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The Bible And Slavery

Many people have wondered why the Bible doesn't come out and clearly oppose slavery. Here's my very brief attempt to address this issue.    


Slavery, first mentioned in Genesis 9:25, has been an established practice in the social order of man since the dawning days of tribal warfare.  God conceded that slavery would never be eradicated from humanity so He regulated the practice in the Law of Moses to protect slaves.  Many of the Law's regulations were based on God conceding to our sinfulness.  They were a matter of necessity; not God's will.  The divorce law of Deuteronomy 24:1 to 4 is another example of this.  God conceded that couples would divorce (Matthew 19:8) so He instituted the law of divorce to protect innocent divorced wives.   


Note the following laws.  "Your slaves are to come from the nations around you" (Leviticus 25:44).  "If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master" (Deuteronomy 23:15).  "If a man hits a slave in the eye and destroys it, he must let the slave go free to compensate for it" (Exodus 21:26).  "If a man beats his slave with a rod and if the slave dies he must be punished" (Exodus 21:20).  Concerning the Passover meal the Lord said that "no foreigner is to eat of it.  Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him" (Exodus 12:44, also in Leviticus 22:11). 


These regulations show that God demands proper treatment of slaves.  He even views them as family in regard to the Passover meal, and that's significant.    


Exodus 3:7 tells us that God is upset with the abuse of slaves.  "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt.  I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering." 


Jeremiah 34:16 says, "you have turned around and profaned my name; each one of you has taken back the slaves you have set free " When Israelis took back their slaves, God viewed that as a personal offense against Himself.  Clearly, God prefers freedom.


I believe the Old Testament reluctantly concedes to the practice of slavery, therefore it regulates this evil practice to protect slaves.  I also believe the New Testament follows the same approach. 


The Apostle Paul speaks to slavery more than any other New Testament author.  Ephesians 6:5 to 8 says; "Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ."  See also Colossians 4:22 to 23 and 1 Timothy 6:1 to 2.  The Apostle Peter agrees with Paul, although he adds that slaves should even obey brutal masters.  He considers such obedience to be a form of suffering for Christ" (1 Peter 2:18 to 19).   Paul also says that slaves shouldn't try to gain their freedom, but if they're offered freedom, they should take it (1 Corinthians 7:20). 


The above statements disturb us today, but they weren't as disturbing in Paul's day.  There were just as many slaves as there were free men in the Roman Empire , many of whom were professionals, lawyers, doctors, and educators.  They weren't all the typical mistreated slaves slugging away in cotton fields as was the case in the southern United States before slavery was abolished.  Slavery was not only basic to Roman culture, it was fundamental to its economic survival.  The abolition of slavery would have caused serious social and economic problems, including the possible collapse of the empire.  All this being said, understanding what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 might clue you in on why he instructed slaves as he did. 


Paul tells all Christians in 1 Corinthians 7, including Christian slaves, to remain in the situation they were in when they first met Jesus.  He felt that if Christians could demonstrate a godly lifestyle in their anti-Christian situation, they might win those around them to Jesus.  Telling slaves to stay with their owners was all about winning their owners to Jesus. 


We should also note that God makes no distinction between slaves and free men when it comes to salvation  (1 Corinthians 12:13 and Galatians 3:28). 


Concerning Christians slave owners Paul says, "Treat your slaves in the same (caring) way.  Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and your Master is in heaven and there is no favouritism with Him" (Ephesians 6:9).  Paul reminds slave owners that both they and their slaves are subject to the one and only Master in heaven, so they better behave accordingly.       


Paul's letter to Philemon is key to this whole issue.  Philemon was a Christian slave owner.  Onesimus was one of his slaves who apparently ran away.  In Philemon 8 through 16 Paul says; "Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, I appeal to you on the basis of love  take Onesimus back, no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother."  On the behalf of Jesus, Paul tells Philemon to do the right thing, which was to free his slave and treat him as a brother.  If you've missed all that I've said, don't miss this.  Freeing Onesimus and considering him as a brother clearly demonstrates the heart of God concerning slavery.    


You might still wonder why Paul didn't vigorously oppose slavery.  The answer is simple.  Paul's mission as seen in Acts 9:15 was to be "God's chosen instrument and to carry His name before the Gentiles and to their kings and before the people of Israel."  Paul wasn't commissioned to be an activist or a politician to ban slavery and other cultural ills.  He was called to lead individual people to Jesus.  He was a preacher, not an activist.  That's partly why he never marched on Rome to ban slavery.  He knew that if he could lead a slave owner to Jesus, like Philemon, slaves would be set free, or at least treated as a brother in Christ.   


Many of us have been activists for various causes, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that.  I've marched in protest in front of abortion clinics in times past, but as far as I know, no one came to Jesus because of these protests.  Only the preaching of the gospel can lead a sinner to Jesus.  Besides, banning abortion wouldn't have ended the practice.  It would have only sent it back underground, where slavery exists today in our so-called civilized western world.  Unless the heart of man changes, his cultural ills remain.  Even though God legislated morality in the Law of Moses, He knew that laws don't change the heart of man.  Only the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer can change a heart.      


The Bible doesn't overtly condemn slavery, but it does oppose it.  In His inaugural speech to Israel, Jesus stated, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised" (Luke 4:18).  Interpret "preach deliverance to the captives" and "set at liberty them that are bruised" as you wish.  At least in part, I understand Jesus to say that our best attempts at legislating morality fails.  Only He, through the Holy Spirit, can effectively change the heart of man.  Only then will slavery be abolished from our world, including the sub-culture of our western world.  

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