UC-Does the Bible condone slavery?

In a word, no. The Bible acknowledges slavery, and too many read acknowledgment as approval.

While the subject is more complex than can be answered briefly, a few things need to be noted. One is that slavery as described in the Bible is not the same thing as America’s historical slavery of blacks. One size or one description does not fit all when it comes to slavery as we find it mentioned in the Bible. There were time limits, financial goals and master-slave relationships that make the slavery of the Bible a whole different animal than what we know in American history.

We need to remember that former societies were not simply versions of the current societies we know today. People’s opportunities, expectations for family and business, social structures, and economic relationships have varied wildly over the years. Back in Old Testament times, slavery was a broad name applied to several social/financial relationships.

In Old Testament Hebrew culture, slavery wasn’t based on race. They had had experience with that themselves when they were slaves in Egypt. One must think economically rather than racially if they are to understand an important distinction from what we know from our own (American) history.

Exodus 21:21, for example, regulates the treatment of slaves: “And if a man beats his male or female slave with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”  Leviticus 25:39-40 tells the Israelites that if one of their “brothers” sells himself to another for financial reasons, he was not to be treated as a slave, and was to be released at a certain point (the Year of Jubilee). Slavery was a temporary condition unless the slave determined otherwise. Again, there are far too many regulations about the treatment and eventual release of slaves to go into detail, but the two books referred to earlier in the paragraph give a picture of regulation rather than condoning. From a Biblically spiritual perspective, what God’s law brought was a series of directions and restrictions that prevented violence, extortion and permanent slavery on a nation and society that had known bondage and was surrounded by nations that often treated its slaves abominably.

Probably the biggest indicator that Western modern slavery and the various conditions called “slavery” in the Old Testament is the complete prohibition against kidnapping. Exodus 21:16 couldn’t be clearer:  “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. In the New Testament, I Timothy 1:8-10 puts kidnappers in a list of the most grievous sinners.

Yes, the apostle Paul writes to slaves in New Testament times to serve their masters faithfully, among other things. But for those who see all things politically, it may be hard to remember that the Bible is not a political document. (For those who believe that it’s God’s word, however, we believe it transcends and affects politics at the same time, getting to the root of individual change, thereby changing societies over time.) Paul wrote to people in nearly every conceivable role and status in life (husbands, wives, children, soldiers, employers), encouraging them in their position to love and serve God. He makes it clear that spiritually, as receivers of God’s grace, everyone in every position is equal. For a glimpse at his heart, check out the book of Philemon, where he comes thisclose to asking/demanding a friend to release his slave, using strong persuasion instead of the authority he could have used.Lastly, for those who love history, one can find a deeply Christian and Biblical foundation to the anti-slavery movement. Britain’s William Wilberforce is perhaps the most dramatic example, but even in the US, we have Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just a little research reveals the deeply Christian roots of the modern anti-slavery movements, just as one can find the same deep roots in today’s anti-sex trade activity.

Christians see a containment of excesses in the Scriptures in the Old Testament, followed by a planting of many seeds in the New Testament (our freedom in Christ, equality of all believers) that laid the eventual groundwork for the political removal of slavery, especially in those societies that had a strong Christian influence at one time.

For more telling Scriptures on the subject, see http://www.openbible.info/topics/slavery.