An objection to Christianity I hear all the time is one regarding slavery in the Bible.
This objection, unlike some I hear, is rational and brought up by sincere people who genuinely struggle with the issue so I hate to be dismissive or bring up a lack of biblical understanding on the part of the objector when I hear it.
That being said, and based on my experience, the problem with slavery and the slavery objection can be stated in two ways.
1. The Bible clearly condones slavery, therefore God condones slavery, therefore God is not good or moral.
2. Christians must follow the teachings of the Bible, therefore they worship an immoral God, don’t understand what the Bible says about slavery, or do understand what the Bible says about slavery and therefore condone it themselves.
While I don’t think this issue will be settled here, I believe that the following dialogue explains slavery and the Bible in a way people may not have thought about it before.
Skeptic: “You know your Bible contains scores of verses that mention slavery. But nowhere does it ever condemn the practice, per se.”
Believer: I agree.
Skeptic: “Well, why not? If the Bible is the word of God, why wouldn’t it condemn such evil?”
Believer: In a sin-fallen world, the battles we fight have to be chosen carefully. The same thing goes for the manner in which those battles are going to be fought.
Believer: The Bible was never designed to serve as a manifesto on controversial political issues. It is rather primarily the story of how God, over time, has worked His sovereign will in this universe, and is still able to do so, through the hearts and minds and lives of those who trust Him.
Skeptic: “But slavery isn’t just a political issue. It’s a moral issue. Isn’t the Christian Bible supposed to be a moral guide?”
Believer: Of course. But as a rule, the best way to change moral behavior is to transform moral views. And guess what. Beginning in the second century, many masters, upon converting to Christ, began to release their slaves. Slavery was abolished in Great Britain after people began being converted to Christ under the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield.
Skeptic: “But why doesn’t the Bible just come right out and condemn slavery in so many words?”
Believer: Did you know that in the Old Testament, slaves were often prisoners of war? The Law of Moses in fact served to regulate the care of slaves by their Hebrews masters, i.e. Exodus 21:20 and 26, Leviticus 25:40. Consequently, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the Phoenicians and Philistines.
Skeptic: “But what about in New Testament times? Why didn’t Jesus, as a moral authority, speak out boldly against slavery?”
Believer: “Well, numerous New Testament texts, such as Colossians 4:1, Galatians 3:28, and the Book of Philemon, make the case for the inherent spiritual worth of slaves, which effectively laid a base for deep down authentic change in social practice, over time. God’s way is often to work from within, dealing primarily with the spiritual component. Jesus was typically apolitical. Otherwise, encouraging direct confrontation over such a hot button social issue may have fomented revolution, providing Rome with a political excuse for persecuting Christians.”
Skeptic: “Well for me, slavery is slavery. It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and the Bible should be against it.”
Believer: On the contrary, slavery in Bible times significantly differed from slavery in modern times. It was not based on race. It was often less imperialistic. Some believe that in many cases it was actually more of an indentured servant type arrangement.
Skeptic: “In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus 25:44-46, slaves are actually referred to as possessions. And Jesus Himself sometimes used analogies that seem to tacitly condone slavery.”
Believer: Again, the Bible primarily details the account of how God has chosen to deal with the tragic results of a sin-fallen world down through the ages. While recognizing the reality of slavery as it existed in various forms, the Bible never actually condones it. It rather gives slaves, both then and more recently, a spiritual basis for worth, dignity, equality, and hope to face difficult circumstances.
In the end, at a deeper level, the biblical position on slavery is clear.
Also, in the end, the Bible teaches
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
– Matthew 22:36-40
Hard to make the case that the God of the Bible condones slavery or that the Bible asks Christians to condone slavery when the second part of the greatest commandment is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matthew Henry’s Commentary explains that commandment like this.
“It is prescribed, that we love our neighbor as ourselves. We must honor and esteem all men, and must wrong and injure none; must have a good will to all, and good wishes for all, and, as we have opportunity, must do good to all. We must love our neighbor as ourselves, as truly and sincerely as we love ourselves, and in the same instances; nay, in many cases we must deny ourselves for the good of our neighbor, and must make ourselves servants to the true welfare of others, and be willing to spend and be spent for them, to lay down our lives for the brethren.”