What Does the Bible Say About Slavery?

“The Bible endorses slavery.” If true, this common objection would appear to be a strike against the morality of Biblical teaching and would run contrary to our modern sense of right and wrong. The question is, however, does the Bible really endorse slavery? To discover the answer you must consider five factors.

1. Slavery in Bible times was different from more recent slavery.

Recent slavery has been based primarily on race. It has involved people being forcefully taken away from their homeland—typically Africa—and then treated, traded, and disposed of as property. Western society has come to understand just how terrible this form of slavery is.

Thousand of years ago, though, slavery took a different form. In the ancient world, many people actually chose to be slaves in order to pay off debts and ensure the security of their families. In such a case, the slave would only be a slave for a specified period of time, being released once the debt was repaid. In Exodus 21, the Bible established a maximum term of six years for this kind of slavery. (A synonym for this form of slavery is “bondservant,” which is perhaps a less confusing term.)

This method of paying off debts is not uncommon today, though it is not generally called slavery. For example, a patron at a restaurant unable to cover the bill and may be able to wash dishes to pay it off instead. Similarly, the court system can sentence a defendant to perform a certain amount of community service to pay off a debt to society. By strict definition, these are a form of slavery: working without pay while being controlled by someone else.

In addition to slavery as a means to pay off debt, some slavery was based on conquest. A conquered people could be forced to work as slaves. While this is not a form of slavery the Bible seems to allow—when it is discussed, it is painted in a negative light—it is still very different from the race-based slavery of more recent times.

2. The Bible implicitly condemns race-based slavery.

Consider the Hebrews themselves. They were treated as slaves for several centuries in Egypt. Their slavery, though, was not by choice or because of conquest; it was because of their race. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the Bible clearly portrayed this as a great injustice. The plagues experienced by the Egyptians were seen as evidence of just how severely God viewed this form of slavery.

3. The Bible explicitly warns against “man-stealing.”

Our modern concept of slavery (people being forcefully taken away from their home and being forced to work as slaves) was the model practiced by the slave trade throughout Europe and North America. This, however, is not at all consistent with the teachings of the Bible. Even though some of the slave owners and traders may have claimed to be Christians, their actions were in violation of clear Scriptural teachings.

Both the Old and New Testaments speak against this form of slavery, equating it to kidnapping. Exodus 21 specifically addresses how those who kidnap and/or trade slaves should be treated. “Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves” (Exodus 21:16, NLT).

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul included slave trading among a list of actions that were considered to violate God´s law. “The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:10-11, NLT).

It seems clear from verses like these that the Bible does not condone the practice of kidnapping people away from their homeland and selling them as slaves. But the question remains, why does the Bible allow slavery at all?

4. The Bible treated slavery as a reality, not necessarily as the way it should be.

Exodus 21, a passage commonly used by skeptics, records instructions for how slaves should be treated. Since the Bible includes these instructions, skeptics conclude that it is endorsing slavery.

This passage should not, however, be understood to mean that slavery was condoned. A full examination of the chapter reveals how the instructions were meant to limit the abuse of slaves, not justify slavery itself.

In most ancient societies, slaves had no rights. They could be abused by their owners and would have had no legal protection. By giving instructions on how to treat slaves, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) actually increased the status of slaves and improved the conditions under which they lived.

The principle used is similar to that of raising a child. Most parents are happy if they can teach their toddler to stop hitting or biting. Is that the end goal? Certainly not. Children should also be taught about such values as generosity, sharing, and self-sacrifice. Those values, however, can be taught later. It is one step at a time.

The limitations placed on how slaves were treated was not the end goal; it was only a step. Though God did not immediately ban all forms of slavery, He did move the Hebrew community in that direction.

You see this kind of progression in other areas of the Bible, too. In the ancient world, if you stole the property of another person, that person might take your life. God set limitations on this kind of excessive revenge. This was not an endorsement of thievery, but it did offer a level of protection for thieves.

God’s allowance of slavery in the Bible does not mean that God condoned slavery. It simply means that slavery was a reality at the time and that it needed to be regulated.

5. Biblical values eventually led to the abolition of slavery.

The direction set with the instructions on how to treat slaves led immediately to improved conditions for slaves and eventually to the reduction and abolition of slavery. Though this abolition was not a direct result of a divine decree, it was the organic outcome of Scriptural principles.

Christians would point out that this illustrates how God works from the inside out, not the outside in. God knows that when individual lives are transformed, the society will eventually be transformed. Thus, instead of focusing on transforming a society, God focuses on transforming lives. He allows His love, grace, and mercy to change the way a person thinks, which in turn changes the person´s values and treatment of others.

This is what happened with slavery, twice. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, slavery was pushed to the outskirts of the empire and almost completely wiped out.

Then when the Roman Empire became corrupted and began to fall, the result was a resurgence of slavery. Christians were called upon to once again lead the fight against slavery.

John Wesley, an Anglican priest, spoke out during the eighteenth century against the evils of race-based slavery. The Methodist movement that began under Wesley continued that fight. The Wesleyan Methodist Church in America was formed in no small measure because of its opposition to slavery. Central to this opposition to slavery were verses such as, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NLT).

William Wilberforce, a friend of Wesley’s, played a pivotal role in ending the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce was an English politician who—because of his strong Christian faith—led an almost three decades-long fight to abolish the slave trade. In fact, Wilberforce died just three days after he was assured of the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act.

Wilberforce was a friend to John Newton. Newton had been a slave trader himself, became a devoted Christ-follower, and felt convicted about his participation in the slave trade. Newton renounced his involvement and then wrote a self-reflective song about how God had rescued him from such a terrible background. It is perhaps the world´s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

In the United States, slavery became a major issue of the American Civil War. Inspired by his strong Christian faith, Abraham Lincoln was committed to fighting against slavery.

Even in the years before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was committed to helping slaves escape from slavery in the southern States to freedom in the north. Christians motivated by their values were instrumental to this process.

In more recent American history, an ordained Christian minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. led the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King was motivated by his understanding that God created all people equal regardless of skin color.

The Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 were inspired by a peaceful protest involving Christians in Marion, Alabama. Following an evening worship service, the congregation exited the church and proceeded toward a local jail to stage a peaceful protest for civil rights. Law enforcement officers responded violently, though, killing one of the protesters—Jimmie Lee Jackson, a deacon in his church. In response, the first Selma to Montgomery March was held two weeks after Jackson´s death.

While evangelist Billy Graham was at the peak of his popularity and traveling to speaking engagements all over the world, he steadfastly refused to hold any events in South Africa until he was assured the audience would not be segregated.

Even today, human trafficking remains a major problem around the world. At the forefront of the battle against it are Christians and churches along with hundreds of humanitarian and political organizations, many of which are motivated by strong Christian faith-based values.

Does this mean that there have never been Christians who have owned slaves? No, there certainly have been. In those cases, the Christian slave owners were operating in opposition to their faith and not in harmony with it. Their actions cannot be used to discredit the Bible, as you cannot judge a faith by those who abuse it.

The allegation that the Bible condones slavery may be popular as it provokes an emotional response, but history seem to speak to the contrary. Instead of condoning slavery, the limitations the Bible placed on slavery eventually led to slavery´s abolition.