Question: What is the Bible’s teaching about slavery?
Much of what the Old and New Testaments have to say regarding slavery is descriptive. Slavery was a fact of life in the ancient world. That is not to excuse it, but to recognize that when we use the term “slavery” we may have images in mind that reflect 18th century America rather than slavery in biblical times. I encourage you to read Bible Gems #13, “Hired Hand Or Bond Slave.”
What the Bible teaches about slavery falls into three broad categories:
• Proper relations between masters and slaves
• Slavery as a spiritual symbol
• A Christ-like attitude toward slavery
Proper relations between masters and slaves
When the Hebrews left their 400-year period of slavery in Egypt Moses established a system of regulations concerning slavery. Remember, God had not given any special revelation that slavery was wrong and should be discontinued. Instead, as with many institutions of this world, God chose to teach His people how to live righteously in unrighteous situations.
So, for example, if a convicted thief could not pay back his victims, the thief could be sold as a slave and the money used as restitution to the victims:
Ex. 22:3 …A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.
Slavery in Israel was largely aimed at providing a way for someone in debt to clear his name and start fresh once the debt was paid. Such servitude was limited to six years:
Ex. 21:2 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.
Slavery as a spiritual symbol
Jesus used the image of slavery to illustrate the power that sin has over a person—like a master over a slave—and how freedom from slavery of any kind except slavery to Christ is desireable:
John 8:34-5 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.
The apostle Paul drew on this symbol as well:
Rom. 7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
A Christ-like attitude toward slavery
The New Testament clearly depicts slavery and the slave trade as a despicable practice:
1Tim. 1:10 …adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine…
Believers already enslaved should seek freedom, if at all possible:
1Cor. 7:21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.
But believers need to recognize that freedom, ultimately, is not a matter of circumstance but of the heart:
1Cor. 7:22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.