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Slavery

[This article has NOTHING to do with skin color. Scripture nowhere teaches the superiority of one race compared to another based upon the amount of melanin in the skin.]

Introduction

In America, slavery is illegal (13th Amendment). So, for anyone in America to practice slavery, it would be wrong. It would be a violation of Romans 13:1-5 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. But, is slavery evil in and of itself? Some think so. Like the atheist Louise W. Cable who wrote,

Could anything be more immoral than the buying and selling of fellow human beings into a life of involuntary servitude? (Louise W. Cable, SLAVERY and the BIBLE, http://home.inu.net/skeptic/slavery.html)

Abraham Lincoln said,

If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. (letter to A. G. Hodges, April, 4, 1864, www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/ltoh1.jpg)

"Christians" of the past have argued both for and against slavery.1 Yet, Scripture is not unclear on this issue. Even atheists have caught the drift, and have therefore reviled the Word of God on this issue alone. As the atheist Elroy Willis has posted,

If the Bible really was the word of God we would at the very least expect it to condemn the ownership of one person by another, and we could expect it to be far more humane and enlightened than any human source of morality. But this simply isn't the case. The Bible not only accepts the practice of slavery without question - it even falls well short of the best human thinking about the subject. The Bible can't possibly be the infallible word of God. (http://web2.iadfw.net/~elo/news/slavery.html)

So speaks the fool (Psalm 14:1). Yet, this fool knows what some "Christians" have not recognized, that is, that Scripture indeed accepts the practice of slavery.

For example, Alexander McLeod (1774-1833), pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of New York, wrote,

The practice of buying, holding, or selling our unoffending fellow-creatures as slaves is immoral. (Against Slavery, An Abolitionist Reader, edited by Mason Lowance, copyright 2000, p. 72, italics in original)

And,

To hold any of our fellow-men in perpetual slavery is sinful. (ibid., p. 73, italics in original)

And,

The practice of enslaving our fellow-men stands equally opposed to the general tenor of sacred scriptures. (ibid., p. 73)

This pastor was way off!

I. Godly Men Owned Slaves

Abraham not only owned slaves (Genesis 12:5; 16:1/21:9-10; 20:14; 24:2, 9, 35; Galatians 4:22), but he had an army of 318 servants who were born in his own house (Genesis 14:14). The Lord blessed Isaac with "a great number of servants" (Genesis 26:12-14, 19, 25, 32). Jacob had both male and female servants (Genesis 30:43; 32:3-5). Job, a man who feared God and shunned evil, had many servants (Job 1:1-3, 13-17; 19:16; 31:13). Boaz had servants (Ruth 2:5, 15). Solomon, a holy man of God moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), acquired male and female servants and had servants born in his house (1 Kings 9:20-21; Ecclesiastes 2:7). Cornelius, who feared God and worked righteousness (Acts 10:35), had servants (Acts 10:7). Likewise, Philemon was a slave owner as well (Philemon). And these are only ones who are specifically named as owning slaves.

Believers in the first century owned slaves (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:2), and they were not instructed to let them go; but rather, to treat them with justice, as Colossians 4:1 says,

Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1)

It is evident from this verse that just and fair treatment does not equal giving the slave his or her freedom. Some might argue that Luke 6:31 would demand a Christian slave owner to free his slaves. But, on the contrary, slave owners were to be treated with all honor by their servants (1 Timothy 6:1). This honor was due to Christian slave owners as well (1 Timothy 6:2), and if anyone taught otherwise, they were proud and knew nothing (1 Timothy 6:3-4).

Even the Lord owns slaves, as Colossians 4:1 and Ephesians 6:9 reveals.

And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Ephesians 6:9)

The Christian slave owners were slaves themselves of the Lord of hosts. As 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 states,

Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's.

Every believer is a bought slave of the Master, Jesus Christ (see also Leviticus 25:55; Psalm 123:2; 134:1; 135:1; Isaiah 56:6; 65:13-15; 1 Corinthians 4:1; 7:22; 9:19; Revelation 1:1). This slavery will last forever.

