The Bible and Slavery

Why does Paul in his letters urge Christian slave-owners to treat their slaves well, rather than urge them to free their slaves? Isn’t slavery sinful?

Like so many other things in life…it depends. It depends upon (among other things) how the person came to be a slave. The Bible in no uncertain terms condemns the practice of kidnapping for the purpose of turning free men into slaves. In Exodus we read,

Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him [the stolen man], shall be put to death (Ex. 21:16).
And Paul, in 1 Timothy 1:8-10, also condemns “man-stealing” or “kidnapping” for the purpose of making slaves.

But is being kidnapped the only way someone might be made a slave? The answer is no. The Bible recognizes several forms of lawful slavery. The first is as a means of paying back a debt. Let’s say a man has borrowed a sum of money and is unable to repay what he owes. Should he be allowed to default on the loan? No, because that would be a form of theft. He’s stealing from the lender if he doesn’t pay back what he owes. Should a third party be forced to pay what the borrower owes? No, because that also is a form of theft, unless the third party has consented to cosign the loan. The responsibility should lie upon the borrower.

But what if he simply doesn’t have the means to repay? If it is a large sum of money, the borrower might become a slave to the lender and work for him until his debt is paid off. The lender has a rightful (or a legal) claim upon the fruit of the borrower’s labor until his debt is paid. One way this is accomplished in the modern world is by the creditor getting a court order to garnish the wages of the debtor. If it is a smaller sum he owes, instead of working directly for the lender, the borrower might be sold to a third party, with the purchase price going to the lender. Then the borrower works as a slave for the third party until his purchase price is worked off. The same is true in the case of a thief who is caught, but is unable to repay what he has stolen. In such a case, he might be compelled to work off his debt. Likewise with other forms of criminal conduct that result in financial loss to the victim. The wrongdoer has a legal liability to make up for the loss he caused.

Another form of lawful involuntary servitude involves captives taken in a just war. What should be done with captives taken in war, or with the fighting men of a defeated enemy? There are three options: (1) They could all be released. But then they might simply bide their time until they think they’re strong enough to renew their hostilities and then you find yourself at war with them all over again. (2) They could all be slaughtered. This was a common practice in the ancient world and has been known to happen in modern times, as well; give the enemy no quarter; they all die. (3) They could be enslaved. This not only reduces the chance of renewed hostilities, but also contributes to recovering the costs of the war.

This is one of the dilemmas that we face with the prisoners held at Guantanomo Bay. The rationale for keeping them locked up is to prevent them from continuing their fight against us, either in terrorist acts or on the battlefield. In fact, a good number of these prisoners who have been released (1 in 7) have reentered the fight against us.

So what do you do? It’s not as easy as some people make it sound. Sometimes what sounds good in theory doesn’t work out so well in the real world.

So the Scriptures permit involuntary servitude under certain circumstances in order to make the best out of the harsh realities of life in a fallen world. But the practice of slavery is moderated. There are certain rights possessed by slaves. They are to be treated justly and with consideration. And, at least with those who are slaves because of their debts or crimes, they are to be helped along to gain the moral responsibility and financial idependence necessary to live as free men, because there is a length limit to their term of service.

And we should observe also that Biblically sanctioned slavery does not regard the person but the labor of the slave as the property of the owner. The slave owner has a lawful claim on the labor of the slave. He doesn’t own the person; he owns his labor.

This is an important distinction. A slave-owner was not permitted to do whatever he wanted with his slave as he might do with a piece of property. If an owner mistreated a slave so that permanent bodily damage resulted, the slave was to be set free (Ex. 21:26-27). If he murdered his slave he would be punished (Ex. 21:20-21).

I must stress that I'm talking about Biblically sanctioned slavery. It’s slavery regulated by God’s law, which was far different from how slavery might be practiced—and has been practiced—in other cultures, like Greece and Rome and Egypt and Babylon and Persia.

In the U.S. it's difficult to think today about slavery without thinking in terms of skin color. The Bible, of course, gives no warrant to slavery which is based on race.

I should make the point also that many people are under the mistaken impression that slavery was outlawed in the United States by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But this is simply not true. The amendment reads as follows.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
This is essentially the position of the Bible. Enslaving law-abiding free men, as we have seen, was punishable by death under Biblical law. But those who defaulted on loans or were guilty of crimes for which they were unable to make restitution might be forced to work off their debt. Is that really so unreasonable?

Let me add one more thing. Are those in prison today there voluntarily or involuntarily? Except for a few, who perhaps are willing to trade their liberty for the security of knowing they’ve got three free meals a day and a free roof over their head, most are there involuntarily. The modern prison system is in fact a form of involuntary servitude, in that people are held there against their will—except that prisoners are usually not made to work. We have nearly 2 million sentenced prisoners in the United States being held in various federal or state prisons. Most of them are idle. They are not productive, but instead are burden to society as billions of tax dollars are being spent to guard, feed, and house them. We really need a whole-scale reform of our judicial system, especially in sentencing. In broad strokes, instead of putting everyone, regardless of the nature of their crimes, into one large holding tank (prison), those whose crimes have resulted in financial loss ought to be made to work to pay restitution to their victims.

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