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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 Cosner 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 Cosner: 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 Cosner 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

Readers’ comments

manuel z. T.
While Lisa's response is entirely correct, in my view, she still leaves unanswered the initial atheist claim, namely that the Bible *condones* slavery.

If we begin with the presupposition that God is Sovereign in ALL, then consequently we arrive at what Holy Scripture reveals, God has indeed spoken in His revelation regarding all possible contingencies. While Scripture reveals an inherit worth in human life because humans are created in the image of God, God took into account our sinful nature that resulted by the Fall, and gave specific instructions as to how slaves ought be treated. In other words, while slavery itself is wrong, God knew that as a result of our sinfulness it would happen, and gave instructions as to how it ought be enacted.

Another example is war. While War is inherently morally wrong, God has given instructions in Scripture as to how War need be conducted. This demonstrates God Sovereignty, NOT God's condoning of an act.

Concubines, and their treatment is another example. While God instructed that marriage ought be between ONE man and ONE woman, God knew that mans sinfulness would lead to man wanting many "wives". Therefore God gave specific instructions regarding concubines. This too reveals Gods Sovereignty and NOT God's approval of such an act.

Roger P.
The Anti-Slavery movement was started by the quakers at a time when they were Bible believing Christians. Over about 150 years it gained support and then in late 18th. century members of the church of England and Wesleyans, Baptists and others with hundreds of women's groups across the U.K. led a long campaign against the abomination. They could argue against slavery since to kidnap people for the purpose of selling them as chattels was condemned by Exodus chapter 21 v 16. "And he that steals a man and sells him or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death." In an age when most people had a respect for the Bible the slave trader could not claim that he was a legitimate business man. To stop the horrible practice in the USA they needed a Civil War. The movement prevailed in Britain, in 1807 the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire, In 1834 slavery it self was abolished in the British Empire.
Phillip M.
I guess my first question to Lionel would be this: do you want an answer or an argument? It seems that right from the outset he was a determined antagonist. The wisdom here for us as believers is to know whether to answer a fool according to his folly or no. Certainly the bible is able to answer the questions of a sincere seeker and I thank Lita and all those that contributed to the debate. God bless you all.
Phillip McKenzie
Richard L.
Thank you, Lita, and thank you, earlier feedbackers, for some great reinforcement scriptures. Dear Lionel, the OT-coded-for slavery doesn’t weaken our condemnation against evil slavery, it actually enhances it. A key feature (from helpful online apologetics ministries) is that OT-coded slavery was at the expense of the master, for the benefit of the slave—the total opposite of the masters-benefit-at-slaves’-expense evil slavery about which we are painfully familiar. There is strong biblical evidence that living conditions for slaves in Israelite households were comparable to those of the rest of the involved household. And then, as Lita noted, they were “compensated generously for their time”. In the 7th year, at departure, the household had to gift them sizably from every revenue stream. This is far better than any economic-recovery plan we have in place today! Please note the cost to the master: room / board / (presumably, clothing) costs covered, ‘family’ fellowship within the household, and a massive end-of-service gratuity (EOSG). Much money to be saved if the master had instead simply employed the would-be slave, letting the employee cover those costs, and without the EOSG. Thus… economic salvation for the slave, at considerable expense to the master. Thus… people volunteered to be slaves. (We are likewise spiritual slaves [as well as adopted, inheriting children of God]: we needed eternal rescue; God did so at huge personal [crucifixion] expense. Our benefit. His cost.) Thus… a biblical master’s motivation involves compassion and generosity. All this makes evil slavery even worse. The bible keeps its moral ascendency. As noted by others, the Deut. 23:15-16 law should allow for Israelite-household (incl. bought) slaves being able to leave at any time.
Martin S.
