Believers in Christ as their savior often have such an intense commitment to seeing God as perfectly just and good that they are unable to see what many parts of the Bible overtly teach.
This article provides a very detailed account of how many, many biblical passages approve of slavery. It also thoroughly demonstrates the ways these texts affected church history and the abolition movement.
Not one verse in the Bible advocates for ending the practice of owning another person. A possible exception can be found in the early chapters of Exodus where the Old Testament God intends to free his people from slavery in Egypt. This does not mean much, given that after being led out of Egypt the Jews were taught by God in great detail (Exodus 21) exactly how to keep Jewish slaves as indentured servants or chattel, depending on the circumstances. What is equally distressing to modern readers is that God gave the Jews explicit instructions in Leviticus 25:44-46 on the procedure for buying foreign slaves and keeping them and their children as chattel property for life. Also in the Torah, there is an example of God telling the Jews that they must keep the survivors of the Promised Land conquests as chattel slaves, especially the women (Deuteronomy 20:10-18, 21:10-11). A section in Isaiah 14:1-2 announces that the Jews are promised a future in which they will enslave all other people groups of the world. They “will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the Lord’s land”. The New Testament continues this trend of approved human subjugation with multiple stories by Jesus about slavery, including where he declares the relationship between God and humankind to be like the connection between earthly masters and slaves. He makes no criticism of slavery. He speaks as if the institution is normal and acceptable, even saying that God and human masters are justified in torturing disobedient slaves (Matthew 18:21-35). The writings of the apostles Paul and Peter include commanding slaves in five different books to obey their masters with reverence, fear, respect, sincerity, and love as if toward Christ, even when the slave owner is harsh. Slaves are to try and please their owners at all times, not just when being observed (Ephesians 6:5-6, Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Peter 2:18). The enslaved are directed to work even harder for Christian masters, since they are fellow believers. “Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding….Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth.” (1 Timothy 6:1-5a) Christians are “slaves of God”. (Romans 6:16-23)
Owning another person is radically inhumane. It belongs in the same general ethical category as murder, rape, torture, and child molestation. In fact, these horrible actions are far more likely to happen in a chattel or indentured slave system. There is no friendly or morally acceptable form of slavery.
Chattel slavery based on race for all non-Hebrew people (non-Jews, gentiles) was approved directly by God:
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)
The Torah does not provide a way for a female or male slave from a foreign land to enter into a temporary forced labor contract. The section devoted to the acquisition and treatment of indentured servants, Exodus 21, is only applicable to Hebrews.
Many passages in the Bible give instruction on how to treat non-Jews very differently and much more harshly. A wide range of these text excerpts are included in this article. Let us consider several definitions of “race” to make sure that my charge of racism against various biblical laws and commands is justified:
each of the major groupings into which humankind is considered (in various theories or contexts) to be divided on the basis of physical characteristics or shared ancestry
a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group
a group of people descended from a common ancestor
As stated above in Leviticus 25:44-46, enslaved Hebrews were to be handled more kindly than foreign slaves. Yet, the Bible says these members of God’s chosen people group that were in bondage could be dealt with through great brutality:
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NASB)
Permanent slavery was the only possible situation for Hebrew wives and children of male Hebrew slaves that were given a wife by their masters. After finishing indentured servitude, a condition of slavery for life was also the only choice for a Hebrew slave husband that wanted to stay married to a wife given to him while under bondage. The standard maximum length of indentured servitude for a Hebrew male was 6 years:
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, “I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.” If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT)
Permanent slavery for Hebrew female slaves was the required condition if their fathers sold them into slavery:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. (Exodus 21:7 NLT)
The two quotes above from Exodus legitimized the permanent enslavement of a female citizen from the home nation. This was much worse than slavery in the Southern United States during the early 1800s, where such a thing was illegal and considered to be morally reprehensible. For a much more in-depth comparison of this type specifically, one can investigate Nathan Andersen’s article, “Slave Systems of the Old Testament and the American South: A Study in Contrasts.”
