Saturday, March 4, 2017

Does the Bible approve of slavery?

The Apostle Paul writes in three different letters on the topic of slavery and, in no instance, does he denounce the practice. To the Ephesians, he writes:
“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
To the Colossians:
“Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart” (Colossians 3:22).
And, to Philemon:
“For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back 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
(Philemon 15-16).
In fact, Paul sent Onesimus, a slave, back to his former master Philemon. Doesn’t that demonstrate that Paul approved of slavery?

How widespread was slavery?
Slavery pre-dated even first century Christianity by centuries and was widely practiced in the ancient world, from China and India to Greece and Rome. And, most cultures were accepting of the practice.[1] Some examples of slavery practiced in the ancient world include Egypt, where slaves were widely used for many purposes, including the building of the pyramids. Genesis 37 and 39 recount the story of Joseph, who was sold to traders[2] and purchased by an Egyptian.[3] In that instance, Joseph was apparently treated well.[4] During the war between the Persians and the Greeks around 481 BC, both armies employed slaves as soldiers.[5] Thousands of Jews were taken into slavery in AD 70 when the Romans conquered Judea.[6] So, it is a bit disingenuous for critics to single out early Christianity for not coming out forcefully against slavery. Nonetheless, Christians certainly did vigorously oppose the practice.

Who led the abolitionist movements?
The leading force behind the abolition of slavery in the British Empire was a devout Christian, William Wilberforce (1759-1833). He joined with Thomas Clarkson and others in the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade and was, for 20 years, parliamentary leader of this movement. Abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament was finally achieved in 1807.[7]  Wilberforce created two formal organizations in 1787: the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Society for the Reformation of Manners. His antislavery ideas arose not out of a background of secular liberalism but out of his religious beliefs.[8]

In American, one of the most well known voices in the abolitionist movement was Christian preacher Charles G. Finney (1782-1875), a leading figure in the Second Great Awakening. Finney stated:
“how could any man persist longer in its use without damning sin? So of slavery. As soon as light prevails on this subject, men can no longer go on in the same course of sustaining the system, without the greatest guilt.”[9]

Does slavery exist today?
The U. S. Department of State, in its 2006 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) annual report, stated “of the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children trafficked across international borders each year, approximately 80 percent are women and girls, and up to 50 percent are minors.” The report details some of the practices in specific nations, including:
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K. or North Korea) is a source country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.”
Problems are also present in modern day Sudan:
“Small numbers of Sudanese girls are reportedly trafficked within Sudan for domestic servitude, as well as for commercial sexual exploitation in small brothels in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. The terrorist rebel organization ‘Lord's Resistance Army’ (LRA) continues to abduct and forcibly conscript small numbers of children in Southern Sudan for use as cooks, porters, and combatants in its ongoing war against the Government of Uganda”
As well as in Burma:
Burmese men, women, and children are trafficked to Thailand, the People's Republic of China (the P.R.C.), Bangladesh, Malaysia, Korea, and Macau for sexual exploitation, domestic service, and forced labor -- including commercial labor.’
There are problems in many nations, even with some reports of forced labor in the United States by those promising international victims employment and educational opportunities. Many nations vigorously investigate and prosecute these cases; though, unfortunately some governments look the other way or even participate in this activity.[10]

Ideal versus permitted
One explanation for the seeming toleration for slavery in the Bible is that God’s ideal is for all people to be free, but given that slavery and similar forms of servanthood were widely practiced, He permitted the activity, with restrictions. For example, Colossians 4:1 states,
“Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.”
Another example of this principle of God’s dislike but toleration is found in the issue of divorce. God’s ideal is that marriage is sacred and He hates divorce[11]. However, because of the hardness of our hearts[12], God permits divorce in some situations[13].

The Bible does not approve of slavery.
Paul makes the point in Galatians that all people are equal in God’s sight:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
God rescued the Israelites from slavery:
“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15).
The point should be made that, when Paul admonished slaves to be obedient to their masters, “he is not thereby approving of the institution of slavery, but simply alluding to the de facto situation in his day.”[14] Furthermore, Paul encouraged Philemon to accept Onesimus back to him, not as a slave, but a “beloved brother”.

What did Jesus say?
We have no record that Jesus Christ spoke of slavery directly. However, it should be noted that He did not speak of other social issues directly, such as taxation or the rule of Palestine by the Romans. In fact, though He referred to tax collectors in less than favorable terms, Jesus paid his required taxes.[15] He also recognized that the poor would always be among us as well as recognizing, though not approving of, certain political situations.[16] Jesus intentionally did not work to change the social conditions on a large scale, but sought to convert one life at a time. Once a person is born again (John 3:3), he or she then is expected to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). So, although Jesus may not have specifically denounced slavery, he clearly taught how we should treat other people.

When Jesus walked the earth, He sought to reach people one at a time and change the heart first. The primary message of the Bible is not a top-down approach to societal change, rather bottom-up, one soul at a time. Numerous Bible verses instruct us to treat others well; in fact, Paul wrote that we should “regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Paul also wrote: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’" (Galatians 5:14). So, whereas slavery appears to be tolerated in the Bible, mistreatment of anyone is clearly condemned. We are commanded to treat all other persons with the highest dignity and respect.

[Biblical quotations are from the NASB version unless otherwise indicated.]

[1] D’Souza, Dinesh, What’s So Great About Christianity, (Washington, DC:  Regnery Publishing, 2007), p. 70.
[2]“ Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt” (Genesis 37:28).
[3] “Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there” (Genesis 39:1).
[4] “Joseph found favor in his sight and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge” (Genesis 39:4).
[5] Packer, J.I., Merrill C. Tenney and William White, Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts, (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), p. 151.
[6] Packer, p. 400.
[7]The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (Columbia University Press, 2008), cited on HighBeam Encyclopedia, accessed 8 Oct 2008, <>
[8] Encyclopedia of World Biography, (Gale Group, 2004), cited on HighBeam Encyclopedia, accessed 8 Oct 2008, <>
[9] Finney, Charles G., “Guilt Modified by Ignorance – Anti-Slavery Duties”, Reprinted from The Oberlin Evangelist, 1852,  The Gospel Truth website accessed 18 Oct 2008, <>
[10] U. S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, report dated June 5, 2006, accessed 13 Oct 2008, <>
[11]“’I hate divorce’, says the Lord God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16).
[12] “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
[13]I Corinthians 7
[14] Geisler, Norman, and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask (Wheaton, IL:  Victor Books, 1992), 510.
[15]“When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?’ When Peter said, ‘From strangers,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are exempt. However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and me’” (Matthew 17:24-27).
[16]‘Jesus said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. ‘But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all’” (Mark 10:42-44).

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