About Jesus  -  Steve Sweetman

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 The Bible And Slavery

In response to questions asked me about what the Bible says about slavery, I write the following. 


Slavery is first mentioned in Genesis 9:25.  Beyond that, God instituted guidelines concerning slavery into Judaism as seen in the Law of Moses.  These guidelines were meant to protect slaves, not ban the practice of slavery.  Similar guidelines concerning divorce were meant to protect a divorced, innocent, wife, not to ban the practice of divorce.  Matthew 19:8 tells us that God permitted divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1 - 4) because of man's hard heart.  Slavery, like divorce, was an accommodation on God's part.   He overlooked such social ills until New Testament days when we are expected to repent of our sin (Acts 17:30). 


The Law of Moses said the following about slavery.  Leviticus 25:44 says: "Your slaves are to come from the nations around you."   Deuteronomy 23:15 says: "If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master."  Exodus 21:26 says: "If a man hits a slave in the eye and destroys it, he must let the slave go free to compensate for it."  Exodus 21:20 says: "If a man beats his slave with a rod and if the slave dies … he must be punished."   


Other Old Testament passages show how God feels about abusing 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" (Exodus 3:7).  "You have turned around and profaned my name; each one of you has taken back the slaves you have set free" (Jeremiah 34:16).  


The Old Testament accommodated the practice of slavery, therefore, it regulated it in Jewish culture to protect slaves.  Here's how the New Testament approaches the issue.  Ephesians 6:5 to 8 says that Christian slaves should "obey their earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as they would obey Christ."  See also Colossians 4:22 and 23 and 1 Timothy 6:1 and 2.  1 Corinthians 7:20 says that slaves should not try to gain their freedom, but if offered, then they should take it.  1 Peter 2:18 and 19 adds to this by saying that any hardship incurred by a slave should be considered a form of suffering for Christ.  These guidelines were meant to lead the slave owner to Jesus. 


The New Testament does not overtly oppose slavery.  Neither does it overtly condone it.  Unlike today, slavery was part of the economic landscape of the first-century, Greco-Roman, world.  Almost half of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves back then, many of whom were professionals, like lawyers, doctors, and educators.  Slavery did not necessarily have the same negative oppressive connotation back then as it does today.  Slavery was fundamental to the Roman Empire's economic existence.  Some think it was not much different from our financial indebtedness that enslaves many today in the process of maintaining our economic stability.  Basic to our financial existence is the spending of borrowed money in order to make money.  Bob Dylan sang it right in his 1979 song entitled "You've Gotta Serve Somebody." In this sense of the word, we are all a slave to something or someone.   


The New Testament teaches that God makes no distinction between slaves and free people in respect to salvation (1 Corinthians 12:13 and Galatians 3:28).  It also teaches that slave owners must treat their slaves with respect because God is the Master of both them and their slaves, and, God does not favour one person over another (Ephesians 6:9).  


Paul's letter to Philemon, a Christian slave owner, is key to this issue.  Onesimus was one of his slaves who apparently ran away.  In Philemon 8 through 16 Paul told Philemon this:


"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 behalf of Jesus, Paul told Philemon to do the right thing by releasing Onesimus and treating him as a brother.  This expresses the heart of God and the Bible concerning slavery.    


You might wonder why Paul did not vigorously oppose slavery.  Paul's mission was to be "God's chosen instrument to carry His name before the Gentiles and to their kings and before the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15).  He was not commissioned to be a social activist.  He was called to lead individual people to Jesus.  If a slave owner became a Christian, he was expected to do what was best for his slave.   


I've been a social activist.  I've protested in front of abortion clinics, but that never closed the clinics, and, it led no one to Jesus.  Banning abortion does not end abortion.  It sends it underground, where slavery exists today in our so-called civilized, slavery-banned, western world. 


In His inaugural speech to Israel, Jesus said this:


"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).


However you interpret "preach deliverance to the captives" and "set at liberty them that are bruised," Jesus is the source of freedom, whether inward freedom or cultural freedom. "If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed" (John 8:36).      

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