If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord. With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven. (Leviticus 19:20-22 NIV)
Here is another example of the widespread patterns of misogyny in the Bible:
When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. (Deuteronomy 21:10-11 NIV)
As the conservative evangelical Christian web site “Theology of Work” says regarding the Bible’s teachings on slavery:
The protection against permanent enslavement also did not apply to foreigners (Lev. 25:44-46). Men taken in war were considered plunder and became the perpetual property of their owners. Women and girls captured in war, who were apparently the vast majority of captives (Num. 31:9-11, 32-35; Deut 20:11-14), faced the same situation as female slaves of Hebrew origin (Deut. 21:10-14), including permanent enslavement. Slaves could also be purchased from surrounding nations (Eccl. 2:7), and nothing protected them against perpetual slavery.
Conservative evangelical scholar Paul Copan acknowledges some inequities between Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves and free persons:
[T]he Pentateuch’s legal code in places does differentiate between Israelite and non-Israelite slaves (for example, Exod. 12:43, where non-Israelites are not to partake in the Passover); it grants remitting loans to Israelites but not to foreigners (Deut. 15:3); it allows for exacting interest from a foreigner but not from a fellow Israelite (Deut. 23:20); Moabites and Ammonites are excluded from the sanctuary (Deut. 23:3).
If a bull attacks and kills a free person, the penalty for the bull’s owner is much higher (potentially any amount) than if a slave is killed:
If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death. However, if payment is demanded, the owner may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded. This law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter. If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death. (Exodus 21:28-32 NIV)
In Isaiah 14, the Bible promises a future in which God’s people will make permanent captives of all other groups on Earth. It originates as a prophecy of revenge on a neighboring empire, but expands to oppress the rest of humanity. Many study bibles and commentaries have titled this section of Isaiah as something like “Israel’s Taunt Against Babylon” because the text includes a Jewish song of mockery and retribution against their former masters. In verses 1-2, the lines just before the song, it foretells that the Jews will make slaves of all other nations, not just the Babylonians that held them in captivity for about half of the 6th century BCE:
But the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land; and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob. And the nations will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the Lord’s land; they will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them. (Isaiah 14:1-2 NRSV)
Some Christians point to differences between English translations of the Old Testament that use “servant” instead of “slave” in certain instances. They claim that servants did not suffer as much as slaves. This all depends on what the Hebrew law communicates specifically in each verse, passage, and context. Within the Old Testament, the exact word “servant” appears over 300 times for the New American Standard Bible and more than 700 times in the New International Version. It is very common for the word “servant”, “slave”, or similar terms to have originated from a translation of the ancient Hebrew term “ebed,” which comes from another Hebrew word “abad.” Both describe a wide range of servitude in various types. Most of the verses quoted in this article that contain the word “slave” include the term “ebed” or “abad” in the original ancient Hebrew. The English word “slave” can also be derived from other Hebrew words like “šip̄·ḥāh” in Leviticus 19:20 (quoted above). The Jewish Encyclopedia states, “The Hebrew word ‘ebed’ really means ‘slave’; but the English Bible renders it ‘servant.'” So, the verse below, that translates “servant” for “abad,” stating that the Jews are God’s “servants”, really means that they are his slaves. They are God’s property, his chattel:
For the sons of Israel are My servants; they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 25:55 NASB)
Believers will often point out that the Old Testament includes prohibitions against 1) kidnapping and 2) returning a runaway slave to their master.
1) How a person enters the slave system is far less important morally than the fact that such an institution exists at all in a society governed by a supposedly just and loving God. The laws against kidnapping are in passages that discuss Hebrew slavery, not foreign slaves. They certainly do not advocate for the destruction of the slavery system in Israel:
Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession. (Exodus 21:16 NIV)
If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 24:7 NIV)
Many foreigners were enslaved during the conquest of the Promised Land, by God’s explicit direction:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:10-18 NIV)
2) It is vital to recognize that the quote below refers to runaway slaves from other nations. This can be easily seen as a way for Israel to strike out against their neighbors. With less resources by way of forced laborers, those other societies would be weakened:
When runaway slaves from other countries come to Israel and ask for protection, you must not hand them back to their owners. Instead, you must let them choose which one of your towns they want to live in. Don’t be cruel to runaway slaves. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16 CEV)
Many believers claim that ancient slavery in the Jewish or Mediterranean context generally was not as harsh as was for slaves in North America during the 16th-19th centuries. It is pointed out that in Roman society, slaves were sometimes freed and, unlike in colonial America, could move up in social rank. That is certainly more positive than permanent ownership. But, this does not lessen the injustice built into the concept of owning people, whether in the form of chattel slavery or indentured servitude. The vast majority of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern slaves could legally be treated quite harshly and were in fact expendable property. They had no legal status as persons and very little, if any, protection against harm from their masters.
