As you read through the Scriptures, you will come across some passages that seem to suggest that slavery is not condemned by God. Some who think this to be the case are sincerely seeking truth, while others are only looking for reasons to discount the Bible.
Some of the passages in question are Exodus 21:2-6, Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 4:1 which provide instruction on the treatment of slaves.
In light of these Scriptures, does God condone slavery?
Before diving too deep into the topic, there is one very important thing we must understand before we can rightly interpret these Scriptures, and others. Forced slavery, like that which was ended in the U.S. in modern-day history, is not always the same as the slavery mentioned in the Bible. This is significant! (Just a side note: there are still to this day an estimated 21-36 million people¹ in slavery across the world.)
Additionally, seeing something such as forced slavery in the Bible does not necessarily mean God approves of it. The Bible consists of legal, historical, poetic, and prophetic books. The historical books are historical accounts of times past and sinful things are not excluded. God knows the heart of man. The laws He gave in regards to slavery were given as grace for those in slavery.
We see at least two forms of slavery in the Bible and God gives guidelines, seemingly approving of one of those forms of slavery. We see the type of forced slavery that the Jews, God’s own people, were forced into (Exodus 1:13-14). The Lord delivered Israel from that slavery. So we know that this type of slavery certainly does not have God’s approval (Exodus 6:6). God would not need to “deliver” a people from something that is not sinful and wrong.
So God gives guidelines on one from of slavery, seemingly approving of it to a certain extent, while condemning another form of slavery and delivering His people from it. Herein lies the seed of the confusion. Some innocently read the Bible and don’t realize this, but most who bring this topic up are skeptics just looking for a reason to discredit the Bible. They do not realize, or willingly suppress the fact, that the type of slavery that God gives guidelines for, and seemingly approves of to a certain extent, is not the same type of slavery that God clearly condemns. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33) and God’s Word does not contradict God’s Word.
In Bible times (1st century Greco-Roman times and prior) slavery was not exclusive to any one particular race or language, nor were slaves segregated². They were just like everyone else. These slaves were willing bond-servants. They were often times very well educated contributors to society. Their servitude was rarely for life, but sometimes they willingly agreed to it out of love for their master.
These servants were not kidnapped and forced into slavery, which God condemns (Deuteronomy 24:7, 1 Timothy 1:9-1:11). These servants were willing bond-slaves.
There is even a book (actually a letter) in the Bible (Philemon) that was written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon (a slave master) emphasizing the fact that all who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness of their sin should be treated in the same way … with the same love and respect.
It is true that God specifically made room for forced slavery, as seen in Lev. 25:44-46. However, this passage should not be seen in the same context as other passages we have considered when dealing with the moral implications of slavery. The reason being that this slavery was a form of judgement by Holy God on a paganistic, rebellious people. It was actually mercy that the Lord allowed them to live in slavery, rather than to be destroyed for their extreme rebellion against God in embracing false gods, living in gross sin, and directly rejecting God’s people and God Himself.
Because God judged these people in this way, does not mean forced slavery in itself is OK. God also judged His own people when they fell into idolatry and sin by allowing them to be enslaved and by allowing some to be murdered. Does that mean murder is OK? No. But God deals with sinful man by allowing the devil to do evil to those rebellious people. The devil means these things for evil, but God uses these things for good (Genesis 50:20) to show people their wickedness and the results of going the wrong way. He also allows wicked things to happen in order to bring people to the point where they realize they need Him, that they may come to Christ to be saved, by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9).
In summary, there are at least two types of slavery in the Bible: a forced slavery that God condemns and a willful slavery which, to a certain extend, God does not condemn, and in fact gives guidelines commanding that those servants should be treated right.
The Bible tells us that before we are born again we are slaves to sin (Romans 6:6) and the devil (John 8:34). We serve sin and the devil. We are enemies of God (Romans 5:10).
The Bible says that all are sinners and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). It says that, “There is none righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
In Romans 6:23 we learn that the punishment for sin is eternity away from God in hell, forever.
So we have a problem. We are slaves to sin and the punishment of that sin is eternity away from God in hell forever! But in that same verse (Romans 6:23) we also learn that God has offered us a free gift!
“…but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Though we are slaves to sin, enemies to God, condemned already and have no good in us, God still loves us and wants us to repent of our sin and be saved!
The only way to be saved is to give up on ourselves and transfer our trust over to the Lord Jesus Christ. He became sin for us (Hebrews 7:26) and received the penalty for our sin, in our place! Now sinners can be saved!
You must be born again! You can’t be born again by baptism, repeating a prayer, good works or by any other means than by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You must surrender your soul to Him and place all of your trust in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you placed your trust in Jesus Christ? If not, you can today. You can right now, just as you are! He saves sinners. If you’re a broken sinner, come to Him and receive the free gift of salvation.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
1. Modern slavery estimates, Free the Slaves: http://www.freetheslaves.net/about-slavery/slavery-today/
2. Historian Murray Harris, Slave of Christ: http://www.amazon.com/Slave-Christ-Testament-Metaphor-Devotion/dp/0830826084
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