|An Egyptian slave camp at the mines of Timnah.|
A topic I often encounter on the internet is that the Bible and Christianity are evil because they condone slavery. To prove the point, they bring up and quote verses from the Bible that regulate slavery (such as Ex. 21:1-11, Lev. 25:44-46) or that counsel slaves to be submissive to their masters (such as Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-25). Do these verses tell us that God is in favor of slavery and is therefore evil?
My first response is that I’m glad to see these opponents of Christianity reading what the Bible actually says, rather than simply responding to hearsay about the Bible. It’s quite true that the Bible has a lot to say about slavery. But does that mean that God is in favor of slavery?
Not only did God bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he established a new society among them (by means of the Mosaic Law) that strictly regulated slavery. There are more ways to be set free from slavery in the Bible than in any other ancient law code. One of the key provisions was that a fellow Israelite who became a slave could only be kept as a slave for seven (or fewer) years, up until the next sabbatical year ("..in the seventh year you will set him free," Deut. 15:12). During that time, he was to be treated as a brother, not as a slave (“He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you…” Lev. 25:40). Beating your slave to death was treated as murder, while in surrounding societies it was not considered a crime at all ("If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he will be punished,” Ex.21:20). The penalty for severely injuring a slave was the slave’s freedom ("If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he will let him go free..." Ex. 21:26). Making someone a slave by kidnapping them brought the death penalty ("He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, will surely be put to death," Ex. 21:16, Deut. 24:7).
Even non-Israelite slaves who escaped to Israel were not allowed to be returned to their masters ("You will not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you," Deut. 23:15). This was a revolutionary idea in the Middle East at the time. Failing to return an escaped slave meant the death penalty in most contemporary societies. Because of this law, many escaped to Israel to become some of the “strangers” living among them that the Bible often refers to.
In the year of Jubilee (every fifty years), not only were slaves set free, but all debts were forgiven, too (Lev. 25). The intention of these laws was to put limits on oppression, to limit the ways in which people could take advantage of other people. This was a boldly different view of human society than anything that existed at the time.
Yes, it’s true that the Old Testament falls short of outlawing slavery altogether. But it sends the clear message, if we look at the whole of the Old Testament, that slavery is not a good thing and should be avoided whenever possible. God still wants to set us free from slavery.
In the New Testament, the overriding theme is being set free from spiritual slavery to sin. But this spiritual focus does not ignore physical freedom from slavery. As Paul says, “Were you called [became a Christian] while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that…. Do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:21,23).
Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament was not the law code of a nation. It directs the followers of Jesus to live as peacefully as possible in societies that were often unjust. The instructions given to slaves were to keep a good attitude and do their work properly (until they could find a way to become free; Eph. 6:5-8, Col. 3:22-25).
But the overall attitude to slavery in the Christian community can be seen by the fact that many early Christian leaders were slaves or former slaves. Though they were despised as slaves by their society, they were recognized as equals in the Christian community. (A beautiful example can be found in the New Testament book of Philemon.) Even marriage between slave and free was permitted, something that horrified outsiders at the time. This, too, represented a big step forward in social attitudes towards slavery, which was regulated more humanely in the time of Constantine, when Christianity finally came into a position of political power.
This does not mean that Christians have been consistent in their attitudes towards slavery over the years. Many great evils have been done in the name of Christianity, as with other world religions. But despite these failings, there have always been Christians at the forefront in the long war against slavery.
Yes, the Bible does recognize the reality of slavery in human society. But in its attempts to limit and regulate it, and to set people free from it, it shows God’s heart to set people free from all forms of slavery.