Slavery is not a new condition and it is not just a historical institution. Current estimates are that 30 to more than 40 million people are enslaved today worldwide. In America sex slavery is thriving and active. So what does the Bible say about slavery? Obviously God is against slavery right? Well maybe not and that is a criticism that Atheist groups level at the Bible by citing verses like these…
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Colossians 3:22 NLT
44 “However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. Leviticus 25:44 NLT
So is slavery acceptable to God? Can Christians participate in such activity? The short answer is absolutely “no” slavery is not acceptable. How can I unequivocally say that for the contemporary reader that slavery is not acceptable but then find in the Bible ground rules permitting this institution?
In order to answer that question there is something that needs to be untangled to resolve the conflict. That primary entanglement is racism and abuse. Slavery as most commonly understood in the North American context was practiced based on racism that only black people could be enslaved. People of color were erroneously viewed as less human than their white owners. This form of slavery rooted in racism is evil, wrong, and in no way ever condoned in the Biblical narrative or acceptable to the character of God. Racism is wrong because there is only one race, all peoples are directly descendant from Adam and Eve, and all people are made in the image of God. Treating anyone regardless of status as less than fully made in the image of God is unbiblical and pure evil.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 ESV
The declaration of independence states the Biblical view perfectly… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” All people are equal because they are created in the image of God himself. Sex slavery of modern times and racist slavery of the not so distant past are evil not because of slavery (although slavery as a practice quickly leads to this path) but because they demean and degrade the equality of humanity. The equality that is true is that all people regardless circumstance, wealth, or privilege are equal before God since all people are created in His image.
Not all slavery historically had anything to do with racism it had to do with power, commerce, and imperialism. When North America was first discovered slavery became big business because there was a shortage of workers. People would be sold or kidnapped to provide that workforce. Slavery or indentured servitude was the price of getting to the new country. Only later on did the practice migrate to the even more evil racist version that America still holds the scars of its practice. Robert Louis Stevenson based one of his adventure novels on kidnapping for slavery of a non-person of color. The story starts out with a young man from a wealthy home in England being sold unknowingly by his greedy uncle to a life of slavery in North America.
“And so he ran on, until it came in on me what he meant by twenty-pounders where those unhappy criminals who were sent over-seas to slavery in North America, or the still more unhappy innocents who were kidnapped or trepanned (as the word went) for private interest or vengeance.” (Stevenson, 43)
So how does the practice of slavery in Biblical days differ from the modern versions that are not acceptable? The answer to this resides in the fact that not all people are equal in opportunity. All men are equal in rights before God but the Bible does not proclaim a Gospel of earthly “fairness” and equal prosperity. (Fairness and Justice are not the same in this case. Goes does expect the privileged to be just to those without privilege) Paul highlights this in that verse Atheist love to quote but I will add the full context this time.
22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Colossians 3:22-25 ESV
Whatever lot in life one has that person is to live that life with sincerity working for God as Paul says “serving the Lord Christ” not an earthly master. Even if the earthy master is evil or unjust. Paul reminds us that God will judge those who have been unjust toward their fellow humans. In Paul’s day when this letter was written slavery was a common institution based on class and circumstance. Some people were slaves, some were free, and some were citizens. The lot often fell based on the family one was born into. Paul was a citizen of Rome because of this family circumstance. Paul is telling the Church that none of these earthy circumstances have any weight in the body of Christ. Those who are saved now work and serve God and God alone no matter the current circumstances.
10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:10-11 ESV
To the modern reader I would challenge to not label oneself as free, slave, gay, rich, poor, black, white, privileged, transgendered, or abused. If you are in Christ then no modifier is needed. Serve Christ and Christ alone. Do not add any other label or identity to the name you have been given as a child of God.
In the Old Testament there are rules of governance on what is permissible for the Nation State of Israel. Those rules are not applicable to contemporary society because the Nation state of the Old Testament Israel does not exist. (I have written on this in the past) However if one reads those laws in Exodus and Leviticus within context of that society then always the slave was to be treated as a fellow human with natural rights before God. A need for this kind of slavery may have existed at that time of tribal governance however it is not needed or acceptable in the contemporary world of today. The modern Christian has no reason to promote, encourage, or in any way participate in this institution. We also demand that the Atheist apply legitimate context to the Biblical text they want to blindly skewer Christians with.
Christ came and died for all men of any earthly status. Regardless of standing in society all who are saved through Christ are adopted as sons of the one true King and will live with the inheritance of that Kingdom in the age to come. Therefore treat your neighbors justly and with respect regardless of their current situation.
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:15 ESV
* Stevenson, Robert Lewis. Kidnapped. USA, Scribner, 1982.