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.
And 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.
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.
* 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.