Several years ago, one of my atheist friends was debating with an African American Christian friend of mine. In the heat of the discussion, my atheist friend remarked, “How can you believe in a book [the Bible] which enslaved your people for so many years?” Without hesitation, my Christian friend Seth remarked, “Because this was the book that set me free.”
Oftentimes one of the largest charges against Christianity is the charge that the Bible has been used to defend slavery. I often remind individuals who bring up this charge (as well as the charge of the Crusades) of the words of Augustine that one should not determine that validity of a truth system by the level of its abuse.
Having said that, I do think that knowing what the Bible actually does say about slavery is important for both the Christian and the non-Christian alike. First, I would like to say that in no instance does the Bible ever endorse or ever support the type of slavery that was forced upon African Americans in the United States. Christians and non-Christians alike should repudiate this abuse of humans who are made in the image of man.
Slavery in the Old Testament primarily consisted of people who had put themselves into debt, were born into debt, or were conquered enemies (who were made slaves as opposed to killing them). In a society that did not have credit reports to enforce a lack of payment for debt, slavery was a way of repaying bad loans, and it was a good alternative to a debtor’s prison.
Slavery was not permitted if the individuals were kidnapped against their will and put in that position. Amos 1:6 (NLT) says, “This is what the LORD says: ‘The people of Gaza have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished! They sent whole villages into exile, selling them as slaves to Edom.’” In 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul criticizes immoral people who are slave dealers or kidnappers (the Greek word andrapodistes refers to slave dealers). Obviously, this demonstrates anything but approval for the slave market.
Thus, the way in which the US government did slavery by capturing helpless Africans was forbidden by the Bible. The slaveowners who used the Bible to support their form of slavery were taking the Bible out of context and were actually misquoting and misusing the Bible. This is why the Bible Study Methods we teach at CBS is so important. Since the Bible can be twisted to unjust and unrighteous ends (2 Peter 3:16), all believers should equip themselves with the tools necessary to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
In the Bible, slavery was a temporary solution and not for life unless the individual volunteered to be a slave (5:12, 18). Leviticus 25:39-41 says, “If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers.”
In some cases, at the death of the master, the slave would inherit (see Genesis 15:2 for a description of the inheritance Eliezer of Damascus would have received if Abraham had no son). Masters were supposed to provide for the needs of those who worked in their service (13-14). In this sense, slavery was much more like having a live–in housekeeper. In Roman society, slaves could own property and often served as the primary educators. In fact, many people voluntarily became slaves because it was the quickest path for citizenship.
The Israelites themselves were slaves once, and they should treat their slaves with compassion and dignity as people and not property (15:15). One book that is rarely consulted by those who argue that Christianity supports slavery is the one–chapter letter of Paul to Philemon. It is a quick read and certainly should be consulted before someone accuses Christianity of supporting slavery. One notable verse is Philemon 15-16 which says, “For perhaps he [Onesimus] was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Rather than encouraging Christians to rebel against the Roman institution of slavery, Paul cut at the very heart of slavery. The Romans considered slaves to be property. Paul encouraged them to see them as people. As the Nelson Study Bible points out, “To the Romans, a slave was not a person and was basically thought of as property…They were vulnerable to cruelty and could even be killed with impunity” (Nelson Study Bible, 2069). In fact, Paul encouraged Christians to see them as more than people but brothers in Christ who are useful to the Lord. In Roman culture, any slave who runs away is allowed to be killed by law. Contrary to that culture, Paul encouraged Philemon to let Onesimus (a runaway slave) go free and treat him like a brother.
What is often lost in this discussion is actually how much Christians did to end slavery. Perhaps there is no more famous abolitionist than William Wilberforce who practically single-handedly brought down the British slave trade (an exceptional movie called Amazing Grace was written about his life. I’d encourage anyone who argues that Christianity is responsible for slavery to view it).
Wilberforce wrote a book entitled A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity on which he discussed the New Testament theology of slavery and used it as his basis to argue against the slave trade. His efforts were a source of inspiration to other abolitionists who claimed the name of Christ like Charles Finney, Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. This does not even include the number of African Americans who experienced hope from Christianity in the midst of their enslavement. Also, many Christian spirituals were written during this time.
These men and women heeded the call to end slavery based on a love for Christ and a conviction based on the Bible that the American slave system was wrong. Without a doubt, Christians played a significant role in the abolition of slavery and should be given credit by those who use slavery as an argument against Christianity.
I encourage you to consider taking a class with us at the College of Biblical Studies. Many say that after just one class, their life is transformed. God’s word is the foundation of every class we teach. Founded over forty years ago, CBS is a multiethnic, accredited, and affordable Bible College equipping the next generation of Christian leaders for the church. You can get more information at , or by calling 713-785-5995.