One of the most dishonest assertions from skeptics is to refer to the Bible’s references to slavery as approving of oppressive slavery by God. The most important thing to do when considering the words of critics is extreme skepticism of every single word from their mouths since these initially must approach the Bible with prejudice. Bible-believing Christians in the nineteenth century worked to overcome and outlawed chattel slavery in Great Britain and the United States. At the same time, so-called “Christians,” Muslims, pagans, and unbelievers enslaved and traded slaves.
Becoming a Slave in the Bible
Was slavery allowed in the Bible? According to the Old Testament, the Israelites had a number of instructions for servant work and labor laws. No servants could come from being kidnapped and enslaved (Exod 21:16; Deut 24:7). Enslaving others was contrary to the law and worthy of death.
There were only three ways that one could become a slave or an indentured servant. First, one could go into slavery for a crime like thievery (Exod 22:2–3). Second, Israel’s officials placed war criminals into slavery (Deut 20:10–15). No extensive prison system exist among ancient people. Third, some sold themselves as indentured servants because of their poverty and debt (Lev 25:39–40; cf. Matt 18:21–35). Likewise, the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
However, servanthood also had its benefit for those in poverty to receive pay from masters and learn a new trade. In the ancient world, the liability of debt did not fall to loss toward the lender after everything was repossessed. The debt was paid in work. Furthermore, the release of a bondservant often meant benefits of partnership for their masters in the ancient world (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2003).
The Treatment of Bond-Servants
Israelites were to treat other Israelites as hired servants or indentured servants and not really “slaves.” Moses recorded, “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a bond-servant: he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee” (Lev 25:39–40). Those selling the labor of themselves were not “slaves” but indentured servants. Furthermore, a person sold themselves, and in this sense, became representative of debt and property to the master (Exod 21:21).
The “slavery” that God allowed was not like slavery as most people understand. Slaves who ran away were not to be returned to their master. God instructed through Moses, “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him” (Deut 23:15–16).
How could this be slavery? Should they not be considerate of another person’s property and return the slave? Evidently, this was not the case with God’s just form of “slavery.” These “slaves” could run away from an abusive master and no one could force their return.
One of these misused passages of the Bible is the one where Israel could buy and possess servants of the surrounding nations (Lev 25:44–45). This slavery was against the surrounding nations for their crimes. These nations were evil oppressing most, practicing idolatry, and engaging in long lists of immoral behavior.
Biblical “Slaves” and their Rights
Did these “slaves” and servants have rights? These “slaves” did have rights. Could the master beat the slave? If a master beat and injured a slave, then the slave many times received freedom and always justice. Moses commanded, “When a man strikes the eye of his servant, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth” (Exod 21:26–27).
Those who beat their slaves to death were put to death (Exod 21:20). Their masters could not have sexual relationships with their servants unless under marriage, and then that person who married a slave was to recognize that person as a spouse and not as a servant (Lev 19:20). Does that sound like the abuses of slavery that have occurred in the recent centuries?
Readers can better understand these “slaves” as bondservants. They had religious rights to observe what God had commanded. They were to observe the Feasts and they were to rest on the Sabbaths (Exod 20:10; Deut 16:9–17). The Law of Moses commanded, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18).
The Duration of Biblical “Slavery”
Were these “slaves” bound for life? The Scripture written around the U.S. Liberty Bell records the biblical year of Jubilee, the 50th year, when all bondservants were set free (Lev 25:10). Israel emancipated bondservants every fifty years. Moses instructed, “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (Lev 25:10).
Even with this year of Jubilee, Hebrew servants were only bound to serve up to six years before being released and he was not to go without his family or empty handed but the master was to give to that servant liberally (Exod 21:2). Moses revealed,
If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. (Deut 15:12–14)
That is not how masters have treated slaves in recent centuries. In the Old Testament, bondservants who desired to continue working for their lords could continue doing so by having one’s ear pierced (Deut 15:16–17). “Slavery” in the Bible resembles more of an employer and employee relationship rather than chattel slavery.
