By far, the most heinous abuse to happen in the last half-century was the slave trade. Normally, the blame usually gets placed on European nations and their quest for colonialism and imperialism. However, if we’re honestly taking a sober look at the practice, many more non-European countries and African tribes themselves played a role in the slave trade as well.
In more recent decades, when talking about the institution of slavery, one can’t help but bring up the laity or clergy’s mixed bag of roles of either supporting, abolishing, or standing neutral on the practice. In fact, some would go as far as saying slavery is Christianity’s “skeleton in the closet.”
The more modern objection is phrased, “The Bible supports slavery so therefore Christianity can’t be trusted as a legitimate religion.”
The topic of slavery and Christianity is a hot-button subject that is also an emotional one for many. When we think of the negative results such as racism, it conjures up consequences of racial subjugation in the form of “separate but equal.”
When discussing the world in which the Bible was written, we can’t help but project our modern-day point of view. Practices that seem foreign to us were quite natural then. With that said, we must keep in mind something regarding the topic of slavery in antiquity.
1) There was no social welfare states. Unlike today, most advanced economies have huge liberal social policy that provides a source of relief and assistance to those in poverty. The idea of a government taking care of the poor was unheard of at that time.
2) Unlike today, there weren’t credit relief agencies that help people minimize their debt. The ancient world had zero viable options for those who struggled to pay back debts or defaulted on loans.
Definition of Terms
What is slavery? According to Merriam-Webster, slavery is defined as “The state of a person who is chattel of another.” Chattel is a word used to describe the movable personal property that’s living (livestock) or not living (shovels, machines).
Simply put, slavery is the owning of one person by another. The Old Testament talks about indentured servitude which also is often labeled as “slavery.”
Indentured servitude is the practice of voluntarily giving oneself to another for a period of time.
Exploring the Old Testament
The slave laws of the Old Testament are primarily located in The book Exodous, Leviticus 23:39-55 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18 but there are a lot of passages that discuss the practice elsewhere in the Pentateuch.
Far from the recent notion of slavery in the last four hundred years, these verses prescribe very dignifying treatment toward those captive.
Indentured servants had to be released after six years of service and were rewarded with adequate supplies on their seventh year of release (Deut. 15:13-14).
The slave had the option to leave or stay therefore honoring free will (Exod 21:5-6).
A slave could leave with his wife if he came in with one (Exod 21:3). Slaves who fled from their master were not to be delivered back and no harm was to be inflicted upon them (Deut. 23:15-16).
A slave crippled or disabled due to their owner was to be free (Exod. 21:26-27).
Killing a slave to death meant the owner would die (Exod 21:20-21).
A key thing I like to remember regarding slavery and the Old Testament is that Israel was in slavery in Egypt. Why would God allow his nation to purposely afflict inhumane treatment and abuse to others if they were once on the receiving end? This fact is something God reminds a lot (Deut. 5:15; 15:5; 24:18, 22). Therefore, I find it hard to believe that God would allow his nation to be ruthless inhumane slave traders.
New Testament Treatment
In the New Testament world like the OT, slavery remained a dominant way of life for the Roman economy.
The Roman occupation of Israel was something many Jews hated. To the Jews, the long-awaited messiah’s coming would bring a renewal of power to a powerless country.
As a result, when Jesus came, people thought he would be the one to usher in freedom from Roman oppression. Even his disciples had this misconception before his Ascension (Acts 1:6).
Both Paul and Peter had much to say regarding slaves remaining obedient to their master (1 Pet. 2:18-21; Col. 3:22-25).
Kidnapping others is viewed as a sin (1 Tim. 1:9-10). Most importantly, Paul boldly declares in Christ all are equal and earthly positions are insignificant (Gal 3:28).
Overall, none of the New Testament figures (including Jesus) definitively spoke on abolishing slavery. Was this because they were soft on the institution?
No, it’s because they were smart.
Focusing on the Larger Picture
Think back to Matthew 22 and the whole Cesar coin debate. The Pharisees laid out a plan to intentionally trap Jesus in his words, so they asked him is it lawful to pay the tax to Cesar (17). Again, the Jews hated Cesar and Roman occupation.
If Jesus would’ve answered “yes” that would’ve paved the way for insurrection against Cesar. The Jews would’ve felt empowered to revolt with this new form of authority. Jesus would’ve caused tons of more problems and diminished his whole point to arrive on earth.
In fact, you see Jesus in the gospels constantly charge those to keep quiet after a miracle or he crept away from large crowds to avoid excessive scrutiny.
The same principle would apply to the writers of the New Testament. Them speaking forcefully for the abolition of a long-standing practice would’ve caused unparalleled problems. Perhaps slaves would’ve felt entitled to freedom then killed their owners, or even a massive slave rebellion. This would’ve disrupted the spread of the gospel significantly.
Instead, the apostles gave principles that esteemed the intrinsic worth of slaves such as referring back to all men are created in God’s likeness, equality in Christ and loving your neighbor as yourself. A change of heart by hearing the Gospel would eventually eradicate the institution.
The Bible, being rich in human dignity and worth, makes no clear abolition for slavery.
When it does advocate for the practice, there are numerous prescriptions regulating the institution.
Despite the many critical perspectives being advanced by opponents of Christianity, a Christian can positively conclude the Bible never advocates or supports deliberate race-based slavery, unlawfully taking of persons, or torture to captives.
On the contrary, the Bible is a source of affirmation on human dignity