Are we guilty of moral relativism when it comes to slavery?

I know this topic has been covered a ton.
We believe in absolute moral objectivity. Rape is still wrong regardless of the historical, geographical and cultural location it was performed. Although I know that the slavery that is used in the Bible is not how we think about slavery today. As John MacArthur put it, slavery was more of a solution for the impoverish without destroying the family construct.

How can we answer the problem of slavery within the Bible without appearing self contradicting? I know that context is king. But are we using the context of the times in the Old Testament to justify, by term, slavery? Or is this issue more of a semantic problem?

Thank you

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Hi, Richard!

As you said, slavery was different in the Bible days, so if you’re trying to answer someone’s questions, make sure to bring up the fact that slavery was different back then. Not only was it culturally acceptable, it was also not always a matter of enslaving only different races (although POWs and the like often became slaves).

All in all, though, your question was a little confusing and I’m not entirely sure what it is you’re asking. Do you think you could rephrase it?


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Yes, we can’t submit to moral relativity.
But when skeptics ask about slavery in the Old Testament, we say along the lines of, “well it’s not actually wrong because it wasn’t the same type of slavery”
Then they reply along the lines of “well aren’t you using the times in the Old Testament to relativize and justify slavery?”

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Moral relativism isn’t necessarily the right term. Context is the right term. You can’t impose 21st century cultural norms on ancient peoples. It is important to define terms as well. Ask “what do you mean by slavery?” I know it sounds silly, but defining terms is important. Biblically speaking, kidnapping someone to force them into slavery is condemned in Deut. 24:7. Indentured servitude or captured peoples as a result of warfare was different. Indentured servitude (selling one’s self or family member in order to feed them or to survive) was a form of mercy and was a common occurrence all over the world (for an interesting story read about Nathaniel Bowditch). This type of “slavery” was used as a means of survival when one couldn’t provide for themselves. If one was, for lack of a better word, POW then being kept as a slave was also a form of mercy. Warfare in that time in history meant if you lost a war then your country was taken from you, leaving you no land in which to grow crops, no home, no support network to live. Slavery in this case was also merciful because the alternative would have been death. Regardless, there were strict laws in treatment of slaves. They were not to be abused in any way and were to be cared for and offered freedom in the Jubilee. This allowed these destitute people a chance at life and a way to get their feet under them before being released. Again, this is a different time in history in a cultural setting that is completely different than our own. Hope this helps.


Ahh yes this actually helps a lot! Thank you for your answer.

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Why is it that the founders of our country who owned slaves and were knowledgeable about the Bible did not practice the year of Jubilee and set their slaves free?

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From the great discussions above, slavery in this country was always sin. It was human trafficking and as discussed above would earn the death penalty in the Old Testament. Even in the New Testament 1 Timothy 1:10 refers to menstealers along with whoremongers, liars, etc. Jubilee wouldn’t apply; it only applied to the legitimate and humanitarian forms of slavery mentioned above.

The result of this did not end with the Civil War. This country’s continuation of the sin of dehumanizing men and women of a specific race continued. Laws that gave ex-slaves full rights were stripped by those who refused to support or accept full equality of ex-slaves. We suffer the results of that sin today.

Therefore, any attempt to justify US slavery is no better than attempts to justify any other sin. I think moral relativism re any activity is just another attempt to deny the word of God. If the Bible has ruled on it, it is our instruction. God is not a respecter of persons no matter the importance of the people involved.

Many slave owners repented and set their slaves free before the Civil War. Repentance is the grace that God provides for any sin. Trying to justify a sin (by moral relativism) will leave us in the sin since we can’t justify ourselves.

Unfortunately, the church was not always true to the word of God but some were, especially Northern Methodists who preached against slavery as did their founder Wesley. That is in keeping with the church today wherein some separate over the Biblical position on gender identity. Thank God there was/is always a remnant of true believers.

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