Thursday, November 1, 2012

Would You Stand Up for (the Biblical View on) Slavery??

I was recently reading some comments about the issue of submission - specifically about wives submitting to their husbands - and noticed that several writers seemed to consider the issue of slavery to be a key to the interpretation of the passages, ie. the Bible seems to support slavery, but nowadays we know that slavery is wrong. So if the Bible is out of date about slavery it can be out of date about wives submitting too. (see, eg. Matt Hounslow's blog, and this article by Dorothy Lee on the Melbourne Anglicans website).

It got me thinking about the Biblical teaching on slavery - a subject I have looked at recently in 1 Peter and Ephesians. These thoughts came to mind:

The command for slaves to submit to their masters is found in both Ephesians (6:5ff) and 1 Peter (2:18ff). In the first century most slavery was parallel to imprisonment rather than the kind of chattel slavery we imagine from 18th century American History. Slaves may have been prisoners of war or bankrupts or other kinds of criminals. Many slaves were freed after their allotted time was complete. No doubt there was too much abuse of slaves, but this does not make the system an absolute wrong.

While Paul encourages Christian slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Cor 7:21) he also tells them to remain in the situation they were in when they were called. He sends runaway slave Onesimus back to Philemon (with the request that Philemon send the bill for his punishment to Paul and a hint that Philemon should let him go!)  Slavery as such is never outright condemned.

What is condemned in the Bible is 'slave-trading' or kidnapping. (See 1 Timothy 1:10). If we recognise that most 'slaves' were kidnapped and / or sold illegally then this will give us the Biblical argument against institutional slavery.

A very helpful read on first century slavery (and the biblical imagery of slavery) is Murray Harris’ book ‘Slave of Christ’.

This is not to say that I am a supporter of modern slavery - in fact I pray and seek to do what I can to end such slavery - especially sexual slavery. If we define slavery as the denial of freedom and other 'rights' then prisoners fit into that definition - yet I don't hear many people arguing that imprisonment of criminals is wrong per se.

The significance of what I am saying is that I believe we cannot say that the Bible condemns slavery outright. Nor can we say that we condemn everything included under the Biblical category of 'slavery'. If this is so then we can't use the argument outlined above as a 'clincher' in the arguments on submission.

Interested in your comments . . .


  1. Thanks Mr B.

    I think that, just as we can't easily say, 'The Bible condemns slavery outright', so too we say, 'You & I don't condemn slavery outright.'

    We depend upon modern slavery (for cheap goods, for companies saving money by outsourcing or shifting operations to where labour laws are woeful, etc). It's fundamental to our economy. We moderns are, I believe, hypocrites here.

    Stick with it, Richard!

    Little Chris

  2. Thanks for your comment Chris. I suspect there are many levels of 'slavery' in our world - too many of them involving the stealing or exploitation of children. (I recently saw a documentary updating the progress of anti child-slavery laws on the Ivory Coast 10 years on - specific to the Cocoa trade. It seems they are being implemented VERY slowly). We can obviously do more here, but promoting 'fair trade' products is a start.

    There does come a point where the lines blur - like the exploitation of workers in developing countries - which are responsible for producing many of the 'brands' we use. The campaigns to boycott or challenge these brand-name producers can make a difference. Of course, we can always reduce our own consumption and take greater care there.