The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound...
- Isaiah 61:1
Slavery is an ugly part of human history.
It’s no secret that our own country continues to struggle with the shadow of slavery's legacy from our nation's beginnings.
The practice is as old as civilization and, unfortunately, it remains a problem even into the modern era around the world through the sex trade and other forms of human trafficking.
As such, slavery is a part of the historical context of the Bible.
What is the Bible’s Stance on Slavery?
However, upon a closer examination it is not difficult to find that this is not the case at all.
Unbelievers will frequently point to the Old Testament’s content in an attempt to discredit the Bible’s moral message. Admittedly, lots of bad stuff is recorded in the Old and New Testaments. Murder, war, rape, incest, slavery, the list just goes on and on.
But just because these heinous acts took place and are mentioned in the Bible this does not mean that God approves of these deeds. Context often reveals that God actually condemns such actions.
Additionally, it can be counter-argued that the writers of the Bible were obligated to record these events as part of disclosing Truth, thus solidifying their reliability and the credibility of the Word of God. Wouldn’t the Bible be far more questionable if its authors stated that nothing horrible ever happened? Wouldn’t that be far less believable if that were the case?
We must acknowledge that the Bible reveals the ugly truth about the fallen nature of mankind. The human race is separated from God due to sin.
Isaiah 59:1-2 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; Nor His ear heavy, That it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear.
We are collectively and individually imperfect and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
The Bible reinforces this timeless truth by unflinchingly showing us humanity at its worst. Thus, it is little wonder that horrid acts such as slavery are included in its text.
Slavery in Israelite Society
One would think that it would be hypocritical of the Israelites to have slaves after 400 years of captivity in Egypt, but we see in the Old Testament that the Israelites did have slaves.
However, we see time and time again that the Israelites were regularly reminded that they were once slaves in the land of Egypt (For example: Deuteronomy 5:15, 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22). Perhaps this would account for the very different treatment that slaves received while in service to the Hebrew nation.
It is interesting to notice that the guidelines laid out for slavery in Hebrew society were very different from what we recognize slavery as today. “Slavery” under the Old Testament Law was more akin to indentured servitude than what we think of as slavery today.
For this part of the lesson, let's notice the differences between conventional slavery and the type of slavery practiced by the Israelites.
First of all Hebrews that had slaves did not seek them out and enslave them by force. In fact, this practice was condemned by God.
Exodus 21:16 He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.
Deuteronomy 24:7 If a man is found kidnapping any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and mistreats him or sells him, then that kidnapper shall die; and you shall put away the evil from among you.
In some cases during Old Testament times, slavery was considered an alternative to poverty, even in Israelite society! Some servants submitted their services as a means to escape their lack or to pay off debts. Thus, they were given a salary and they could even eventually work their way out of their contracts of servitude
Leviticus 25:39-43 And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.
Leviticus 25:47-53 Now if a sojourner or stranger close to you becomes rich, and one of your brethren who dwells by him becomes poor, and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner close to you, or to a member of the stranger’s family, after he is sold he may be redeemed again. One of his brothers may redeem him; or his uncle or his uncle’s son may redeem him; or anyone who is near of kin to him in his family may redeem him; or if he is able he may redeem himself. Thus he shall reckon with him who bought him: The price of his release shall be according to the number of years, from the year that he was sold to him until the Year of Jubilee; it shall be according to the time of a hired servant for him. If there are still many years remaining, according to them he shall repay the price of his redemption from the money with which he was bought. And if there remain but a few years until the Year of Jubilee, then he shall reckon with him, and according to his years he shall repay him the price of his redemption. He shall be with him as a yearly hired servant, and he shall not rule with rigor over him in your sight.
The regulations that God set before the Hebrews in regards to treatment of these slaves were humane in nature. The slave’s health and well-being were always considered in these laws, which is a stark contrast to the barbaric treatment slaves received in other nations at the time.
In regard to runaway slaves, study further reveals that Israelites were commanded to give them compassionate treatment.
Deuteronomy 23:15-16 You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.
This is another major difference between slavery in the Israelite culture and other cultures of that time. Historically, escaped slaves were known to be treated even more harshly by wrathful masters.
It’s also interesting to see that the relationships between the Israelite masters and their slaves were sometimes more akin to that of extended family members. Occasionally, slaves were so well treated by Hebrew masters that they did not want to leave!
Deuteronomy 15:12-18 If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord your God has blessed you with, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today. And if it happens that he says to you, ‘I will not go away from you,’ because he loves you and your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do likewise. It shall not seem hard to you when you send him away free from you; for he has been worth a double hired servant in serving you six years. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.
Jesus and Slavery
But we recognize that during Jesus’ time on Earth, many of Jesus’ followers were similarly disappointed by the fact that Jesus wasn’t a revolutionary who had come to overthrow the Roman government and establish an Earthly kingdom (Matthew 22:21).
Perhaps - keep in mind that this is merely speculation on my part - Jesus recognized that oppression would always be a problem that would plague mankind, like poverty (Mark 14:7). Regardless of Jesus' reasoning, we know that throughout His Earthly ministry that Jesus put greater emphasis on spiritual matters over physical, Earthly matters. Jesus came to save souls, not reform society (John 18:36).
