The Bible, Slavery and Morality

One criticism often levelled against Christianity in particular and the Bible in general is that both have appeared to tolerate slavery. This objection is used to suggest that Biblical morality is no better than any other, and is offered as another reason why we should reject belief in God. This is how one atheist somewhat sloppily put it in a comment on another person’s blogsite:

“If the rights came from God, then… well…  ‘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 will 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
If rights really did come from God, then why does God seem to say on several OT occasions that its perfectly acceptable to keep slaves? Also, God is strongly against the ‘all men created equal’ part of the declaration of dependence: A great many OT laws give one rule for israelites and another for forigners.
And dont give me the ‘But Christ overturned those laws!’ excuse. It doesn’t matter if God later invalidated a law. He still made it.”

This comment raises a number of issues, and makes a number of points, some misleading, and some just plain wrong. But we can regard it as a more or less fair comment, with the general tenor of the complaint worth exploring in more detail.

Several responses can be made. First, slavery was widespread throughout the Ancient Near East. It certainly predated the period described in Leviticus. So this has nothing to do with Yahweh somehow commanding or creating the institution of slavery, any more than he ordered the habits of eating or sleeping. Slavery was simply a way of life common to all peoples of the ANE.

What the various regulations about slavery in the Pentateuch do provide are means to humanise and regulate a widespread practice. While it is not eliminated, the conditions of slavery are greatly moderated and improved, in contrast to the surrounding cultures. And to put guidelines on the activity is not to confer moral approval of it.

Indeed, this critic is selective in his use of OT passages. A few chapters earlier in Leviticus there appears this quite incredible command: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 19:34 – see also Deut. 10:19). This is a radical departure from the view of foreigners in other ANE cultures.

And many other humane provisions can be cited concerning the foreign slave in Israel. For example, a bodily injury inflected upon the slave by the master resulted in his emancipation (Ex. 21:26).

A similar picture is found in the New Testament. Slavery was also a fact of life during this period. There were far more slaves than freemen in the Roman Empire. But slaves back then were treated much better than slaves, say, in the US prior to the Civil War. They had a number of rights and privileges, and they could often procure their own freedom.

The NT writers do not necessarily rebuke the practice of slavery, but neither do they condone it. What they do is greatly alter the conditions for it. They seek to mitigate and make easier an existing social custom. Thus Paul instructs slave owners to treat their slaves fairly and kindly, something unheard of in Greek and Roman culture. In the various household codes (Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col 3:18 – 4:1; Pet. 2:13-3:7), instructions are given on how slaves are to submit to their masters, but also on how masters are to treat their slaves.

There were already Roman household codes in existence, which the NT authors not so much adopted as adapted. These codes dealt mainly with three areas: marriage (husband and wife relationships); family (parent and child relationships); and workplace (master and slave relationships). The Romans made much of one side of the equation: eg., wives obey your husbands, children obey your parents, slaves obey your masters. But the NT writers add responsibilities on to the husbands, parents and masters, making it a two-way relationship. This was quite revolutionary and radical in the culture of the day.

Also, Paul didn’t speak against slavery for the same reason Jesus didn’t speak against Rome. He had a more important mission to carry out. But he took a revolutionary approach to the matter. He put both slave and master on an equal footing, and said we are all slaves to Christ.

Indeed, the general message of the NT is that all men and women are equal in Christ. Thus Paul can say in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And it was the Judeo-Christian message of the equality of all men – because all are made in God’s image – that led to the eventual elimination of slavery, at least in the West. Most of the abolitionists were committed Christians. Believers such as William Wilberforce and Charles Finney were at the forefront of bringing slavery to an end. Thus because of these Christian endeavours, the West is today free of slavery. However, Muslim countries like Sudan and Mauritania still deal in slavery.

