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What does the Bible say about slavery?

If you were to ask any Christian what they thought about slavery in America, they would probably all say that it was a terrible thing. Frederick Douglas wrote a book about his experience and shares details about the terrible way slaves were treated during his time as a slave. When we read about these atrocities in the 1800’s, we are appalled at what was allowed to take place. However, when we come to the Bible, our detest for slavery is confronted by the Bible’s response to it. Instead of condemning the practice outright, the Bible recognizes its existence and puts into place laws to regulate the practice (in the OT) and how to interact with the practice (in the NT).

  1. Slavery in the Old Testament

    Slavery in the Old Testament was a reality for a variety of good and bad reasons. It was regulated by the Mosaic law which kept slaves from being mistreated.

    Bible stories involving slaves

    Slavery was common (Gen. 39:1).
    Slavery was a form of punishment (Gen. 43:18).
    Slavery was often the result of war (Josh. 9:22-27; 2 Kings 5:1-4).
    Slavery was used to pay debts (2 Kings 4:1; Neh. 5:5).
    Slavery was an unpleasant experience (1 Kings 2:39; Ezra 9:9).
    Slavery was to be temporary for Israelites (Jer. 34:1-17).

    Laws involving slaves

    Slaves could be bought for six years (Ex. 21:1-4).
    Slaves could choose to become permanent (Ex. 21:5-6).
    Slaves should be treated fairly (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27).
    Kidnapping and enslaving someone was a capital offense (Ex. 21:16).
    A man could sell his daughter to be a female slave (Ex. 21:7-11).
    Israelites were not to be treated as slaves but servants (Lev. 25:39-43).
    Slaves from other nations could be purchased permanently (Lev. 25:44-46).
    Slaves could be redeemed or released at the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:47-55).
    A runaway slave was not to be returned (Deut. 23:15-16).

    Some questions

    Q: Why did slavery exist?
    A: Debt, war, punishment, judgment, kidnapping

    Q: Was slavery ever a bad thing?
    A: Joseph’s slavery, kidnapping, the break-up of a family

    Q: Was slavery ever a good thing?
    A: It could be good if it helped you pay off a debt, it kept you from being killed in a war, if it turned you from crime and sin against God, or if it put you in a place to be used by God.

  2. Slavery in the New Testament

    In the New Testament, slavery was common. But Christians were to have a different perspective of slavery which included the problem of slavery to sin, the blessing of voluntarily being a slave to others, and the right way for slaves and masters to interact.

    Bible stories involving slaves

    Slavery was sometimes a means of exploiting others (Acts 16:16).
    Slavery was to be different for Christians (Philm. 1:16).

    Principles involving slaves

    Christians who want to be great should serve others (Matt. 20:25-28).
    Sin makes you its slave (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16; 2 Pet. 2:19).
    Jesus can set you free from slavery to sin (Rom. 6:6-7).
    We have become slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:17-18).
    Be content with where God has you (1 Cor. 7:17,20-21).
    Slaves and free people are equal in the Body of Christ (Gal. 3:28).
    Slaves and masters should treat each other like Christ (Eph. 6:5-9).

    Some questions

    Q: What is the worst type of slavery?
    A: Slavery to sin

    Q: Would God ever want someone to be a slave?
    A: God is more interested in you fulfilling His purpose than your status.

    Q: What difference would a Christian slave or master make?
    A: Their testimony would honor Christ and could influence others.

Conclusion

In the Old Testament, slavery was in some ways different than what existed in America. Sometimes it was voluntary for paying off debt. Sometimes it was the result of war or kidnapping. Sometimes it was even part of God’s greater plan (Joseph, Naaman’s slave girl). While not something that we would wish on anyone, God did provide laws to properly regulate all types of slavery including the death penalty for slavery by kidnapping.

In the New Testament, the existence of slavery was recognized as a cultural norm. While the Bible doesn’t speak for or against it, it does address how a Christian should live. We are to be slaves to righteousness instead of sin. We are to treat all Christians equally regardless of their status. We are to be faithful in whatever position God has us in. We are to treat others with respect and kindness. While none of this addresses whether slavery should exist, it does reveal how a Christian should live when slavery does exist.

In the end, God is more concerned with what we are slaves to than if we are an actual slave. And He is more concerned with how we interact with others as His representatives on earth. It is no wonder that so many Christians were against the cruel slavery practiced in the US in the past. Christians see others as equals in Christ and want all to be treated fairly. But in the end, we all need to be faithful in whatever state we find ourselves.

Bibliography

“Does the Bible condone slavery?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=743 on 4/28/2024.