Does the Bible endorse slavery?

Bible Issues

My great grandparents were indentured laborers, which were similar to slaves. They came to the Caribbean from India during the late 19th century to work in the sugar cane plantations. After slavery was abolished, the plantation owners needed to find others sources of cheap labor. So they went to India (then a British colony), and promised land to peasants and low-caste members if they came to work in the West Indies. Some of them received this promise of land after their indentureship, some did not. This was portrayed in the 2004 film “Guiana 1838”. The major difference between indentureship and slavery is that slaves were the property of their masters, while the indentured servants simply worked for reward. The nature and conditions of the work were very similar.

My grandparents worked as laborers, just as their parents did. My parents were both school teachers, with only a high school education. I have a PhD and I work as an Associate Professor at a university. My wife is an attorney-at-law. What my great grandparents went through was awful. I can’t imagine the pain and humiliation of being beaten and flogged for not working good enough. From the stories I head, my great grandfather and two siblings came from India on a boat, and were cruelly deposited on different Caribbean islands with no chance of ever seeing each other again. It must have been horrible to leave your country and to be permanently separated from your family. But that paved the way for people like myself, three generations later, to succeed in a way that I could not have done otherwise.

I remember standing over my grandmother’s casket in 2002, vowing that I would complete my PhD however difficult it was and whatever it cost me. 4 years later, I dedicated my PhD to my grandparents for the sacrifices their generation had made for my generation. If they had never left India, I would have probably been born in a low caste in a poor village in India with virtually no opportunity for upward movement in society. I probably would have never even got saved. So although what my great grandparents went through was terrible, it worked out better for their lineage. For this reason, I simply cannot empathize with those who blame slavery 200 years ago for their present living conditions – poverty, crime, and lack of education. Slavery opened the door for me to have a better life. No offense to my readers from Africa and Asia, but I like the life in the West better.

When you peruse the scriptures, you will find that the bible does not condemn slavery per se. There are aspects of slavery that are ungodly, but the scriptures merely acknowledge that slavery is a cruel reality in sinful human existence. There are different things that comprise slavery:

  • Racism
  • Ownership of other human beings
  • Inhumane working conditions

All of these issues are bad. All of them constitute social evils that make the world a worse place. No one should be discriminated against on the basis of their race or ethnicity. No human being should be owned by another. Everyone should be fairly compensated for the work they do. And no one should have to live and work in abusive environments. Slavery is the result of sinful human beings, and is a shameful blot on world history. Yet we find slaves in the bible. God even gave laws on how to deal with slaves. Why didn’t God just set the record straight and abolish slavery before it ever began?

In Exodus 21, God gave laws pertaining to slaves or bondservants. Here is a summary of what that chapter teaches:

  • People became slaves because of financial reasons
  • God limited the tenure of a slave to 6 years, after which he was free (Ex 21:2)
  • If he was given a wife after his slavery began, he had to leave without his wife and children – they belonged to the master (Ex 21:4)
  • However if he chose to stay, then he would legally become his master’s property for life (Ex 21:6)
  • Women could also be given as slaves, and sometimes this involved performing wifely duties (Ex 21:8)

Wow, that’s a lot to take in. Personally I loathe the idea that a human being could be the property of another human being. This kind of social injustice causes my blood to boil and I see red. Why on earth is that in the bible?

We must remember that the law was never intended for righteous men (1 Tim 1:9). God only gave the law because of the sinfulness of man. In the previous chapters in Exodus, the people had rejected God by worshipping the golden calf. That’s when God gave the 10 commandments and other laws. The only purpose of those laws was to keep man from becoming too corrupt. It was never designed to create a utopian society on earth. That would only be accomplished when Christ returns and sets up his eternal kingdom. Between then and the Advent of Christ, God needed something temporary to keep Israel in check. We see that very clearly in the law of divorce. God permitted divorce, but Jesus explained that God only did so because of the hardness of man’s heart. He knew they were going to divorce and remarry – against his better judgment – so he gave laws to regulate it. The same thing is true of slavery. God does not endorse racism, unfair wages, and inhumane working conditions. But he knew that sinful man living in a fallen world would inevitably take advantage of the poor in that way. So He gave laws to regulate it, not to approve of it.

