There are many aspects of the Bible that are misconceived. Of these misconceptions, slavery in the Bible is a popular one that skeptics, critics and even I for a time believed was condoned by the Bible, perhaps even promoted. It’s really not that complicated when you think about it: Slavery is bad. The Bible does not prohibit slavery. Therefore the bible is bad for not prohibiting slavery, which is a bad thing. But are these claims really valid? How can Christians claim to stand for peace, equality and love when the same Bible we preach from condones acts of slavery? The subject of slavery in the Bible is one of many subjects I believe Christians tend to overlook and never truly strive to understand, while critics ruthlessly use such subjects to drive people away from Biblical teaching. But before we discuss slavery in the Bible, it’s important to first ask ourselves what slavery is in the first place.
When you hear the word “slavery” what are the first images that pop into your mind? Do you think of black slaves and white slave owners? Do you think of plantations in the south? Do you think of ships sailing from Africa westward across the Atlantic with human cargo? Do you think of innocent African men, women and children worked unethically and punished severely. If you do, you’re not alone. Most Americans immediately picture slavery this way; as a racial slavery in the past, that was abolished long ago. You cannot be penalized for thinking this way, because as Americans we are taught about this type of slavery over and over again due to its significance in our nation’s history.
There are two things that must be addressed though: not all slavery is racial, and slavery still exists today in many parts in the world. Slavery today takes many different shapes and forms. According to the United Nations, annually over 250,000 children are kidnapped and trained as children soldiers; 700,000 men, women and children are trafficked and sold as migrant labor slaves; and over 1 million females (mostly children) are trafficked as sex slaves. At any given moment, it is estimated that there are about 12 million people serving around the world as slaves against their will. Others speculate the number is closer to 27 million! We can even look back to the 8th century when the “Black” Moors enslaved the “white” Europeans when they conquered Spain and Portugal for 400 years. Also in the 8th century Norse Raiders of Scandinavia enslaved many Europeans. Africans have been enslaving other Africans for hundreds of years, some of which still goes on to this very day in Sudan and Darfur. We must not confine our presupposed concept of slavery to just an abolished past racial slavery, but open ourselves to understand that there are many different types of slavery that have been around for thousands of years that still continue to this day all around the world. With that understood we must ask ourselves what kinds of slavery does the bible talk about?
The Bible was originally written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). As is any situation where an ancient language is translated into a more modern language there can be words that have multiple different meanings. The following words are used in the Bible’s original scripture:
v Ebed (Hebrew); can mean slave, servant or bondservant.
v Abad (Hebrew); can mean serve, work or labor.
v Shiphchah (Hebrew); can mean maid, maidservant, or slave-girl.
v Amah (Hebrew); can mean maid servant or female slave.
v Doulos (Greek); can mean servant, slave or bondservant.
v Sundoulos (Greek): can mean fellow servant, slave.
v Paidiske (Greek): can mean bondwoman, maid and female slave.
There were basically two types of slavery described in the bible: A servant or bondservant that was paid a wage, and an enslaved individual that receives no pay.
So what does the Bible say about slavery? To do that I’ll address Bible verses many critics point out, like Ephesians 6:5, which states for slaves to serve their masters with respect, fear and sincerity. The first thing we should point out is the scripture’s use of “doulos” which can be used referencing a servant or bondservant. More importantly, one should not fail to look at this verse in context. If you read Ephesians 6:5-9, you’ll read that in the next verses Paul instructs the masters to treat their slaves “likewise,” with respect and sincerity, or in other words, as equals. Colossians 4:1 also instructs followers to be fair and just to their servants, “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (NIV).
Deuteronomy 15:12-15 is another example of regulations of slavery, and it references an important facet of slavery that many people don’t understand. Verse 12 references men and women who sell themselves into slavery. It is important to understand that in these ancient times it was not uncommon for people to sell themselves into slavery when times were hard or they were in debt. By becoming a slave they could be ensured shelter and food for not only themselves, but their family as well. And often times slaves would come to an agreement with their masters on a predetermined amount of time of which they would be a slave, and once this predetermined amount of time had passed, or all debt was paid, they would no longer be a slave.
Another verse critics point out is Exodus 21:20, which condones the “beating” of servants. But this verse is not instructing the Israelites to “beat” their slaves, it’s actually stating that IF you choose to punish your servants, and a servant dies from your punishment, the master will be punished for killing his servant. Let us not forget, this is was not the 21st century. If a servant was rebellious they were punished, just as a mother or father would punish a rebellious child. This verse states that you are not to punish your servants too harshly, because if you do and your servant dies, you as the master will be punished.
