Does the Bible allow for slavery?
No, the Bible does not condone slavery. The Bible acknowledges slavery's existence and regulates it in the Old Testament and plants the seeds of its demise in the New. Both testaments give instructions to slave holders regarding slavery (Deuteronomy 15:12-15; Leviticus 25:39-46; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1). While Paul mentions the preference of freedom over slavery, he doesn't place a great deal of importance on the issue (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). To Paul, spiritual status is much more important than social standing. He gladly identifies himself as a slave of Christ (Romans 1:1), and the purpose of his entire letter to Philemon is to restore Philemon's relationship to his runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Philemon was to receive "both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord" (Philemon 1:16 NIV).
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There were two basic types of slaves in biblical times. The first were those taken in war. The clever Gibeonites avoided war altogether by offering themselves as servants to the Israelites (Joshua 9). The more common slave was one who had voluntarily sold himself or had been sold by his or her parents to pay off a debt. In a time devoid of extensive government aid or social services—or excessive credit card offers—pledging one's work was legitimate currency. In some cases, however, a debtor's labor was needed for the survival of his family, and hard choices had to be made. If a father dedicated all his work to pay off a debt, he would be unable to provide for his own family; rather than risk the whole family starving, a man would often give the creditor a child who would work the debt off. The family would survive, and the child sold into slavery would at least have his basic needs met (see 2 Kings 4:1).
If the debt was excessive, or if the servant liked his situation, the slave became the permanent property of the master. If the slave was Jew, however, God instructed owners to treat him as a hired man (Leviticus 25:39-40). And, just as God provided for the widow and orphan, He also cared for the slave. The Mosaic Law gave slaves the right of Sabbath (Exodus 23:12), required significant compensation for abuse (Exodus 21:20, 26-27, 32), gave specific protection for women (Exodus 21:7-11), and commanded that all slaves be set free on the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-41). Job asserts that God not only holds him accountable for his slaves' well-being, but God actually sees no difference between the master and slave (Job 31:13-15). Often, if a man had no heir, his property passed on to his slave (Genesis 15:2-3). These concessions do not condone the practice of one human being owning another, but they do provide for the care and support of those unable to support themselves.
It is clear that the slavery mentioned in the Bible was quite different from the slavery practiced during the last several hundred years. The slavery of the Bible was more akin to indentured servitude than modern-day slavery. The Bible's punishment for kidnapping someone and keeping or selling him was death—in other words, involuntary slavery was a capital offense (Exodus 21:16). The systematic kidnapping and enslaving of countless Africans in the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries was absolutely unbiblical. Paul specifically mentions "slave traders" and calls them lawless, rebellious, ungodly, unholy, and profane (1 Timothy 1:8-10).
The problem of slavery has not gone away. There are more slaves in the world today than at all other times in history combined. Today we call it "human trafficking," and it is just as evil as it was when the New World was being colonized.
It's suspected that revenue from human trafficking surpasses that from illegal arms trading and will soon overtake drug trafficking to become the top illegal industry in the world. Approximately 27 million people today are victims of human trafficking. Fifty percent are children; eighty percent are women and girls. In the U.S. alone, 200,000 children are at risk of sexual exploitation every year.
This abuse is the antithesis of biblical care for indentured servants. During the past few centuries, some in the church bowed to expediency and economy and rejected the Bible's guidelines protecting the most vulnerable members of society. Some people condemn the Bible for not abolishing slavery outright. However, the primary goal of the gospel was not sweeping social change but individual spiritual change. When enough hearts are changed, society will change. All it takes is enough Philemons to see a slave "as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord," and slavery as an institution would disappear. If the world followed the Bible, the millions of sex-trafficking victims would be freed and cared for, and the vast majority of labor-trafficking victims would be home with their families.
Slavery occurs because of a need, real or perceived. In biblical times, the need was the repayment of family debts. Today, the "need" is cheap goods and cheap sex. The statutes in the Bible specifically speak against the abuse of anyone, including slaves. The Bible also promotes fair labor practices (1 Timothy 5:18) and healthy sexual relationships (1 Corinthians 7:2). At every turn, God's laws are for our protection. If we followed those laws and truly loved others (1 John 3:16), modern slavery would naturally be abolished.
Why was slavery allowed in the Old Testament?
Why was slavery allowed in the New Testament?
What does the Bible say about civil disobedience?
Why does God let innocent people suffer?
Is the Bible still relevant today?
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