Is the Bible Pro-Slavery?

Author Jonathan Noyes Published on 07/03/2024

Do you think the Bible is a good book? This is the question I’ve been asking college students while visiting their campuses recently. No, they’ll often say, the Bible is not good. But why?

Some say it’s oppressive to women. Some bring up LGBTQ+ issues. Some mention Jesus’ claim to exclusivity. There’s one reason, however, almost every student gives. Virtually everyone I talk with says the Bible condones slavery. Is this true? No, at least not in the way they think it is. Here are three reasons why.

First, the Bible teaches that all human beings have equal value. Presuming some human beings are less valuable than others because of their appearance, their beliefs, or their ethnicity is, of course, an unbiblical concept. The Bible teaches that every human is valuable for one reason: Each is made in the image of God.

Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” God’s image in you makes you valuable regardless of the color of your skin, your religion, or where you were born. That intrinsic, transcendent value and worth of every human being is undermined by slavery since it causes violence to image bearers.

Second, the Bible reformed slavery. The Old Testament Law does allow for slavery of sorts. Remember, slavery was around long before the Mosaic Law—and every country practiced it—so, the Bible didn’t start slavery. It also didn’t end it, because that wasn’t the Law’s purpose. Instead, the Law improved conditions of a practice already in place.

Slavery in the Bible was not like slavery was in the United States. For example, when a Hebrew man or woman found themselves in financial hardship, they had the option to “sell” themselves into servitude. Several laws in Exodus and Leviticus were meant to protect those indentured servants. For example, Exodus 21:2 says that in the seventh year of service, all such male slaves “shall go out as a free man without payment.” (Female slaves could also be redeemed or simply go free for nothing if they weren’t provided for properly—21:7–11). Leviticus 25:39–40 says these “slaves” were to be treated as “a hired man, as if he were a sojourner.” Verse 43 says, “You shall not rule over him with severity.”

The Bible does allow for something more closely resembling chattel slavery. In Leviticus 25, after Israel’s conquest of Canaan, God allowed the Hebrews to take slaves from the remaining Canaanites. Notice the instructions were given under specific circumstances, though. One sign of conquering a people group was to take captive and enslave the survivors. The instructions in Leviticus were to a specific group of people at a specific time in history regarding a specific event. This is hardly an endorsement of slavery today, never mind what occurred during the North American slave trade. In fact, Exodus 21:16 explicitly prohibits the kidnapping and selling of human beings: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.”

The New Testament also addresses slavery. Ephesians 6:9 instructs slave owners to “give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” Colossians 4:1 is similar: “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” In both instances, Paul instructs slave owners to remember to treat their slaves well because they also have a Master in heaven.

The Mosaic Law was not written to justify slavery. Instead, the Bible improved on a flawed human system by granting basic rights to servants and slaves and restricting how masters were to treat them. This important detail is usually overlooked by critics.

It was historically unprecedented for a slave to have any rights. Outside of Israel, slaves had no rights at all. Under God’s Law, though, slaves had the right to marry (Ex. 21:3) and the right to food and clothing (Ex. 21:10). God also restricted the punishment a master could impose on a slave (Ex. 21:20, 26–27). Instead of condoning slavery, the Bible reformed slavery as an institution. But there’s more.

Third, the Bible ultimately liberates all slaves. No, Jesus and the apostles didn’t condemn slavery outright. They didn’t have to. Instead, they let the gospel do that work, which is better than any law or political policy because it produces changed hearts.

Everyplace Christianity takes a firm hold on culture, slavery is eventually eliminated. Abolition is rooted in the biblical teaching that all men are created in the image of God and are therefore equal in value and worth. The Bible provides grounds for antislavery laws by prohibiting kidnapping (Ex. 21:16, 1 Tim. 1:8–10). The Bible teaches slaves are truly our brothers (Philem. 1:16). Best of all, Jesus offers true spiritual freedom to every human being of every tribe and every tongue.