Is the Bible ambiguous on slavery?

It’s an argument that comes up fairly regularly when people are trying to make a point about how Christians have often ended up on, what they see as, the wrong side of justice issues. Look at slavery, look at women, look at sexuality. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Or so the argument goes.

And of course the history of Christianity is littered with bad examples or very mixed examples. Take two heroes of evangelical history: George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. Both great men. Both slave owners.

Product of their times you might think but these men were capable of independent thought. Their contemporary Adam Smith was capable of being anti-slavery (see also this) so why weren’t they?

Examples like Whitefield & Edwards force us to ask as Philip Jenkins asks:

Do all historical slave owners need to be condemned to oblivion and obloquy? Does the fact of that slave owning need to be acknowledged in all references to them and their work? Was it a defining part of their historical reality?

You might answer either way but it pushes us into how these men, like many others, could miss what seems to us as so obvious. Slavery then (and now) was awful. Then, unlike now, had far too many Christians as defenders and advocates of the practice. Is the Bible then to blame by sending mixed signals when it comes to slavery?

Sam Storms gives 10 things you should know about the Bible & Slavery although as you’re about to see I’d like to be a little bolder. I think a case can be made that the Bible is not nearly as equivocal as is sometimes claimed.

Consider the following statements:

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death

Exodus 21:16

If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.

Deuteronomy 24:7

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted;“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted;

Amos 2:6-7

You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border. Behold, I will stir them up from the place to which you have sold them, and I will return your payment on your own head.

Joel 3:6-7

“We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?

Nehemiah 5:8-9

But then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves. “Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor;

Jeremiah 34:16-17

…enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine

1 Timothy 1:10

Then there are the stories: Joseph being sold into slavery was a BAD THING! And the biggest thing is that the Bible contains a whole book that is about how God rescues His people from what…SLAVERY and this event shapes everything in every other book and provides a paradigm for understanding God as one who liberates slaves.

But, but, but… there are people being bought and sold in the Bible and there are regulations about the keeping of slaves from other places and nowhere does it call for the abolition of slavery in other places. True, true, true. No getting around that it’s true.

The Bible exists in a world where slavery existed, was common and was awful. So what do we do with the unsettling lack of clear condemnation of the slavery practiced by others (although note in Joel as in Exodus it brings upon those nations the judgement of God). The story of the Bible isn’t about the politics of other nations but the politics of the people of God. We are not to capture people for slaves, we are not to sell or buy our own as slaves, if there are slaves we are to give them opportunity for freedom and they should take it, and we should then treat them as brothers & sisters and be a people who are free, and free people who are not.

The picture we have is of a society where the capturing of people for slavery is outlawed & punishable by death. It is contrary to their doctrine. Those who sell themselves into slavery (to avoid starvation) must periodically be offered their freedom once they have economically recovered. They must not be mistreated, abused or killed. Leading to a time where there were no slaves at all (Gal 3:28).

This isn’t surprising after all we follow the one who said this of himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

As the story moves on and we study the history of the early church this is how they thought. They had one rule for how Christians should live but accepted the reality of the world around them. They called for Christians to live differently but weren’t so occupied with the idea that Christians could or should try and change the world. As Jenkins says:

Early Christians advocated plenty of things that would, if implemented, have vastly improved the conditions of slaves. Very, very, few advocated the ending of slavery, or even conceived of such a world, except in an apocalyptic or messianic context.

Fast forward a thousand years or more and slavery is still a feature of the world and it affects people everywhere. A less widely known fact is that for hundreds of years Europeans were also often captured and sold into slavery. So for example:

Over the three century period 1500-1800, the Tatar total of Christian slaves must have exceeded three million. In reality, then, the likely total for Islamic slaving in Europe would have been considerably less than the African trade, but it was still very significant.

Yet it was the African slave trade that was the worst. It was both worse than you think and more extensive than you realised.

African slave trade (1450-1808) from r/MapPorn

It was an evil that ranks high amongst historical evils and it is an enduring shame that so many Christians were guilty of fully profiting from, enabling and defending this evil. That they could do so was only real possible by another sin – that of racism, that allowed them to dehumanize a group of people to create in their eyes a justifiable exception. But like many evil things it could not endure. The abolitionists were coming.

Some like Steven Pinker claim that it was the Enlightenment that should take the credit for the abolitionist movement. Yet as Tyler Cowen notes this should be taken with a pinch of salt.

I would note also that so many of the most radical abolitionists, including in Britain, were Christians.  It is fine to consider them part of the Enlightenment as well, but still to describe the Enlightenment as “the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave” seems off-base to me.

Indeed it was Christians who saw clarity in the Bible and saw clearly the evil of slavery when many others were blind to it. They stood up and campaigned for abolition, yes even against Christian opponents. Standing on the conviction that the Bible was not ambiguous about slavery gave people like William Wilberforce & Thomas Clarkson (I recommend this biography by the way) the courage to campaign as they did. Christians campaigned against slavery then. They still do now and that’s exactly as it should be.

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