Finally, what about the charge of favouritism? What about the complaint that God had one set of laws for Israel, and one set for foreigners? This too could make for a whole article in itself, but a few quick thoughts:

God did choose Israel out of all the nations of the earth (Hosea 11:1; Amos 3:2). But this choice was based on God’s grace, not Israel’s worth or merit. This is made quite clear in passages such as Deuteronomy 7:7,8; 8:17, 18; and 9:4-6. And with this calling went greater responsibility and greater accountability.

But even though Israel was God’s chosen nation, in the end, he treated both Jew and pagan alike. Both were held to high levels of morality and justice, and both were judged when they failed in those areas. Indeed, the prophetic word of judgment brought against Israel often reads like the same word brought against the foreign nations. The same language is often used, and the same reasons for judgment are often cited. So God treats all nations the same, in that sense at least.

In sum, the effort to suggest that the reality of slavery somehow means that Biblical morality is just not up to scratch and it is another reason why we should reject the Judeo-Christian worldview, just does not hold up here. Biblical morality, like all morality, is complex and nuanced, but it stands up well on its own terms, and in comparison to other ethical systems. Atheists and critics will have to come up with another tack if they want to convince us of Christianity’s inherent deficiencies.

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29 Replies to “The Bible, Slavery and Morality”

  1. The leaders of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were transported to Australia, in the first half of the 19th century, for seven years of hard labour, were Methodists; they had been found guilty of making illegal oaths at what must have been the first trade union in Britain.

    I don’t believe the leader of this group, George Lovelace, a Christian would have found any inconstancy in 1 Corinthians 7:20 where Paul says “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.” The fact of the matter was their families were at risk of dying from starvation and poverty.

    Jesus quoted Isaiah 6 when in Luke 4:18 he proclaimed “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

    David Skinner, UK

  2. Thanks Bill. You are a real encouragement.

    The Bible teaches in 1 Peter 3:9 to not repay evil with evil. Suffering for doing good is the Christian way.

    Slaves had a unique opportunity to follow Jesus’s example of suffering (See 1 Peter 2:18-21).

    Christ suffered but he had love for those who caused him to suffer. That is repaying evil with good. No matter what someone does to you to repay them with good, to show them the love that God has provided to you.

    While slavery is unfair, the Christians of the time were hardly in a position to put a stop to slavery. Rome relied on slavery, without them the way ran their society would have to change completely. Rome is definitely one of the most slave dependent societies in history. Not to mention the critical fact that Christians were up against intense opposition at the time and were nothing like in power in Rome under a pagan Emperor.

    I agree that it is important when considering a message delivered in the Bible to understand the context in which it is given. There are so many reasons that can make it more difficult to comprehend the meaning of a passage, due to a great degree to a vastly different society today to Biblical times.

    After reading what you said and having a think I can’t wait to see the movie Amazing Grace tonight. The story of the abolition of the British slave trade shows powerfully the Christian attitude towards slavery. Slavery was opposed, but not with evil. It was opposed in the way God led Wilberforce, it was opposed in Parliament.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  3. To Matthew,
    Sadly I found in a preview last week that the film “Amazing Grace” does not do justice to the evangelical convictions of Wilberforce or Newton.
    The emancipist is portrayed as a New Age philanthropist and Newton as a penitent monk – sackcloth and all, hardly the fervent preacher of the gospel that he became.
    Wilberforce’s crisis becomes a choice between the Neo-platonic divide between the active or contemplative life rather than the call to take up his cross and follow his Master.
    I would be interested in knowing how others feel about the film.
    John Nelson

  4. America was settled by Christians. God could have easily whispered into the ears of those early settlers long before the pracitce was established. Instead he allowed an evil practice to flourish for a few hundred years before finally revealing to a few Christians that slavery was an evil, much to the consternation and opposition of many other Christians.

    Your defence of God is far from convincing.
    Paul McNamara

  5. Thanks John

    I hope to see the film in a few days’ time, and then I can make a more sober assessment. But five months ago I did write up an article in which I drew upon a critique of the film by Charlotte Allen:

    She too argues that the Christian convictions of Wilberforce are played down in the film, and that most of the abolitionists of this period were committed Christians, a point lost in the film. But in a few days time I will be able to more clearly argue the case one way or the other.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Thanks Paul

    Your defence of atheism is far from convincing. Indeed, your reasoning is sloppy at best. America was founded by many people, some of whom were Christians. And as I mentioned in my article, the New Testament message of human equality and oneness in Christ paved the way for the move to abolition.

