One of the more popular objections to Christianity is that the Bible is immoral because it gives approval to the practice of slavery. Many Christians living in the nineteenth century used the Bible’s statements that slaves should obey their masters to justify the practice of Southern slavery where black people were kidnapped and forced into slavery against their will.
The first truth that must be established when talking about slavery in the Bible is that the Scriptures never give approval to kidnapping and selling people into slavery. Exodus 21:16 condemns both the person who kidnaps another human being and sells him into slavery and the person who buys the kidnapped slave:
“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”
This condemnation is repeated in Deuteronomy 24:7:
“If a man is found stealing one of his brothers, the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
The Old Testament laws on slavery were designed by God to regulate and bring compassion to a pre-existing practice that is the result of the fall of man into sin. Unlike marriage, slavery was created by man, not God. Exodus 21:2 placed a time limit on how long a person could own a slave, Exodus 21:26-27 forbids cruelty to slaves, Deuteronomy 15:12-15 says that slaves are to be treated well, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says that slaves who run away from their masters must not be handed back to them, and Leviticus 25:39-40 reminds us that slavery was often a means out of poverty and starvation as many slaves sold themselves into slavery to avoid starving to death.
Paul in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 lists enslaving humans among the horrible sins of this vice list:
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
The term translated as enslavers literally means “man-stealers” to describe people who kidnap other human beings.
But why didn’t Paul advise Christian slaves to run away from their masters but instead to submit to them in Colossians 3:22? The reason is rather simple: the gospel. Paul wanted Christian slaves to win their masters and fellow slaves or servants to Christ. But why doesn’t Paul advocate abolishing slavery altogether in the Roman Empire? The reason for this should also be obvious: the New Testament Church had no ability to change the law because Christians were a small minority in the Roman Empire. But they did have the power to create a new community where they did not treat each other as slaves, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul says in Philemon 1:15-16 that Christian slaves are not to be treated as slaves:
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
The church is a society where there are no slaves because they have all been adopted into God’s family: no longer as slaves, but as sons and daughters:
Galatians 4:7: “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Because Christ has set us free from our sins, we should not sell ourselves into slavery (1 Cor 7:21), but glory in the truth that we have been liberated from the just sentence of death and hell we deserved.