Does the Bible condone slavery?

The claim: The Bible condones slavery.

Not surprisingly, since the Bible’s morality was of its time, slavery is not condemned there. Even the New Testament is full of exhortations like:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. (Ephesians 6: 5)

Here’s another:

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. (1 Timothy 6)

Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 126). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Introduction

One of the cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian worldview and something that differentiates it from other worldviews is the image of God. It is the belief of Christians that every human being has been made in the image of God and that every single life was created by God and planned in his mind. It is for this reason that Christians cannot condone abortion, racism or slavery. It is for this reason that William Wilberforce led the coalition to abolish slavery in the British West Indies in 1807.

Most of the issues atheists such as Dr. Dawkins have with the Bible are due to taking verses out of context. If we pick a verse here and a verse there, as was done above, it is very easy to make an argument. In this counterargument to Dawkins’s claims, we will consider the context - textual and cultural.

Philemon: A Book to a Slave Owner

Do you know there is a book in the bible written to a slave owner? Surely an entire letter written by Paul on the topic will give us a clearer picture than two verses picked out of different books. Let me introduce you to Philemon.

Philemon was a first-century Christian and most likely a rich man. The reason I presume this is because he was a slave owner. The book tells of how his slave Onesimus who has run away ends up in Rome, where he meets Paul in prison. In the short letter, Paul writes to Philemon in a plea for Onesimus’s freedom. He writes:

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

It is clear from Paul’s writing that in the Judeo-Christian worldview a slave is equal to his master, “a dear brother”.

Slavery in the Old Testament

In the time of the Old Testament, slavery was a common practice throughout the world. One law that set Israel apart from other nations was that slaves in Israel were to be set free every seven years. This law is found in Exodus 21:2:

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.

There was also a provision for a slave who wanted to remain in his position. We must remember that it may well have been better off, in some circumstances, for a person to remain a slave, in these times. Having regular food and shelter may well have been a luxury in some cases. We see this possibility in Exodus 21:6:

But if the servant declares, 'I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free, then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.

A New Testament Slave

Slavery also took place in the New Testament, as it is still evident in our day. In some of the Asian countries I have lived in, I have seen house cleaners forced to live in tiny rooms and treated as slaves. Human trafficking is a huge problem in Vietnam and some of my friends spend their time freeing young women from slavery in China. There is no doubt this horrible practice continues. To the New Testament Christian, however, being a slave takes on a different meaning.

We can see this new meaning of slave in the following passages:

  • Ephesians 6:6: "not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.
  • Colossians 3:34: “knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”
  • 1 Peter 2:16: "Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.

Conclusion

Slavery in the modern-day is a horrible practice. Christians such as William Wilberforce dedicated their lives to its eradication. The Bible has been used and abused in the past to justify slavery, but the thing that sets the Judeo-Christian worldview apart from others is the fact that every human being has been made in the image and likeness of God and are equal in his sight.

Further resources:

Brandon Cleaver, a speaker at RZIM, has written an article about this topic that is worth a read if you would like to delve further into the topic! Here’s his video on the same subject: