Does the Bible Endorse Slavery? Explore More Content
CNN is airing a program this weekend about slavery and the Bible. From this article, it appears there is an attempt to understand the texts in historical context. But I think it still fails to take into account the implications of the Christian worldview on the institution of slavery, and ultimately how how we value all people.
It's important to understand the Bible, as we would any ancient document, in its historical context. Even though it uses the same terms, like slave, it doesn't necessarily use them in the same way. The practice of slavery in Biblical times - the practice it is addressing - is quite different from slavery in the U.S. and occurring around the world today. Further, the Bible's teaching teaches the principles of human value that reformed the practice then and fueled the abolition movement in the 18th and 19th century. It was even the background worldview of the civil rights movement.
The CNN article says that Jesus was silent about slavery and the apostle Paul was ambiguous on slavery. Paul Copan explains the New Testament's view of slavery, and neither of these claims is accurate:
Though critics claim New Testament writers keep quiet about slavery, we see a subtle opposition to it in various ways. We can confidently say that Paul would have considered antebellum slavery with its slave trade to be an abomination — an utter violation of human dignity and an act of human theft. In Paul’s vice list in 1 Timothy 1:9,10, he expounds on the fifth through the ninth commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). There Paul condemns “slave traders” who steal what is not rightfully theirs.4
Critics wonder why Paul or New Testament writers (cp. 1 Peter 2:18–20) did not condemn slavery and tell masters to release their slaves. We need to first separate this question from other considerations. New Testament writers’ position on the negative status of slavery was clear on various points: (a) they repudiated slave trading; (b) they affirmed the full human dignity and equal spiritual status of slaves; (c) they encouraged slaves to acquire their freedom whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:20–22); (d) their revolutionary Christian affirmations, if taken seriously, would help tear apart the fabric of the institution of slavery, which is what took full effect several centuries later — in the eventual eradication of slavery in Europe; and (e) in Revelation 18:11–13, doomed Babylon (the world of God-opposers) stands condemned because she had treated humans as “cargo,” having trafficked in “slaves [literally ‘bodies’] and human lives” (verse 13, NASB). This repudiation of treating humans as cargo assumes the doctrine of the image of God in all human beings.
Copan's analysis of the Old Testament is also helpful. He points out the reform nature of the Mosaic Law on ancient slavery. Israel had laws that prevented slaves from being harmed and being returned if they escaped. It also prevented kidnapping, which is linked to human traficking. Such principles mean the Bible could never have been understood accurately and used to condone the kind of slavery practiced in the U.S. Copan deals with other Old Testament passages on slavery. (You can also listen to Greg Koukl interview Copan on this STR radio program - third hour.)