There is ample historical evidence showing that chattel slavery in the Middle East (also known generally as the Ancient Near East) during the Old Testament era was quite common, and often as brutal and inhumane as the types of bondage that existed in 16th-19th century North America or within the Roman Empire. Long before the Jews encountered the Romans, they were surrounded by large empires that depended on vast labor forces made up of chattel and other types of slaves: Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, etc. Great portions of these slave populations were taken through military conquest. They, and their children, were often traded or sold to various owners throughout the region. The practice of owning human beings was thought to be normal or natural in those cultures. See the section below from Daniel Snell’s chapter in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 1. It is titled, “Slavery in the Ancient Near East”:
The sources of slaves who were not debt slaves were beyond the central Mesopotamian area. In Nuzi in Northern Iraq, slaves were frequently but not always from the ethnic group called Lullubians, perhaps located in the mountains beyond Nuzi….
The Phoenicians in their seafaring heyday were said to be notoriously good at kidnapping people to be transported to distant lands as slaves….
The most interesting of the slaves under the Assyrians may have been the eunuchs….may have been the ‘ultimate slaves’, persons who were alienated from their pasts and who could have no future offspring.…
In the Neo-Babylonian period (605–333 BCE), there is a wealth of documentation about slaves, working in three capacities. First, there was a small number of royal slaves who did menial jobs in the palace and who had no chance of catching the eye or the favour of their master. It is not clear how a slave became a royal slave. Perhaps such slaves were prisoners of war retained by the king. Then there were slaves as janitors owned by the temples, which continued to be economic as well as religious centres. In this case the master was not even a real person, but a god, and so preferential treatment or manumission seemed to be impossible. Finally, the largest and best-known group of slaves were those owned by private persons. Among them we see great variety in the tasks performed, from agriculture to loan-sharking….
One became a slave by getting caught as a prisoner of war, being sold as a debt-slave, or, in the case of the temple slaves, being ‘dedicated’ by a family overwhelmed by crop failure and unable to continue caring for a child….
The literate Near East had at least two thousand years’ experience of slavery by the time the Greeks under Alexander arrived with their own take on the institution. And the varieties of experience slaves had has been rivalled only in the two thousand years since.
About a dozen scholars from the University of Chicago’s faculty contributed to a text on the same general topic, Slaves and Households in the Near East. Regarding slavery in ancient Mesopotamia, they note:
As a rule, a wealthy family in Ur III Babylonia owned at least one or two slaves.
Raymond Westbrook describes the overall condition of slaves in this region in his article, “Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law”:
The legal systems of the ancient Near East recognized persons as a category of property that might be owned by private individuals. It was pursuant to the normal rights of ownership that a master could exploit the slave’s labor, restrict his freedom, and alienate him.
Two times in the New Testament book of Matthew, Jesus expresses his perspective that the connection between God and humanity is analogous to a human master and his slaves. In his “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” (Matthew 18:21-35) and “Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants” (Matthew 24:36-51), he has clear opportunities to reject the institution of slavery and call it immoral. Instead, the practice of slavery is used as a teaching model to show people how they should interact with him, the Father, and the Spirit. The “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” even describes an owner presenting a whole family of slaves for sale in order to pay off the debt of the father. The master has compassion for the father and forgives the money owed, but later that father is very harsh to someone that owed him money. Jesus finishes this story by saying: “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Not only is slavery justified, but so is torture. Further, Jesus never said the Old Testament God did anything wrong regarding slavery or anything else. Why? One reason is because in New Testament theology (John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17) and core Christian belief (Nicene Creed), Jesus is the Old Testament God (along with the other members of the Trinity: the Father and the Spirit). In Matthew 5:17-19, he said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the context of a massive system of bondage within the Roman Empire that included a lot of chattel slavery, the New Testament repeatedly commands believers on how to treat slaves. But, these writings make no hint toward the abolition of slavery or the utter lack of authentic moral justification for it:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. (Ephesians 6:5-6 NLT)
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. (Colossians 3:22 NIV)
Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding. Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions. These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. (1 Timothy 6:1-5a NLT)
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18 NIV)
We can see that Christian masters are instructed to treat their slaves well. The problem is: slaves are still not free. The New Testament precepts regarding slavery can be considered worse than that for many Hebrew male slaves in the Old Testament. This is because New Testament slavery includes no term limits and Christians can permanently enslave fellow believers. The institution of slavery creates an environment, a legal scenario, where all forms of abuse can be taken out upon the slave and no consequences of a substantial level will be directed towards the slave owner.