God's peace to you. Lionel's atheist point is something of interest because their Bible scholars throw this sort of thing at terrorists. Imams latch onto it to keep people agitated and the martyrs' death toll climbs. When debating Muslims on this topic, a corrupted Bible, and I ask why they would take the word of an atheist over the Word of God. We call it the little box of outdated atheist urban legends. Though initially outraged, most return to question if Jesus is God. Love is always a major factor in Muslims coming to Christ. Yet, it seems the opposite with atheists, driving them away.
Greg A.
The Bible allows some types of slavery but certainly does not “condone” it. “Allows” means tolerates whereas “condones” means approves of it. If you read all the Bible’s verses about slavery (the entire Bible is the proper context of biblical questions) then the obvious conclusion is that God allowed slavery but He certainly did not command or condone it. At least one form of slavery - “man stealing” - was punishable by death: 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." Not only was the “man stealer” condemned to death, but also the slave trader (kidnapped man “found in his hand”) so that a slave trader can’t say he is innocent because he did not do the actual stealing. And this point is critical: it was not just to protect Israelites; it says “kidnaps a man” not “an Israelite” so that stealing any man was punishable by death if found within the jurisdiction of Israel.
Dan M.
Lionel, it sounds like you’re on a rant!
If you want to be taken seriously, you have got to get your facts strait. But it doesn’t sound like you’re interested in the facts only your own ideology, (like my brother). If you don’t want to submit to god just say so. God gave you the freedom to reject him so why get all upset and sling mud? Just live life the way you want and have fun! But at the end of life there will be a reckoning and that is what I believe you’re upset about, (as I was). You want to make your own rules but that is not how it works. We are His creation and He owns us.
He, (Jesus) is God and you’re not! He makes the rules and you don’t! So you can either submit and accept forgiveness or go your own way, (separation from God)! There really are only two choices!
I pray you will see Him for who He is and submit! Then He will become the love of your life!
Danny J.
Another thing that comes to mind for me is that slave-trade was illegal at least when it comes to kidnapping a fellow Israelite to sell into slavery. Death was the penalty for it.
Also, our genetic similarity was not known until after slavery had already been abolished in the UK and US.
Bob H.
Here are a few more considerations regarding slavery in the Bible. In Exodus 12:48-49, provision is made for aliens to join the Israelite community through circumcision. Although the immediate context involves eating the Passover, verse 49 states: "The same law applies to the native born and to the alien living among you." Presumably, this statement would also apply to alien slaves, in which case, even they could eventually gain their freedom if they submitted to circumcision and joined the Israelite community. 2) God praised King Zedekiah for freeing the slaves and condemned the king when he revoked his decree and took the slaves back again (Jeremiah 34:8-22). This passage clearly shows God's mind regarding slavery. 3) 1 Timothy 1:10 is an often overlooked verse in which Paul specifically condemns the slave trade. He lists slave traders along with adulterers, perverts, liars, and perjurers as those who come under the condemnation of God's law.
Doug L.
Lionel, nothing that Lita wrote was incorrect, and it was an excellent answer. Let me add other points: First, we are all faced with eternity, not merely the few years of our mortal existence. What occurs to us in this mortal life is vanishingly irrelevant in the light of eternity! Enslavement to men is irrelevant. Second, the Bible condemns the kidnapping and enslavement of others. The penalty for what the slave traders of the past did to Africans was death according to the Bible, in the laws given by Moses. Those who willingly participated in this were guilty of a great sin, ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE. Third, and perhaps the most significant of these, is the fact that complaining about enslavement to men is laughable. Why? Because we are all already willing slaves in a much more important sense: we're either willingly slaves to sin or willingly slaves to Christ. And that enslavement determines our eternal destiny. This third reason is why enslavement to men becomes completely irrelevant and why God instructed rules for this temporal, mortal form of slavery. Since we all chose to be slaves in an eternal context, what's the complaint then about temporary, mortal slavery? We have no grounds whatsoever to complain about it. The most important thing to take out of this is that slavery to Christ is actually the ultimate freedom. Whether we admit it or not, we all hate being slaves to our fallible nature. Committing yourself to Christ, our creator, results in freedom from that nature. That's why he said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He only wants us to do those things which bring joy and freedom. He offers a free gift of immeasurable value. All you have to do is accept it.
