This article on Slavery in the Bible has consistently been one of my most popular articles. I have decided to rewrite the article to be more concise and more cutting. Also, for the first time I have created a printable Pocket Reference.
This article can be adapted to many situations. The obvious ones are when a Christian wants to argue that morality comes from the Bible. But there are clearly implications if you are arguing with a fellow non-believer that wants to argue that “some people” need religion to tell them what is right and wrong.
As I write in my tactics section: make specific claims, ask for specific claims. This helps both sides of any conversational argument know the position of the other person and keeps both people from arguing against a position that the other does not hold.
Slavery remains a modern day travesty – a travesty with the Bible and the Koran on the wrong side of the issue. You would never think that owning people as slaves is immoral if you rely on the Bible or the Koran as your sole source of morality.
The International Labour Organization (A UN specialized agency which seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights) says:
“At least 12.3 million people around the world are trapped in forced labour.”
Claim: The Bible never says a word against owning people as property.
This claim is specific and simple to refute in principle – all it would take is a Bible verse that says something along the lines of Article 4 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Apparently, God never figured out that slavery was wrong. Or, He does have a moral issue with slavery, it is just that He is a terrible communicator. If you think that God condemns the institution of slavery, you have to wonder why God is worse than the UN at communicating that idea.
Not a pretty dilemma.
Sometimes a person claims that God delivered the Jews from slavery, therefore, God is against owning people as property. I have heard this argument many times, but this brings up an amazing opportunity. I would set it up by saying something like the following: “you would think that something as important as slavery would be mentioned in the 10 Commandments – and it is mentioned, right at the beginning of Big Ten, ‘God who delivered you from slavery in Egypt…’”
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
If you stop reading the 10 Commandments at this point, you might be thinking, perhaps God does have a moral issue with slavery. Keep reading and you discover that God directly addresses the moral issues surrounding the owning of people as property.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s … slaves … or other property.
God’s thoughts on the morality of owning people as property – don’t covet your neighbor’s slaves. Well, it’s clear: God has standards. At best, God has an issue with other people owning Jews as slaves, not a problem with slavery in general.
Of course, this does lead some people to think that slavery is not immoral. If you are arguing with such a person in a public setting, the best thing to do if they make such a concession is to address the crowd and say something like, “See people? This is why I argue against these superstitions. They get otherwise sane people to believe terrible things like, “slavery isn’t wrong.”"
Here are a few bible verses that support this argument.
Old Testament Verses:
As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.
This is a fun excerpt if they really want to use the King James Version, because it says that you and your descendants get to have slaves for forever.
Leviticus 25:44-46 (KJV)
Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.
Exodus 21:1-7 (NRSV)
These are the ordinances that you shall set before them: When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.
Exodus 21:20-21 (NRSV)
When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.
Another strange defense — and one that non-believers sometimes let pass without challenge:
Theist claim: “But that’s in the Old Testament and no longer applies…”
This is an implicit agreement that the Old Testament records God doing some very bad things.
Say something like, “Good, you agree that God commanded immoral things in the past – perhaps you’ve forgiven Him for that. Let’s look at that New Testament then, shall we?”
Perhaps they’ll take issue with the statement, perhaps they will let it pass.
Here are some lovely New Testament verses that demonstrate the lack of progress in morality regarding slavery:
New Testament Verses:
Ephesians 6:5-9 (NRSV)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
Christian slaves – treat your masters well. Christian slave masters are directly addressed, and told to treat their slaves well.
Colossians 3:22-25 (NRSV)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.
Christian slaves, wholeheartedly obey your masters in everything. If they treat you badly, know that they will get punishment in the next life.
1 Timothy 6:1-5 (NRSV)
Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
Christian slaves, obey your masters well – and obey your Christian masters especially well. Anyone who teaches otherwise is going against the words of Jesus, and has a morbid craving for disputes about words.
Titus 2:9-10,15 (NRSV)
Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. … Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.
Christian slaves, be submissive to your masters. This teaching should be exhorted with authority. Do not let anyone look down on you for advocating slavery.
I think that any self-proclaimed Bible believer should be ashamed of the Bible’s stance on slavery.
An interesting way to sow some cognitive dissonance in the Christian who honestly believes that slavery is wrong AND that the Bible is the word of God is to challenge him as to whether he is ashamed of the Bible’s stance.
If not, would he loudly “declare with all authority” that “slaves should be submissive to their masters?”
If he is hesitant to do that, really try to get him to discover why he’s hesitating.
1 Peter 2:15-20 (NRSV)
For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.
Christian slaves who have harsh and unjust masters – you will be credited for enduring pain while suffering unjustly.
Remember: you have God’s approval. The verse above continues:
1 Peter 2:21-25 (NRSV)
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Christian slaves! As the Bible says, “Don’t rise up against your oppressors, you have the perfect example for you, remember: Jesus didn’t fight back at all.”
The last possible refuge for the Christian is to say some variant of “you expect God to tell what is right and wrong in every situation, are you kidding?”
To which the proper response is: If God’s going to mention slavery more than 10 times in His book, yet never mention a word against it, he has addressed the issue; his thoughts are recorded on the institution of slavery.
Leave me some comments if you try this or any other argument that I write about and let me know your successes and any challenges that you came across.