What does the bible actually say about slavery

The biblical view of slavery?

One of the points that Evangelicals usually concede without a fight is that the bible is ‘wrong’ about slavery. This leads to those looking to challenge its teachings in other areas to believe they have the right to do so; ‘it’s wrong about slavery, so it can’t be taken seriously on X’.

Actually the bible’s view is by no means the pro-slavery teaching that many claim. My fully referenced 2000 word academical essay is available on request; this is a summary to help those who want to challenge the myth.

It’s important to separate the Old and New Testaments on this issue; the Old is providing laws for the operation of a society – the New is responding to an existing society. The Old is written with the perspective of the people of Israel having been slaves in Egypt – yet it still provides for ‘slavery’. So it’s only reasonable to ask what could motivate such a ‘cognitive dissonance’. And, as a first point, it’s notable that slaves who escape from surrounding countries are not to be returned.

There are two major sources of new slaves in the Old Testament; the indebted and the Prisoners of War. The former are those who, for whatever reason, owe more than they can pay. As a means of bankruptcy protection, they can be forced to sell themselves into slavery for a period of six years; at the end of that time, they’re free. As well as ‘civil’ debts; this also applies to the debt incurred by the thief who has to pay back 3 times what he stole – if he can’t pay, he’s enslaved. In effect it’s a privitised imprisonment system: the individual is taken into the household of someone able to pay for the miscreant and become that person’s responsibility. They will be gainfully employed, taken away from the environment where they got into trouble and hopefully rehabilitated as they are exposed to a more healthy household.

An interesting feature of this is what it means when a poor person steals to feed themselves. If they are put up for sale and nobody wants to buy them, then their indebtedness is cleared. So in a time of famine when noone wants to take on a slave, the poor can gain food with no penalty; note the contrast with Islam which endorses cutting the hand off the thief – discarding the individual from the society in effect.

Considering prisoners of war: they have to be dealt with. Even today, POWs can be required to work. So again enslaving them to individual households represents a way to deal with the problem.

The New Testament is set in a very different environment: the church is seeking to establish itself in a hostile world in which slavery is endemic and fundamental to the society’s operation. In this context it is totally unrealistic to suggest that the church should have campaigned against slavery; such an action would have resulted in its immediate extermination, as well as being an act of ‘judging the outsider’ which is condemned in 1 Cor 5. It is also important to note that a slave of a high status person was better off than a poor freeman; the phrase in the NT ‘a slave of Jesus Christ’ is actually a claim to very HIGH status. Given this context, it should not come as a surprise to us that Paul encourages slaves to be positive in their role as possible, creating a good reputation for the church. There is NT one verse that hints at a negative view of Rome’s model of slavery: 1 Tim 1:10 where ‘kidnappers’ are listed among the immoral – those are slavers who kidnapped people from beyond the frontier of Rome to become slaves in the Empire, an entirely honourable profession in those days – again, notably, something that Islam endorses for its believers to do.

I don’t claim this as bomb proof; there are passages in OT on the subject that are problematic. However in general the assumption that the bible is totally flawed on the issue of slavery is wrong, and we need to invite those who make such claims to argue it out, and not just concede the point.


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