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The Bible and Slavery

  1. The Image of God (Gen 1:26-27, James 3:9): All human beings regardless of their race, gender, or station in life are the imago dei, the image of God. This suggests that we are each very valuable to God, deserving of fair treatment and justice, and that every person is to be treated with dignity (cf. Job 31:13-15). This position mitigates against worldviews that would judge servants or slaves to be non-persons, less valuable, or not worthy of political, legal, and economic representation.

  2. The Biblical Metaphors (I Sam 3:10, Ps 123, Ps 135:1-2, Mt 20:26, Mt 25:21, Lk 16:13, Phil 2:7) The Bible often uses the terms "master" and "servant" to suggest spiritual conditions. Paul, most notably, suggests that we are "slaves" to whatever we choose to obey. A life of sin is slavery, while obedience to God is true service. Likewise, Paul reminds us that "freedom" is always to be both free from something in order to be free for something. If we are slaves to sin, we self-delusively are seeking to be free from God’s rightful rule over our lives. If we are free from sin, it is in order to be God’s follower (Rom 6:15-23, Gal 4:6-9, 5:1). The Bible, then, recognizes that slavery is a condition of dependence. The question becomes one of what kind of dependence.

  3. The Principle of Authority and Service (I Pet 2:13-25): The first epistle of Peter points out that as Christians we each have real liberty, are under authority, and in a familial relationship with one another. We are to "live as free men," "live as servants of God," and to "love the brotherhood of believers." We shouldn’t use our freedom in Christ to rebel against just authority, nor should we forget that as God’s servants we serve Him by treating others with respect. Instead, we are to motivated by a real unselfish compassion for the needs of others (agape). This is more radical than one might guess at first blush. To recognize that slaves are also free, that masters are also servants, and that both are children before God is to redefine the world’s order of domination and despair. No social station can keep us from Jesus, nor should his church make such distinctions (Col 3:9-11, Gal 3:26-29). There can be neither "slave nor free" in the Body of Christ. Consider what it says to a slave to be fully included in the life of the church, for example, to be able to teach, rebuke, correct, or love someone who is a master. To be afforded membership in the Body of Christ is to be afforded the full rights and responsibilities of family (cf. Philemon 1:15-16).

  4. Recognition of Slavery’s Reality Not a Commendation: Jesus often used masters and servants in his parables (Mt 24:45-51, Lk 12:35-48, Lk 16:1-13, Lk 17:7-10); however, it does not follow that Jesus was approving of earthly slavery or of the way that vicious masters treated their servants. Rather, Jesus is again using this historical and cultural reality to speak of ethical and spiritual conditions (Lk 7:1-10). Likewise, when Paul enjoins slaves to be obedient to their masters, and masters not to mistreat their slaves (Eph 6:5-9, Col 3: 22-4:1, I Tim 6:1-2), he is not commending such a system; rather, he is appealing for Christians to exemplify Christ in those situations. Paul does suggest that if slaves can obtain their freedom they should, nor should they enter into slavery being "the Lord’s freeman" (I Cor 7:21-23). Indeed, Paul was quite willing to intervene and play a role in a slave’s freedom (Philemon).

  5. The Exodus and the Babylonian Captivity (Ex 1-12, Ps 137, Jer 29, Daniel): The Jewish experience of slavery both in Egypt and later in Babylon illustrates the national curse of large-scale bondage in a foreign land. Israel had tight social and legal controls on servanthood in part because of their memory of Egypt (Lev 25:42-43, Deut 15:12-18). In a similar manner, the Jewish captivity was understood as punishment for national sin, including that of enslaving other Hebrews (cf. Jer 34:8-22). Israel’s experience of slavery in both situations is primarily one of bondage and degradation, so there is a strong biblical caution against reproducing such a state of affairs in Israel.

