In this series, we’ll be addressing the 3 criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery:
- In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
- In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
- In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.
Thus, we will be exploring:
- What the Bible says about American slavery.
- What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.
- What the Old Testament says about Israelite slavery.
In the last article, we discussed the differences between American slavery, Roman slavery, and Israelite slavery (Click here to read). In this article we’re specifically be looking at American slavery.
Racism and dehumanization, as well as forced kidnapping and enslavement, characterized American slavery. We’ll look at why someone cannot follow the Bible as the Word of God and practice or support such things like the owning of another human being because of race (or any other reason).
Though many American slave-owners did try to justify slavery with Bible verses from both the Old and New Testament, we’ll see not only why slavery isn’t a biblical concept, but it’s actually anti-biblical. We’ll look closely at the verses the slave-masters use to justify slavery when we specifically address slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. But, for now, this article will give the general biblical principles that make Christianity a faith opposed to slavery.
“Christian” vs. Christian
Yes, in history slave-owners who called themselves Christians, have used the Bible to promote their racist views and justify the ownership and brutality of other human beings. No big surprise. People have tried to twist God’s Word for their own agenda since the beginning of Christ’s church. We see this in the actually letters by and to the first Christians, preserved in the New Testament itself – the Apostles correcting, rebuking, and warning against those who pervert God’s ways to justify their own sinful ways. In a world in rebellion against God, of course many will try to use God’s authority to establish their own selfish authority.
It doesn’t take a genius to look at Jesus Christ, the God who became a man and died as a sacrifice for the sins of all the world without distinction – including slaves and Africans – the God-man who said to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:31), to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44), and to even do good for those who hate you (Luke 6:27) and see that a person who partakes in the cruel practice of slavery is not following Christ at all.
We’re all influenced by our culture, whether we like to admit it or not, so maybe some slave-owners were ignorant – perhaps willingly or not – that they weren’t living God’s commands. In that case, they should’ve been called out as hypocrites. Fellow Christians should’ve called them to repentance and to make reparations for their sins. On the other hand, calling yourself a Christian and quoting the Bible doesn’t make you a follower of Christ any more than calling yourself an elf and reciting the Lord of the Rings makes you Legolas.
The only possibility of a slave-owner and an abolitionist ever both being considered non-hypocritical Christians were if the Bible itself were inconsistent on the topic of slavery, where both slave-owners and abolitionists could pick-and-choose what Bible verses they wanted to follow and still claim to be following God’s Word. Many people who don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word see this as the case. I do believe the Bible is God’s Word, so I do believe it’s consistent on slavery and in all ways, and as we look at some of the “problem passages” later in this GFTM series, you’ll see why. (I discussed the issue of consistency already, so read more here.)
Talking History: Fair & Balanced
Those screaming loudest that Christianity promoted slavery have a selective memory of history. One doesn’t have to look hard to find Christians deeply involved in abolition, human rights, and civil rights movements.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a devout Christian and member of England’s House of Commons, fought for about 20 years in Parliament to end England’s participation in slavery. Only days before he died in 1833, Parliament passed the Abolition Act, freeing 700,000 slaves in the West Indies. By 1840, slavery was completely abolished throughout all of the British Empire, thanks much to Wilberforce’s efforts. Thus, Christians were the first group in history to start an anti-slavery movement.
In the United States, Quakers, followed by evangelicals, were the first to openly oppose slavery. American Elijah Lovejoy, who used his printing office for speaking out against slavery, was a Presbyterian clergyman. Pro-slavery radicals killed him in 1837.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the influential book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was a strong Christian, whose father and brothers, all Christians, contributed to the fight against slavery.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited with spreading the anti-slavery message, which led to the Civil War. America’s first formal proclamation against slavery was by a Christian, a Mennonite, named Franz Daniel Pastorius in 1688.
Before anyone makes the counterargument that everyone back then belonged to a church and considered themselves “Christian” in one way or another so Christianity may have had nothing to do with their anti-slavery stance, let me point out that the above people clearly connected their faith to their opposition of slavery. Furthermore, that counterargument can work in favor of my position: If everyone back then was “Christian” in one way or another, Christianity probably had nothing to do with people’s pro-slavery stance also.
As far as civil rights are concerned, many secularists tend to ignore that Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor, and his speeches and writings are loaded with biblical allusions and principles, and both black and white Christians marched with him.
