Why doesn’t the Bible condemn slavery?

Pastor J.D. explains why slavery isn’t a problem we should brush aside and how we should view it through the lens of Scripture.

A glimpse inside this episode:

I want to start by pointing out that this isn’t a problem we should just brush aside. It’s a good thing for us to be offended at depictions of slavery, even in the Bible.

  • We ought to be troubled by things and not explain them away… So, for instance, when we hear the basic story of the first slave described in the OT (Hagar), we are rightly troubled. Abraham sleeps with his wife’s slave girl. That’s not just slavery; that’s sex slavery.
  • We ought to be troubled by things and not explain them away… I get it. There’s a sense in which you don’t want to judge people of old by today’s understanding, I get that. But you don’t want to lose the horror of it.
  • That people in the NT like Philemon didn’t immediately recognize the injustice of the practice.

A couple of key concepts to keep in mind:

  • There is a big difference between description and prescription.
    • In other words, just because the Bible talks about it, doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
      • When Abraham took Hagar as a sex slave, the results were disastrous for everyone involved.
      • Preferring the older brother
  • Here’s another: Progressive Revelation
    • It’s the recognition that Scripture sometimes left deficient systems in place, while planting the seeds into the system of its undoing.
    • For example, here’s one we don’t often think about: primogeniture, where the eldest son got all the inheritance and the younger son got the shaft, was clearly practiced in the OT.
    • But in Genesis, God always chose the younger. God subtly overturned the system.

Many scholars see something similar happening throughout the Bible with slavery.

When we look to slavery in the Bible, there are three things we need to keep in mind:

  • 1. In the NT, the “bondservant” practice of the 1st century is nothing like what we think of when we say, “slave” (i.e. where you take someone captive and force them into labor.)
    • That kind of slavery is explicitly condemned in the Bible:
    • “Anyone who kidnaps another and sells him must be put to death” (Ex. 21:16).
    • Or, in 1 Tim 1:8–10 Paul puts slave traders in the same category as those who kill their parents, adulterers, perjurers, and perverts.
      • So, that can’t be the kind of servant Onesimus was. This was more like what we think of as indentured servanthood; and it was part of the economic system in Rome.
      • If someone became extremely poor, or consumed with debt, the only thing left for them to sell was their labor. So in agreement for paying off debts and the promise of provision they would sell themselves to a wealthy person like Philemon.
    • Now, that’s not to say this was a good system, or that it ever part of God’s plan
  • 2. The New Testament subverts the entire premise of (any form of) slavery. 
    • The entire NT ethic can be summarized as, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” and love your neighbor as yourself.”
    • It calls us to treat one another as “brothers and sisters,” and tells us that in Christ there is neither “slave nor free.” That new view of humanity would ultimately undo any form of slavery.
    • The ground is level at the foot of the cross: one RACE: human. One CLASS: sinner. One HOPE: JESUS. One FUTURE: resurrection. One FORTUNE: the eternal riches of Christ.
  • 3. Rather than issuing a political manifesto, God planted seeds which undid the current order.
    • Had God said, “This system is wrong; get rid of it now,” Jesus followers may have focused exclusively on political action. (And there is a time to work politically). But God had a different way of going about his agenda on earth: he was transforming the world from within, and the place he started was in the church.
    • Eventually, this new vision of humanity will transform the whole society, but it starts in the church.
  • Even the slave masters recognized the push of the Bible toward liberation! In the Museum of the Bible, I saw “The Slave Bible” where they had cut out large sections of Old and New Testament they thought would push the slaves toward desires for freedom!

D.A. Carson says that the best work on slavery is by an African-American scholar named Thomas Sowell. Massive: 3 vols. He points out slavery was universal. The terrible European slave trade trafficked 11 million Africans; but twice that many were bought and sold on the Arabian Peninsula during that same time period. Furthermore, he says, almost every slave he says sold in the European slave trade were enslaved and sold to them by other Africans. So, in other words, slavery was a nearly universal problem. Here’s how Sowell put it: 

  • Thomas Sowell on slavery: “Although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century. People of every race and color were enslaved – and enslaved others. White people were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed.
  • Everyone hated the idea of being a slave but few had any qualms about enslaving others. Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century – and then it was an issue only in Western civilization. Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other American leaders. You could research all of the 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there.”


  • Why, he asks? Slavery is universal, but what stopped slavery it in the West? His answer? Undeniably, the Great Awakening: The preaching of men like John Wesley and the reforms of Christian statesman William Wilberforce.
  • The gospel plants seeds that ultimately undid the broken systems of the world from within.
    • Yes, Christians have been hypocritical with this down through history. But when they really reckoned with the gospel (as in the Great Awakening), it brought the entire system of slavery down on its head!
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