Many non-Christians try to undermine the credibility of the Bible by saying it contains no explicit condemnation of slavery. Some go so far as to blame the Scriptures for perpetuating this heinous act.
Sadly, there are even Christians who have used the Bible to justify the slave trade.
Does the Bible actually approve of slavery? Let’s examine both the Old and New Testaments to find our answer.
The Old Testament
Under Moses’ leadership, true slavery was outlawed among the Israelites. You could indenture a fellow Israelite if they owed you money, but you couldn’t treat them as a slave. Their civil rights remained intact.
They could work for you to pay off their debt, but only up to a point. During Jubilee Years, these obligations were canceled and you would have to free them.
Deuteronomy 15 allows the Israelites to enslave the Hebrews surrounding Israel, but only temporarily. Note that the Hebrews were a larger group than the Israelites. They included other descendants of Abraham, such as the Ishmaelites.
The Israelites were allowed to keep these slaves for six years, then they had to release them. A slave sometimes wanted to stay with their master for the security that was provided. The ancient world was, after all, a brutal place. Masters had to care for slaves when they were sick, but they couldn’t force them to stay indefinitely.
While we wouldn’t consider this an acceptable position today, it is nowhere near similar to the more inhumane forms of race-based slavery that came later. In the ancient world, anyone could become a slave.
The New Testament
St. Paul tells masters to be good to their slaves and says slaves should obey their masters. Is St. Paul condoning slavery?
That’s reading way too much into the passage. Nowhere does Paul say that slavery is good and desirable. He’s trying to work with the cultural norms of the time.
Many slaves in the Roman Empire were entirely dependent on their masters for food and shelter. Even if he wanted to, St. Paul couldn’t have commanded everyone to free their slaves, as that would have put many of the slaves’ lives in danger. Many slaves simply wouldn’t have had the skills to survive on their own.
As social structures changed, the Church became more vocal in criticizing slavery. And it was especially harsh on race-based slavery — such as the African slave trade. The Bible gives absolutely no support for slavery based on race.
As history shows, Christians should not try to justify slavery from the Bible. That’s a serious misuse of the sacred text.