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“The Bible is pretty clear when it speaks to this issue.”


“Yea. But the Bible was also used to condone slavery.”


I can’t count how many times I’ve come up against this argument. It’s the trump card of the liberal atheist and progressive Christian alike whenever anyone brings up what the Bible actually teaches versus what they feel is right. It’s that, because of the Bible’s stance on slavery, the Bible’s moral authority is questionable and can be rejected. This is to be expected from hardened atheists who can neither understand nor want to the full counsel of God revealed in scripture. What has worried me in recent years (since moving to England especially) is the sheer amount of professing Christians who also have this view.

It’s what some commentators have called “Post-Biblicism”. It is the systematic casting of doubt, challenging and redacting scripture in order to make it fit with our own socio-cultural sensibilities. Famous proponents of this have included Steve Chalke, Brian Zahnd and John Pavlovitz who love the phrase “through the lens of Jesus” to describe the process of throwing out all scripture that doesn’t sound like the liberal stereotype they have created Jesus to fit into.


Sooner or later, in debate with these people, chances are they will throw out something similar to the line at the start of this article, “But at one time the Bible was used to condone slavery.”

And they are right. There’s no doubting that fact. The kidnapping, transporting, enslaving and abuse of Africans from the 15th to the 19th century was indeed justified by some in Biblical terms. As Harvard Divinity School’s Jacob Olupona said:

Christianity was deeply culpable in the African slave trade, inasmuch as it consistently provided a moral cloak for the buying and selling of human beings.

This is a black eye on the face of Christianity only made better by the fact that this evil practice was abolished not by the secular humanists of the day, but by Christians like Wilberforce, Newton, Oglethorpe and the rest of the Clapham Sect.

However, there is a deeper problem underneath all this. What those who argued in favour of slavery did was so convincing (in saying that the Bible condones the practice of slavery) because it is partly true.

The Bible does condone slavery.


Now it’s important to clarify at this point the distinction between what the Bible condones as slavery, permits as slavery, and what we think of as slavery in the modern day. The issue is still so raw in the public consciousness because the moment we hear the term ‘slavery’ we think about the evil, wicked practice of forcibly taking Africans from their native land, chaining them up in ships, transporting them in hellish conditions and forcing them into labour against their will.

The Bible, contrary to popular belief, condemns this practice quite clearly. The Slave Trade was built on the beliefs that Africans were not equal to their lighter-skinned counterparts through religion (many early sources refer to them as ‘the heathen’) or ethnicity (others referred to them as ‘children of Ham’). However, Genesis 1:27 establishes, right from the first chapter of the Bible, that all men are created in God’s image. This (what theologians call ‘The Imago Dei’) is why we treat people with equal dignity and respect, because we have all been created in the image of God.

Clearer than this is the Biblical condemnation of kidnapping anyone for the purposes of foced labour, Exodus 21:16 saying: Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. This message is reinforced in 1 Timothy 1:8-10.


What is clear, therefore, is that the Bible for a time was used to condone the African Slave Trade. However, it was not an abandoning of Biblical authority that led to abolition. We didn’t learn to ‘interpret these passages metaphorically’ or see them ‘as poetry’. No, abolition was not born out of abandoning Biblical authority, but turning towards itBy allowing the Bible freedom to speak from its full counsel into the situation to convict hearts and change minds like only the word of God can do.

400px-mosaique_echansons_bardoSecondly, there is a practice of slavery found in the Bible that is never condoned, but is not opposed either. If anything, it seems to be permitted by God to occur. This was the practice of Rome to take slaves from defeated nations and those in debt. Everything from domestic servants, accountants, teachers, physicians and manual labourers were often slaves. However, there are also records of slaves being expoited sexually (prostitutes were often slaves), subject to torture or summary execution and they had no right to legal personhood in the Roman system. It is in this same system that the majority of the New Testament lives and breathes, and fails to breathe a word against the practice. In fact, slaves are urged to obey their masters in three separate instances, Ephesians 6, Colossians 4 and 1 Peter 2.

This proves tricky for Christians to address because it certainly seems like Paul is pro-slavery here. It’s only in examining and understanding the text in context we get some idea of what is going on here.

