One of the vexing questions that trouble many Christians is, “Why did the Bible allow slavery?” The next two blog posts will encourage Christians to change their thinking in three ways: 1) to not judge the Bible or God, but to let the Bible judge our thinking, 2) to not equate Biblical slavery with modern ideas of slavery, and 3) to realize that the Biblical concept of slavery (or if you prefer, indentured servitude) is far better than America’s disguised forms of slavery or it’s modern answers to crime and warfare.
First, we should not be ashamed of anything in the Bible. To be ashamed of the Bible will make Christ ashamed of us (Mark 8:38). Our attitudes to the Bible’s critics should be to “let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). The evil system of humanism says that man is the measure of truth. Pure Christianity says to God, “Your Word is truth” (Ps. 119:160; John 17:17). Notice that Jesus did not say, “Your Word is true.” For us to declare God’s word to be “true” makes us the judges of truth and makes God’s Word to have a lower authority than our minds. But if instead we say, “Your Word is truth,” we are acknowledging that God’s Word is the measure and judge of all truth claims. And this applies to the entirety of God’s Word – even what it says about slavery. We cannot pick and choose what we like from the Bible. God’s ethics does not evolve. The Psalmist rightly said, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Ps. 119:160). Thus Jesus called us to “live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And Paul said that the entire Old Testament was “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Second, this does not mean that everything people teach about the Bible’s statements on slavery is true. Indeed, the Biblical doctrine of slavery has been grossly misrepresented by both Christians and non-Christians. Part of the problem is that Christians assume they know what the Bible means when it speaks of “slaves” or “slavery,” and they import this false definition back into the Biblical texts. We must let the Bible alone define what it means by lawful slavery (or if you prefer, “indentured servitude”). Since the Bible gave the death penalty to kidnappers (Deut. 24:7; cf. 1 Tim. 1:8-10), you can rest assured that Biblical “slavery” was utterly different from most pagan slavery. Pagan slavery was so offensive to God that He insisted that a slave who ran away from such a system must not be returned to his master under any circumstances, but must be allowed to live freely and to be treated humanely (Deut. 23:15-16). Even a cursory reading of the Biblical material shows that all systems of slavery that were based on kidnapping and raids were an abomination to God. A Biblical slave did “not differ at all” from a child (Gal. 4:1) and since slaves were considered to be part of the family household (Gen. 14:14; etc.), they therefore received the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:12-13,27; Ex 12:44) and the communion meal (Ex. 12:44) with the family. In other words, the slave was to be treated as an adopted part of the family as long as he was a slave! This gives a quite different image of slavery than most people have projected onto the Bible. Since Biblical slavery is treated as an equivalent to immaturity (see Gal. 4:1), we can rest assured that the Bible does not consider slavery to be an ideal, but rather calls Christians to get out of slavery if at all possible (1 Cor. 7:21-23; Gal. 5:1; Phil. 10-21). (Of course, we will see that the same passages form a call to Christians to oppose the modern welfare plantation and prison system – see below.) Since believers could be enslaved for a maximum of six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12-18; Jer. 34:8-22), it often moved people to profess faith in God and to embrace the principles of maturity and liberty that form the trajectory of the Christian faith (see next post). In this and several other ways it was quite different from at least some forms of American slavery. The main reasons for slavery in the Bible were to pay for debt (2 Kings 4:1), to pay for war reparations (Deut. 20:11-14), and to pay restitution for theft (Ex. 22:3) or damage to property (Ex. 22:6). We will see in the next post how this Biblical system is actually much superior to the unjust forms of slavery that currently masquerade as freedom America.
(to be continued)