And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. (Revelation 22:3)2

II. The Law Supports Slavery

Even though the Israelites were slaves at one time (Deuteronomy 6:21), they themselves owned slaves (Exodus 12:44; 20:8, 17; 23:12; Leviticus 25:6; Deuteronomy 5:21; 12:12, 18; 16:11, 14). They could enslave foreigners (e.g. Numbers 31:32-47). But, according to the law, they were not allowed to permanently enslave their Hebrew brethren (Leviticus 25:39-42, 47-54), unless the person wanted to be enslaved. If the man loved his master and prospered under him, he could permanently enslave himself to his master (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Or, another motivating factor for such a desire would be so that he could keep his wife and children. Because, according to God's holy and righteous law, if he was given a wife by his master while serving and had offspring, he could not take them with him if he left.

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, "I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free," then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. (Exodus 21:2-6)

So, under this law, an Israelite could even have a fellow Hebrew as his permanent slave.

Immediately following this law, we see that a man could actually sell his daughter into slavery.

And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money. (Exodus 21:7-11)

It is evident from the text that this slavery involves a marriage, but nonetheless, she is still sold into slavery. She becomes a slave wife, a concubine (for concubinage, see our report on Polygamy, III. Polygamy Included Concubinage).

III. Slaves Are Viewed As Property

In the past, some have bristled at the fact that slavery reduces a human being to "an article of property, a chattel personal" (Theodore Dwight, 1803-1895, The Bible Against Slavery). John Wesley wrote,

It cannot be, even setting Revelation aside. It cannot be, that either war, or contract, can give any man such a property in another as he has in his sheep and oxen. Much less is it possible, that any child of man should ever be born a slave. Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature. (http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/wesley/thoughtsuponslavery.stm)

Wesley did indeed set revelation aside. Because, the revelation of God reveals no such "law of nature," but rather the law of God which proclaims,

And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have - from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor. (Leviticus 25:44-46)

Slaves are herein sanctioned to be bought. They are called "property," "an inheritance," "a possession" and "your permanent slaves." In Numbers 31:32-47 the Israelites' slaves are called "booty," "plunder," and "tribute," along with the sheep, cattle, and donkeys.

In Exodus 21, the Lord reveals that a slave, as the property of the slave owner, does not have the same status a free man has, even when it came to killing a man. Exodus 21:12 says,

He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.

Yet, later in the chapter, the Lord gives this instruction regarding slaves.

And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property. (Exodus 21:20-21)

Note, if the slave lived a day or two, and then died, there would be no punishment at all, and the reason given is because "he is his property."

The slave owner had the right to correct his slaves, as Proverbs 26:3 states,

A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the fool's back. (see also Proverbs 10:13; 29:19)

This does not mean it was right to inflict undue harm upon a slave (Micah 6:8; Colossians 4:1). But it does mean that a slave owner could render correction when needed.

Later in Exodus 21 this distinction between slave and free is again revealed, and it again involves the life of a slave.

If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him. Whether it has gored a son or gored a daughter, according to this judgment it shall be done to him. If the ox gores a male or female servant, he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. (Exodus 21:28-32)

This law distinguishes between the life of a slave and the life of a free person.3 The life of the slave is depicted as having less value. The owner of a thrusting ox would be far better off if the ox killed a slave rather than a free person. With the one, he might lose his life or have to pay "whatever is imposed on him." With the other, he simply would have to pay thirty shekels. Under these circumstances, one can only imagine the first question the owner of the ox might ask after hearing of a death by goring. "Was the person who was killed free or a slave?"

Furthermore, even though the law distinguished the life of a free man from the life of a slave, the law was not without mercy towards those under the yoke. Deuteronomy 23 commands kindness toward a run away slave.

You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)

This is a grant of kindness commanded by the Lord toward run away slaves, but it is not an instruction of what slaves are to do. On the contrary,

VI. Slaves Are Instructed To Submit4

An evil man may very well encourage slaves to rebel against their masters (Proverbs 17:11), but Scripture teaches just the opposite.

Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (Ephesians 6:5-8; see also Colossians 3:22-25; Titus 2:9-10)

The Lord does not instruct slaves to run away and claim their freedom. Instead, the Lord instructs them to stay where they are and be good slaves, as the Lord instructed Abraham's slave, Hagar.

Now the Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. And He said, "Hagar, Sarai's maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?" She said, "I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai." The Angel of the Lord said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand." (Genesis 16:7-9)

Here Hagar was free. She had run away from her mistress (Genesis 16:4-6) and had freed herself from harsh treatment. Yet, even in the context of being treated harshly, the Lord told her to go back and submit herself to Sarai.

Likewise, Peter wrote to the slaves in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:18-20)

V. Both Freedom And Slavery Can Be Good

Although slavery at times can be a curse (Deuteronomy 28:68; Joshua 9:23; Proverbs 12:24; Lamentations 1:1; Joel 3:8), it can also be good (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:12-17; Joshua 9:24). Proverbs 12:9 says,

Better is the one who is slighted but has a servant, than he who honors himself but lacks bread. (Proverbs 12:9)

Having a servant here is depicted as a good thing. It indicates the person is not poor.

The Lord promised Israel that they would have slaves after He put them back into their land (Isaiah 14:1-2). This was a blessing from God upon the Israelites. It was a good thing, not a bad thing.

Yet, freedom is also depicted as something good. In 1 Corinthians 7:20-23 Paul wrote,

Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord's freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.

Here Paul tells the slaves who might have an opportunity to become free, to take this opportunity for freedom and use it for the Lord. Similarly, in Philemon Paul strongly encourages Philemon to give his run away slave, Onesimus, his freedom (Philemon 15-16).

VI What About Kidnapping?

Some have argued5 against slavery based upon the prohibition of man-stealing per Exodus 21:16.

He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. (see also Deuteronomy 24:7)

1 Timothy 1:10 also lists kidnapping as a loathsome vice, and some even translate the Greek word for kidnappers as "slave traders."6 Either way, the word has inherit in it the idea of man stealing.

Yet, as can be seen from Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7, a kidnapper could very well be a slave trader, as he steals men and sells them to others. This is indeed condemned before God. Stealing, whether it be an inanimate object, or another human being, is wrong (e.g. Exodus 20:15). Yet, these verses, as should be evident from the Scriptures above, do not condemn slavery in and of itself. Only the stealing and subsequent selling of the stolen man is condemned. Moreover, men or women taken captive in war is not kidnapping. It is part of the spoils of war (e.g. Numbers 31:32-47; Deuteronomy 20:13-14).

This, of course, begs the question regarding American slavery of the past, which in and of itself is a whole can of worms. But, summed up, it was not the practice of slavery that was wrong. What was wrong was any mistreatment of the slaves (Micah 6:8), or pride of the Caucasians as if they were a superior race (Proverbs 16:5), or any man-stealing that took place (1 Timothy 1:10), or any rebellion on the part of the slaves (1 Peter 2:18). These things are indeed evil. But, slavery in and of itself is not.

VII. The Future

For those who may hope for the eradication of slavery from the planet never to be seen again, such a hope is in vain. The Word reveals that slavery will be in vogue, even in the very last hour.

And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains and said to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (Revelation 6:15-17; see also 13:16 & 19:18)

Endnotes:

1. e.g. The Annals of America, Vol. 4, p. 507; Vol. 9, p. 299-300

2. See also John 15:15 which indicates a difference in this servitude.

3. See also Proverbs 19:10 regarding the proper place of a slave.

4. Death frees a man from this obligation, Job 3:19.

5. e.g. Theodore Dwight Weld and Alexander McLeod, found in Against Slavery, An Abolitionist Reader, p. 55 & 72

6. NIV, NLT, see also A Greek English Lexicon Of The New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 63

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