Believers will sometimes point to the Apostle Paul’s appeal to a Christian slave owner in the New Testament book of Philemon, saying that this is a forward step toward freeing slaves in later generations. A slave named Onesimus has run away and Paul writes to the master to ask that he treat the captive well upon receiving him back into his household. Paul did not offer a subtle or overt condemnation of the practice. He praises the virtuous behavior of Philemon, the slave owner:
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. (Philemon 4-7 NIV)
Paul attempts to satisfy the wishes of Philemon and then requests good treatment for Onesimus, without any indication of freedom. Instead, he uses the phrase, “that you might have him back forever”:
I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. (Philemon 14-16 NIV)
In Rome, slaves were considered to be subhuman, or at least as considerably less valuable in practice than the people that owned them. Aristotle, the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher, greatly admired by the Romans and a vast number of prominent Christian theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, claimed that slaves were born into their position because it was their appropriate destiny, as part of the normal way that nature operated. He stated:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…
And indeed the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different; for both with their bodies minister to the needs of life.
They were to be used in a similar way that a farmer treats livestock. He asserted that “the slave is a living tool and the tool a lifeless slave.”
Regarding what slavery was like in the Roman Empire, the government and culture which dominated a large part of the social and political context for each New Testament book, see the descriptions below from historians.
From the “Slavery in the Roman World” article in the World History Encyclopedia:
Slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves and upon this foundation of forced labour was built the entire edifice of the Roman state and society….Slavery, that is complete mastery (dominium) of one individual over another, was so imbedded in Roman culture that slaves became almost invisible and there was certainly no feeling of injustice in this situation on the part of the rulers….it was believed that the freedom of some was only possible because others were enslaved. Slavery, was, therefore, not considered an evil but a necessity by Roman citizens. The fact that slaves were taken from the losers in battle (and their subsequent offspring) was also a helpful justification and confirmation of Rome’s (perceived) cultural superiority and divine right to rule over others and exploit those persons for absolutely any purpose whatsoever. Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak….The lot of agricultural slaves (vincti) was probably one of the worst as they were usually housed in barrack buildings (ergastula) in poor, prison-like conditions and often kept in chains. Pompeii has revealed such work gangs chained together in death as they were in life. Other skeletal remains from Pompeii have also revealed the chronic arthritis and distortion of limbs that could only have been produced by extreme overwork and malnutrition….There was, at least for a small minority, the possibility of a slave achieving freedom to become a freedman or woman, and this incentive was fully exploited by slave owners.
From the book, The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History (Seventh Edition), by D. Brendan Nagle (page 229):
The Roman family often included not just parents and their unmarried children but also their slaves, their freedmen, and the offspring of both. The Romans were liberal in their manumission policies, so in many households slaves had a good chance of winning their freedom (or at times of purchasing it) and becoming Roman citizens. However, even after manumission, family ties persisted. In the eyes of the law, a slave had no father, and on manumission the freedman took the name of the former owner….Slave marriages existed but were not recognized as legal…Slaves could purchase other slaves. When a male slave purchased a female slave as a wife, she actually had the status of being a personal slave to her husband, though strictly speaking she belonged to his master because everything a slave owned belonged to the slave’s owner [including any children from the slave marriage]….Roman families that possessed slaves – a fairly large segment of the population because not only the rich but even the middle classes owned slaves. Also, to balance this fairly benign picture it should be added that slavery in rural areas, especially on large estates or in the mines, could take a much harsher form. In the countryside, where slaves worked in chain gangs, manumission was quite unlikely. Their slaves were exploited to the maximum and were often treated with great cruelty, from which there was no escape except flight, death or, very rarely, revolt.