We could go on, but I think you get the idea. Yes, there were people who held positions of prominence in churches who were pro-slavery, but in the mid-1830s two-thirds of church clergy were abolitionists.  Which group was following the Word of God? Just as it’s important to make the distinction today, we must look back and make a distinction between “cultural Christians” and those who are truly following Christ.
That being said, let’s move on the some specific Bible verses to give us a good starting point for a biblical understanding of slavery.
Enslaving Clearly Forbidden
In the New Testament, 1 Timothy 1:10 includes “enslavers” (ESV) – “kidnappers” (NASB); “slave traders” (NIV/NLT) – in a list of “the ungodly and sinners” and “the unholy and profane.” The original Greek word used here specifically means a person who captures someone in order to sell him into slavery.
Also, in the Old Testament, we find the following verses:
If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. Deuteronomy 24:7
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. Exodus 21:16
Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? To put it plainly, “While both Testaments assume the practice of slavery, both repudiate kidnapping and dealing in slaves.” 
Made in God’s Image
All slavery dehumanizes human beings. With this, American slavery was race-based. In other words, it was racist. Slavery and racism don’t belong in a world ruled by Christ quite simply because all people – men and women – are made in God’s image. In the creation story of Genesis, humankind is the pinnacle of God’s good creation, and all people are descended from this same pair.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27
This easy-to-understand doctrine of the Christian faith has profound implications on how we view and treat others. I wrote before on the biblical case for human value, where I pointed out that the command not to murder is directly related to the idea of all people being made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). Not only that, but because we’re all made in God’s image, we’re not even to speak harshly about others (James 3:8-10; Matt. 5:21-26). Clearly, if this is the case, slavery is forbidden for the Christian. (Click here to read “Judge Not? A Biblical Case for Human Worth.”)
Theologian John Jefferson Davis points out, “God’s creation is immense, but man, as the crown of creation, has a dignity and grandeur that surpasses that of the cosmos.”  This idea of humankind being God’s representative image on God’s earthly temple conveys the “sacredness of human life. This image makes human life unrepeatable and worthy of reverence. All people – regardless of race, sex, class, age, standing, health, appearance, or other distinctions – deserve respect and dignified treatment as the crown of creation. Even people with limited mental capabilities and various other physical handicaps are made in God’s image and there possess immeasurable worth.” 
Christianity is a Faith for All People
A long time ago, the only true God chose a pagan named Abraham and told him that through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Did you get that? All the families of the earth.
Many generations later, that blessing came in the form of Jesus, the God-man, who died for the sins of the world and rose again:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)
Notice, Jesus Christ died for the whole world, and his salvation is available to anyone who believes.
After Jesus’ resurrection, he commands his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
The original Greek word in Matthew 28:19 translated “nations” doesn’t mean a “nation” as in one marked by borders and ruled by a certain government, but a people group that share a certain identity or culture. Basically, Jesus is telling them to spread his teachings to all people, without distinction or discrimination – to every tribe, to every tongue.
Though God created the people of Israel from Abraham to be his representative people on earth, as we see from God’s words to Abraham above, God plan has always been to bring the whole world – all people – to him. This theme is seen throughout the Old Testament. For example,
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
The Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.” Isaiah 56:6-8
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh… And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Joel 2:28-32
A Promise Fulfilled
This future promise was fulfilled, is being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled with the coming of Christ, the establishment of his church, and a the future 2nd Coming of Christ and, with him, the New Heavens and New Earth.
In about 111 AD, Pliny, a pagan Roman senator, wrote to a superior about interrogating people who belonged to this strange new cult called Christians. He reported he tortured “two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses.” This clearly shows that slaves (and women) held important positions early in the church.
But we don’t have to go outside the Bible to see that Christianity valued all people from the beginning of Christ’s church as image-bearer of God:
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:9-14
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. 1 Corinthians 12:12-14
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3:26-29
It’s plain to see that American slavery is not in line with God’s kingdom. But what about the verses from the Bible the slave owners quoted to justify slavery?
Next, we’ll look specifically at the “problem verses” about slavery in the New Testament.
NEXT: Roman Slavery & the New Testament
 Samples, Richard Kenneth. 7 Truths That Changed the World. (Baker Books, 2012). Kindle Edition. Loc 5903.
 D’Souza, Dinesh. What’s So Great About Christianity. (Tyndale House, 2007) P.73.
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 Reaoch, Benjamin. Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate. P & R Publishing, 2012. Kindle Edition. Loc 869
 Samples, Loc 3248.
 Samples, Loc 3248.
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