The Bible and the Condemnation of Enslaving
The Bible is aggressive toward those who enslave others against their will. Those men who kidnap and steal other people selling them into slavery were to be put to death. Moses commanded, “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers, of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 24:7).
If someone paid for a servant who was forced into slavery, then the buyer was also to be put to death. Moses instructed, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (Exod 21:16). No one was to oppress anyone for their race or nationality (Lev 19:34; Deut 24:14). Leviticus 25 teaches that an Israelite could sell himself to a foreigner in the land but his family must be allowed to redeem him (25:47–49).
All of these instructions regarding slavery made it hard to possess and maintain actual “slaves,” and prevented abuses and oppression, but this practice offered alternatives for those in debt and justice to those guilty of crimes.
Before the Law of Moses, there remain no records of God’s regulations given to Abraham. However, the Scriptures show that Abraham had servants and was going to turn his inheritance over to one of them if he did not have an heir (Gen 14:14–15; 15:2–3; 24:2). Even during this time when God spoke to Patriarchs, Job wrote about how he, Job, was equal to his servant being made by God (Job 31:13–15).
Jesus and Slavery
What did Jesus reveal about slavery? In the New Testament, Jesus did not condemn anyone possessing a bondservant. Did Jesus approve of abuse, racism and, or enslavement? No. The New Testament condemned abusive and oppressive slavery as against Christian values. In 1 Timothy 1:9–10, the apostle Paul condemned enslaving or “men-stealers.” However, many are confused by the instruction for “slaves,” servants, to obey their “masters” and to work heartily (Col 3:22–24). Furthermore, God warned that the masters of these servants would be judged by God if they did not give to them fairly (Col 4:1). Within the context of the Old Testament instructions and the Greco-Roman world, servants were better to prosper and come to freedom for their master’s sake (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2003).
The Christians Scriptures encourage servants to seek freedom if they can (1 Cor 7:21–24). The New Testament Scriptures instruct Christian bondservants to serve their masters well as bondservants of Christ, and these are principles easily applied to labor today (Eph 6:5–8). Peter instructed,
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. (1 Pet 2:18–20 ESV)
In the New Testament, “masters” or managers are instructed not to give up their servants, but to treat them good like unto the Lord and recognize who is their master, the Lord in Heaven (Eph 6:9). This would imply in the context of the Old Testament that “slaves” were actually servants of whom some were indentured.
In one of the books of the New Testament, Paul wrote to a Christian whose servant ran away. Paul wrote Philemon about his runaway servant, Onesimus. Paul compelled Onesimus to return to Philemon who was helping Paul in prison. Paul asked Philemon not to receive Onesimus as a servant but as a brother. Paul also asked Philemon to charge that Onesimus’s debt to him and accept Onesimus as himself, a partner, since Philemon was in debt to Paul. Onesimus was most likely indentured to Philemon for debt.
Slavery and the Influence of Christianity
Bound and free are equal in Christ. Paul revealed, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bound nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27–28). There were still these differences and different roles between people in wealth, service, age, and gender, but societal position was apart from God’s inheritance that all Christians possess equally. Christianity is about conquering opposing authorities through enduring faith and not by physically rising up against hostile governments.
There is a just “slavery” and an unjust slavery, and God allows a just form of “slavery.” His laws are perfect in giving instructions. These laws would have served the world great justice if modern man-made these laws current and enforced them in recent centuries. However, because of the Bible, slavery came to an end. Because of Christian pleas, the early colonies of the United States restricted slave trade in the American Revolution, the first national Congress regulated the slave trade in the Slave Trade Act of 1794, and the legislation of the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807 until the Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery.
Slavery exists now in illegal trafficking. Furthermore, debts enslave many people to work two or three jobs a week. Criminals are justly forced to labor for very little pay to pay the state as they sold themselves into slavery by their crimes.
Slaves of Jesus Christ
The New Testament teaches that everyone is enslaved to either evil or God. Paul expressed,
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:16–18)
Everyone is either a slave to sin and a slave to righteousness. Those who are enslaved to Christ are free from sin. There is no between. Paul declared, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom 6:22). Paul revealed, “For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:22–24).
“The truth will set you free,” proclaimed Jesus Christ (John 8:32).