The Judeo-Christian God is outrageously barbaric a great many times in Scripture. This trait is integrated into the most intimate aspects of his relationship with humanity. For example, Christians are considered as slaves in relation to Christ:
Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:16-23 NIV)
The Apostle Paul says above that he is “using an example from everyday life.” People in the ancient world knew well what slavery was like, either by observation or direct experience. Slavery was prevalent in most places on Earth for most of human history. Europe during the Middle Ages has been considered as a temporary exception to this in many older history books, as serfdom was thought to have replaced slavery after the western section of the Roman Empire gradually collapsed. However, this belief turns out to be wrong. Hannah Barker, a historian writing for Oxford Bibliographies in a 2019 article, “Slavery in Medieval Europe”, noted that chattel slavery, along with serfdom, was very common in Europe from Roman era all the way through the early modern period. Previous historians overlooked a lot of evidence on this issue. Barker provides many scholarly references there in support of the claim. She explains that the false belief “derives from the late-18th- and 19th-century abolitionist assumption that as Christianity spread through Europe during the Middle Ages, it must surely have driven out slavery. Among scholars, this common knowledge is sometimes reinforced by Marxist historical narratives, according to which slavery was the mode of production characteristic of the Roman period, while serfdom characterized the medieval period. Yet into the 14th and 15th centuries, medieval Europeans continued to own slaves, trade in slaves, and enslave each other as well as non-European others. They used slaves for agricultural and artisanal labor as well as domestic, sexual, reproductive, and military service.” Serfdom was a somewhat lighter form of bondage than traditional slavery, yet still very inhumane and exploitative. It wasn’t chosen for moral reasons by Christians in this region. This model was used because of that era’s social and economic system: feudalism. In this age of European history dominated by the Church, human bondage existed on a massive scale. Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “As serfs, they could not marry, change occupations, or move without the permission of their lords, to whom they were required to give a major portion of their harvest. The development of centralized political power, the labour shortage caused by the Black Death, and endemic peasant uprisings in the 14th and 15th centuries led to the gradual emancipation of serfs in western Europe.” So, it was not spiritual reform that ended serfdom for the western side of the continent. Britannica notes elsewhere, “Serfs were often harshly treated and had little legal redress against the actions of their lords. A serf could become a freedman only through manumission, enfranchisement, or escape.”
The Encyclopedia of European Social History states that “with the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of steady supplies of slaves, a homegrown version was devised that took some though not all the elements of slavery by evolving new ways of tying labor to the land….Christian theology made its peace with the physical bondage of slavery and serfdom by stressing the freedom of the soul….servitude was treated as the consequence of sin.” The post-Columbus era saw almost no resistance among believers to the practice. In fact, two major leaders of the 18th century’s Great Awakening, a significant milestone in the history of American evangelical Christianity, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, were pro-slavery. Edwards owned slaves, as did Whitefield. The latter advocated with great commitment and success on a campaign to legalize chattel slavery in Georgia, the only English colony where it had not been allowed (because the state’s original charter business model focused on the use of indentured servants directly from England). According to Encyclopedia Virginia, Whitefield appealed to owners for good treatment of African slaves and yet did not question the morality of slavery itself: “Rather than encourage slaves to run away, Whitefield argued, Christian views would make them better slaves. In the end, Whitefield himself owned a plantation and slaves in South Carolina, but his message of salvation for slaves became typical of white southern evangelicals.”
Pro-slavery tracts were very often written by American ministers, at first largely in the North and later in the South. Historically, the existence of more than two dozen passages from the Old and New Testaments that reveal the acceptability and normalcy of slavery have made it easy to put forth sound and valid arguments regarding the legal and moral legitimacy of the practice and institution. Consider these quotes from Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 by historian Larry Tise:
The antebellum period was the golden age of the religious press, when the nation was flooded with tracts, books, and newspapers issued from clergymen’s pens. In the lead of those who used and perfected the religious press to dispense new, editorial opinion, and social philosophy stood proslavery clergymen. (page 166)
Those clergymen who defended slavery possessed the prejudices and aspiration of most other Americans. An overwhelming number of the ministers were slaveholders and plantation owners with aspirations to expand their agricultural interests and income. (page 170)
Tise states that there were very few proslavery tracts printed until shortly before the American Revolution. Up until then, virtually everyone accepted slavery as normative:
