Slavery in the Bible

thin blue line romans 13 memeIn a fortune cookie I once read what was purported to be a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. In these current interesting times, everything one says or does, no matter how innocent the circumstances, seems to cause offense. Particularly, everything the Christian says or does; particularly on social media.

A friend of mine at work came to me seeking some advice after a nasty exchange on Facebook with one of his militant atheist friends. My friend, who is a Christian, but could not be considered a “Bible-thumper” by any stretch of the imagination, had posted a rather popular meme on his Facebook page. The meme elicited such a vigorous response in the form of comments attempting to “refute” Christianity that my friend was confused and troubled.

The meme (pictured above) depicts the thin blue line, and a Bible verse. The thin blue line is a symbol used by law enforcement around the world to commemorate fallen law enforcement officers and to symbolize the relationship of law enforcement in the community as the protectors of fellow civilians from criminal elements. The Bible verse was Romans 13:4, “…for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

Anti-police sentiment in today’s political climate is hardly surprising, especially to most police officers. The comment which bothered my friend the most, however, was one which misused another verse of Scripture:

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly (Leviticus 25:44-46).

The commenter went on to say how despicable it was for the Bible to advocate slavery, to instruct God’s Chosen People to oppress their neighbors, and that we certainly shouldn’t heed anything it has to say because we have evolved to become more enlightened.

My friend was unaware of such a verse in the Bible, and did not know how to respond. He came and asked me what I would say to his friend. Well, here goes…

First (addressing my Christian friend), when speaking with people such as this, we must always remember that the sinful mind in hostile to God, and it cannot submit to God. No amount of clever debating will ever reason anyone into the faith. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. That being said, St. Peter instructs us to always be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks from us a reason for our hope.
That being said (addressing the militant atheist), slavery is absolutely in the Bible. There is also murder, adultery, homosexuality, incest, theft, war, lying, and all manner of other evil described in the Bible. Just as no sane person who has a command of the English language would try to make the case that the Bible supports any of these other evils (let’s call them sins, in keeping with how the Bible refers to them), no one who has seriously studied the Bible would ever try to make that case regarding slavery.
Slavery in the Bible is something completely different than the slavery a 21st Century American thinks of when they hear the word. We have images of oppressed blacks being hunted and captured like animals, transported against their will to work on large cotton plantations in the antebellum south. According to Lenny Esposito, Christian apologist, president, and founder of Come Reason Ministries, most slave situations were not primarily due to a person being taken against his will, but because poor people either sold themselves or their children into slavery.

Slavery was designed to pay a debt to a debtor, and once the debt was paid, the person was free. A slave could buy his own freedom from the profits of his selling his property. It is noteworthy that many people became bond-slaves (pledged to remain in his master’s household for life) because their situation was better as a slave than as a free person. We sometimes assume a modern frame of reference when we talk about these things, but one must remember that life was extremely hard during these times, and to be free meant you had no guarantees that you would have enough food to eat or even a decent house to shelter your family. Add to that taxes from the ruling governments, no protection from raiding parties or foreign invaders and the expense of buying tools to accomplish tasks and you can see how being part of a larger organization could be inviting. You would share in the collective efforts of many people and have access to the resources of a rich master – much the same way the feudal serf system was constructed in the Middle Ages (Esposito n.d.).

In fact, some theologians, such as Dr. John Nordling, suggest that slavery in antiquity, at least during New Testament times, may have been viewed by society as a morally ambiguous institution. Nordling goes on to make a connection between the New Testament type of slavery and the Christian doctrine of vocation.

Usually emphasized are certain undeniably negative aspects of slavery to which slaves were subject, such as violence and sexual exploitation. Although one may not dispute these findings, I find problematic the idea that gratuitous violence, disgrace, and degradation were endemic to ancient slavery as such. That opinion cannot abide the possibility that slavery—at other times and amid other peoples—may have existed far differently than it did among Americans in the antebellum South, for example. The first Christians offer a case in point: for them, slavery was arguably a morally ambiguous institution. One might say that slavery for them was neither completely good nor uniformly bad but simply the place where untold numbers of Christians demonstrated their faith in Christ by engaging in service to the neighbor. If this is approximately the role that slavery played among the first Christians, then one could reasonably argue that biblical slavery remains pertinent for Christians still today and so should be studied for its applicability to actually being a Christian in concrete situations (Nordling 2009).

 19th Century American slavery accounted for the slave as property to be exploited by the owner for his profit, without any further regard to the slave than one would give to a valuable piece of farm equipment or farm animal. This debate regarding whether or not slaves should be counted as persons or property was one which was argued from before the beginning of the United States, and was immortalized in the US Constitution by the famous Three-Fifths Compromise. In somewhat of an ironic twist, southern slave states wished to have slaves counted as person when determining a state’s population for representation in the House of Representatives and for taxation purposes. Northern free states, in an effort to limit the power of the slave states, argued that slaves should not be counted as persons. The compromise counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. This insured that the slave states would not have overwhelming representation in the House, and they therefore could not block anti-slavery efforts. In the Bible, however, there is no such debate. A survey of the laws of the Bible shows that they guard the rights of each individual and his family (Packer and Tenney 1980).

Each slave kept his dignity as a human being. No Israelite could be forced into slavery. Even if he signed a contract to become another man’s servant, God’s Law cancelled the contract at the end of 7 years (Exodus 21:2-6). A slave became a member of his owner’s family. He enjoyed the rights of any other family member (except the right of inheritance, of course). If the slave was a foreigner, his owner could circumcise him and invite him to worship with other Jews (Exodus 12:44; Deuteronomy 12:18; 16:10-11)…Even though the Bible allowed slavery, its regulations reminded the Israelites that every person was created in the image of God – including the slave (Packer and Tenney 1980).

 In fact, the Bible tells us that we are all slaves. Mankind, since the Fall, is in bondage to sin. What’s more, we are bound to self-centeredness, doomed to death, and blind to our slavery (Engelbrecht 2009). We are only set free from our slavery to sin and death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 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. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 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. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:15-23).

 Americans can be fiercely independent, and we prize our rights. Essentially, however, we are all slaves. Either we are slaves to sin, death and the Devil, or slaves to righteousness. Those of us who are slaves to righteousness are called to be slaves to our fellow men, serving them through our vocations. The editors of the Lutheran Study Bible put it this way:

Although many people consider freedom to be the ultimate human right, no one is truly free spiritually. We were slaves to sin and bound to death. Knowing this, Jesus came to serve us by giving His life on the cross and rising for us. Freed from sin, we can now serve God. Only when we are “slaves” to God will we have freedom to be the people he created us to be (Engelbrecht 2009).

 Finally, race had very little to do with slavery of the type during Greco-Roman times. The type of slavery chronicled in the Bible has great application for us today to show us how we are to relate to our bosses and fellow men as we serve them in our vocations. Substitute “employees” and “bosses” for the Greek words for “slaves” and “masters” respectively, and there remains still today essentially the same relationship as obtained long ago in the assemblies of the New Testament (Engelbrecht 2009).

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Esposito, Lenny. “Does the Bible Aprove of Slavery?” Come Reason Ministries. (accessed March 12, 2016).

Nordling, John G. “A More Positive View of Slavery: Establishing Servile Identity in the Christian Assemblies.” Bulletin for Biblical Research, 2009: 63-84.

Packer, J. I., and M. C. Tenney, . Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980.

End Notes

[1] John G. Nordling, Philemon, CC (St. Louis: Concordia, 2004), 43, 44, 59, 69-70, 138.

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