    And many American Christians were concerned about slavery from settlement onwards.

    It certainly was not secular humanism and purposeless evolutionary theory that resulted in action to free the slaves. Darwin could speak of “most favoured races,” while Dawkins tells us we are all just selfish gene carriers. Why bother with fighting slavery under that worldview?

    And tell me Paul, just how many atheists were actively working for abolition at the time of Wilberforce? Can you name just one? I am afraid your moral outrage here is hypocritical in the extreme. The abolitionists of this period were almost all committed Christians.

    So spare us your slapstick attempt to justify your godless worldview. On this issue, you simply have no moral or intellectual legs to stand on.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. I made no reference to atheism, nor any attempt to defend it. Yet rather than attempt to explain God’s tardiness in allowing an evil practice to flourish for so long, you simply attack me.

    “And tell me Paul, just how many atheists were actively working for abolition at the time of Wilberforce? Can you name just one?”

    Are you being funny Bill? Very few atheists existed at that time, and if they did they most likely kept their views private for fear of persecution.

    “The abolitionists of this period were almost all committed Christians.”

    More humor Bill? As almost everyone living at that time in those communities was Christian it is hardly surprising.

    “New Testament message of human equality and oneness in Christ paved the way for the move to abolition.”

    God had no difficulty in condemning sexual practices which were just as prevelent in the communities of that time. Yet refrains from condemning slavery?

    Paul McNamara

  8. Thomas Sowell points out in Race and culture that slavery was ubiquitous; the Muslims took more black Africans than were transported to America, and also enslaved more white Europeans. He also points out that fair from being a western White phenomenon (note, he is black), it was only in the west that slavery was abolished. And it was abolished first in Britain thanks to evangelical Christian businessmen, then abolitionism was imposed on the rest of the world by the powerful British navy, i.e. “western imperialism”.

    America had a huge number of Christians who wrote and campaigned extensively against slavery (the page Slavery: Early Christian responses in America links to dozens of articles by these Christian abolitionists).

    Does God condone slavery in the Bible? shows that many misotheists have no clue what “slavery” meant in the Biblical culture. It mostly had nothing to do with the American Deep South; the Prime Minister’s Cabinet members would be called his “slaves”.

    John Nelson, here is another review of Amazing Grace.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  9. Thanks Paul

    But I am afraid that you are the one playing games here. You have made your case for misotheism here on previous posts, so please stop being disingenuous. And you are the one making ludicrous claims here. You ridiculously imply that somehow Christians are to blame for slavery, when they were in fact the very ones working to fight against it.

    To argue that everyone was a Christian back then is laughable. Have you ever heard of the Enlightenment, for starters? A fast growing movement of secularists had been well underway by this time, and there were plenty of “freethinkers” and others around. Yet none of them lifted a finger against slavery. Thus it is unbelief that stands condemned here, not Christianity.

    The very people you constantly criticise are the very ones who did what none of your atheist buddies did about slavery. Christians – not atheists – motivated by their faith in Christ and their understanding of the New Testament, led the charge against slavery. And as has been documented countless times, numerous other social evils were targeted throughout history by people motivated by the love of Christ. Try reading the numerous works by Rodney Stark here, as but one example. Or will your atheistic fundamentalism prevent you from allowing the historical record to speak here?

    And you really have no idea what you are talking about when you speak of “God’s tardiness in allowing an evil practice to flourish for so long”. God’s holiness and righteousness are unchanging, and his moral standards remain constant. He does however allow evil in the sense that he allows atheists like you, as well as everyone of us, to flourish, even though every day people sin against him, disobey him, and even seek to deny his existence. You should be extremely grateful that God does allow evil to continue. If you really would like God to bring all evil to a halt by midnight tonite, then at 12:01, planet earth would be empty of human life. It is only because of the mercy of God that any of us are still around today.

