “free-for-all” in biblical interpretation or ethics. Christian advocates of same-sex marriage that I know are not saying that promiscuity, infidelity, exploitation, and abuse are acceptable – because those behaviours are condemned throughout Scripture and incompatible with the life and teaching of Jesus. I’ve been working with a “read the Bible to follow Jesus” approach for some time now, and although it creates a different set of parameters than a typical “plenary inerrant Scripture” sort of view it does work – and I happen to think it is closer to the way the Apostles thought of things. Check out my general post on the Bible here, or my recent post on “canon within the canon” here. If you want a more academic approach to this you can check out my book chapter on “Scripture and Tradition” here.

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