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Christianity and slavery

Does Christianity promote, or even allow, slavery?

This is something critics of Christianity will often suggest is true, but what does the Bible really say about the topic? I guess the question is, is this a legitimate complaint against Christianity?

First, I want to clarify what exactly I’m talking about when I say “slavery.” I am talking about the type of slavery typified by the transatlantic slave trade which was finally abolished in the 19th Century. Therefore this is what I am going to be examining specifically.

So, what exactly are we talking about? A slave, in our context here, is a person who is captured, and enslaved against their will, kept and worked as chattel for the rest of his days.

Does the Bible say anything about this type of behaviour? Consider the following from the New Testament:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:8-11 ESV)

The key word in the above passage being enslavers. Also translated as manstealer or kidnapper, Strong’s defines this word as:

  1. a slave-dealer, kidnapper, man-stealer
    • of one who unjustly reduces free men to slavery
    • of one who steals the slaves of others and sells them

This behaviour is explicitly called sin. In fact, this is nothing new. In the Old Testament, we read:

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. (Ex 21:16)

However, in reading these sections of the Old Testament law, we do need to be a bit more careful in our thinking; we need to ensure we are employing proper hermeneutics.

Under the Mosaic law, there were 2 categories of slaves; slaves from foreign nations and slaves from Israel itself. And the rules for each category do differ to various degrees. So, while understanding we are not bound by these laws since the Old Covenant has passed away, which sets of rules should we look at to derive biblical principles for today?

A key to this is understanding that under the New Covenant there is no longer a chosen nation. For example, in Colossians 3:11 we read that the separation of Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised that once existed under the Old Covenant no longer exists today.

Since, therefore, there is no longer one chosen nation of people, I conclude that the rules which applied to Jewish slaves are the ones we ought to look to. Why? Because, as William Wilberforce put it: “as we are repeatedly and expressly told that Christ has done away all distinctions of nations, and made all mankind one great family, all our fellow creatures are now our brethren…”

So what principles do we find in the laws regarding Jewish slaves? In part:

  • A man would become a slave by choice or as punishment for theft
  • A man could not be a slave indefinitely unless by choice (at most, Jewish slaves would be released after 6 years or at the Jubilee)
  • If intentionally and permanently injured, the slave would be released
  • As mentioned above, kidnapping or otherwise stealing a man to be a slave was not allowed

Continuing with that quote above from Wilberforce, “… therefore the very principles and spirit of the Jewish law itself would forbid our keeping the Africans, anymore than our own fellow subjects, in a fate of slavery.”

So, in no uncertain terms, we have the clear denouncement of the idea that one can capture and enslave a man against his will while living under the New Covenant. Even the practise of knowingly owning a slave who was enslaved in this way could not be justified.

That said, most of what we know about not only the trade, but the treatment of slaves run contrary to the biblical principles we find in not only this area, but others.

Simply put, if this clear biblical teaching had been followed, there would have been no such thing as the transatlantic slave trade.