There is a tendency to look at slavery as something of the past. But it is estimated that there are today over 27 million people in the world who are subject to slavery: forced labor, sex trade, inheritable property, etc. As those who have been redeemed from the slavery of sin, followers of Jesus Christ should be the foremost champions of ending human slavery in the world today. The question arises, though, why does the Bible not speak out strongly against slavery? Why does the Bible, in fact, seem to support the practice of human slavery?
Slavery in the Old Testament Law
Slave ownership was a common practice long before the time the Mosaic Law was given. So, the law neither instituted slavery nor ended it; rather, the law regulated it. It gave instructions on how slaves should be treated but did not outlaw slavery altogether.
Hebrews with Hebrew slaves. The law allowed for Hebrew men and women to sell themselves into slavery to another Hebrew. They could only serve for six years, however. In the seventh year, they were to be set free (Exodus 21:2). This arrangement amounted to what we might call indentured servanthood. And the slaves were to be treated well: “Do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you” (Leviticus 25:39–40). The law also specified that, “when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 15:13–14). The freed slave had the option of staying with his master and becoming a “servant for life” (Exodus 21:5–6).
Hebrews with Gentile slaves. When the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, they were to drive out or destroy all the former inhabitants. However, that order was not fully obeyed, and many Gentiles remained in the land. God allowed the Hebrews to take slaves from among that population: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:44–46). So, the law did allow for slavery.
Several laws regulating slavery appear in Exodus 21. These laws gave some basic rights to slaves and curtailed the actions of masters in a historically unprecedented way. In the ancient world outside of Israel, slaves had no rights. But God’s Law extended to slaves the right to keep a wife (verse 3), the right not to be sold to foreigners (verse 8), the right to be adopted into a family by marriage (verse 9), and the right to food and clothing (verse 10). The law also limited masters in their use of corporeal punishment (verses 20, 26–27).
Gentiles with Hebrew slaves. Under the Mosaic Law, and if economic circumstances demanded it, a Hebrew had the option of selling himself as a slave to a Gentile living in Israel (Leviticus 25:47). The law also provided for the slave’s redemption at any time (verses 48–52). And the treatment of the Hebrew slave was to be considerate: slaves were “to be treated as workers hired from year to year; you must see to it that those to whom they owe service do not rule over them ruthlessly” (verse 53). If no redemption came, the slaves were still released, with their families, on the Year of Jubilee (verse 54).
New Testament Instruction on Slavery
Even in the New Testament era, the Bible did not demand that every slave owner immediately emancipate his slaves. Rather, the apostles gave instructions to slaves and their owners on godly behavior within that social system. Masters were admonished on the proper treatment of their slaves. For example, in Ephesians 6:9 masters are told, “Treat your slaves in the same way [with goodwill]. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.” Elsewhere, the command is, “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1).
Jesus and the apostles did not outright condemn slavery. They didn’t need to. The effect of the gospel is that lives are changed, one by one, and those changed lives in turn bring transformation to entire families, clans, and cultures. Christianity was never designed to be a political movement, but, over time, it naturally affected political policy. Alexander MacLaren wrote that the gospel “meddles directly with no political or social arrangements, but lays down principles which will profoundly affect these, and leaves them to soak into the general mind” (The Expositor’s Bible, vol. VI, Eerdmans, 1940, p. 301). In nations where Christianity spread and took firm hold, slavery was brought to an end through the efforts of born-again individuals.
The seeds of the emancipation of slaves are in the Bible, which teaches that all men are created by God and made in His image (Genesis 1:27), which condemns those who kidnap and sell a person (Exodus 21:16; cf. 1 Timothy 1:8–10), and which shows that a slave can truly be “a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:16).
Some criticize the Bible because it did not demand an immediate overthrow of every ingrained, centuries-old sinful custom of the day. But, as Warren Wiersbe pointed out, “The Lord chooses to change people and society gradually, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the truth of the Word of God” (The Wiersbe Bible Commentary, David C. Cook, 2007, p. 245).