However, Jesus recognized that action results through the conditioning of the heart (Luke 6:45). Even though Jesus did not actively promote the liberation of slaves, it is important to realize that Jesus’ teachings laid the ideological groundwork for future generations who would rightly oppose slavery. Don’t forget that American abolitionists were predominantly Christians who were inspired by the Word of God to put an end to slavery.
It is a fundamental teaching of Christianity that through Christ all – regardless of race, gender, or social status – are considered equal.
Colossians 3:9-11 Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
Galatians 3:28 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Abolitionists regularly acknowledged this truth as they sought to free slaves and grant them equal status within the United States.
"The slave-holder's rule contradicts this fundamental truth of God's word, that 'God has made of one blood all the nations of men,' and if of one blood, they are of equal blood." – Jonathan Blanchard (1811-1892)
While it is true that American slave-owners (who identified themselves as Christians) sought to justify the practice of slavery by utilizing the Bible, we recognize that anyone can attempt to twist Scripture to their advantage
2 Peter 3:16 …As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.
The fact that these wicked individuals would seek to distort God’s Word to justify their wrong-doing hardly serves as evidence of Christ’s approval of slavery.
Paul and Slavery
Ephesians 6:5-9 Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
This passage, critics assert, indicates that Paul considered slavery acceptable. They fail to take into consideration that, like Jesus, Paul was concerned with the spiritual rather than the physical. The audience Paul was addressing in this passage was under Roman rule and slavery was a reality that had to be dealt with during that time, like it or not. Therefore Paul teaches Roman slaves and masters how they ought to conduct themselves as Christians.
1 Corinthians 7:21-23 Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.
At first glance it would be easy to misinterpret Paul’s comment, “Do not be concerned about it…” as indifference to the plight of those in the bondage of slavery. Again, however, just like Jesus, Paul is focused on the spiritual rather than the physical. Slaves through the ages could take comfort in the fact that in spite of their Earthly slavery they were counted freedmen in Christ. Additionally, Paul went on to say “…but if you can be made free, rather use it” and “do not become slaves of men”. That does not sound like support for slavery to me.
Another instance that Paul’s critics seize upon as evidence for his apparent support of slavery is the book of Philemon. If you do not recall, this book of the Bible is actually a letter Paul wrote while in prison to Philemon who may have been a leader in the Colossian church.
Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who had apparently departed from his master and somehow crossed paths with Paul. In his letter, Paul explains that he is sending the runaway slave back to Philemon, which is where some find fault with Paul, claiming that he was in the wrong for doing this.
However, a closer reading reveals that Paul speaks very favorably on the behalf of Onesimus, who had become a Christian during his time with the apostle.
Philemon 1:15-16 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Paul appeals to Philemon’s conscience and encourages him to embrace his former slave as a fellow Christian!
Philemon 1:21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Reading through the letter in its entirety, one can clearly see that Paul all but commands Philemon to do the right thing and set Onesimus free!
Finally, if Paul supported slavery, why in the world would he include the practice in his listing of lawless, ungodly, and profane deeds?
1 Timothy 1:8-10 But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine…
The NIV translates “kidnappers” as “slave traders” while the ESV says “enslavers”.
Taking this all into consideration, it is not difficult to reason that Paul was not a supporter of slavery.
Slavery to Sin
John 8:34 Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.
How do we Free Ourselves from the Bondage of Sin?
If sinning, giving in to our own desires and lusts, is what causes us to be slaves to sin it just makes sense that we would give up sin, right? Furthermore we would repent of sin and seek to not be ensnared by it any longer. Christ offers us forgiveness of our former sins. When we are baptized (a reenactment of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection – Romans 6:3-11) we become free from sin!
Romans 6:5-7 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin.
Slaves Once More?
However, what if we do not repent or, even worse, turn back to sin after becoming a Christian? If we are not careful, this could become the case when we allow ourselves to once again succumb to that which tempts us. We can once again be brought into the bondage of sin.
2 Peter 2:18-20 For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning.
Think of how sad it would be to have once been a slave who had escaped a harsh master only to willfully put on the shackles of bondage again. It would be similarly tragic (and incomprehensible) that one would become free from sin only to willfully return to its entanglements. And yet, so many do just that!
Slaves to Righteousness
It sounds odd, but the Bible tells us that the alternative to one form of spiritual slavery is yet another.
Roman 6:16-23 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The text compares physical bondage to spiritual slavery. We are told that we have but two choices in this matter: Slavery to sin or slavery to righteousness. The contrast between being a slave of sin and a slave to righteousness couldn't be greater.
We could choose to serve our own lusts and desires and thereby become slaves of sin, rightfully earning the wages described in the previous passage. Or, we could pursue the alternative and submit ourselves to God, commit our life to Him, and thereby attain the gift He freely offers.
Enslavement to sin only results in death while submission to Christ leads to everlasting life. The right choice is obvious. Rather than being slaves of sin, we ought to commit ourselves to Christ and become slaves of righteousness!
Not only does Christ offer us salvation from the bondage of sin, but He even offers us a chance to be an heir of God.
Galatians 4:6-7 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
Reading this passage I can't help but think of the servants of the Israelites we studied earlier in the lesson who so loved their masters that they chose to stay and were made part of the family.
Similarly, God is a just master who loves and treats His servants as His family.
Why wouldn't we choose to serve such a God?