  6. The Old Testament Practice: The Old Testament laws surrounding slavery recognize it to be a substandard position, one of social weakness and vulnerability, even despair. Hebrews were allowed to voluntarily enter into servanthood for six years because of poverty, though there were certain conditions under which they might elect to become a bond-slave for life (Ex 21:1-11, also cf. Deut 28:68). During their service, they were to be treated as a hired worker and not a slave and released during the year of Jubilee, presumably if this came earlier than their six years of service. With these conditions, the Hebrew servant was to enjoy a position not unlike indentured servanthood as practiced in colonial America. In a similar fashion, temporary residents in Israel could also elect voluntary service to pay off debts and were allowed to be redeemed back by their relatives. Captives of war, however, could be made slaves for life, though there were also regulations regarding women (Lev 25:35-55, Deut 21:10-14, also cf. Josh 9:11-27).

    Likewise, slaves were to be treated fairly, receive their just wages, were not to work during the sabbath, and not to be treated harshly or severely harmed (Ex 20:10, Job 31:13-15, Deut 24:14-15, Lev 22:11, Mal 3:5, Lev 19:20-22, Ex 21:20-21, 26-32, also cf. Eph 5:9). Kidnapping of a Hebrew into slavery was punishable by death (Deut 24:7, Neh 5:1-8), and any slave from any nation was to be given refuge and not returned to an owner (Deut 23:15-16). Such laws recognize the essential humanity of and justice afforded to a person reduced to slavery.

  7. Jesus’ Example: Jesus himself set an example of true servanthood, carrying for the needs of others in his earthly life and ministry. On one occasion, he washed the feet of his disciples to model for them the way authority should be practiced as service, enjoining them "no servant is greater than his master, " meaning they must follow his lead (Jn 13:1-17). Paul, too, recognized in Christ’s incarnation the very assumption of the form of a slave (Phil 2:5-11). This assumption reminds us that God in his ultimate authority is not removed from our human condition or its pain. Indeed, Christ’s action on the cross is a model for how to endure unjust suffering (I Pet 2:18-25).

  8. Our Eschatological Hope (Is 61:1-3, Rev 21-22): Jesus took unto himself the expectations of the Jewish people for the coming Messiah and his reign of peace. This longing, found in the biblical notion of shalom, means more than simple internal peace; it includes external justice in society. Yet Shalom is more than justice, it is also the delight in the just world of relationships. Our hope is in having an equitable and delightful relationship with the Triune God, with other human beings inside and across communities, and within God's prosperous and blessed creation, and this implies an internal peace with one's renewed self as well. [A more thorough study of this important theme would include Is 62, 65:17-25. 66:12-16, Hosea 14, Joel 3:17-21, Amos 9:11-15, Micah 4:15, 5:15, Zeph 3:9-20, Zech 3:10, 14, Luke 4:14-21, Matt 5:17-20, 7:28-29, Matt 25, John 7:25-43, Acts 1:1-11, Romans 8:18-25, I Cor 15:20-28, Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:9-14, Heb 12:24-28.] This hope includes "proclaim[ing] freedom for the captives / and release from darkness for the prisoners." The final vision of God for his creation is of an order without captives and prisoners, all free under the Lordship of Christ.

Some Conclusions

  • The Bible teaches that all authority is ultimately God’s and all freedom given by God. We are all as human beings "owned" by God who is our maker, judge, and true king. The personal individual autonomy of the modern era is a concept foreign to biblical Christianity.
  • The practice of slavery in the U.S. clearly violated any number of Old Testament laws, as well as the spirit of Biblical religion, including the injunctions against kidnapping, fair treatment of servants, and prohibitions of threat and brutality.
  • Likewise, the practice of slavery in the U.S. sought to ignore the image of God in a large number of human beings, seeking to violate and rob them of true justice.
  • The ultimate course and direction of the Christian faith is one that values, humanizes, and frees captives for a life of maturity and responsibility before God and voluntary service to one’s fellow human beings.
  • The life of the church is to be one that works against social distinctions and status and that works for just sharing of authority in a qualified way before God. Thus, the Christian faith is about removing enslavement.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding