Bible vs Current Teaching on Slavery

A friend sent me the following asking why the Bible supported slavery. Please help me answer him.


In Leviticus 25:44-46
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.

In Exodus 21:2-6
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever.

In Exodus 21:7-11
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment.

In Ephesians 6:9
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.

Colossians 4:1
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

In Exodus 21:20-21
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.

In Ephesians 6:5
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.

In 1 Timothy 6:1-2
Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them.

And then there’s the single passage Jesus said on the subject of slavery. Luke 12:47-48

The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. “But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.”

Not once–NOT ONCE–does the Bible ever say, “Slavery is immoral.” Not once. And that’s all it would take. Instead of having three “Obey me” Commandments, God could have said, “Thou shall not own slaves.” But, he didn’t.

Not once.

Don’t really see the point of your last remarks.

To my knowledge, not once does the Bible say: Thou shall not marry more than one wife. Several great bible figures had more than one wife. What does that say about polygamy?

I could give several more examples about issues not expressly forbidden in the Bible, but you get my drift…

My best explanation: man’s moral/social development has in many ways been a process rather than an instant transformation. God takes us from where we are to where He wants us to be and allows us sufficient time to mature along the way, perhaps to not overwhelm us with the greatness of the gulf between who we are and who He wants us to be.

I’m quoting my friends post. I’m looking for help to understand these passages and to show him how we got to what we believe today.

one thing to understands is that slavery in Biblical times is different to slavery that happened with the Africans

some of the slaves back then even enter to become slaves by their own free will. because they see they’re better off serving someone for life, and at the same time being taken care of, rather than live poor, homeless and wouldn’t know where to get food

other slaves are captured people from war


(In the interest of disclosure, I’m a black American, so I have a vested curiosity on an accurate answer to this question as you. :slight_smile: )

I found this illuminating essay on the history of Christianity and the nature of slavery that clarified a few other items I found.

In a nutshell, in ancient times, servitude was common to soldiers who lost to war and were forced into labor for a time. In most cases, a person would voluntarily choose to serve another, in the form of indentured servitude.

But it was abhorrent, both in Old- and New Testament eras, to forcibly place a person into servitude *and *strip them of human rights to the point that they are essentially treated as property. That’s chattel slavery–the kind that my ancestors endured during the slavery era of the United States.

Chattel slavery is an abomination that many Catholic clergy, including popes, have vehemently denounced over the millenniums.

In the Bible, one of the twelve tribes did try chattel slavery, in Jeremiah 34:17. That got nipped in the bud very swiftly by the Lord.

I’m sure there were abuses noted by some Catholics in history–but these incidents are certainly not attributable to the whole of the Church or by the Magisterium as to be tolerated.

Your friend needs an education.

Chattel slavery (what went on in the US South and still happens in parts of the world) and Indentured Servitude (slavery practiced in the Bible and in other places today) are two very different things.

To my knowledge, not once does the Bible say: Thou shall not marry more than one wife. Several great bible figures had more than one wife. What does that say about polygamy?

I think that’s because of the verse about divorce. If you divorce and then re-marry the marriage it’s adultery, thus indicating we’re restricted to one spouse.

Very helpful. Thanks. Did you ever run across an explanation about buying slaves. Lev and Ex mentions that. So actively pursuing indentured slaves was ok?

I think most of the detailed quoted from Exodus can be chalked up to the idea that we are no longer under the Jewish Law. I’m thinking specifically about Jesus’ comment that Moses allowed divorce “because their hearts were hard”, but Christ would not. So too, I think one could make the claim that Moses allowed slavery “because their hearts were hard”, but Christians are called to something more.

Jesus’ comment in Luke about the servant is a parable; it says so specifically in verse 41, when Peter asks who it is addressed to. Verse 40 says “You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” Christ is talking about His return and the Church being ready, not the rightness/wrongness of the economic institution of slavery.

That leaves the Epistles, which warn both masters and servants to treat each other well. This was very progressive, considering how slaves were typically treated in the Roman Empire. Paul also encouraged slaves to become free if at all possible and those who were free were not to become slaves (as a remedy for debt, etc):
1 Cor. 7:21-23: Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.

I think the New Testament church was doing the best it could in the society of the time, and as it was able to do more, it did so. Traditionally, Pope Clement I, Pope Pius I, and Pope Callixtus I were all former slaves. :slight_smile:

Not talking about divorce but about having two or more wives at the same time, like Jacob had Rachel and Leah.

God granted a dispensation due to the society and needs at that time and place in the world. That dispensation has since been removed.