    Peter dealt with this same objection 2000 years ago when people mockingly asked, where is God’s judgment? Peter responded, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) It is my prayer for you that you take this opportunity of grace to let God become the rightful ruler of your life.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. John and Bill, I saw the film Amazing Grace tonight. While it does not spend as much time talking about the Christian motivation of Wilberforce as we might like, there are some scenes where Wilberforce belng a man of faith is very clear (e.g. a scene, of which part is shown in the trailer, where the African is speaking). I also think there is a point where it is mentioned that a number of Wilberforce’s supporters are clergyman.

    After watching this very moving film, I want to read about this story, to learn more, to learn how God moved him. In any case, surely this film is much better than the vast majority of films shown in the cinemas.

    It is my prayer that some of the people who go and see this film will be moved to read the story of William WIlberforce and learn the story in its fullness.

    I would like to see the film again and would recommend this film to anyone.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  11. It does seem clear as Jonathan says, that the form of slavery permitted for Israel in OT times was fairly benign compared with that presumed by modern critics. How else could we explain the provisions made for ‘slaves’ who when given ‘freedom’ sometimes chose to stay with their ‘masters’?

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  12. Bill, thanks for putting this data forward. ‘Slave’ is a slippery term. Demosthenes pointed out that a slave in Athens was probably better off than a free man in their own country. However he noted that to be a slave in Rome would have been terrible.
    Athenian social status was definitely not divided between slaves and free as slaves status depended on whose slave he was and what his profession was.
    Slavery should be rated on a scale of 1 to 10, as we know people gladly entered into slavery to find food and shelter for their dependants
    Stan Fishley, Melbourne

  13. Thanks for another interesting discussion Bill.
    How ridiculous to waggle the finger at God for not abolishing slavery immediately. God in his very nature is opposed to any from of slavery. This is evident in the way he created us……. with free will. Free will to chose wrong or right, to chose to enslave, or to chose to fight for freedom for others, to choose to post comments with little fact or sense behind them, or to post a well reasoned, informative argument.
    Thanks again Bill,
    Catherine Keane, Victoria

  14. “How ridiculous to waggle the finger at God for not abolishing slavery immediately. God in his very nature is opposed to any from of slavery”

    Of course, nothing could be clearer. That explains God’s instructions on where to buy slaves and how to treat them. Even more clearer is the fact that such explicit instructions do not denote moral approval. Never mind the fact that the worship of other gods was also widely practiced at the time and evinced no hesitation on God’s part to explicitly condemn such practices.

    But you think I am having an argument with God or Christianity? – no, I am having an argument with biblical inerrancy.

    Paul McNamara

  15. Thanks Paul

    But you still don’t seem to get it. God did not order the institution of slavery. He simply provided his people with some guidelines on an already existing institution. And those guidelines, as I wrote, greatly humanised the condition of slaves. And as other commentators here have rightly argued, slavery was quite a complex situation in the ANE, and there were many different versions of it. There were even voluntary forms of slavery.

    When poor Hebrews, for example, got stuck financially, selling themselves as indentured servants was often a godsend: a way to get out of debt and protect the family. Thus slavery then was quite different from modern forms of slavery.

    And as an atheist, you have yet to convince us why it is you should be concerned about slavery at all. Why don’t you just side with Darwin when he speaks of some races being favoured over other races? Atheists are the ones who have the real problem concerning slavery, not theists.

    And it was nice of you to let the cat out of the bag: you are simply using slavery as a silly excuse to attack biblical inerrancy. Well, you failed miserably here in that attempt. Moreover, to attack inerrancy is to attack God and Christianity, since Christians believe that God has communicated to us through an inerrant scripture.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Life on this Earth is often unfair – just compare the lot of someone born free in a poor country these days with those of us living in the rich west. Or indeed of a child born with HIV because of the sins of a parent.