The forces that gave rise to nascent antislavery did not become apparent until the last third of the eighteenth century when events and ideas associated with the American Revolution began to challenge the future of slavery on a massive scale. (page 15)
Thus, the paucity of early American proslavery literature resulted neither from the absence of proslavery notions nor from any indisposition toward upholding slavery. What was missing was the need to defend an institution that nearly everyone took for granted….Lacking any widespread opposition to slavery, its defense was usually sporadic and local. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published defenses almost always appeared in direct response to specific antislavery tracts and for all practical purposes ended the debate. Not until the decade before the American Revolution did anything like an extended intercolonial and international debate on slavery get under way. (page 16)
Devout readers of any religious scriptures will likely attempt to thoroughly follow its examples. If the texts do not clearly indicate how a sophisticated or alternative interpretation is needed, then the plain meaning will be received. This is what typically happened regarding the Bible and slavery. Leading Christian theologians and ministers did not see a reason to join an abolitionist movement until the late 1700s or beyond. This occurred after the Enlightenment (1685-1815) had begun to shift the mindset of many intellectuals and politicians in Europe and America toward judging the slave trade and institution as immoral. There was no wide scale debate about the ethics of slavery anywhere in the world until the 1770s, when the topic of natural rights equally for all individual human beings started to inspire new and radical political upheavals in North America and later in Europe and the Caribbean. These ideas, along with related philosophical and humanitarian analyses and beliefs, altered from earlier Greco-Roman and Christian traditions and specifically developed into new forms during the 18th century European Enlightenment, spread and impacted power structures around the planet during the next two centuries. Abolitionists within Christian communities faced tremendous opposition from the overwhelming majority of believers equipped with an abundance of biblical texts in support of slavery.
Beginning in early Christianity, there were leaders every few centuries that voiced concern over slavery or said that it was wrong or harsh, such as Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394). Church father Ambrose of Milan (339-397) stated that, as a charitable religious act, Christians should be diligent in ransoming slaves that are fellow believers, but not the infidels (Muslims) or pagan barbarians. In 1975, Roman Catholic historian John Francis Maxwell wrote Slavery and the Catholic Church: The history of Catholic teaching concerning the moral legitimacy of the institution of slavery. He explained that for over 1400 years, until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Roman Catholic popes, bishops, and moral philosophers authored or approved rigorous justifications for the existence and practice of slavery.
Another meticulously researched book on the much of the same topic was written in 2017 by priest and church historian Pius Onyemechi Adiele. It was titled, The Popes, the Catholic Church and the Transatlantic Enslavement of Black Africans 1418-1839. In a section called, “The Church’s Acceptance of Slavery as a Divine Institution”, Adiele summarized the theological reasons as to why leaders in his religious tradition over two millennia condoned the practice of owing human beings as chattel (page 407):
The Church’s acceptance of the institution of slavery as a positive good is founded on two main pillars namely: the Pauline teaching on slavery and the servant of God title of Jesus Christ found in (Isaiah 53: 1-2)….The teachings contained therein made the Church to accept slavery and preached to the enslaved to accept their condition of life as a way of emulating Christ, who, though was God but had to empty Himself by taking up the form of a slave and became obedient even unto death (Phil. 2: 6-11). This position made the Church not to find ways of eliminating slavery, but rather led her to make effort to give it a humanitarian face by preaching to both masters and slaves using Pauline language, to remain in the status, in which they were before God called them to the faith in Christ (1 Cor. 7: 17-24) and to fulfil their duties and obligations to one another (Col. 3: 22-24; Eph. 6: 5-8; Col. 4:1; Eph. 6: 9, etc.). The implication of this, is that slavery was accepted as an institution willed by God and as a necessary part of the social order of things in the human society.
Both Maxwell and Adiele describe the official decrees (papal bulls) issued by various popes that authorized the enslavement of people in different global regions.
Similar pro-slavery content can be found in writings by leaders in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Protestant denominations. Historical and cultural sociologist Orlando Patterson’s text, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, remarks: “The Orthodox church, according to Richard Hellie, ‘condoned, and in fact, encouraged, the enslavement of Orthodox by Orthodox,’ and it did not object to the enslavement of Orthodox Christians by members of other faiths.” Helie was a scholar of medieval and early modern Russian history. Another book, historian Katharine Gerbner’s Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World, claims, “It was through the mouths of ministers that the brutal slave laws…were enunciated, year after year.” Anti-slavery writers belonged to a very tiny minority in church history. Their views were not adopted by groups of Christians until the 17th century Quakers.
