Is God the Author of the Bible Part 10 Does the Bible support slavery?

Christians Oppose Slavery

So what about the issue of slavery?  Did Christianity abandon God endorsed slavery the same way they abandoned polygamy?  Are Christians hypocrites in the way they come to the Bible?

Michael Coogan says this:

“On issues such as slavery, no one today would maintain that slavery is acceptable, even though, according to the Bible, it was a divinely sanctioned institution. In the debates about slavery in the 19th century those opposed to its abolition cited the Bible in support of their position, but despite such biblical warrant, their views were renounced.”

I will begin with some interesting information.  Nowhere in the Old Testament do you see a verse denouncing slavery and calling it evil.  Slavery was practiced by Israel and all the surrounding cultures.  God tolerated the institution of slavery and provided laws in the Old Testament for properly treating slaves and to help them gain their freedom (year of Jubilee).   However, we need to understand the differences between the slaves in Europe and the United States over the last few hundred years and slaves from the ancient Near East.

Pastor Matt Chandler taught on the differences in how slaves were treated:

“In the ancient Near East, education of slaves was seen as smart business practice. So slaves were educated by their masters, most times to the point where they were smarter than and more educated than their owners. Let me give you two examples of where this plays out in the Bible itself. Joseph was a slave who ended up being second in power to Pharaoh in Egypt. Daniel was a slave who ended up second in power to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. These were slaves who were so educated and so trained and so smart in how they did things that there was an acknowledgment among their owners that, “This is an extremely gifted individual. Let’s let him rise all the way up to the top if they can.” You’re not going to see that in colonial America. There is no black man who is a congressman in the 1700’s. In fact, we’re late into the 1900’s before that occurs. But in the ancient Near East, it’s not uncommon to see a slave rise to an unbelievable amount of power to be able to own land himself and even have slaves that work for him. You had the ability to save your own money, purchase yourself out from slavery and then run the business with the slaves that you had purchased, whom you were educating[1].”

More could be said about the differences of the treatment of slaves but I think my point has been made.  We mustn’t let our limited knowledge of the current state of slavery cloud our judgment of how slaves were treated during Biblical times.

In the New Testament (2,000 yrs. ago) the Apostle Paul writes against slave traders: 1 Timothy 1:8-11 (NIV) We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” Notice owning slaves was listed alongside murder, adultery, and other sins.  Paul writing, under the inspiration of God, penned these words.  God for thousands of years tolerated slavery, provided laws to protect slaves, gave ways to release slaves, and later called people who practiced slave trading law breakers.

We must also acknowledge the work Christians did to end slavery.  Apologist Greg Koukl writes about the work of Christians:

“In the nineteenth century, William Wilberforce spent a lifetime working to abolish slavery in England and the British commonwealth.  Cairns records, ‘Slavery was ended in British possessions by an act passed just before Wilberforce's death in 1833,' an achievement, he adds, that ‘would have been impossible without the work of Wilberforce and his evangelical friends in Parliament.'

Opposition to slavery by Christians in America led the country into Civil War.  Their objection was based on the Christian belief that human beings are free people before God and ought not be owned by anyone else.  This conviction was the moral foundation for abolition.

David Livingston, an adventurer who charted the dark regions of Africa, was actually a missionary.  ‘By his travels in Central Africa, [Livingston] exposed the Arab slave trade as ‘the open sore of the world.'   In fact, it was Christian missionaries who entreated European powers to intervene in Africa to stop the slave trade carried on by the Arabs.

True, European countries also participated in slavery, but always under protest.  This protest, driven largely by the moral impulse of Christians, eventually prevailed.  Kane reports:

By precept and example [missionaries] inculcated the ideas and ideals of Christianity–the sanctity of life, the worth of the individual, the dignity of labor, social justice, personal integrity, freedom of thought and speech–which have since been incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up by the United Nations[2].”

These Christians that helped abolish slavery knew the Bible teaches all men are made in the image of God and thus are equal in His sight.  With passion and tenacity they gave up everything, for the cause of Christ, to free the slaves.  Michael Coogan counters this with Christians have used the Bible to justify slavery.  The truth is Jim Jones used the Bible to start his cult and help hundreds of people commit suicide.  Any book can be misinterpreted by individuals to justify their set of beliefs.

Slavery was never a “divinely sanctioned institution.” It was practiced during Biblical times and God tolerated it and provided a way to end it.  Followers of Christ are consistent in their opposition to slavery.

Go to part 11 here


[1] Chandler, Matt “Colossians (Part 17) – Slavery and the Skeptic” Sermon August 1, 2010

[2] Koukl, Gregory, “Christianity’s Real Record,” News article from Stand to Reason, http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=9255

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