The topic of slavery in Scripture presents a significant challenge to the modern-day reader. What do we make of its presence? And is its practice condoned, either by God or by those claiming to be God’s people?
To explore this issue, here’s a hypothetical conversation between a pastor and someone from their church. While fictional, it reflects numerous conversations I’ve had on this topic as both a teacher and pastor over the last 20 years.
Hey Mike, I wanted to chat about something I’ve been thinking about lately. In the Bible, there’s a ton of references to slavery, but not all of them are bad. God doesn’t seem to condone it, but it also seems to be ‘lived with’ to some degree. How do we reconcile that with oppression of millions around the world?
I’m thrilled that you’ve raised this topic. I think it’s one of the right things to ask questions about. I wish more people did!
You were talking specifically about the practice of slavery in the Bible, but I want to back up a bit further and pose an idea to you—that slavery is a topic you’ll find on almost every page of Scripture.
How do you figure that?! You must be taking some creative license with that statement!
Well perhaps, but only a small amount. Slavery or its direct opposite—freedom—is implied, explicitly described, reflected on, illustrated with poetry, wept about with lament, on almost every page. It’s what I’d call one of the big thematic ‘plumblines’ of Scripture.
I’m going to start somewhere you might not expect: Genesis 1. The Biblical journey through time and space begins with almost no tangible reality present, as the very first verse says, ‘The earth was formless and void’. But in that nothingness, there seems to reside an infinite creative potential waiting to be realised. God speaks creation into existence with just his words, ‘Let there be.’
Now, this might seem like a leap of sorts, but I think it’s pretty accurate to name that resident creativity as freedom. God is not just good; he is also free. All creation now exists because of God’s choice and will to bring that reality to be.
So then when God says, ‘let us make mankind in our image’, he’s investing human beings with not only his goodness, but also his own freedom, unique amongst creation. This is the state of things before we see the entrance of sin into God’s reality, which distorts that freedom into different kinds of enslavement.
Once you’ve applied this lens to the way you read Scripture, you’ll start to see the plumbline I was talking about. God made mankind for freedom, and the story of Scripture is the lengths he’s gone to—and continues to go to—to bring his children back to that true identity.
Okay, I think I’m still with you. But wouldn’t it be better to start with the parts of the Bible that actually speak about slavery directly, like Exodus?
Fantastic! Exodus is incredibly important to mention. The very first chapter of this book describes an economic system devised to create wealth through brutality. The government of Egypt during that time, ‘put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour . . . in all their harsh labour, the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly’ (Exodus 1:11 & 14).
Early on in Israel’s history, the idea of one group of people oppressing another for selfish gain is held in deliberate contrast to Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, whose compassion is activated by human suffering. This is also why you’ll read about the ‘Year of Jubilee’ in places like Leviticus. God built into the instructions for Israel’s society a method by which no-one would become systematically enslaved with debts they could ever repay.
Exodus shows us that whatever else the Bible is about, it’s about a God who creates the opportunity for slaves to become free. Many times throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are told to remember this journey in many different ways, to actively remember that they are free. This is the purpose of many of the Psalms – they are poetry written to remember!
That makes me think of a verse in the New Testament. In Galatians 5:1, Paul says, ‘It was for freedom that Christ has set us free’.
I love that verse! Perhaps these words from John 8:34-36 might take on more meaning for you now: ’Everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’
Slavery In The New Testament
This is actually where I have been getting stuck. Jesus seemed familiar with the legal realities of slavery, and yet he doesn’t seem to make any kind of moral judgement about it. And Paul seems to accept slavery as normal practice in passages like Colossians 3 and Ephesians 6, where Paul gives instructions to both slaves and masters.
This is a fair point, and I understand the wrestle. Let me address it in two different ways–perhaps one of them will stick for you.
Firstly, if we jump in time from Exodus through to the gospels where Jesus is crucified, it’s important to note the same overarching theme held in the Exodus stories: that sin leads to slavery, and slavery in turn leads to death.
But it’s also very different to Exodus. Jesus’ achievement stands as the centerpiece of history, because after laying down his life of his own choice (as a slave might be expected to do for their master) Jesus’ journey that first Easter morning, the morning he took his own life back up again, is described by the Gospel writers and Paul as the moment of redemption. The Greek word here means to purchase, or pay the ransom necessary to enable a prisoner to walk free. The story of freedom from slavery began with an economy of miserly extraction. It ends in an economy of abundant provision.
Secondly, when Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters, and masters not to mistreat their slaves, the Bible is not colluding with systems of injustice.
It’s worth stating explicitly that while I believe that the spirit of God is not limited by time and space, the human writers of these Scriptures were still human like you and me. You might think I’m stretching the narrative a bit too far here, but I wonder myself if we’re that different? Just as people of Paul’s era wouldn’t have thought to reflect deeply on the human rights issue of slavery, do some Christians today diminish the significance of a moral challenge like climate change? It’s good to remember it takes a lot of energy to challenge what’s regarded as the status quo for any community, at any time in history.
It’s just that given how we regard slavery now, I would have hoped to see something in Scripture a little more explicit.
I’ll let you decide for yourself, but just one last thing. There is one part of the Bible where Paul brings what was common practice under the microscope. The tiny book of Philemon, written by Paul, is about a slave named Onesiumus who has fled captivity and servitude, and on that journey found his way to Paul in prison. After becoming a Christian, Onesimus has been ministering to Paul while he is in chains. Out of this relationship, Paul writes to Philemon these instructions:
‘For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him 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.’ (v15-16)
To speak of an ex-slave, and a runaway ex-slave at that, in such a way was an unthinkable expression of grace and freedom. Onesimus is no longer a slave who had run away, but a human being, encouraged to be seen as an equal, by virtue of being a ‘dear brother’ with Paul in the Lord. Remember what I said about the year of Jubilee? Well, this is one of the things that was meant to happen in the year of Jubilee–those who had become enslaved for whatever reason were set free!
It’s one of these places in Scripture that brings to mind a quote made famous by Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama, but originally spoken by a preacher named Theodore Parker in 1853, that ‘the arc of the moral universe is a long one, but it is one bent towards justice.’