What about Jesus, did He support the beating of slaves? Many critics say yes, and reference Luke 12:43-48 as their evidence. But what they fail to recognize is that Jesus was speaking in parable as He often did and was prophesized to do in fact. The parable is an obvious analogy to His future 2nd coming. That when He returns if you are found doing good you will be rewarded, but if you’re found doing bad you will be punished. Matthew 25:38-46, among other passages in the Bible, provide similar referencing of the second coming.
In another example referenced by critics, Leviticus 25:38-46, God reminds the Israelites that they were once slaves in Egypt, and that when they move into the new holy land, they may acquire any slaves or bondservants already in that land. The key point is not that they are forcing slavery onto anyone, but that if there are all ready slaves in neighboring lands that wish to sell themselves to the Israelites, they can buy them. But they are not to force slavery onto anyone unwillingly. The Egyptians once forced the Israelites to be slaves against their will and subjected them to brutal labor. And as we all know, God severely punished the Egyptians with the twelve plagues, Exodus 7-11. So as you can see, some forms of slavery were tolerated and subsequently regulated, while other forms that involved harsh and unfair treatment were not tolerated.
For many, the Bible’s regulations of conduct between master and slave (or bondservant) is not considered ethical, since the Bible is not prohibiting but instead trying to regulate slavery. But as Reverend Mathew Anderson points out,
“In giving laws to regulate slavery, God is not saying it is a good thing. In fact, by giving laws about it at all, He is plainly stating it is a bad thing. We don’t make laws to limit or regulate good things. After all, you won’t find laws that tell us it is wrong to be too healthy or if water is too clean we have to add pollution to it. Therefore, the fact slavery is included in the regulations of the Old Testament at all assumes that it is a bad thing which needs to be regulated to prevent the damage from being too great.” 
The condemnation of slave traders by the bible should not be overlooked as well. 1 Timothy 1:10 compares slave traders to ungodly lawbreakers and rebels. Exodus 21:16 states that anyone that kidnaps a man to sell them should be put to death. Clearly the bible prohibits slave trading as well.
So if the Bible prohibits unfair and harsh treatment of slaves and despises slave traders, why would the mostly Christian Europeans enslave Africans for so long in history? Simply put, this is a classic scenario of people twisting the scripture in Bible to fit their own personal agenda. Yes the Bible does not say slavery is bad upfront, but as you read the scripture you can evidently see that slavery was heavily regulated, and masters were instructed to be fair, just and forgiving of their slaves. Clearly, these teachings were not honored by the “Christians” in Europe and America who engaged in slave trade, used slaves against their will, and treated the slaves ruthlessly, all of which is not supported by the Bible.
This warranted criticism can be traced to as early as the founding of our country. The United States, a country founded by a majority of Christians demanding freedom and liberty and penning statements of all men being created equal, owned slaves. How contradictory is that? However, there is much more to our nation’s history then most know about off hand.
Many of America’s founding fathers owned slaves, like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. But there were many who did not, such as Benjamin Franklin who believed slavery was “an atrocious debasement of human nature” and “a source of serious evils.” Franklin and Benjamin Rush even went so far as to start the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolishment of Slavery. Even then, those that did own slaves would overtime change their ways, as Washington, Jefferson and Madison did, writing of their struggles and plans to free their own slaves and abolish slavery overall. Washington would begin renting out his land to his slaves, pay them wages, and quietly freed many. Jefferson proposed multiple forms of legislation to end slavery in the state of Virginia, where he is quoted saying “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.” The First Continental Congress would agree to discontinue the slave trade and began to boycott any other nations that took part in the slave trade. In fact, when the First Continental congress was established it is recorded that their first order of business was drawing up plans to abolish slavery. One by one, state after state began to pass legislation to end the slave trade, and by the time the US Constitution was created, every state (excluding Georgia) had made the importation of slaves illegal.
Fredrick Douglas, a man born into slavery, escaped and became a major spokesman for abolishment of slavery. He stated that the government that created the Constitution “was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government.” He had also wrote, “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered.”
John Quincy Adams wrote of the hypocrisy of our founding fathers owning slaves, when he wrote,
“The inconsistency of the institution of slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented… no charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence slavery, in common with every mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth.”
Of course there would be strong opposition for the abolishment of slavery, as plantation owners in the South heavily relied on slave labor. They argued that ending slavery would destroy their economy, and even went so far as to draw misconstrued interpretations of Bible verses like the ones mentioned earlier, to add further support for their cause. This stalemate would become one of many issues that eventually lead to the Civil War.