Believers often point to the denomination of the Quakers as leaders in the abolition movement. The National Park Service explains, “The 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition against slavery was the first protest against African American slavery made by a religious body in the English colonies.” Consider the timing of this: at the beginning of the Enlightenment and at almost the same historical moment as England’s 1688-89 Glorious Revolution when John Locke was writing about natural rights in his Second Treatise of Government. New visions of human rights were ruminating in pockets within Europe and America. PBS notes, “In 1776, Quakers were prohibited from owning slaves, and 14 years later they petitioned the U.S. Congress for the abolition of slavery.” The majority of them were pro-slavery until the mid-1700s, long after Enlightenment humanism had begun to change the ethical views of various intellectuals. Gerbner has noted that the 1688 document was written by Quakers of Dutch and German descent, but not signed by members of this sect from an English background. She clarified this in an interview by stating, “The protest was fascinating, but I quickly became more interested in the fact that it was rejected by the English Quakers in Philadelphia.” As Encyclopedia.com describes the Quaker movement against slavery: “The early history of antislavery in America consisted primarily of the agitation of certain British and American Quakers, but even in this group antislavery sentiments grew slowly because many wealthy Quakers were slave-holders. Only by the mid-1700s, when the Society of Friends faced a severe internal crisis brought on by the effects of the Great Awakening and the Seven Years War, did opposition to slavery increase measurably among Quakers. It was not until the 1780s that the major Quaker meetings could announce that their membership was free of slaveholders.” A similar conclusion can be drawn from a summary given in an interview with Gerbner: “Some of the first ‘antislavery’ Quakers, like Morgan Godwyn, actually based their arguments on racist claims, and encouraged Friends to exclude Africans from their households completely. Conversely, slave-owning Quakers sometimes went farther than others in arguing for spiritual equality – but they did so in order to defend slavery. Recognizing the complexities of early Quaker debates on slavery helps to explain why it took a century for Friends to disown slave-owners in their meetings.” Even the characteristic trait of pacifism in Quaker tradition was not present at the start in their founder George Fox’s initial belief system.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the famous English abolitionist and Christian, is often brought up as an example of Christianity producing a movement against slavery. The main problem with this view is that nearly everyone in Europe and America was a Christian in his lifetime, the vast majority of whom were not against the practice. A minuscule amount of believers had opposed slavery in the more than 1300 years of Christianity since the Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE/AD. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, European abolitionists often learned that appeals based in Scripture did not help their cause because the applicable verses so rigidly supported the institution of slavery. Many of these activists by necessity began primarily using argument styles grounded in 17th-18th century secular Enlightenment humanist ideas, such as that human dignity was based in natural rights common to all people. The Open University’s course on Wilberforce notes that some reasons why his efforts succeeded “included the advance of liberal ideas of justice and toleration, themselves reflecting the influence of the Enlightenment, which increasingly made the oppression of Africans seem less acceptable.” One major reason that it took Wilberforce 46 years to convince his countrymen to complete the abolition process in the British Empire was because nearly all of the clergy, government leadership, and the general public stood firmly on the view that slavery and racial inequality were natural, culturally normative, and biblical. Along with their Christian ancestors for hundreds of years that created and sustained New World colonial slavery with biblical justifications, social and religious conservatives in England and America were among the main forces that resisted 18th and 19th century abolition laws. During Wilberforce’s sustained and vigorous campaigns of activism, it took 20 years (1787-1807) to get the slave trade legally ended and another 26 years (1807-1833) to make slavery itself illegal. While remembering the surplus of Bible verses that directly undergird the practice of slavery, we can ask: Why would an entirely good and loving Judeo-Christian God provide such a “misleading” revelation such that almost the totality of the biblically literate Christian population since the New Testament was written has believed that chattel slavery was acceptable? Or is it more likely that modern Christians developed a more acutely humanitarian sensibility because of the widespread rise of Enlightenment-inspired humanist ideas and social movements?
Much of the domesticated and much more humane forms of Christianity that have become increasingly popular in the last two centuries began in the Enlightenment. To see this, one can simply compare the social and often moral views of pre-modern theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, to leading theologians in the 20th and 21st century. The distinct transformations of Western culture that occurred during the early modern time period through to our modern era radically changed what had seemed before like obviously correct interpretations and applications of biblical teachings. In many ways, Christian ethics became less like the Bible and more compatible with Enlightenment humanism.
