BreakPoint Columns

The Question of Slavery

Worldview and You

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.

What Did Slavery Mean in the Bible?

One of those scholars is Paul Copan, professor of philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and author of the recently released Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Much of his material on slavery is also accessible on the Web in his article “Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? An Overview,” the first of a series in progress at Enrichment Journal.

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.

Christianity’s Unique Contribution

Slavery did in fact fall away under Christianity’s influence. Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, recounts the story in his magnificent 2004 book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. A curious thing happened in Europe during the centuries following Jesus Christ, he says: Slavery went 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.

Resources for Study:

Mentioned above:

Also, relevant chapters in:


Tom Gilson is editor of Thinking Christian.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


Killer Shrew,

Paul Copan deals with your questions in his book. It was more than I could include in this abbreviated article. The short answer to your questions and issues is that there is no short answer. Ancient Near East culture was more vastly different than most of us can imagine. Slavery is a complex social/economic/moral/cultural phenomenon. We have come to our current understanding of slavery gradually, not forcibly; for forcible change is not real change. Cultures, economies, and moral practices all adapted to the truth of God's creation and revelation in the West, and gradually from there to (some of) the rest of the world. We are the beneficiaries of a process of long and deep change.

But this is an inadequate answer, as it must be, for there is no short answer. It only hints at issues, on which Copan dwells at length.

The best conclusion I could suggest you come to is that it is premature to come to any conclusion about a culture so distant in time and place, until you have put in some considerable study on the matter. Most of us agree that it is chauvinistic to judge another culture of which we know little. The same applies in this case.

Again, I emphasize that I know this is not an adequate answer. I have explained for you why it could not be. I hope you'll take the next step I have recommended to you.
Unfortunately, you have not addressed the real issues of slavery in the Bible. Instead, I'm only seeing the same smokescreen that I have seen so many other apologists put up. You have largely ignored the statements in the Bible that ARE about chattel slavery.

First of all, don't confuse debt-servanthood with slavery (i.e., chattel slavery). Debt-servanthood and slavery are two different things and the Bible condones both. Debt servanthood (as described in Leviticus 25:38-46), in which case the servant is treated like a "hired hand" rather than a "slave," is simply an *exception* to the normal slavery rules and was only available to Jews, not non-Jews. Slavery, on the other hand, can apply to both Jews and non-Jews though, as I'll discuss below, there are very different rules for Jewish slaves and non-Jewish slaves. Christians often try to merge debt-servanthood and slavery together in hopes that people will think they are one and the same. Then Christians will only focus on the debt-servanthood issue and, as a result, people will be led to believe that the Bible isn't as cruel as it really is. It's like someone pointing to the modern day cruelty of "sweatshops" and then someone else comparing them to employment at "Wal-Mart" and saying, "See! It's not as bad as you think!" It's absurd and, quite frankly, deceitful (or grossly ignorant of what the Bible teaches).

A slave is clearly defined IN THE BIBLE as being the slave-master's property, in the case of both Jewish and non-Jewish slaves. This can be seen, for example, in Exodus 21:21 as well as Leviticus 25:45. This is in clear contradiction to the statement in your article that "God's legislation required treating servants ("slaves") as persons, not property." That may be the case for debt-servants but NOT for slaves. Again, slaves, by definition IN THE BIBLE, are property.

There is also a major difference between how Jewish slaves and foreign slaves were treated. For example, as will be discussed below, the rule regarding not being severe with slaves only regards Jewish slaves; it does not apply to non-Jewish slaves (see, for example, Leviticus 25:46). Furthermore, non-Jewish slaves can be owned PERMANANTLY, not just the maximum six years that Jewish slaves can be owned. In fact foreign slaves can even be an inheritance for the Jewish slave-master's children (per Leviticus 25:44-46).

Another ruse that Christian apologists will use is the whole "slavery in the Bible is not as bad as it was in the U.S. South" argument. I've heard this argument frequently and it never holds water. Slavery is this: One human being owning another human being as property. Just because it doesn't involve the immense cruelty that was involved in the U.S. south DOES NOT make it right! One human being should not be able to own as property another human being, whether in a cruel way or a benevolent way.

That being said, though, the Bible DOES condone cruelty to slaves and to a level that is on par with the sort seen in the U.S. South. Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27 makes this clear: 20 Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property. [...] 26 An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. [NIV]

In other words, you can beat your slave and beat them thoroughly so long as you don't kill them or cause them to lose an eye or a tooth. And if you kill the slave, it only says the slave-master will be "punished;" some Christians have indicated that the slave-master would be put to death but the passage doesn't specify that. And if they lose an eye or a tooth, the slave will simply be set free as compensation; no punishment to the slave-master for cruelty other than the loss of his "property." Please also take note that these restrictions only apply to Jewish slaves (which is the entire context of that portion of the Bible). There are no restrictions given in the Bible regarding the beating of non-Jewish slaves and, given the genocide and other merciless actions shown in the Bible towards non-Jews, one can easily imagine what type of cruelties were permitted to be done to them.