As religious author J. Steven Lang wrote,
“Abolitionists opposed slavery in the U.S., but, their opponents pointed out, the Bible does not condemn slavery. It was accepted as part of life in Biblical times, and in the New Testament Paul counseled Christian slaves to work hard and show kindness to their masters. As centuries passed, most Christian nations outlawed slavery, and many Christians led the fight to abolish slavery in America. Abolitionists pointed to Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek… slave nor free… male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’”
The main driving force behind abolishing slavery had always been one rooted in Biblical principal, that God values all man equally. Christianity (lived out per Biblical principal and Christ’s teachings) was always the most influential factor in motivating men in America to end slavery. Men like John Newton, who used to captain slave ships, converted to Christianity and became a famous hymn writer, and whose writings strongly endorsed ending slavery. Or Samual Sewall, a noted statesman, who wrote America’s first antislavery book, The Selling of Joseph, which made the parallel of slavery in America to the slavery Joseph was sold into in Genesis 37. Or William Wilburforce, a politician deeply devoted to ending slavery who once wrote, “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
There were even many controversial Christians who went so far as to attack and kill slave owners and free the slaves, like abolitionist John Brown, or Henry Ward Beecher who shipped rifles to Kansas in crates that said “Bibles” on the outside. These rifles became known as “Beecher’s Bibles.” Though the violence and vengeance of these men is not to be praised, as many argue it contradicts the peaceful and loving teachings of Christ. The main point is that Christian people were the vanguard to ending slavery.
And who can forget Abraham Lincoln? The President responsible for the ending of slavery was in fact a Christian. His famous words regarding slavery in America were, “A house divide against itself cannot stand.” This line he indicated was derived from Luke 11:17, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and a house divided against a house falls” (NKJV). This was of course referencing the United States being divided and at war with one another. Lincoln would also go on record claiming that Exodus 6:5 was one of the key elements that moved him to write the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 which freed America’s slaves.
In summary, slaves in the bible, even under old Mosaic Law were treated on a much more humane basis, to the point where you could say almost every single mention of slavery in the Bible is more aptly referencing a servant or bond servant. And in no way suggests the slaves are to be treated as ruthlessly as the racial slavery we all associate slavery to be. The bible did not endorse the slave trade. If someone sold themselves into slavery for a predetermined amount of time or to pay off debt, they were under law to be freed once that time was up or the debt was paid in full. Lastly, it was Christians that spearheaded the abolition of slavery world wide, and to this day Christians work hard to end slavery all over the world through various different ministries. For more info go to http://www.freetheslaves.net.
For many people this still isn’t good enough. If the Bible is so dedicated to preaching God’s love and peace, and teaching all men are equal, then it should straight up prohibit slavery. What we need to realize is that slavery, among many other sensitive subjects in the Bible, has always been a dilemma among men in our sin cursed world all through out history. But the Bible was not written to reform society, but instead to reform our souls with God’s salvation. The Bible attacks all of life’s plagues proactively from the inside out. Think about it: When someone accepts the true salvation of God’s love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace, their soul is reformed. Someone who is truly saved by God’s grace and lives like Christ, will treat others with gracious love. The cure to slavery, and the cure to all the plagues in the world, is curing the heart of men, which is the Bible’s purpose. If you can change a man’s heart and soul, you don’t need to outlaw slavery, because a man of God would never treat another man harshly, against his will, to profit from their inhumane labor. That is the approach the Bible takes to slavery, and all of life’s evils.
 “Does the Bible condone slavery?” http://www.gotquestions.org
 Paul Taylor and Bodie Hodge, “The New Answers Book 3” Doesn’t the Bible Support Slavery? (Master Books Green Forest: AR 2009) Pg 325.
 Ibid Pg 324.
 Reverend Mathew Anderson, Ottumwa Iowa, 2/3/2007 as quoted in “The New Answers Book 3” Doesn’t the Bible Support Slavery? (Master Books Green Forest: AR 2009) Pg 327.
 As quoted in Matthew Spalding’s PhD, “How to Understand Slavery in America’s Founding,” http://www.history.org, Aug 26, 2002.
 Much of the opposition for abolishing slavery did revolve around economic factors. The economy in the south had become so dependant on slave labor that ending slavery would surely crash the economy, and subsequently it would. Though we can all agree that maintaining dehumanizing institutions to secure economic stability is unethical to say the least.
 J. Stephen Lang, “1001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible,” (Thomas Nelson Publishing in association with Barnes & Noble, New York: NY 2010) Pg 27.
 “William Wilburforce,” http://www.christianhistorytoday.com, Aug 2008.
 J. Stephen Lang, “1001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible,” (Thomas Nelson Publishing in association with Barnes & Noble, New York: NY 2010) Pg 28.