Conservative evangelical pastor and theologian, Tony Evans, explains in an article titled, “Are Black People Cursed? The Curse of Ham”:
The Puritans were attempting to turn America into the ‘city set on a hill,’ the manifestation of the prophesied kingdom of God on earth. Slavery provided an economic base for implementing this theology, even among some of the theological and religious heroes of the colonial era. Some of the noted New England leaders who endorsed this perspective of slavery were George Whitefield, John Davenport, Ezra Stiles, and Jonathan Edwards. They attempted to teach the slaves to docilely accept their inferior status, for to do so was the will of God. To fail to do so was to rebel against God and risk eternal punishment.
Colonialism and imperialism were dominant in a vast number of Christian and non-Christian societies throughout almost all of world history. These were oppressive and exploitative by design. Slavery fit naturally in these systems.
I mention several facts about democracies and republics below because their natural opposites, empires, and the practice of slavery go hand-in-hand. The word “empire” is directly related to the term “imperialism” and originates from the ancient Roman Latin “imperare.” It means “to command.” Slavery did exist in many democracies and republics, but the moral basis of slavery is incompatible with the ideals they appeal to: equality, political freedom, dignity, human welfare, civil debate, factually based policies, humanitarianism, free expression, cooperation, intellectual autonomy, and unity. Empires and all other forms of autocracy, in contrast, are founded and operated within norms of exploitation, inequality, violence, indoctrination, political domination, intellectual restriction, and propaganda centered on blatant falsehoods.
As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “remarkably few people found the institution of slavery to be unnatural or immoral until the second half of the 18th century. Until that time Christians commonly thought of sin as a kind of slavery rather than slavery itself as a sin. When concern was expressed for slaves, it was for their good care, not for their unfree status.” The new way of thinking was grounded in a reference to human dignity and worth over and above whatever powers that God had granted to monarchs. If the full example of the Bible with its occasional emphasis on all humans being made in the image of God was sufficient enough to appear as a consistent teaching, then more than a thousand years of Christian dominated regions would not have continually produced autocracies in the form of kings and queens claiming the divine right to rule. When Christianity dominated the Western world, so did the oppressive and inhumane politics of imperialism and colonialism, just as had existed for millennia before Christ. There were very few critics of these systems. Notice that the common existence of democracies and republics appeared after the Enlightenment. The leaders of European royal dictatorships, along with numerous respected Christian theologians and philosophers, based the principle of the divine right of kings on biblical precedents such as the monarchs of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament and teachings like that found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. The latter text was composed within the social and political context of a very harsh and often unethical government, the Roman Empire:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1-2 NIV)
We can find the same type of viewpoint in writings by the Apostle Peter:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17 NIV)
The scriptural precedent is that of theocratic monarchy or some other form of authoritarianism. The Bible does not advocate for democracy or republicanism as superior political frameworks to autocracies or theocracies. Greece and Rome had already utilized early forms of democracy and republicanism hundreds of years before Christ. There were also quasi-democratic governments that existed in many places around the world before contact with the influence of those ancient southern European societies. Regions included in this group were Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Africa, India, Australia, and Iceland. This is explained in detail through a book edited by scholars Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell, “The Secret History of Democracy.”
The Bible’s teachings on slavery and the typical ways that modern Christians defend it are quite shameful and dishonest. This fits clearly within a pattern of deception and manipulation that characterizes a very significant portion of the Scriptures and the ways they are justified and presented today. The texts in several places indicate that human beings have great dignity and worth because they are made in the image of God and yet frequently treat them like they are disposable things, only valuable if fitting with God’s plans for glorifying his name. A few of the many strong examples of this can be found in the doctrine of hell, the Genesis flood, genocides during conquest of the Promised Land, and the permanent enslavement of non-Hebrew people groups. Defenders of these aspects of the Bible try to convince us that what we are plainly reading is not what is actually there. They keep trying to justify, explain away, and restate what the Bible has already said in its consistent habits of barbarism.
For very detailed, yet accessible, treatments of the Bible’s view of slavery by two scholars with differing viewpoints, see these resources:
Thom Stark responded to Copan’s text with a free book-length document, Is God A Moral Compromiser?
The Apostle Paul makes it clear that we have no right to evaluate the morality of God:
But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9: 20-21 NIV)
God abrasively puts Job in his place, as a creature that should not be challenging the ethical standards intrinsic to the designer of the universe:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! (Job 38:4-5a NIV)
Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? (Job 40:2a NIV)