Does the Bible condone slavery?

Today’s question is, “Does the Bible condone slavery?” There is a tendency to look at slavery as  something of the past. But it is estimated that there are today over 27 million people in the  world who are subject to slavery: forced labor,   sex trade, inheritable property, etc. As those  who have been redeemed from the slavery of sin,   followers of Jesus Christ should be the  foremost champions of ending human slavery   in the world today. The question arises, though,  why does the Bible not speak out strongly   against slavery? Why does the Bible, in fact,  seem to support the practice of human slavery? The Bible does not specifically condemn the  practice of slavery. It gives instructions   on how slaves should be treated, but does not  outlaw slavery altogether. Many see this as the   Bible condoning all forms of slavery. 

What  many fail to understand is that slavery in   biblical times was very different from the slavery  that was practiced in the past few centuries in   many parts of the world. The slavery in the Bible  was not based exclusively on race. People were   not enslaved because of their nationality  or the color of their skin. In Bible times,   slavery was based more on economics; it was a  matter of social status. People sold themselves   as slaves when they could not pay their debts  or provide for their families. In New Testament   times, sometimes doctors, lawyers, and even  politicians were slaves of someone else. Some   people actually chose to be slaves so as to have  all their needs provided for by their masters. 

The slavery of the past few centuries was  often based exclusively on skin color.   In the United States, many black people were  considered slaves because of their nationality;   many slave owners truly believed black  people to be inferior human beings.   The Bible condemns race-based slavery in that  it teaches that all men are created by God   and made in His image. At the same time, the  Old Testament did allow for economic-based   slavery and regulated it. The key issue  is that the slavery the Bible allowed for   in no way resembled the racial slavery that  plagued our world in the past few centuries. 

In addition, both the Old and New  Testaments condemn the practice of   “man-stealing,” which is what happened  in Africa in the 16th to 19th centuries.   Africans were rounded up by slave-hunters,  who sold them to slave-traders, who brought   them to the New World to work on plantations  and farms. This practice is abhorrent to God.   In fact, the penalty for such a crime in the  Mosaic Law was death: “Anyone who kidnaps another   and either sells him or still has him when he  is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).   Similarly, in the New Testament, slave-traders  are listed among those who are “ungodly   and sinful” and are in the same category  as those who kill their fathers or mothers,   murderers, adulterers and perverts, and  liars and perjurers (1 Timothy 1:8– 10). 

Another crucial point is that the purpose of  the Bible is to point the way to salvation,   not to reform society. The Bible often  approaches issues from the inside out. If   a person experiences the love, mercy, and  grace of God by receiving His salvation,   God will reform his soul, changing the way he  thinks and acts. A person who has experienced   God’s gift of salvation and freedom from  the slavery of sin, as God reforms his soul,   will realize that enslaving another human being  is wrong. He will see, with Paul, that a slave   can be “a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:16). A  person who has truly experienced God’s grace will   in turn be gracious towards others. That would  be the Bible’s prescription for ending slavery.