It's also a common tactic of apologists to show how bad things were in the rest of the world in comparison to how the Bible teaches (which you also use in your article). So what? Just because something is "less cruel" or "less undesirable" does not make it right! That's like saying it's OK for me to ruthlessly beat my child one day per week since everybody else in my community beats their children three days per week. It's ridiculous! This is supposed to be the WORD OF GOD which should present a standard of morality which the world has never seen whether in the ancient world or the modern world! It hardly does that by simply providing a "less objectionable" alternative to the horrible things that others in the world are doing.

There is much more that I could say about the Old Testament regarding the slavery issue (e.g., how Jewish male slaves could be coerced into permanent enslavement to their masters by receiving a wife; the different, and sexist, treatment of Jewish male slaves vs. Jewish female slaves; etc.), but let's move on to the New Testament. What's interesting to note is that, while the New Testament is not as directly condoning of slavery as the Old Testament, the NT does use the word slave more often than the OT. Much of this is due to the frequent injunctions on behalf of Paul to be "slaves for Christ" and the like. This is very interesting to note in that it does not show slavery to really be a bad thing in the eyes of the apostles; in fact quite the opposite as believers are encouraged to become the ultimate slaves, i.e., slaves for God! Slavery is just a normal part of society to the apostles and not something to be outright opposed or condemned. In fact, it so much a normal part of life that they felt the concept should be carried over into "spiritual life."

What's also interesting to note is the fact that, even though slavery is such a popular topic of discussion in the New Testament, never ONCE does it condemn slavery as a "sin" or as immoral. So the subject of slavery was frequently in the forefront of the apostle's minds and yet they failed to ever mention the great evil that it is for one human being to own as property another human being. Huh? I suppose it must have slipped Paul's mind, but what else would you expect from God's primary voice for proclaiming His Word? About the closest you can come to the apostles saying something against slavery is when Paul mentions to Christian slaves to become free if they can (1st Corinthians 7:21-23). The other is Paul requesting Philemon to release the slave Onesimus (in the epistle to Philemon). But neither of these is an injunction against slavery itself. It's simply that human slavery is a hindrance to being fully committed to Christ. In fact, Paul's comments in 1st Corinthians 7 regarding being a slave are very similar in tone and context to Paul's comments regarding marriage earlier in the chapter in verses 7-8: neither marriage nor slavery is wrong, but both of them are seen as possible hindrances to full commitment to Christ.

And it's particularly noteworthy that, in the epistle to Philemon, here is Paul, talking to a CONVERTED CHRISTIAN who is *also* a slave owner. Apparently no one bothered to mention to Philemon during his conversion that slave-owning might not be the most "Christ-like" behavior. Furthermore, in the letter Paul never confronts this "brother in Christ" about the evil of slavery. Rather he asks kindly for Philemon to release the slave (in an "if you wouldn't mind" kind of tone), not because slavery is out and out wrong, but simply because Paul wants Onesimus to be free to be a minister.

You spend more than half of your article dealing with the Christian abolitionists of the 1700s and 1800s but that misses the point about what the *Bible* says about slavery. There is far more in the Bible supporting slavery then there is undermining it and, as such, these more enlightened Christians acted justly IN SPITE OF what the Bible teaches. If the Christian abolitionists had the sense to come to more enlightened thinking, then so much the better for humanity. My hope is that more Christians will come to similar enlightened thinking and begin ignoring the Bible on other immoral, unjust teachings.

So, to summarize, the Bible fully condones and never condemns chattel slavery (unless, of course, it's the Jews being the slaves of non-Jews). Twist it any way you like, put up as many smokescreens or diversions as you like, it's still there for those who read the Bible clearly and plainly. If you want to look to the Bible as your moral guide and as the inerrant "Word of God," fine; you're free to do that. But then you also have to believe that chattel slavery (as well as other evils) is moral and right. For me, I'll find better grounds for my moral guidance.
Thank you for this; I'm interested in reading more!

This may be a topic that is addressed in the book, but I want to point out one thing: Much of the effort to justify slavery didn't even try to address the "how can we do this to other humans?" question. It was instead assumed that the dark-skinned natives, so novel to the European eye, weren't really human at all.

Therefore, while we wonder at how one group of humans forcibly took the life and liberty of others, and then slept at night, many comfortably thought that they weren't really actions against other humans.

I point this out because, as stunned as we are that such a system was ever in place, we convince ourselves that it wouldn't ever happen on our watch. But if we're not aware of the underlying assumptions that kept people on the sidelines, we miss an important part of the issue. "Oh, them? They don't actually count..."

It's popped up elsewhere in history, but for us today we see it most clearly as the fundamental difference in the abortion debate; as long as you can assert that the human-resembling fetus isn't really a human, then the usual rules of civilized society (whereby you can't forcibly take the life or liberty of another) don't actually apply. "Oh that? That doesn't count."

That simple justification, or rather the belief that justification isn't even needed, is subtle, contagious, and worth our attention in any battle of justice.