The book of Philemon centres around the story of a slave who has escaped – run away from his master and subsequently has surrendered his entire life to Christ under the ministry of Paul. Paul, it is believed, is sending this slave back to his master with this letter (the master’s name is Philemon and we are to believe that he too is a Christian) in which Paul urges the slave to be accepted back not just as a servant, but as a brother and an equal.philemon-18

no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:16

This sentiment is echoed throughout the New Testament where Paul says that both the slave and master have a Heavenly Master who judges rightly and therefore masters are to treat their servants justly, knowing they will both answer to the same master (Ephesians 6:9). In one of the most startlingly counter-cultural verses in his letters he declares that there is no slave nor free among those who belong to Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

So it is clear that the New Testament does nothing to say that slavery must be brought to an end. However, we can see through the counter-cultural attitudes the gospel brings about that God is intending to change this system as a kind of side-effect of bringing people together with him in the gospel. Those who believe the gospel obey their masters, because in so doing they are honouring Christ who suffered for them. In the same token, however, those who believe the gospel treat their workers with respect, knowing that they have been saved not because of their worth but because of the loving grace of God when they too were wicked, filthy slaves to sin. They are both now equal in the gospel.


Spartacus tried to free the slaves and it ended in bloodshed. Paul preached the gospel and changed the hearts and minds of the people to honouring and protecting their workers.

The third type of slavery in the Bible is the one that is not just permitted, but openly prescribed by God. Its instructions are found in the Levitical law given to Moses in the Old Testament. This was provided as a way for a person or family to work themselves out of debt. For a poor, nomadic people, state welfare was not as proficiently supplied as it is today. There was no way for impoverished person to feed themselves or their family and therefore they sold themselves (or their family members) into slavery to repay that debt.


The book of Exodus also contains the clearest example of slave liberation in the whole Bible.

The Levitical law also gave strict rules around the treatment of these slaves. In the surrounding nations, slaves had no rights, not even to be regarded legally as a person. It was not so with the Levitical law. Under God’s law:

  • Slaves were still allowed the right to own property, have a family and be provided for by their masters.
  • They were protected from being killed by their masters.
  • Family members were allowed to be purchased back by their family once the debt had been accounted for.
  • Every 7th year, all slaves were freed among the children of Israel in what was known as the ‘Year of Jubilee’. This protected any slave from becoming enslaved for life.

This kind of service we still find in shadows today in our working lives. Due to the way that slavery is set out in the Old Testament has led many scholars to argue the term ‘slave’ should be better translated ‘servant’. In that sense, ‘slavery’ in the Old Testament was more akin to willing service rather than what we might attach to the term ‘slavery’ today.

After this long explanation, I reach the title of this post. The Bible condones slavery. It does not condone kidnapping, it does not condone forced labour. It does not condone an endless servitude or loss of personhood, because everyone is created in the image of God.


But it still condones slavery.


A different type of slavery.


Throughout both examples of Biblical slavery, Old and New Testament, we get a picture of slavery that God actively seeks. God seeks slaves.


In Exodus 21:2-6 we get a picture of the Year of Jubilee, where God decrees that all Israelites slaves are to be set free. However, there is a loophole. Say a slave actually loved his master. The text says that the master has taken in his wife and children and the slave is happy to keep them all in slavery under the roof of this “beloved master”. That master would have to take that slave to the judges, then take an awl and pierce the slave through the ear. From thenceforth that slave would remain with that master for the rest of his life. He is no longer obligated, but a slave out of love for his master.

In the New Testament, we get this stark reminder that once we were slaves to sin in Romans 6. What we thought was freedom was actually slavery – causing us harm, abusing us and degrading us and leading us to destruction. Into this picture steps Jesus and pays our ransom – he literally buys us for a fee. The first words of 1 Corinthians 6:20 are emblazoned across our salvation “YOU ARE BOUGHT WITH A PRICE”. We are no more our own than what we were under the lash of sin. We were purchased for the Master. For the King. As Romans 6:18 puts it “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”


Therefore, there is a mark of slavery placed on each one of us. It involves the shedding of blood. The piercing of flesh. The judgment of the One Righteous Judge. That judgment, that piercing, that blood was shed by Jesus himself on the cross, that he might declare his purchase of us not as indentured servants, not as begruding slaves, but as slaves of love. That we might serve Him because we love Him. That we trust Him to be good where all other masters of drink and drugs and greed and self-reliance and lust and pride have let us down. That we not only trust Him for ourselves, but for our families as well. That is serving Christ, literally becoming a bond slave to righteousness, we might find fulfillment and joy. That we can trust Him, and love Him, because He first loved us.


The Bible condones slavery. What’s more it encourages it. I couldn’t be happier about that.


The freest man on the face of the earth is the one who makes himself slave to a perfect master. – Paul Washer


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