If you pay attention to what is being circulated on the web, you know that atheists continue to attempt to make an issue of God’s supposed brutality, savagery and abuse of mankind. One of the main issues in their diatribes against the biblical account is that God did not condemn slavery, and in fact even had laws about how slaves were to be handled. Even in the New Testament there are specific mentions of slaves and instructions to slaves that do not involve rebellion or the abolition of slavery. Is the sanctioning of slavery by the Bible writers another demonstration of God’s cruelty and insensitivity to the tragedies of human existence, or is this not a valid criticism of the Bible?

One of the things we frequently say in this journal is that when you discuss something the Bible says, you have to look at who said it, to whom it was said, and what the culture interpreted the teaching to mean.

Let us begin this discussion by stating clearly that slavery is wrong. In today’s world there is no justification for any human being bound in a forced subservient manner to someone else. Neither Jesus Christ nor any of His 12 disciples had slaves, and in John 13:4-17 Jesus taught a philosophy that is alien to slavery, namely that we are to be servants of one another--all totally equal in the sight of God.

In the Old Testament it was a different situation. It was a very early time in man’s history--a time of war and conflict and brute survival. Christianity did not exist, so there was no homeless shelter or mission to run to if you were suddenly thrust out on the street with no food or shelter. In today’s world when a war takes place, the minute the conflict ends there are massive attempts to bring relief to the citizens that are in the war zone--a huge percentage of the help coming from Christian relief agencies. If you are an atheist and “survival of the fittest” is the basis of your morality, this may not make sense, but so far in our culture we have not quite sunk to the level of just allowing the victims of war to die without attempting to help them as “survival of the fittest” would suggest.

In the primitive times of the Old Testament when a war was concluded and one side had defeated the other side, what was the future for the defeated people? Their homes were usually destroyed, their crops wiped out, their family members and political leaders killed, and everything taken from them. It seems obvious that the most compassionate thing for the conquerors to do was to take the defeated people into their homes where they would have shelter and food. The price of that shelter and food for the time being at least was the loss of their freedom. War is horrible, but evolutionists tell us it is a biological necessity and that man is just fulfilling his naturally-driven impulses. Without debating that point, it is obvious that slavery was a decent alternative to dying by exposure and starvation. The Bible recognizes slavery by capture in passages like Genesis 14:21; Numbers 31:9; and Deuteronomy 20:14. What is interesting about the biblical commands for slaves was that they were to be respected and cared for. In Deuteronomy 21:10-14 a man’s responsibility for a woman taken as a slave was spelled out so that he would take her as a wife and release her if he could not sustain her in the marriage relationship. In 2 Kings 5:2 in the famous story of Naaman we see a slave girl who cared about her owner and wanted healing for him, indicating something far from abuse.

A second way that God allowed slavery was by purchase. It is incomprehensible for us to imagine a human being bought by another human being, but in the stress of a primitive culture, people could not just be turned loose to their own devices in the hope of surviving. In Genesis 17 we see the ritual of circumcision was extended to slaves, and we see Joseph being sold to merchants in Genesis 37:36 and 39:1, something referred to in a very negative way throughout the Bible. What is again interesting is that when you read Leviticus 25:44ff you see the rules for selling slaves, but you also see restrictions on how they were to be treated. In fact, verse 53 states “you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly.” There were even rules about the release of slaves that had special significance to the history of Israel, and a caring attitude about the well-being of other humans.

A third way that a person could be taken into slavery was as a restitution for a crime. In Exodus 22:3 a thief could pay for his crime by being sold. A person could also become a slave as a means of paying off debts (Exodus 21:2-6 and 7-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). A person could even sell himself for security (see Leviticus 25:39-43) but even in this case there was a formula for his release.

Jesus comes to this ancient, primitive world with a whole new concept of life. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beautiful passages in all of literature. Over and over Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ... but I tell you ...” (NIV). Jesus dealt with attitudes and values that were alien to what people had been living with. Jesus gave a way of life that would ultimately eliminate slavery of all kinds, because Jesus taught the equality of men and women in all aspects of life. In spite of this emphasis, Jesus does not attempt to overturn the political structures of the day. Rome was a brutal, violent, chauvinistic, abusive, political state. Jesus lived within that political system without trying to over-power it by force. The United States has had a hard time realizing that what works among our people does not necessarily work among the people of the Middle East or Africa.

What Jesus does is to teach His followers to function within the system. In Ephesians 6:5-9 the inspired writer addresses slaves and masters and does not command them to upset their secular relationship. He rather calls them to serve as if they are serving God because God looks at slaves and masters equally. Colossians 3:22-4:1 presents the same teaching. In Philemon we have Paul’s wonderful words to his friend Philemon about a runaway slave named Onesimus. The most wonderful verses in this passage are verses 15-16 where Paul says “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good--no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”

First Corinthians 7:21-24 and Galatians 3:26-29 clearly show the Christian response to the issue of slavery. In God’s sight we are all equals. Slavery is wrong and should not be practiced by Christians. In a world dominated by philosophies and religions that embrace slavery as a scientific, political, and religious ideology, Jesus calls us to preach a gospel of peace, equality, and love, and to refrain from violence. Expecting Jesus to openly declare a physical war to abolish a human institution, even one as horrible as slavery, is to badly misunderstand what Jesus taught, and to be ignorant of the Christian system.
--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, SepOct09.