According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation (2017), around 29.9 million people across the world are victims of forced labour, which is the equivalent of just over half the population of England. Of these, 16 million are thought to be in the private economy, 4.8 million in the forced sexual exploitation and 4.1 million are in state-sponsored forced labour including mandatory military conscription and agricultural work1.
These statistics are harrowing, and modern slavery is without doubt one of the greatest injustices facing our global society today. And as a Christian, I am thus faced with an unsettling question: doesn’t the bible condone slavery?
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there are numerous mentions of slavery in a wide range of contexts. And the bible appears to rarely, if ever, condemn slavery as immoral or unjust. In fact, the bible often appears to allow, endorse, and at points, even facilitate the practice of slavery.
Here are some of the main mentions of slavery from the Old and New Testaments:
“‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
Leviticus 25:44-46 (NIV)
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favouritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”
Colossians 3:22-4:1 (NIV)
Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves… Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.
1 Peter 2:16-19 (NIV)
I do not pretend that these verses make for easy reading for me as a Christian. And so what are we to make of the bible’s teaching on slavery? Is the bible as archaic and morally repugnant on this topic, as is can appear? Neuroscientist and outspoken atheist Dr Sam Harris thinks so. Here is his assessment for the bible’s stance on slavery, from his recent debate with Prof Jordan Peterson:
“Slavery is condoned in the bible in both testaments, and in the Qur’an. There no getting away from that. Now you can say “well it’s not the central thrust of any of these books” but if you go to the books and try to figure out what the Creator of the universe wants with respect to the owning and needless immiseration of other people, He expects you to keep slaves, and He has told you how to do it”2
Unsurprisingly, I disagree with Harris, and to explain why, I need to unpack three points:
- The bible’s teaching on human equality
- The historical definitions of slavery
- The bible’s ultimate slavery
1. The Bible’s Teaching on Human Equality
The bible teaches in no uncertain terms, that in the eyes of God, all people are equally, infinitely and intrinsically valuable. This was radically counter-cultural in the Ancient world. In the eyes of ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy, for example, inequality was a natural and inevitable manifestation of the laws of nature, and slavery ought to be an expected consequence. Aristotle wrote:
“That some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.3
The Judeo-Christian scriptures taught something radically different:
“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them”
Genesis 1:27 (NIV)
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are…heirs according to the promise”
Galatians 3:26-29 (NIV)
The bible declares total equality between all humans, as we are all created in the image of God, and all can become adopted children and heirs of God through faith in Him. This is in stark contrast to Ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy and also the principle that drove the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, that people are not equal, and some have such insignificant value that they can be made slaves.
2. The Historical Definitions of Slavery
So how does the bible’s teaching on equality square with its teaching on slavery? I think the answer lies in the historical definitions of slavery.
Writer and speaker Glenn Scrivener sums this up very well:
“We must differentiate between the bond servants of the Old Testament, the Graeco-Roman practice [of the New Testament] of slavery where slaves could own property and purchase their freedom, and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade- an unequalled race-based horror of the 17th to 19th Centuries. That was something quite different to anything in the New Testament or the Old. For a start, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade would have been, and should have been, unthinkable based on both Old and New Testaments. Both Testaments outlaw “man-stealing”. You cannot kidnap people and sell them as slaves. It was a capital offence in the Old Testament…”4
The ancient historical (and biblical) definition of “slave” is significantly broader than the oppressive and abusive capturing and forced labour that comes to mind when we think about modern slavery or the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In biblical times, “slavery” certainly did include that. For example, in Exodus 1:8-14 tells the story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt:
“Then a new king… came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us…” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh”
Exodus 1:8-11 (NIV)
However, as well this type of oppressive, horrendous enforced labour, the biblical word “slave” also includes a wide range of legitimate unpaid work, including the modern equivalents of maids, butlers, cleaners, au pairs, private home tutors, secretaries etc. These “slave” jobs were, by definition, unpaid. However their work would often be in exchange for accommodation, food and generally becoming one of the valued members of the family unit.
It is this broad definition that the bible uses when it speaks about slavery- ranging from abusive capture and forced labour, through to the loved and respected private tutor of the children of a wealthy family.
As Scrivener rightly points out, “man-stealing” (i.e. capture and forced labour) is specifically condemned in the bible. In 1 Timothy, Paul writes:
“We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral… for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”
1 Timothy 1:9-11 (NIV, emphasis mine)
And as Scrivener continues, as well as condemning “man-stealing”, “Paul, writing the New Testament, did what I reckon Sam Harris would do if he found himself in a culture that practised Graeco-Roman-style slavery. Paul insisted that everyone was equal, he forbade masters to mistreat their slaves, he told slaves to get their freedom whenever they could. And more than this… Paul taught that God Himself had stooped down to the level of a slave so that all of us could be liberated at the deepest level.”4
So the bible condemns man-stealing and enforced oppressive labour, but also gives commands about the unpaid but nonetheless legitimate employment structures common to the Ancient World. Both of these come under the biblical term “slave”.
It is worth at this point mentioning a controversial passage that has been posed to me in debate a couple of times. In Exodus 21, Moses decrees:
“20When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
Exodus 21:20-21 (NIV)
At first reading, these verses sounds awful; it seems to imply that slave masters can beat their slaves to death, and providing they don’t die immediately, they can get away scot-free. However, I do not think this is the correct interpretation of these verses. Firstly, one must remember that slaves were to become part of the family unit, and parents disciplining children by slapping them was common and acceptable if proportionate and done in love (the ethics around slapping children can be discussed at a later date!). However, beating a slave to death is clearly prohibited, and worthy of capital punishment, according to verse 20. Verse 21, then goes on to say that if a slave master accidentally kills their slave in the process of disciplining them, it does not warrant the same capital punishment. However it is still prohibited and to be punished by severe financial penalty; the death of the slave would have incurred heavy financial loss for the master, as the slave was his bought “property”. Moses is thus saying that this non-reimbursed financial loss would be the punishment for beating a slave and accidentally killing them in the process. It is still sinful and prohibited, but carries a less severe sentence than intentional murder of a slave by beating.
3. The Bible’s Ultimate Slavery
Before I finish this little article on slavery, I think it is worth taking a very brief look at another, different kind of slavery the bible speaks of. In Romans 8, Paul writes:
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
Romans 8:14-17 (NIV)
The bible teaches that we, as a human race, are “slaves to sin”. Individually and corporately, we have chosen to rebel against God, instead submited ourselves to our own sinful desires. In this way, the bible describes us as “slaves”; we have bound ourselves up in sin which leads to death, and have no way of escaping. However, on the cross of crucifixion, Jesus took our sin upon Himself and bore the death that it deserves. And so, through faith in Jesus, we can be set free from the slavery of sin, and become adopted children in God’s family, who will bypass death and live in eternity in glory with our Heavenly Father.
Does the Bible Condone Slavery?
So in conclusion, does the bible condone slavery? The answer depends on your definition of slavery. The bible is clear that all people are equal, and capturing other humans and forcing them to work is horrendous and evil in the eyes of God. However, ancient world slaves also included other types of unpaid employees who still required God’s commands to teach them how to follow Him. And ultimately, we, as a human race, are called “slaves of sin” who need Jesus to set us free from sin and death, and to allow us to enter God’s eternal family.