Objections to the Bible: Slavery

by Kyle
published September 12, 2015


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“I am a servant, and I will die some day.”

Some time ago, I was listening someone talk about the practice of daily affirmations. These are the things you repeat to yourself everyday to foster a positive mental attitude. This person’s affirmations were things like, “I am beautiful” and “I am valuable.” These things are true, but I discovered a more valuable daily affirmation that I began to repeat to myself every morning when I wake up: “I am a servant, and I will die some day.”

This may seem extreme or unpleasant, but I care much more about a humble mental attitude than I do about a positive mental attitude, and I think God does, too. After all, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (1 Peter 5:5)” Humility is being exactly what you are. I am a mortal who was created by God to love him by serving him and others. You are, too. I like to spend my mornings affirming this and drilling it into my own mind. I find it makes me a better pastor, husband, father and man.

More than that, though, I find that all people are worthy of being served. The Bible says that humans were created in the image of God. All humans — regardless of their minor, exterior variations — have the indelible mark of their creator which enables them to think, choose, create and love. Broken as we are, this one thing makes all people loved by God, worth of being served and inestimably valuable.

This line of thinking, directly supported by scripture, seems to run at odds with the whole concept of slavery. Most Americans agree that slavery is wrong. But if you believe the Bible, this a rejection of slavery can present some difficulty because, though the Bible regulates slavery, it does not explicitly ban or repudiate it. The Bible’s treatment of the issue of slavery is often cited as evidence against its trustworthiness on moral issues. It behooves us to understand exactly what the Bible says about slavery and why.

The books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) describe the law God revealed to Israel for how he intended them to live. Exodus 21 gives the most explicit and authoritative regulations for slaveholders in the Old Testament. Hebrew slaves could only be kept for six years and could not be sold to other people. Female slaves were to be treated with a special level of dignity equivalent to that of a wife or daughter. The 18th and early 19th century practice of kidnapping slaves and selling them was a capital offense in Israel. Killing slaves was against the law. The law required slaveholders to set slaves free if they were severely injured. Slave owners were even required to allow slaves who ran away to go free (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

In Israel, God began a program through which he would progressively redeem all mankind. He recognized that fixing humanity would have to be a gradual process because we are stubborn and resistant to change as a species. His strategy in the Law was to restrict the evil practices people love because he knew that he would some day put his spirit in the hearts of all people and that he would teach men like William Wilberforce that he really hated slavery and only allowed it as a “concession to (our) hard hearts.” That same spirit gave Christians in America and Europe the courage to fight on behalf of people God loved but did not enjoy even recognition as full humans.

The law that governed Israel also allowed divorce. There are practices in our culture which I pray we will some day understand with the same loathing as we now understand slavery. Divorce is one of those practices. Jesus said something interesting about divorce I think applies to the case of slavery as well: “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. (Matthew 19:8)”

It is true that there is no explicit condemnation of slavery in the Bible. But there is no explicit endorsement of slavery in the Bible, either. I can claim that slavery is wrong as a Christian without contradicting the Bible. God’s default position for humanity is freedom and he has worked throughout history to persuade humanity to adopt the same understanding. The Bible is clear that slavery, like divorce, “was not what God had originally intended.”

This is why Paul urged Philemon to free Onesimus (Philemon 15-21). It’s also why he urged slaves who can win their freedom to do so in 1 Corinthians 7:21. The freedom God desires for people is also what leads Paul to threaten masters with God’s judgment and discipline if they do not treat their slaves like brothers in Christ (Ephesians 6:9). It’s why some of the greatest miracles in the Bible were performed by God to set Israel free from slavery in Egypt.

Since God’s default setting for humanity is freedom, freedom should be understood. Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century philosopher and statesman, said, “Liberty is not the freedom to do what you want, but the ability to do what you should.” The difference between a servant and a slave is that the former serves freely while the latter serves under compulsion. True liberty is found in freely serving God and serving the people he loves. We, who are blessed to live in a country where slavery is illegal (though not completely eradicated — the fight isn’t over) are blessed with liberty to serve and bless other people. That’s why, “I am a servant, and I will die some day.”

What do you think?

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