    The Bible teaches that the 70-80 years we may spend on this Earth will pass and then we face our Maker with either of two destinations for Eternity.

    I should be far more concerned with where I will spend Eternity – I hope with many of the slaves who turned to the Lord because of adversity – than whether I spent 70-80 years free or as a slave.

    Stephen White

  17. In the Law that God established for His people at Mt. Sinai (ie. the first five books of the Bible), He was not dealing with a culturally blank slate, rather, he was dealing with a new nation of people that had been born and bred in Egypt. Inasmuch, the laws of Moses address a number of issues that were present or inevitable but by no means instituted or condoned by God: premarital sex (Ex 22:16), divorce and remarriage (Deut 24:1ff.; cf. Matt 19:3ff.) and slavery (Lev 25:44ff.). The same considerations need to be given to the NT writings, written to people converted from the Graeco-Roman world.

    So it is worth highlighting that any comparison of 18th Century slavery in America with 1st Century salvery in the Roman empire (NT context) and 15th Century BC slavery in the Ancient Near East (OT context) is like comparing apples and oranges. A person who criticises the 15th Century BC OT teaching or the 1st Century AD NT teaching about slavery because of the abuses of morally corrupt Christians in the 18th Century is either:

    Uninformed (don’t know what they are talking about); Uneducated (have not been taught how to critically examine arguments); Stupid (are not capable of examining arguments); or Dishonest (they don’t really care about the integrity of the argument, they just want to crap all over the Bible and those who accept and defend it’s authenticity)

    That may be harsh, but I think it needs to be said. It gets a bit tiring listening to people degrade themselves with such intrinsically flawed arguments.

    Damien Carson, Wynnum, Queensland

  18. Matthew Mulvaney:
    “Slavery was opposed, but not with evil. It was opposed in the way God led Wilberforce, it was opposed in Parliament.”

    True, but the small band of abolitionists battled elsewhere, too. They probably represent the first of the “single-issue parties” which we see today creating “sturm und drang” for one or two elections, and then fading away.

    But this group of men stuck at it for over a generation, marshalled support, influenced public opinion and mounted a peaceful revolution.

    And something which hasn’t emerged in this thread as yet, is the fact that the slave trade was not a long-standing continuation of the Old Testament or New Testament practices, but something which emerged a few hundred years earlier.

    It was sufficiently embedded in English society to have significant inertia (and thus opposition from “the establishment”) but it was not endemic as we see in other cultures and civilizations.

    John Angelico

  19. Paul, I’m sure you wouldn’t argue that employment in itself is wrong. Yet it is a form of slavery. Moreover, you could call employment institutions slave traders! An employee binds himself to a contract, and so in effect ‘sells’ himself to his employer. However, we have laws in place that ensure the rights of the employee are not contravened. If those laws were not in place, even our current employment system would end up degenerating to not much different to what we commonly call slavery.

    So slavery in itself is not really the moral issue. The moral issue at hand is the treatment of others as sub-human. The Bible never allows for this. Indeed, the laws in the Bible regarding slavery are just as applicable to current employment! Yes, slaves are to obey their masters. Today this means that employees are to obey their employers. Masters, in turn, are to treat their slaves as fellow human beings and respect their God-given rights. The same goes for employers in how they treat their employees.

    Thus it is not inconsistent for a Christian to have a slave, whether it be Biblical times, colonial times, or even today in the name of employment; providing that the Christian obeys the Scriptural teaching on how they are to treat their slaves, or employees for today’s sake. Indeed, the reason slavery in the colonial times had to be abolished was due to the fact that dehumanization was so ingrained in the practice.

    Paul, I fail to see how you use this to be a charge against Biblical inerrency. The Bible is entirely consistent in this area. If a person, institution, or society claimed to be Christian but ignored the Biblical laws regarding slaves, their claim would rightly so be questioned.

    David Clay, Melbourne

  20. I’m sorry David, but even as I am writing this reply I am feeling increasingly sick at the possible ramifications of your statements.

