Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

This past Sunday I preached on the Book of Philemon. Philemon has often been used as a book to say the Bible can’t be trustworthy because Paul endorsed slavery in telling a runaway slave (Onesimus) to return to his master (Philemon). In our day, statues of America’s forefathers who owned slaves are being torn down. No doubt, at some point, someone is going to demand the removal of books like Philemon or passages of Scripture like Ephesians 6 where slavery is not adamantly opposed. 

Since it is a one-week sermon, I didn’t have time to develop everything I would like to say about slavery so I thought I would develop it here for geeks like me that enjoy a little extra study. 

A number of years ago I attended a debate at a college between a Christian professor and an Atheist professor. The debate had a number of different subjects and the Christian professor held his ground really well until the issue of slavery came up. There were at least a thousand students in there and the Christian professor floundered. This guy was absolutely stumped. I wanted to get out of my seat and say something but, I didn’t quite know what to say either.

As I looked at that college audience that night, I realized that many of those students probably grew up going to some type of church. I wondered how their faith was shaken that night. Is this why so many young people end up leaving the church? Is one debate enough to bring doubt on a book they grew up believing is God’s inerrant, infallible, inspired, and authoritative word? 

Then, the other day, I see on social media this issue of slavery comes up again. It was reasoned that God encouraged slavery in the Book of Leviticus so how much could we really trust from that particular book in the Bible since everyone knows how evil slavery is?

The point that everyone seems to get stuck on is that, “The Bible condones slavery.” Let me be brutally honest in saying that nowhere in the Scriptures does God universally condemn slavery. Not one time. There is not one verse in the Bible that says slavery is evil and should not be practiced. If someone says that to you, they are not lying. Don’t go, “Yes it does condemn slavery” and start looking. You will look forever and it is not there.

In the Scriptures, there are times when human beings are considered to be property. Slave owners were permitted to beat their slaves without any penalty as long as the slave survived (Ex 21).

So, how do we deal with this? We need to answer this both biblically and historically. We need to bridge the gap between biblical slavery and colonial slavery. For you and me, the idea of slavery is built around European colonialism. When we think of slavery, we think of Africans and Asians being abducted or traded for in Africa and then brought over to work the sugar cane fields in the Caribbean or the cotton fields in America. Our framework of slavery is the mistreatment and oppression of Africans and Asians and that is accurate! This slavery is evil!

Throughout history, this type of slavery has been in existence so it’s hard not to think of slavery in anything but this light. In our day, human trafficking and the sex slave industry is more prevalent than many of us would like to admit. Young boys and girls are being sold at auction (and some even by their parents), kept against their will, and abused in wicked ways. So, to have this framework for slavery and then, to see that the bible doesn’t condemn slavery but actually gives permission to the Israelites to own slaves, it can easily shake our faith to the core and make us wonder how we can trust such a book.

Our framework for slavery prior to this current sex slave atrocity is colonial slavery. In that framework, the British were among the last ones to get involved in the slave trade. It was deplorable to them. The first historical record of the British being involved in slavery was in 1540 when a man hijacked a slave ship and, instead of setting the slaves free, he sailed it to the Caribbean and sold the slaves. Queen Elizabeth was furious and said, “That’s something that those Catholics do but not us.” She was referencing Portugal and Spain. And, no, I’m not saying Catholics approve slavery. It’s just a quote.

Then…The British overthrow Spain and Portugal in the Caribbean. You know what the Caribbean had? Sugar. You know what Europe doesn’t have? Sugar! They have honey and honey is good, but honey ain’t sugar!

When they take over the Caribbean, they take over the sugar cane fields. The English are so opposed to the slave trade, that they send the Irish to work the fields. What’s the problem with that? Look at your average Irish person and think of them working all day in the Caribbean sugar cane fields. They’ll burst into flames from the intensity of the sun because of their skin color! Irish skin doesn’t tan unless you count on freckles connecting the dots. Irish skin burns! So slowly, but surely, they begin to use Africans for their sugar.

At no point does slavery take root in England. It’s always distant from them so it’s easy to justify since they don’t see the horrors of it. Instead, you have sugar for your tea, you have cakes, and you have frosting. Again, honey is good, but honey doesn’t give you frosting for your cake!

When it comes to the colonization of the new world, they had cotton and tobacco. What the British learned in the Caribbean was that the Africans were excellent workers in the fields and that became our framework for slavery. But, you must understand that there are some big differences between Colonial slavery and what the scriptures speak when it speaks of slavery. Look at the comparative chart below:

Biblical Slavery Colonial Slavery
The enslaved person generally could not be identified by clothing, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. Slaves were black (and some Asians). If you were in SC in the 1600’s and saw a black man, he was not in business.
Educating slaves was seen as a smart business practice so they’d be more valuable. (Both Joseph and Daniel were slaves who ended up being 2nd in power.) Africans were seen as less than human. It was the late 1800’s before a black man is in congress.
Slaves could own land and have slaves working for them. Slaves had no rights.
Slaves could make money, save money, buy their freedom, purchase, and educate slaves. Slaves had no rights.
Some slaves were wealthy, others were poor All slaves were oppressed and poor.
People would frequently sell themselves into slavery in order to pay debt, get educated, or avoid poverty. They knew they would be released in the year of Jubilee. Masters were required to make sure their material needs were met prior to them given their freedom. They sang about the year of Jubilee for their freedom but never experienced it.
Generally speaking, they were not kidnapped from another land and forced into labor. They were all kidnapped from another land and forced into labor or they were born in slavery.
Holidays and festivals were extended to slaves
Limitations were placed upon the severity of physical beatings and freedom was given to any slave who was permanently injured.
Masters are continually admonished to move away from the slave/master relationship into more of a brother/brother.

Although there is no text that condemns slavery as a whole, colonial slavery is explicitly condemned in the Scriptures repeatedly as it speaks loudly against nations going out and abducting people from foreign lands and making them slaves. The idea of taking someone from their home and making them your slave was viewed as wicked and God used Israel to punish those countries and, in some cases, destroy them.

Israel was a safety zone for runaway slaves. If you escaped slavery and made it into Israel, you were a free man. What you’ll see over and over for God’s people is to serve, feed, love, and embrace the alien, the stranger, and the sojourner. Think of the seeds that are being sown as God says, “If you make it into Israel, you’re free.” This is a shadow of what is to come.

As Paul writes the Book of Philemon, you have Paul who led a runaway slave named Onesimus to Christ and he sends him back to his master Philemon. In Philemon 1:16 Paul encourages Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord. Not temporarily, but forever.

When Paul writes to the slaves to obey their masters and to the masters to treat their slaves kindly, that does not mean he universally condones slavery. The reality is that most historians indicate that anywhere from one fourth to one third of the Roman society were slaves. Paul was writing a letter to a church that had slaves and masters in it. In writing the letter, he wasn’t trying to change a political system but instructing Christians how to live in a way that honors God in the midst of wicked and perverse generation.

So, when someone says the bible condones slavery, it does not condone slavery in the way we understand slavery. Slavery in the day this was written in can be loosely applied in our day as employment. I say loosely because we don’t have the equivalent model in our society.