Does the Bible condone slavery?

Someone once asked me, “Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?” He’d been reading some bits of the Bible (in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Philemon) and couldn’t find anything saying slavery was wrong. He therefore concluded that the Bible condones slavery. Was he right?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “slave.” Today, it makes us think of the horrific race-based “colonial slavery” that took place in the 17th-19th centuries on plantations in the Americas, and sometimes even closer to home: there are slaves mentioned in the baptism and burial records of the nearby village of Twyning!

However, the word had a more complex meaning in the ancient world. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as slave in modern Bibles can mean a colonial-type slave or a servant or a bondservant. A bondservant was typically someone who got into debt and had no alternative but to sell themselves into the service of a rich master for a period of time. In exchange, this master would clear their debt, pay them a wage, house them and feed them (and their family). Arguably that’s a better deal than you’d get from Wonga, and isn’t so far removed from the idea that Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, proposed on Question Time recently: to pay off junior doctors’ student loans if they’d commit to working in Manchester for five years after they graduated!

So when we read the word “slave” in the Bible, we have look for clues in the surrounding verses to work out which of the three meanings the author meant. Here are a few examples:

  1. Joseph – (he of the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) – is a classic colonial slave: assaulted by his brothers and sold to slave traders who sold him into the service of an Egyptian nobleman.
  2. Moses and the whole people of Israel in Egypt are also classic colonial slaves: cruelly treated, they have no hope of freedom.
  3. 3.The slaves held by the Israelites in Leviticus 25 (from v39 onwards) are most likely bonded servants, because the passage sets out how, if there was no help available from family, a debtor could sell himself into slavery to clear the debt.
  4. Onesimus – the slave who features in Paul’s letter to Philemon is most likely a bonded servant too (though there’s no way to know for certain).

What does the Bible think of these different types of slavery? Does it condemn or condone them? It can hardly be said to condone slavery when it condemns any trading activity involving slaves. Exodus 21:16 says

“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.”

St Paul echoes this in the New Testament by including slave traders in a list of breakers of God’s moral law (1Timothy 1:9-10).

We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

The Bible also condemns any abuse of power in a master-slave relationship – see for example Ephesians 6:9:

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

– and encourages slaves who have become Christians to seek freedom if they are able (1Corinthians 7:21).

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.

So the Bible doesn’t condone slavery, but nor does it go the whole hog and condemn it by commanding that all slaves be set free. The most plausible reason for this is political. It took Christian MP William Wilberforce decades of coalition-building and campaigning at the highest level of a relatively democratic government to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. The early Christians had none of his advantages – they were a tiny, powerless, persecuted sect living in an autocratic Empire that had slavery at every level of its life. Changing this was too big a task for such a small group of people; so instead they set about changing hearts and minds by caring for the sick, widows and orphans, all the while sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t, however, excuse later generations of Christians who did have the power and influence to change things, and either didn’t use it, or took advantage of the Bible’s varied meaning of the word slave to continue to profit from slavery.

Thankfully there have always been those who vocally opposed slavery. For example, St Wulfstan, the 11th century Bishop who laid the foundations of Worcester Cathedral and Malvern Priory, was an outspoken mediaeval opponent of slavery. But it wasn’t until the Evangelical Awakening of the late 18th century that Christians really began to mobilise, leading to the abolition of slavery in first the British Empire and then the Americas.

Tragically that struggle continues today. The Christian charity International Justice Mission estimates that there are some 40 million modern slaves worldwide, and Christian charities across the world continue to be at the forefront of the battle to set them free.

If you would like to know more about the campaign to end modern slavery, visit

First published in the Bridge Magazine, February 2018

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