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Does the Bible condone slavery?

Published: 16 December 2017 (GMT+10)

Sometimes atheists will write in with disagreements to our articles. Sometimes we are accused of censoring contrary opinions in our comments, but this is not the case. Rather we answer them in order to hopefully win over skeptics, and instruct creationists who will also read the responses. For instance, Lionel T. wrote in response to Why do people worship false gods?:

"Why do people worship false gods?" asks the people who worship a book that endorses slavery, legitimizes racism, and celebrates genocide. Oh the irony!

Lita Sanders responded:

We don't worship a book, we worship the God who gave us a book that helped to end slavery, gives the only answer for racial reconciliation, and calls us to self-sacrificial love of our enemies even to the point of death for the Gospel. Without God's Word, why not enslave and kill others who aren't just like you? I mean, if it's all survival of the fittest, why should I get all sentimental about human beings who aren't part of 'my tribe'. Christianity gives us the only basis for caring about all humans, because we're all closely related via Adam and Eve, and Christ died to save people of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Lionel T. wrote:

In response to Lita Sanders: I don't doubt you think you don't worship a book but your actions say otherwise. Your entire organization is dedicated to the purpose of idolizing that book.

God never *gave* you the Bible, which is, at best, a very arbitrarily assembled collection of texts and letters, written by men. The notion that it is divinely inspired is ludicrous. Supposedly God is not the author of confusion and yet what book has caused more confusion? There are literally tens of thousands of different sects of Christianity and among them there would scarcely be a Bible verse that is not a point of contention.

You claim that your book helped end slavery. That is revisionist at best. If we look at the example of slavery in the American South, while it is true that there were Christian abolitionists, it should be recognized that this was in spite of what the Bible said, not because of it. Leviticus 25:44-45 expressly allows slave trade. Exodus 21:20-21 allows beating of slaves. The New Testament isn't any better, instructing slaves to "obey their masters, even the cruel ones…". Nowhere is slavery prohibited. Do I really need to embarrass you by quoting the slave-holders who were very happy to cite the Bible in their support?

Also, I hate to break it to you but slavery has not been ended around the world.

You ask "why not enslave and kill others"? Simple; if that is allowed then others are free to enslave and kill me. That is a form of the Golden Rule (I particularly like Martin Luther King Jr's version; "To accept injustice for anyone is to invite it for everyone") and the law of reciprocity, which is a secular moral principle that can be traced historically to well before Christianity appropriated it in Matthew 7:12.

Lita Sanders responded:

Dear Lionel,

If you come to Scripture looking for something to criticize and isolate passages out of context, no doubt you will find something to be outraged about. If you actually look at the context of the entirety of Scripture and study it fairly, you will find it to be a remarkable book, even if you only look at it as a body of literature (of course, I believe it to be the divinely inspired Word of God, and treat it as such).

I don’t have the space in a short reply to survey the inspiration, transmission, and translation of Scripture, but I have co-authored a little booklet about it that you can buy for less than the price of a latte, if you care to hear about it. It’s called How Did We Get Our Bible? And Is It the Word of God?

There are not ‘tens of thousands of sects’ of Christianity, that’s wildly inflated by more than an order of magnitude. You can do some quick web searches to educate yourself on the matter, if you like. And would you really prefer a single authoritarian entity that would ruthlessly enforce theological standards? Such organizations tended not to tolerate atheists.

It is not revisionist to claim that Christianity helped to end the slave trade. William Wilberforce is universally recognized as one of the main abolitionists responsible for ending the slave trade in England, and his writings stating that his Christian faith was instrumental in his beliefs is public record. Furthermore, his associates in the Clapham sect were similarly motivated by Christianity and their literal reading of the Bible.

Regarding Scripture’s statements about slavery, again, I only have the space for an overview, but simply put, we can divide the slavery regulations into those for Israelites and non-Israelites. Israelites could only be indentured servants, not lifetime servants (unless they so preferred their situation with their master that they asked to be lifetime slaves). They were to be freed after 7 years and compensated generously for their time. They were also protected by several laws; they were not chattel. If a man took a female slave for a concubine, she had certain rights and could not simply be discarded.

Non-Israelites could be enslaved for life. However, they also had certain rights, including Sabbath rest in the household of their master. They could not be wantonly mistreated.

But we also have to ask: what would the alternative be? Israelites might be enslaved because of extreme poverty or because of being convicted of a crime. Slavery is not ideal, but it beats starving to death or being executed for a crime. Non-Israelites would be taken as slaves in armed conflict—again, most people would choose slavery to death.

In the New Testament, we must remember that Christians were a small minority. The Roman government had a way of squashing movements that openly called for slave revolts. But Christians had a way of gently subverting the order. Paul addressed slaves as people capable of choosing godly submission in the context of their slavery, but the really subversive part is that he called slave owners to treat their slaves as brothers and sisters in Christ. Really read the letter of Philemon and try to come to a conclusion other than that Paul wants Philemon to free Onesimus. In fact, church history indicates that Philemon did exactly that, and Onesimus became a leader in the early church.

If Christianity was not abolitionist at its core, why would Christians in the first centuries after the completion of the NT call for the end of slavery? Gregory of Nyssa was perhaps the first Christian to openly condemn all forms of slavery as against God’s will, and he was quite early.

Of course slave-holders quoted the Bible to try to justify their actions, just like wife-beaters might quote the Bible to try to justify their abuse. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a valid reading of Scripture.

And yes, it is a sad reality that slavery still exists in places around the world. But historically speaking, it is much more notable that slavery isn’t accepted in the majority of the Western world. And if you do just a bit of research, you would find that there are many Christian ministries dedicated to ending modern-day slavery, as well. Where are the purely secular societies for abolition? It’s almost as if people who deny the divine image in humanity have no reason to sacrifice to see the disadvantaged treated with dignity.

Yes, science has shown that people around the world are genetically similar, but that has not been the actual basis of abolition; Christianity has been. It’s no good to point to scientific data that could theoretically serve as a basis for societal change and give that as evidence against the thing that has been the basis of societal change.

But I would suggest that there is a deeper basis for your rejection of Scripture, because if you accepted Scripture for what it truly is, the Word of God, you would have to deal with its depiction of Jesus, the Son of God, and His claims about our need to be saved from sin. I would urge you to look at these things a bit more closely.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $17.00
Soft Cover
How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $3.50
Soft Cover