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What the Old Testament says about slavery
First, we must recognize that the Bible does not say God supports slavery. In fact, the slavery described in the Old Testament was quite different from the kind of slavery we think of today - in which people are captured and sold as slaves. According to Old Testament law, anyone caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed:
"He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16)
So, obviously, slavery during Old Testament times was not what we commonly recognize as slavery, such as that practiced in the 17th century Americas, when Africans were captured and forcibly brought to work on plantations. Unlike our modern government welfare programs, there was no safety-net for ancient Middle Easterners who could not provide a living for themselves. In ancient Israel, people who could not provide for themselves or their families sold them into slavery so they would not die of starvation or exposure. In this way, a person would receive food and housing in exchange for labor.
The Irrational Atheist by Vox DaySo, although there are rules about slavery in the Bible, those rules exist to protect the slave. Injuring or killing slaves was punishable - up to death of the offending party.1 Hebrews were commanded not to make their slave work on the Sabbath,2 slander a slave,3 have sex with another man's slave,4 or return an escaped slave.5 A Hebrew was not to enslave his fellow countryman, even if he owed him money, but was to have him work as a hired worker, and he was to be released in 7 years or in the year of jubilee (which occurred every 50 years), whichever came first.6 In fact, the slave owner was encouraged to "pamper his slave".7
What the New Testament says about slavery
Since many of the early Christians were slaves to Romans,8 they were encouraged to become free if possible, but not worry about it if not possible.9 The Roman empire practiced involuntary slavery, so rules were established for Christians who were subject to this slavery or held slaves prior to becoming Christians. The rules established for slaves were similar to those established for other Christians with regard to being subject to governing authorities.10 Slaves were told to be obedient to their master and serve them sincerely, as if serving the Lord Himself.11 Paul instructed slaves to serve with honor, so that Christianity would not be looked down upon.12
As with slaves, instructions were given to their masters as to how they were to treat their slaves. For example, they were not to be threatened,13 but treated with justice and fairness.14 The text goes on to explain that this was to be done because God is the Master of all people, and does not show partiality on the basis of social status or position.13, 14
There is an interesting letter in the New Testament (Philemon15-21) that gives some insight into the problems encountered in the early Christian church regarding the issue of slavery. Paul, the author of the letter, is writing from a Roman prison awaiting trial.15 He is writing to Philemon, who runs a local Christian church out of his house16 (since Christianity was highly persecuted at this point in time). Philemon, we find out, is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has escaped but has been converted to Christianity by Paul.18 In the letter, Paul indicates that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.19 However, Paul says that he has confidence that Philemon will "do what is proper"17 although Paul wants him to do it by his "own free will".20 Even so, Paul indicates that Onesimus would be a great aid in helping him spread the gospel.19 Paul ends the letter by saying that he has "confidence in your obedience" and indicates that he knows Philemon "will do even more than what I say."21 Although Paul did not directly order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery, it would have been difficult to come away with any other conclusion from his letter.
God does not distinguish between slaves and freemen
7 Truths that Changed the World: Discovering Christianity's Most Dangerous IdeasContrary to the claims of many skeptics, the New Testament proclaims that all people are equal in the eyes of God - even slaves:
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)
knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. (Ephesians 6:8)
And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Ephesians 6:9)
a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
Conclusion Top of page
The idea that God or Christianity encourages or approves of slavery is shown to be false. In fact, anybody who was caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed. However, since voluntary slavery was widely practiced during biblical times, the Bible proscribes laws to protect the lives and health of slaves. Paul, the author of many of the New Testament writings, virtually ordered the Christian Philemon to release his Christian slave from his service to "do what is proper". In addition, numerous verses from the New Testament show that God values slaves as much as any free person and is not partial to anyone's standing before other people.
The claim is often made that the Bible approves of slavery, implicating God as its supporter, since rules governing slavery can be found in the both the Old and New Testament. Since virtually everyone agrees that forced, involuntary servitude is morally wrong, how can Christians justify the Bible's apparent support of slavery?