    Employees agree to render a particular service for a set price – that’s the way economies have worked for thousands of years. The issue with slavery is not the hire of labourers but the fact that one person stakes a claim of ownership over another and deprives them of basic human diginity. You are from Melbourne, David – do you remember the case a while back of the five Thai women that were brought into the country and given contracts to work as prostitutes in Fitzroy? They understood that they were coming to Australia to be prostitutes and they were all given contracts of $45k per year… apart from the line of work, in your opinion, how was their treatment unbiblical? If I, as a Christian was an office manager and hired them as typists would it have been inconsistent, and would the charges against me have been unjust?

    Damien Carson, Wynnum, Queensland

  21. Damien, you misunderstand what I am saying. Slavery as a term has a broad meaning. Slavery as termed in the Bible still ensured the slaves had basic rights. You said ‘The issue with slavery is not the hire of labourers but the fact that one person stakes a claim of ownership over another and deprives them of basic human dignity.’ Claim of ownership is one thing, and even in employment the employer ‘owns’ the employee during the time of the contract or working hours – the employee is not free to do as he wishes. The deprivation of human dignity is a totally different kettle of fish. Do not mix them up. This was indeed the problem of colonial slavery, and the slavery of the nations around Israel in Biblical times. But God did not allow the Israelites to treat their slaves in that way. Consider Exodus 21:20 “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished.” Just because a person may have owned a slave, did not mean he could do to the slave just as he liked – as if the slave was a machine or a tool. No, the slave as well as the master are created in the image of God. Moreover, there are sterner warnings in the New Testament. Ephesians 6:9 says ‘And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.’ It does not seem as though you have read Bill’s article, as he expounds this quite a bit more.

    As to the prostitutes of Fiztroy – yes indeed the issue of prositutition is condemned in Scripture – but the terms of the contract were illegal by Australian law – the government is ordained by God for the administering of justice and thus should be obeyed. So if you hired them as typists under similar terms – sure, you are contravening the law in Australia and the charges against you are not unjust. Of coarse you would ask me then what if it happened in another country where the contract was legal. Your problem is with meaning of terminology. There are contracts, and there are contracts. There would have been many slaves in Biblical times who were living much more dignified lives than many who are in employment in Australia today. You can see this in the Biblical provision for Israelites to voluntarily bind themselves to their masters for life (Ex. 21:5 – 6). The question would then be are you treating your ‘slaves’ as fellow human beings as God requires you to, knowing they while they are obliged to you, you cannot own them in every way and you will be answerable to God for your treatment of them – a God who shows no favouritism.

    You must understand that God never instituted slavery. It is not His design for human life. However, because our forefather Adam sinned and rebelled against God, everything in this world fell below His standard. There were some things that were allowed – but these were never God’s ideal.

    You are also approaching the whole issue with premises that have been formed in our society, and are held as so precious. I question those premises. In this humanistic society, we hold the happiness of humanity as the highest virtue. As a result, we desire freedom and all the rights we can think of. However, the Bible states that we all are sinners, and are deserving of eternal hellfire. We are born slaves of sin, whether we like it or not. It took the death of God’s own Son Jesus to buy us back, so that instead of being slaves to sin, we can be given the right to become sons of God if we repent from sin and turn our lives completely over to God. No, the happiness of humanity is not the highest virtue – it is the glory and honour of God. If we truly want to honour God, then we will treat all humans, including those who may be obliged to us, with dignity and respect because they are created in God’s image too.

    David Clay, Melbourne

  22. I would like to think that my premise for opposing slavery is not cultural, but biblical, although in this case, the two may not be all that far apart because of the 18th century evangelical foundations of abolition.

    I understand your argument that slavery and employment are at least comparable but I disagree and believe that the argument is playing with semantics.

    Bill’s article above points out that NT ethics eventually led to the abolition, not the reform of slavery. Also, the NT writers do not say: “Thou must not trade in slaves”, but taken as a whole, their teachings demand that masters consider slaves better than themselves. I think Bill is a bit conservative saying this was “radical”… “revolutionary” may have been a better choice of words!!

