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Does the Bible Endorse Slavery?

What Would You Say?

You’re in a conversation and someone says, “The Bible is evil because it endorses slavery.” What Would You Say? Now, it's true that the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, talks about slavery. But does this mean the slave trade that's such a shameful part of our history is actually something the Bible supports? No. And here are three reasons why. First: The slavery talked about in the Bible was more like servitude. When we hear the word “slavery,” we usually think of slave ships carrying Africans away from their home to be bought and sold as the property of white people in other parts of the world. But the Hebrew word, sometimes translated as slavery in the Bible, refers to something very different. Now, before the development of modern economies that led to the kind of wealth we see today and governments capable of offering large welfare systems, cultures developed ways to deal with the problem of poverty. And because in Old Testament times there was no such thing as a government assistance program, people would often sell themselves to have the basic necessities of food and shelter. Slavery in this sense was a type of social safety net. Slavery was also a way to deal with bankruptcy. Those who could not repay a debt would sell themselves to repay it. But this kind of slavery was usually not for life unless one voluntarily did so. In the Jewish law, servitude would last six years. The slaves would be freed in the seventh year and every 50 years in what was called the Year of Jubilee, all debts were wiped out. It is undoubtedly true that some slaves were treated terribly. But that's not because the Bible encouraged it or even permitted it. Though many nations at that time would take slaves after war, Israel was not permitted to do so. Second: Slaves were to be treated as people, not property. Because Israelite servitude was not rooted in racism or even classism, servants had legal protections in Israel. If a master (more like an employer) permanently injured a servant, the servant would be set free without any debt. And to strike and kill a servant meant capital punishment. Israel was also commanded to harbor runaway slaves from surrounding nations where they might be treated cruelly. To harbor runaway slaves in other countries often meant the death penalty. In Exodus, the Bible demands the death penalty for slave traders. Roman slavery in the context of the New Testament era was a different system. Roman slaves who were taken in battle were still allowed to marry, have families, purchase their freedom, and have others purchase their freedom. The New Testament, like the Old Testament, recognizes the humanity of every person, regardless of their station in life. The Apostle Paul even considered Roman slaves to be coworkers in his ministry. And because slavery was a common part of the culture in which Christianity was birthed, first century Christians were both slaves and slave owners. Christian masters and slaves were instructed to engage in activities like eating meals and then the Lord's Supper together. That would undermine and subvert slavery. New Testament writers used the language of family intimacy such as “greet one another with a holy kiss.” Thus, in dozens of places, the New Testament is clear that our value as human beings, slave or free, is the same. In this way, Christianity planted the seeds that would ultimately lead to the undermining of both ancient Roman slavery as well as modern slavery. And this leads to the final point. Third: Christians ended the slave trade. The Christianization of Europe eventually led to the disappearance of slavery until its modern form emerged in the 15th century. And then it was a Christian, William Wilberforce, who led the effort to eliminate the slave trade in England. It was Christian abolitionist preachers during the second Great Awakening of the early 19th century that started the sustained effort to abolish slavery in the United States. It was a Christian pastor, Martin Luther King Jr, who led the civil rights movement of the 20th century in the United States. This followed a long history of Christians working for human rights because of the Gospel’s commitment to the equal dignity of every person. The history of slavery is a difficult and important conversation, but the next time someone tries to suggest that “The Bible endorses slavery.” Remember these three things: Number One: The slavery talked about in the Bible was more like servitude. Number Two: Slaves were to be treated as people and not as property. Number Three: Christians ended the slave trade.