Ten Reasons the Bible Has It Right on Slavery

I read Keith’s comment #172 this morning with deep grief in my heart. He wondered whether there was something unique about Christianity that would cause it to be more liberating than other worldviews (especially Jainism). My grief is this: we Christians have not explained and demonstrated the most basic realities of our faith. If we had, Keith would never have had to ask.

Slavery is many things. It’s a form of relationship between human beings. It’s an economic system, a way that work gets done. It’s a system of power and advantage. Slavery is evil because (and to the extent that) it gets these things wrong. Christianity speaks to all of these uniquely.

Here are ten reasons the Bible has it right on slavery. (Much of this, though not all, is integral to Judaism as well as Christianity.)

First, Judeo-Christianity speaks to what it means to be human. We are all created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26) without distinction (Gal. 3:28). God loves and cares for all ethné (Matthew 28:18-19), all “nations,” meaning in the Greek all tribes, tongues, and peoples (Rev. 7:9). Christ died on the Cross for all, again without distinction (Romans 3:23). There is no place in Christianity for regarding one person as worth more than any other.

No other major religious or philosophical tradition can explain humans’ high dignity and equal worth as Judeo-Christianity can.

Second, Judeo-Christianity speaks to the chief relationship that ought to obtain between humans: love. God is Love (1 John 4:7-8), and love is the highest ethic (1 Cor. 13). Love is to be expressed especially in relating to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19, Prov. 14:31, Ps. 9:9, Zech. 7:10, Ps. 146:7, Jer. 22:13, Jer. 5:25-29, Is. 1:17, Ps. 12:5, and many more).

Does the Bible say anything against slavery, then? It says a lot about not treating other human beings as having lesser worth, and about not oppressing others. Does that have nothing to do with slavery? But there’s more.

Third, the Bible recognizes and explains (Gen. 3) the existence of sin, whose results include unequal relationships: the powerful oppressing others and treating them as having less worth. Note that the Bible does not condone everything that it recognizes, nor even everything that it regulates (divorce being one other example).

Fourth, Christianity is all about solving the problem of sin at its core: the level of the human heart, with effects extending outward from the individual to society (and vice versa). This is what Jesus came for: to die on the Cross to conquer sin and death. He came in love, he came in self-sacrifice, he came as an example, he came as a teacher, and he came to redeem us from our sins. This was a blow struck right at the heart of the impulse to hold others as slaves.

Jesus did not come to effect political change, which a call for abolition would have been. Still it is completely inaccurate to say he said nothing about slavery. He didn’t use the word, but he did speak of human worth and of human oppression. How was that anything other than standing against the real evils of slavery?

Indeed (fifth), his way was much wiser than a simple call to abolition. Had he said, “No more slavery!” then people would have huddled in committees, drafting documents describing the fine line between what counts or doesn’t count as slavery. They would have congratulated themselves for staying on the thin edge of the not-quite-slavery line, while completely ignoring the weightier matters of true justice and love. This is exactly the error Jesus caught the Pharisees in (Matthew 23:23).

Sixth, his way was wise for another reason as well: he had no political power. Had he called for abolition, he would have been politically ignored and ineffectual; or if anyone had actually started a movement that gained the authorities’ attention, it would have been brutally crushed.

Seventh, slavery was also an economic system. It’s naive to think that a culture built on one system could just decide one day it was wrong and give it up for another. Jesus, Paul, and others were not so foolish as to think that slavery could be replaced in a day; but they did call for an immediate cease to abuse, mistreatment, lack of love, and other evils associated with slavery. This was economically and politically realistic in the short run, as well as being a bold and powerful move in the direction of justice. In the long run it led to changed hearts and the ending of slavery.

Eighth, the Bible recognizes over and over again how easily powerful people can co-opt religion for their own false purposes. Virtually all of Jesus’ conflicts were with powerful religious leaders who had done that. So it’s hardly any surprise, from a biblical perspective, that southern slaveholders co-opted Christianity as cover for the horrific evils they committed. Because the Bible is so uniformly clear on matters of love, oppression, and human worth, however, there’s no reason whatsoever to see their use of the Bible as anything other than cold-hearted distortion of Scripture for unscriptural ends.

Ninth, this remains true even though slavery was permitted in the Old Testament law. As GM wrote recently (slightly edited here),

The Hebrews had a debt relief program where you could enter into bonded servitude with rights protecting your personal health and the ability to run away, legally and safely, if things got bad. Your servitude came with a built in 7 year expiration date, whereupon your debt would be wiped out and your master would be legally obligated to set you up financially to go lead a self-sufficient life. If Israel’s laws had opened that up to everyone in a region where lifelong brutality towards slaves and the poor was the norm, the country would have been totally inundated and financially destroyed in a few decades. There had to be SOME caveats when it came to the bondservant contract for Gentiles if the nation was going to function. If an Israelite bought (enslaved) a foreigner for the purpose of slavery, he did so through means that are explicitly forbidden by the law, and thus outside of God’s temporary tolerance of a morally disastrous time in human history.

Tenth, history reveals that where Christian influence has prevailed, slavery has tended to end; and where Christian influence has not prevailed, slavery has tended to continue, at least where economic conditions have permitted it. This provides after-the-fact confirmation that the Bible indeed got it right on slavery, by placing the heart issues of love, the ending of oppression, and the equal worth of persons at the center, rather than a surface prohibition against the practice.

Going back to Keith’s comment: these are basic, core, fundamental teachings of the Christian religion. If they are not clear in the minds of atheists, skeptics, inquirers, or even some church-goers, then we who know them must do a better job of communicating them—and living them.