It is generally agreed that the Bible does not condemn slavery. As a result, some people believe that the Bible condones slavery. And, some people go so far as to believe that the Bible justifies slavery.
Perhaps, the scripture most often cited as the biblical basis for justifying slavery is Ephesians 6:5. This scripture in the New King James (NKJ) version of the Bible states, “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling. . . .” (According to Webster’s Dictionary, a bondservant is a slave.) Likewise, most of the widely-read versions of the Bible also use the term bondservants or slaves. Furthermore, Strong’s Concordance affirms that slaves is an appropriate translation of the Greek word doulos in Ephesians 6:5.
So, are the critics correct in stating that the Bible condones slavery or even justifies it?
Why the Bible Does Not Speak Out Against Slavery
An article entitled “What Does the Bible Say about Slavery?” on the Internet site ourdailybread.org provides the following background regarding slavery:
Slavery was an integral part of the social, economic, and institutional life of the ancient Middle East. The Bible writers refer to it repeatedly as a fact of life. They neither endorsed nor condemned it. It was so intricately woven into the fabric of society that neither the patriarchs nor the nation of Israel could avoid being caught up in it. . . .
There are at least a couple of plausible explanations as to why the Bible neither condones nor condemns slavery. For one, the Bible indicates that God frequently allows people to engage in practices that He does not endorse. Another explanation is that neither Jesus nor the apostles made the emancipation of slaves an issue in their ministry.
With regard to Jesus Christ’s parables in Matthew 18:21-35 and Luke 12:42-48, some widely-read versions of the Bible indicate that these parables were referring to the relationship between slaves (i.e., not servants) and their masters. And, Strong’s Concordance indicates that the term slave or slaves in both of these scripture passages is a suitable translation. But, in regard to these parables, Jesus did not say anything that indicated He disapproved of slavery. Perhaps, this can be explained by the fact that other widely-read versions of the Bible use the term servant or servants, rather than slave or slaves, in both passages. If the term servant or servants is the more appropriate translation in these passages, there would have been no need for Jesus to have voiced disapproval of slavery with regard to either passage. The same can be said with regard to Luke 7:1-10, which pertains to Jesus’ healing of the slave (or servant, depending on the version of the Bible) of a Roman centurion.
On the other hand, in Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25, and 1 Timothy 6:1-2, most of the widely-read versions of the Bible state that Paul told converted (i.e., Christian) slaves to be obedient, honest, and diligent in serving their masters. (The Greek word doulos in these three scripture passages is doulo, which is translated as slaves, just as it is in all three of the passages we previously discussed.) In contrast, the NKJ version of the Bible uses the term servants, rather than slaves, in translating Colossians 3:22-25 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2. However, the NKJ version uses the term slaves in Ephesians 6:5-8, which leads some people to question why Paul did not express his disapproval of slavery in regard to this passage.
Likewise, some people question the propriety of Paul sending a slave named Onesimus back to Philemon, the master from whom he previously had fled, as recorded in the book of Philemon. (Most of the widely-read versions of the Bible agree that Onesimus was a slave, and Strong’s concurs.) However, it is reasonable to believe that the reason Paul sent Onesimus back to his master was for the spiritual welfare of both Onesimus and Philemon. Also, by returning to his master, Onesimus would demonstrate the genuineness of his faith.
Although most of the widely-read versions of the Bible use the term slaves in translating the Greek word oiketes in 1 Peter 2:18-21, Strong’s translates the term as household servant. If Strong’s translation is appropriate, there would have been no reason for Peter to attempt in this scripture passage to express disapproval of slavery.
But, are there any other reasons why the Bible does not speak out against slavery? According to the previously-mentioned ourdailybread.org Internet article,
Three answers to this question have been formulated by Christian scholars. First, slavery conditions had become so tolerable by the first century of the Christian era that it did not make sense to stir up the waters by making it an issue. Second, since believers were living in a dictatorship, any efforts to abolish slavery would have been an exercise in futility. Third, the primary mission of Jesus and His followers had to do with an individual’s eternal salvation from the penalty and power of sin, not social reform.
Jesus did not say one word about becoming political activists. Was He indifferent to this and other social evils? Not at all! It was simply a matter of putting first things first. By proclaiming the good news of salvation, the followers of Jesus led thousands of slaves as well as free people to believe on Him and receive everlasting life. These slaves became members of the family of God, receiving a social status far more valuable than freedom from slavery. The first and primary task of Christians always has been and always will be the proclaiming of God’s Word.
The article goes on to state,
[B]oth Jesus and the apostles undermined the basis for slavery by making it clear that God equally loves rich and poor, free and slave, male and female. The apostles also welcomed into the church and gave equal status to all who believed, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or social position.
The Internet site christiananswers.net provides the following additional perspective:
The Bible was never designed to serve as a manifesto on controversial political issues. It is rather primarily the story of how God, over time, has worked His sovereign will in this universe, and is still able to do so, through the hearts and minds and lives of those who trust Him.
The Bible Advocates Fair Treatment of Slaves
There are several scripture passages that intimate that God expected His people to treat slaves well. Consider Genesis 15:1-3 for example. Although there are differences in opinion as to whether Eliezer of Damascus was a slave or a servant, because the passage refers to him simply as “one born in my house,” he apparently would have inherited Abraham’s possessions if Abraham had remained childless. A more definite example that God expected His people to treat slaves well is found in Genesis 17:9-14, which states that God instructed Abraham to circumcise every male in his household, including those whom Abraham had purchased, who almost certainly were slaves.
Furthermore, according to the ourdailybread.org article,
[A]lthough God permitted [the Israelites] to buy slaves, He gave them a series of moral-spiritual reminders and a set of civil regulations that were designed to guarantee the humane treatment of all slaves, whether captured or purchased.
Slaves in Israel were usually domestic workers in the homes of the wealthy and were treated as family members. . . . Some people who were captured from neighboring nations were made slaves of the state or served in the maintenance of the temple complex . . . . But the biblical record indicates that they were treated well.
What may be an example of God’s desire to protect even non-Hebrew slaves from harsh treatment by the Israelites is found in Exodus 21:20. This verse of scripture in the NIV translation of the Bible declares, “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished.” Most of the other widely-read versions of the Bible also use the term slave in translating this verse. However, the King James (KJV) and the NKJ versions of the Bible and Strong’s use the term servant, rather than the term slave, with regard to this verse, so it is not conclusive as whether this scripture pertains to slaves and/or to servants.
In any case, Paul revealed his sensitivity to the circumstances faced by slaves when he told Christian slave owners in Ephesians 6:9, “Do not threaten them [i.e., their slaves], since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.” Since this verse immediately follows the Ephesians 6:5-8 passage pertaining to slaves, which we previously discussed, this verse likewise pertains to slaves.
In the NKJ version of Colossians 4:1, Paul declares, “Masters, give your servants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” However, as previously indicated, most of the other widely-read versions of the Bible and Strong’s translate the Greek word doulos used in this verse of scripture to mean slaves. Therefore, we believe this verse supports the belief that Paul was an advocate for the fair treatment of slaves.
Summary and Conclusion
There are at least a couple of plausible explanations why the Bible neither condones nor condemns slavery. For one, the Bible indicates that God frequently allows people to engage in practices that He does not endorse. Another explanation is that neither Jesus nor the apostles made the emancipation of slaves an issue in their ministry. And, although the Bible does not condemn the practice of slavery, it does advocate fair treatment of slaves. In any case, the failure to condemn slavery does not mean that the Bible condones slavery.