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The Bible and Slavery

The following is from my sermon, “What Does the Bible Teach about Slavery and Sexuality?” (October 20, 2013). All Scripture quotes are from the NIV.

In the early 1860s, slavery divided our nation to the extent that 600,000 to 750,000 Americans killed each other during the Civil War.

Historian Mark Noll authored The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. His theme is that the Civil War was a crisis of biblical interpretation. Because the Bible is ambiguous on the topic of slavery, American Christians were not sure which way to interpret it. He suggests that the Bible’s ambiguity on slavery may have been the most important reason that America experienced the Civil War.

It may be shocking to some to learn that the Bible does not call slavery a sin.

Here is a very brief overview of the Bible on slavery:

The Bible mentions slavery 200 times and “servant” hundreds more. Not once does the Bible call slavery a sin or say that slavery should be made illegal. 1 Timothy 1v10 does condemn slave traders, but out of hundreds of mentions, the Bible does not once call slavery a sin or state that slavery should be abolished.

If a professor asked you to write a paper on slavery, and you mentioned the word “slavery” 200 times in your paper, could we expect that you would call slavery a moral wrong and suggest that slavery should be illegal at least once?

If you were to write in your paper that slavery should be illegal, you would not have gotten that idea from the Bible. You would have gotten that idea from 21st century American culture. American culture, not the Bible, tells you that slavery should be illegal.

Examples of Bible Verses on Slavery

We love egalitarian verses like Galatians 3v28:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

But then we read verses about slavery that do not communicate a message of which Christians can be proud. For example, Paul exhorts the Christians living in the city of Corinth that they should be content in life in whatever circumstances they find themselves. He then writes:

“21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. 22 For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. 24 In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.”

Then, Ephesians 6v5-9 reads:

“5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.”

21st century Americans would not tell a slave to be content in his or her enslavement. In the same way, we like the end of Ephesians 5v9, the “no partiality” part. It’s just that even that statement is within the context of telling slaves to obey their masters as though their masters are Jesus.

Last year, I asked a guy what he thought Ephesians 6v5 meant. He said, “I should do a good job for my boss at work.” Unfortunately, that verse is not about his job, for which he receives a paycheck and that he can quit at any time. It’s about slavery.

What’s worse is that slavery is not just a relic of the past. We still have slavery in America. Human smuggling and sex trafficking take place on a daily basis. Just this past week, a world slavery study was released finding that slavery is alive and well all over the planet.

Imagine, that you are refilling your car at a gas station in Chandler, and a man runs up to you, out of breath. In broken English, he tells you that he just escaped from someone who has been holding him as a slave. The person smuggled him across the border and promised him his freedom, but now he’s been held as a slave for the past year on this man’s farm. Would you quote Ephesians 6:5 to him, and say “Well, the Word of God says, “‘Slaves obey your masters?'”

You wouldn’t quote Ephesians 6v5 to him, would you? You would call the police. Why? The Bible says slaves should obey their masters. You would call the cops because you’re a 21st century American, and 21st century American culture tells you that slavery is immoral and has been made illegal.

For those who have this view of the Bible that it was dropped out of heaven and has no need of being interpreted, this verse says that practice is not a very good idea, doesn’t it?

The Bible Used to Defend Slavery

This verse and others like it were quoted in many sermons in the Southern United States in the 1800’s to defend the practice of slavery.

A pastor named Richard Furman wrote a letter to the governor of South Carolina in 1838 using the Bible to defend slavery:

“In things purely spiritual, they (masters and slaves) appear to have enjoyed equal privileges; but their relationship, as masters and slaves, was not dissolved. Their respective duties are strictly enjoined. The masters are not required to emancipate their slaves; but to give them the things that are just and equal, forbearing threatening; and to remember, they also have a master in Heaven….”

“Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who
feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church… But, instead of this, they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties.”

The consensus of the Bible on slavery is that slaves should obey their masters, masters should treat their slaves with respect, as equals in God’s eyes. The Bible does not say that slavery is wrong and should be made illegal.

Reverend Henry Van Dyke in 1860, “The tree of Abolition is evil… (it) is nourished by an utter rejection of the Scriptures.”

The Teaching of Jesus

Mark Noll suggests that legal slavery was not abolished in the U.S. by following Bible verses specifically about slavery. He suggests that legal slavery truly ended in America when Christians in the North realized that the African American slave was their neighbor. Then, the overarching teaching of Jesus activated, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is when Christians realized that it should not be legal to enslave their neighbors.

These verses that address slavery in the Old and New Testaments are out of step with 21st century American culture. No Bible-believing Christian would quote these verses to a slave. In fact, in some states, if you were to quote Ephesians 6v5 to a slave, you could be prosecuted as an accomplice to hostage taking.

In fairness to Paul, Paul never dreamed of a country where slavery would be illegal. He was speaking out of his own cultural knowledge of slavery.

The Bible and 21st Century U.S. Values

There is an enormous cultural gap between 21st century North America and Paul’s experience of the Roman Empire. It took 1,700 years after Paul’s life for nations to begin making slavery illegal. The Bible knows nothing of abolition.

Are the Bible’s statements on slavery at home in 21st century America? Of course not.

If Paul were writing his letters today in the Southeast Valley of Phoenix, do you think he would make statements about slavery that are different than those we have in the New Testament? We certainly hope so.

Just as American Christians changed their interpretation of the Bible on religious violence, science and women’s rights over time, American Christians interpreted the Bible’s statements on slavery differently over time, as cultural shifts took place.


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