Based on what I’ve found for you, I can only surmise that, when indentured servants are passed about in ancient times, the new buyers pay for the servant’s owed debts or expected work to the original master.

I believe that indentured servitude was a social convenience of the pre-industrial, pre-democratic civilizations, where other options to sustain oneself were not available (no such thing as welfare checks, for instance–a common reason to live indentured was to work for room and board rather than be out on the street and starving).

Servitude of prisoners of war was a more humane way of keeping your enemies from the services of that soldier while gaining work from the soldier in exchange for basic room and board. For them, being in servitude may have been a better thing than execution, and obviously, it was practical for the Romans to have these prisoners in the building of their many structures.

Gladiators are a totally different matter; that was a cruel use of prisoners. (Watching or participating in American Idol comes close to this, too. :slight_smile: )

That’s just my opinion: I haven’t opportunity to back up my thoughts with supporting information at the moment.

Exactly along the lines that I’d been thinking. The same can be extended to the question of slavery.

Making a distinction between chattel slavery and indentured labor may help answer the question to some extent but I don’t think the descendants of indentured servants in former European colonies care much for their ancestors’ experience either. Neither might the indentured laborers (including kids) in Asia or the Restavec children in Haiti.

Morally, we as a Church, have moved beyond either system. God tolerated us treating people who farmed our lands and cooked our food as somehow being less than us on the scale of humanity, but that doesn’t mean its what He ever desired of us.

I agree wholeheartedly here. We’ve grown up as a people; the need for involuntary and most voluntary servitude has all but disappeared by way of modern employment practices and better education, not to mention better civil rights legislation and humane understanding.

Our clergy, thankfully, still sees itself as men who surrender themselves for God’s greater good.

Well we went through all this material and we finally agreed to disagree. His final comment on the subject went like this…

"I don’t like your god. Nor do I think he’s moral.

I don’t tolerate indentured servitude. Nor do I tolerate making slaves out of conquered peoples. Nor do I tolerate gay bashing, the way he ordered his people to treat women, xenophobia, or anything else from the Old Testament.

Forgive me for saying it, but your god is a ."

He’s a hard core atheist and I just wish I could help him more. :confused:

Thanks for the update. Can’t say you didn’t try.

It’s a very good thing that your friend isn’t the sole authority on the subject. Sounds like he’s overly idealistic and unexperienced. It sounds more that he’s wondering why someone with power would tolerate what happened to some people.

Perhaps a bigger question your friend should ponder is what could happen to his free will if God **did **decide to intervene in every thing he thought was unjust.

Now *that *scares me, for that is the God he thinks should exist. We’d had been lucky not to have been smited off the planet before we’d hardly got started. :slight_smile:

“… but from the beginning it was not so” (Mat 19:8).

See Thomas Aquinas’ *Summa Theologicae *on eternal law and human law.

This article, by theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles, answers the question on slavery in the Bible and in Church teaching:

In summary, the Bible uses the term slavery, and slave (or perhaps a better translation would be servant) to describe forms of ‘slavery’ such as indentured servitude. And this is clear from the passages that state a limit to the lenghth of the servitude. Slavery in its severe form, where human persons are denied all fundamental human rights, is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

Dulles: “Radical forms of slavery that deprive human beings of all personal rights are never morally permissible, but more or less moderate forms of subjection and servitude will always accompany the human condition.”

But it is not true that the Bible says nothing against slavery. In the book of Jeremiah, chapter 34, king Zedekiah frees all the slaves, and God was pleased. But then he later changed his order and had all the slaves rounded up again, and God was displeased.

{34:15} And today you converted, and you did what is right in my eyes, so that you proclaimed liberty, each one to his friend. And you entered into a pact in my sight, in the house in which and over which my name is invoked.
{34:16} But now you have turned back, and you have stained my name. For you have led back again, each one his man servant, and each one his woman servant, whom you had released so that they would be free and under their own authority. And you have subjugated them, so that they would be your servants and handmaids.”

Also, Paul tells Christians who are slave to obtain their liberty, if they are able to do so.

[1 Cor]
{7:21} Are you a servant who has been called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you ever have the ability to be free, make use of it.
{7:22} For any servant who has been called in the Lord is free in the Lord. Similarly, any free person who has been called is a servant in Christ.

Slavery still exists and not just in the human trafficing rings. If you look at what a slave got for their work, room and board. That is all that most people can afford these days (lower class) we are still slaves and it will not change untill socity changes which given the greed and corruption is not gonna happen.

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