Today’s Bible Belt is situated mostly in the Old South, where pre-Civil War pastors and plantation owners infamously quoted Scripture in support of slavery. Atheists and skeptics have often pounced on this, claiming that it proves Christianity is immoral at its core, or at least hopelessly behind the times and playing ethical catch-up with the rest of the world. In recent years this accusation has rung especially loudly from prominent “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
It’s an important issue. We have have seen what a scourge upon the earth slavery can be. Who doesn’t shudder when thinking of the way African-Americans were treated in the Old South? Who could imagine God permitting such a thing among His people in the Bible?
The answer, it turns out, is that He didn’t. Slavery in the Bible is a complex issue that takes us into unfamiliar ancient worlds, and scholars who have delved into those worlds have discovered that things are not what they seem on the surface.
Copan reveals a picture of slavery in the Bible that bears almost no resemblance to the Old South’s chattel slavery. Instead it was much more like the indentured servitude we all learned about in our history classes, often with “formal contractual agreements,” such as Jacob’s agreement to work seven years for Laban in return for the opportunity to marry Laban’s daughter.
Old Testament servanthood was distinct from early American slavery in multiple ways, says Copan, including:
It was essentially intended as a means to relieve the poor of their crushing economic burdens. It was salvation from starvation for many.
It was for a limited period of just seven years, after which release was to be complete and final, unless the slave (servant) preferred to stay.
Debt-servants were to be treated with full human dignity.
Injured servants were to be released.
The practice of kidnapping persons to enslave them was outlawed.
Runaway slaves were to be given safe harbor.
So when we read the word slavery in the Bible, we must guard against thinking it’s talking about slavery as it was once practiced in the United States.
The differences between the practices of God’s people and the surrounding culture were equally notable. To quote from Copan’s Enrichment Journal article,
For the first time in the ANE [Ancient Near East], God’s legislation required treating servants (“slaves”) as persons, not property. Genesis 1:26,27 affirms that all humans are God’s image-bearers. Job states that master and slave alike come from the mother’s womb and are ultimately equals (Job 31:13–15). As one scholar writes: “We have in the Bible the first appeals in world literature to treat slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their masters.”
Old Testament codes of servanthood were a major ethical and human advance over slavery as practiced in surrounding ANE culture.
But Why Even That?
Still the question arises: “Even if slavery wasn’t as bad in the Bible as it was in surrounding cultures or in early America, why allow it at all?” The question carries special weight as we move into the New Testament era. Greco-Roman slavery was not moderated by Old Testament considerations of servants’ humanity, and while conditions varied (as they did in the Old South), slavery in Greece and Rome could be quite harsh and dehumanizing.
One would think Jesus and the New Testament writers would have spoken out forcefully against this. In a sense they certainly did, as we’ll see in a moment. But the strength they employed was both subtle and strategic. Copan explains (pages 152-153 in Is God a Moral Monster),
Paul (and Peter) didn’t call for an uprising to overthrow slavery in Rome. They didn’t want the Christian faith to be perceived as opposed to social order and harmony. Hence, Christian slaves were told to do what was right; even if they were mistreated, their conscience would be clear. . . . On the one hand, a slave uprising would do the gospel a disservice and prove a direct threat to an oppressive Roman establishment. . . . Rome would meet any flagrant opposition with speedy, forceful, lethal retaliation.
On the other hand, the early Christians undermined slavery indirectly. . . . Like yeast, such Christlike living could have a gradual leavening effect on society so that oppressive institutions like slavery could finally fall away.
This is unique in history. Stark tells us that as far as he has been able to discover, every culture that has ever had the means to support a slaveholding economy has practiced slavery. And by his research, no culture has ever abolished slavery on its own initiative—none, that is, except for those that have been heavily influenced by Christianity.
When slavery ended in Europe, it wasn’t through a social revolution or a political uprising. It was through people’s changed beliefs and changed hearts. This indirect undermining of slavery was inevitable, given Christianity’s view that every person is created in God’s image and stands equal before God (Galatians 3:28). Jesus’ first sermon in the Gospel of Luke, possibly his first public sermon, was directed against oppression of every kind (Luke 4:18).
This was the strength God applied against slavery. It worked. It changed society so thoroughly and deeply that hardly anyone in the 21st century Western world thinks twice about it: We all abhor and detest slavery. We don’t remember that it was the Gospel working its way through our ancestors’ culture that led us to this stage—but that doesn’t change the fact that it was.
Going Wrong on Slavery
What then shall we make of Southern slaveholders using the Bible to support slavery? It’s simple: They were wrong. Hideously, dreadfully wrong. Carving out various verses for their own convenience, they ignored—and flagrantly violated—multiple clear biblical commands prohibiting slavery as they practiced it. Beyond that, they cast aside all the centuries of progress in economic and spiritual knowledge that had led Christian nations to abandon slavery altogether.
Without a doubt, Christians (or those claiming to be Christians) can commit all kinds of wrongdoing. What happened in the Old South is a serious stain on Christian history, a horror to be confessed as sin and never to be repeated. It was wrong.
And Getting It Right
We ought to consider even that in context, though. Christians do wrong things at times—far more than we should. Slavery in America was one of our lowest points. But the abolition movement also was led by Christians, both in England and America. Christians have led in eliminating slavery everywhere we have gone. Granted, not all Christians have done so. But in the beginning, only Christians—and more recently, others whose cultures have been profoundly influenced by Christianity—did so.
All cultures and religions have practiced slavery if they had the economic means. Only one has eliminated it. That’s telling.
Taking It In Context
Slavery in the Bible is not what it appears to be on the surface. Gaining a true picture of it requires some digging into the Bible’s deep history and context. Atheist accusers haven’t often done this digging—in fact some of them pointedly refuse to do it—something to bear in mind when you hear them claiming the Bible gets everything wrong on slavery.
The Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament era differed from each other, obviously, and both were sharply different from the world we know. We cannot understand their practices without at least some grasp of these cultures’ distinctives. (Surely our age of multiculturalism knows that to be true). We cannot claim to know what the Bible teaches on slavery without taking into account all that it says—not just on slavery but also on economics, social relationships, and what it means to be human.
Paul Copan has done us a distinct service by collecting so much of that perspective into one volume, showing us that far from being a “moral monster,” God is good, and far from being morally backward, God’s Word has led the world forward toward human freedom.
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