There are references to slaves even in the New Testament. Acts 16:16 tells us about a slave girl who had a spirit of divination. Philemon had a slave called Onesimus. These scriptures acknowledge the existence of slavery. Philemon was a Christian who owned Onesimus as a slave. In Paul’s epistle to him, Paul did not appeal to him, “Now that you’re saved, let the slaves go. Christians shouldn’t have slaves.” He didn’t do that. He simply appealed to Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a slave after he had apparently run away. Essentially Paul was just appealing to Philemon to give Onesimus his slave job back. Paul’s emphasis was not whether or not Philemon should have slaves, but how he should treat his slaves (cf Colossians 4:1, Ephesians 6:9).

The purpose of the New Testament is not to correct societal ills. All societal ills and evils will be set straight during Christ’s millennial kingdom. At present, the bible merely acknowledges that there will be injustices in society, and so be it. Practically there will be employers and employees. Some employees will be underpaid and have to work in very harsh conditions. And sometimes, this is because of their ethnicity. That is just an unfortunate reality in the world we live in. The apostles acknowledged these realities without comment.

However, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28). But they never used that Galatians scripture to argue for societal equality, only spiritual equality. So that’s why Paul told Philemon, that even though Onesimus was his slave, he was also his brother in Christ (Philemon 16). If we examine that Galatians scripture carefully, we see that in the mind of Paul, social tiers are on the level as gender differences and racial diversity. Just as there are men and women; blacks, whites and none-of-the-aboves; there are masters and slaves. That is the implication of Galatians 3:28.  

The bible goes even further. Far from condemning the social practice of slavery, the apostles considered themselves spiritual slaves or bondservants of Christ. They likened Christianity as a master/slave relationship where we belong to Christ, and he owns us. See Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1, 1 Corinthians 7:22, Ephesians 6:6, 2 Timothy 2:24.

Paul did not overly concern himself with the issues of this life. He did not campaign for the abolition of slavery. Instead he admonished everyone including slaves to live for Christ. In Ephesians 6:5,6,7,8 and Colossians 3:22,23,24,25, Paul told slaves (bondservants) to work for their masters as if they were working for Christ. He even hinted that there is a reward for them in heaven based on the work they do on earth (Col 3:24). There was also a punishment if they didn’t (Col 3:25).

Christians today focus too much on reforming society rather than winning souls to Christ. We want to free all the slaves, give everyone equal opportunities, and provide homes for all the refugees of war. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a place for this. James 1:27 tells us that Christians should care for the orphans, widows, poor and oppressed. But that is not the dominant emphasis of Christianity. The main emphasis is evangelism. The problem many conservative Evangelicals have with the Pope is that he focuses too much on these societal issues and too little on the weightier aspects of the gospel. We will never be able to reform society in this life. That is not what we are called to do. Christ will reform society when He returns. Our job is to evangelize the world.

Sometimes our fight for social causes comes across as very hypocritical. If you try to buy the original Tom and Jerry on Amazon, there is a disclaimer that the cartoons may contain racist content. Why? Because the maid in Tom and Jerry was black, thus perpetuating the stereotype of black women as domestic slaves. But Americans have no problem using Mexican immigrants as maids. They have no problem buying low cost clothing made by Chinese children. These societal ills are an unfortunate reality in the world we live. Some will even argue that society cannot function without tiers.

Whatever your status in life – whether you own your own million dollar business or work for an oppressive boss – the important thing is what you do for Christ. Whether you were born in “white privilege” or your parents sat in the back of the bus, the only thing that matters is if you are born again. Jesus acknowledges that life is unfair. Some people are given 1 talent, some 2 and some 5. We all have different starting points. God wants us to be faithful to him with what we have to work with. We should not spend our lives harping over past and present injustices, but ensuring that our future reward in heaven is secure. We should not focus on how much we don’t have, but use what we do have to glorify God. Forget about slavery and other social injustices, just live for Christ.

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