    Paul wrote in 1 Cor 7, “don’t be concerned about your slavery, but rather, if you are able to become free, you must (imperative). Read together with Jesus’ summary of his personal ethics teaching, “to do to others as you would have them do to you”, I don’t understand how you can argue that owning slaves is not inconsistent with the Bible.

    Damien Carson, Wynnum, Queensland

  23. Thanks guys

    A helpful and informative debate thus far. Keep it up. Maybe I can add just a few more points. Slavery in the OT was somewhat complex, and care is needed in order to make proper nuanced distinctions. But one point worth repeating is that for many Hebrews, slavery was voluntary indentured servitude. To work off a debt and/or escape poverty, a Hebrew would voluntarily become a hired servant or bound labourer. But his service had to end in six years, or in the Year of Jubilee (see Lev. 25:39-43, eg.). These and other humane conditions meant that slavery back then was much different to modern slavery.

    The same with slavery in the first century. The slave back then had considerable freedom, and was granted many rights. Often the master/slave relationship was a mutually beneficial one. So again, it differed markedly from that of recent American history.

    As to 1 Corinthians 7:21, this is a difficult passage with tons of ink spilled over how best to translate the Greek. The truth is, one can go various ways as to how this passage is to be understood. If you consult various Bible translations, or various commentaries, you will see a fairly even split on this. For example, the passage can imply, ‘do not let it worry you’ [that is, the condition of being a slave and the possibility of freedom], and instead concentrate on service to the Lord; or there is the idea of ‘making positive use of it’ [the opportunity for freedom]. Is Paul saying to slaves, remain as you are (as in v. 20), or to take advantage of the offer of freedom?

    And 7:21b is a difficult phrase, which can go either way. Thus the NIV renders it, “Although if you can gain your freedom, do so,” while the NAB renders it, “Even supposing you could go free, you would be better off making the most of your slavery”. Unfortunately here, grammar, syntax and even context all can be used in either understanding. Even the short phrase “do so” is unclear as to referent. It can mean make the most of, or take advantage of, but of what? Slavery? Freedom?

    The context (7:17-24) is a call to stability and peace. Paul wants the Corinthians to not let their social conditions bother them, because their calling as Christians transcends and transforms these conditions. As one commentator seeks to explain, “The call of God releases the slave to the new freedom of an ultimate relationship with God, as the call of God enslaves the free person to that same ultimate relatedness.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  24. Thanks Bill and Damien,

    Please be assured that I am just as opposed to slavery as you are, I probably was not communicating this properly. Yes, Damien, I certainly agree with your ‘do unto others’, and do appreciate that there are some differences between what is commonly known as slavery and employment. Also the fact that NT ethics by their nature lead to abolition of slavery. But I do believe that employment without accountability can become just as horrible and sometimes similar to slavery – just consider child labour in mines.

    Yet something that often comes to mind is that while slavery and the slave trade has been abolished in our society, we no longer ship slaves here, rather, we ship our companies overseas. We often hear of the poor pay, long hours, and dangerous working conditions of the labour sourced overseas. Of course the argument goes that we are doing them a favour, but really it does beg the question as to whether this is more slavery in the name of employment. As the end consumer, we are the benefactors of this. Now I do appreciate that this is not always the case, and some companies are more open to accountability than others. But it does cause you to wonder when you can buy a DVD player for less than two hours of our average pay. It is almost like they are spending their lives making the entertainment systems that we spend half our time watching our favourite movies on. I have wondered in the past “Should I buy that product marked ‘Made in ….’ knowing that it could well have been made by the very pastor I heard from the Voice of the Martyrs was incarcerated and subjected to forced labour?” In that sense, I am the benefactor of slave labour, and it is almost like I have my own slave!