Seth C.
I believe Jesus' words concerning divorce would also apply here: Knowing the hardness of the Israelites' hearts, Moses allowed slavery, but from the beginning, it was not so.
Garnett R.
Excellent article by Lita . I would like to add that slavery today is mostly prevalent in muslim countries. The majority of Christian ones have seen the light on this horrible practice. Once again, a correct understanding of the Bible brings freedom to all involved. "If the Son sets you free, ye shall be free indeed."
S. H.
Thank goodness someone who doesn't believe in or know God has written in to help us understand the Bible! It's like someone telling us what the WW2 enigma code means without having the enigma machine to understand the code. But thank you Lita for your excellent response. I'd also ask quite why someone who doesn't believe in God finds it necessary to attack those who believe in God (who the atheists don't believe in) in the first place. These responses often come with animosity, sarcasm, bitterness and hostility, which in itself should tell us something. God is very much alive, the Bible is very much inspired and Christianity is very much growing and the only hope in a world with no real hope. Jesus said he would cause division not because he's confusing but because when taken literally, he leaves each one of us with a clear choice - accepting or rejecting him. I suggest that in the deepest place of the commenter he is fighting against a God he knows exists and is real. Christmas would be a good time to find this to be true.
King T.
Lionel T. might be really surprised to learn that the bible actually ADVOCATES slavery! Yes, you read that right! It all depends on the type of slavery that you have in mind. Lita has already alluded to it but I'd like to drive the point home. In Genesis 47:13-19 the famine in Egypt forces the Egyptians to sell themselves willingly and gratefully as slaves to Pharaoh in exchange for food in order to live. IN Exodus 1, the new Pharaoh forcefully and brutally enslaves the Israelites because he fears being overthrown. Therein lies the difference. Lionel T is referring to this kind of forced enslavement and rightly rails against it. So how does the bible advocate slavery? Well, to put in in terms of the really big picture: In Romans 6:15-18 Paul clearly spells out that whoever we sell ourselves to is our master. In the case of the unsaved, they have sold themselves to sin and in reality have nothing with which to redeem themselves from under its yoke. So in order to be free from that oppression, and because they have no money with which to buy righteousness, the only way to obtain the righteousness in order to live forever is to sell themselves as slaves to righteousness. Willingly and gratefully. This is the slavery that the bible advocates. The only way out from under the oppression of sin is via the sacrificial offer Christ made on the cross. There is no other way to come to the Father. Atheist need to realize that THEY are the ones who fully support and advocate slavery, namely slavery to sin which leads to death. So much for them wanting to claim the moral high ground when they are in fact forming the bottom of the pit!
Philip R.
Quite right, Lita.
There are tens of thousands of Christian church organisations, because, for example, Victorian Baptists are counted separately to New South Wales Baptists, and separately to the (American) Southern Baptists, and the Australian Catholic church is counted separately to the New Zealand Catholic church, and so on. That doesn't mean that every one of these groups has different beliefs, nor that they are different "sects". They are simply different legal entities.

Journal of Creation 31(3) cover
And I'd mention the book review in the latest issue of the Journal of Creation of Rodney Stark's Bearing False Witness: Debunking centuries of anti-Catholic history which points out that
The Church eliminated slavery more than 1,000 years ago, until it was re-established by the culture of the New World, in which case the popes vigorously and repeatedly opposed it. Unfortunately, the popes and clergy had little influence, so they developed codes of conduct for the more humane treatment of slaves. These codes were commonly ignored or even made to say the opposite, but they did have a modest effect. Regardless through the influence of Christians, slavery was again abolished in Europe and in the Americas.
B L.
well put, lita.

im afraid it seems likely that people like lionel are driven by ignorance; and because of their ignorance: frustration.

education of truth is needed for such people delivered in a loving, patient, and tactful way. pray that the LORD gives you such attributes.

“but with purity and gentleness must go patience. the lapping waters do not reduce the rocky strata at a blow. it is always by means of patience that the finest conquests are won.” - frank boreham (faces in the fire)

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