    So do you see what I am grappling with? I don’t like this, but it is a hard reality that a number of the products on my desk may well have had this source. I can’t help but think that unfortunately because of our fallen state, and despite all my efforts for change and reform (which I see as a God given duty), on this earth there will always be classes of people. As a Christian that does make me look forward to Christ’s return when He will judge the earth and restore justice. That is what I put my hope in, but still realizing that God can still bless my efforts, just as He did for William Wilberforce. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    David Clay, Melbourne

  25. Damien,

    You commented, “…the NT writers do not say: “Thou must not trade in slaves”…”

    Had you noticed 1 Ti 1:10? “…slave traders, … and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching…”

    James Wheeler

  26. I have heard that a number of scholars supply “slavery” as the object of “you must use it”; and that the grammar and syntax of 1 Cor 7:21 is ambiguous, but I can’t see it myself.

    I am no expert, but as far as I can see, “freedom” is the only object that is available for the verb “you must use it”. I would be a bit suspicious of those who would even come up with the idea that the object might/should be anything different (although I think St. John Chrysostom was one, which kind of takes the sting out of my argument!)

    David said, “something that often comes to mind is that while slavery and the slave trade has been abolished in our society, we no longer ship slaves here, rather, we ship our companies overseas. We often hear of the poor pay, long hours, and dangerous working conditions of the labour sourced overseas”

    Now this is a good point. Perhaps Bill could consider an article on this. I felt sick when I heard that a company that I have a few shares in will be sending it’s call centre operations to India. The poverty and desperation of the majority of Indians provides an environment where even trained labour is very cheap, which in turn is used by Western companies in order to save mega-dollars. My dividend will undoubtedly increase, but I’m not sure that I will be able to accept it without my hand shaking.

    Damien Carson, Wynnum, Queensland

  27. Thanks Damien
    Actually I have addressed this issue, at least somewhat, in articles on this website such as: “Poverty, the Third World, and Hollywood”; and “In Defence of Multinationals”. But more needs to be said about it.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  28. Bill

    I apologies to you Bill, I had you down as a Christian Reconstructionist. You are clearly not. Thank God you oppose slavery.

    I must disagree with you about the ‘humanity’ of Roman slaves. According to Eduard Lohse The New Testament Environment (London: SCM, 1974, trans 1976), p.212ff; slaves had little or no rights with some limited exceptions. they were better of than North American slaves (According to Stark) but not the slaves under the Spanish. For instance they did not have the right to marry or even have sex. Stark attributed the decline in the dependance of slave (due to lack of reproduction) to creating the necessary condition for the elimination of slavery {Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton, 2003), p. 299ff}.


    Michael Boswell

  29. Slavery is situational. Atheists rail about slavery being acknowledged and guidelines for “operating within” slavery, and yet they are complicit as they effectively support sexual slavery through prostitution and pornography. I would turn their words on them and ask, where are the great atheistic movements to rid the world of child slavery, sexual slavery and domestic slavery that is rife around the world. And yet I see mainly Christians in this space, making the noise and doing something about it. The simple fact is, God promotes the worth and essential equality of each human and for the community to uphold that basic worth. Evolution denies it, and all the world’s systems are essentially designed in opposition to that.

    And as has already been mentioned above, to discuss slavery, one first has to indentify which form and what you are defining slavery as. Over the hundreds of years people have voluntarily indentured themselves for many reasons, and suffered the conditions that were bound with it, and we continue to do this today. Sailors suffered the whippings and deprivations under their captains, soldiers have voluntarily suffered greatly at the hands of their superiors for duty in war, and even today many people work for people, agencies, organisations (including Western orgs) that literally run their lives and require subjugation purely for {insert whatever reason here}. Freedom can be very much a relative thing given people’s situations.

    God clearly presents that His desire is that all man is free. But the bible is written to the spiritual person, and God is primarily concerned with the spiritual, and He counts physical slavery as less of a priority than spiritual slavery. Only one form of slavery is truly acceptable to Him, that being voluntary slavery to Christ (in which paradoxically, only true freedom is found).

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