Morality Ch. 26: Ending Slavery

Old Testament laws allowed slavery (within limits), and the New Testament allowed slave ownership (but not slave trading). However, the context shows God pushing society at each stage in one direction – toward abolition.


The church took a long time to outlaw slavery. You’d think it would have happened when Constantine became the first Christian emperor, but it continued for hundreds of years. In England, it wasn’t until the time of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century that the fight against slavery really began to get started.

Perhaps one of the most devastating criticisms of the Bible is the accusation that it condones slavery and even that the Bible was to blame for its continuation. It is true that the Bible appears to sanction slavery because there are regulations about slavery in the Old Testament, and the New Testament has instruction to slaves to behave respectfully toward their masters. Paul even sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his Christian master, Philemon, asking that he be treated well for Paul’s sake (Phlm 15-18).

But it is a misunderstanding to believe that the Bible commends slavery. That the Bible regulates it doesn’t mean that God approves of it. If it did, we’d conclude that our government commends all manner of child labor because it has so many laws that regulate it. These laws set limitations – children can’t be forced to work, they must do so in safe environment, they can only do certain types of work, and their hours of work are restricted. Just as child employment is not forbidden but highly controlled, the law of Moses strictly regulates the treatment of slaves, although it doesn’t prohibit slavery.

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Part of the family

Slaves under the Old Testament law couldn’t be ill-treated, had one day off per week (like everyone else), and had to be fed properly – it was even expected that they would eat with the family at feasts such as Passover if they were circumcised (Exod 12:44). Medieval Jewish expert Maimonides says that early rabbis used to make sure their slaves ate first in case there wasn’t enough food, because unlike family members, slaves had a legal right to that food.1

Most slaves in Israel were volunteers. That sounds like an oxymoron; however, in the days before banking, volunteering as a slave was the normal way to borrow money. If you needed a dowry for a daughter’s marriage, you agreed with a local farmer to work for him for the next six years in return for your wages up front. During that time, you weren’t given any pay (because you’d already received it), and the farmer was responsible for feeding and housing you – though he might not mind you sleeping at your own home. At the end of six years (the maximum allowed for this arrangement), some people decided they liked the work and the family life, so they asked to stay on; there was even a special ceremony for marking this (Deut 15:16-17).

Occasionally in the nation’s history, the Israelites obtained slaves by defeating their enemies in nearby nations. The enslavement of these captives didn’t end after six years, but they still had to be treated properly. If you hit your slave and knocked their tooth out, they could go free, and if you killed a slave, you were treated in the same way as if you’d murdered a free man (Exod 21:20, 27). Remarkably, a slave was allowed to run away from a master and find a better one – it was illegal to force a slave to return to a master (Deut 23:15-16). Of course, we know the Israelites didn’t keep all of these laws all the time (they were sinners like we are), but these were the rules that God gave them to set them apart from other nations, whose treatment of slaves was very different.

Property, not people

In New Testament times, Jews lived in the world of Roman law, which regarded slaves as property without any individual rights. After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, Jews passed a new law that forbade any Jew from ever becoming a slave, voluntarily or through debt. They also decided to treat non-Jewish slaves in accordance with Old Testament rules. Philo (a Jewish preacher in Egypt during Jesus’ lifetime) says Jews should always remember that all men and women are equal in God’s sight – and Paul uses exactly the same terminology (Col 4:1).2

Paul couldn’t go as far as telling Christians to release their slaves because it was illegal in Roman law to set free a slave under thirty years old.3 Instead, he tells them to treat slaves with respect, like other workers, and if the slave is a Christian he is to be thought of as a “brother” (Phlm 16). Presumably, this “respect” included the normal Roman practice of manumission – that is, legally freeing them at age thirty so that they became proper Roman citizens with all of a citizen’s rights and earning capacity. This practice was widespread, and some of the biggest and richest tombs along the Appian Way in Rome were built for slaves who founded thriving businesses after they were freed.

What Paul could do was to utterly condemn slave trading – as he does in 1 Timothy 1:10, which became the key text for Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire during the early nineteenth century. This condemnation is reiterated in Revelation, where slave traders are named among the evil members of a satanic empire that God will destroy (Rev 18:13).

God’s long-term plan

Instead of condoning slavery, the Bible shows us that God’s plan was to gradually push the Jews and then Christians toward renouncing it, first by establishing rights for slaves and then by pointing out that all humans are equal (Gal 3:28). This should have resulted in the ending of slavery as soon as Christians had the political power to do so … but it didn’t happen like that. The church didn’t recognize God’s plan.

Any coach knows that you can’t produce a perfect athlete in a single training session. You have to deal with each flaw gradually. This often means that coaches will put up with some faults while dealing with others because they have in mind the end of the process. Throughout the Bible, God is dealing with humanity in the same way, gradually showing us how to live with each other. Understanding his plan helps us understand the Bible. We shouldn’t dismiss Old Testament law as irrelevant, nor should we view it as his final aim: it is a part of a process. Along with the New Testament, it forms God’s training manual for societies and for individuals.

Some processes – such as the abolition of slavery – require a longer trajectory, so it is especially important that we recognize God’s plan. Slavery and other ways of subjugating fellow humans were too ingrained to be abolished even by New Testament times. So the Bible states that the end point is equality for all humans and leaves the church to complete the process that has been started.

The laws about slavery are certainly not timeless. This is clear because they change between the Old Testament and New Testament. In the Old Testament, slaves are clearly not regarded as equal because they cannot marry when they wish, and of course they have to do exactly as they are told. New Testament Letters couldn’t tell Christians to illegally free their slaves, but they are told to treat them as much as possible as equals: “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” (Eph 6:9); “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1); “believing masters … are devoted to the welfare of their slaves” (1 Tim 6:2).

Another indication that these laws are not timeless is that they reflect the culture of the time. The Old Testament laws were much more on the side of the slave than laws in surrounding countries, but they were nevertheless influenced by them, and New Testament rulings were constrained by the overwhelming might of Roman law. However, in both cases, the laws given to believers are pushing them in the same direction – toward treating all people, including slaves, as equal in God’s sight. This shows us the timeless and eternal purpose of God to make us recognize equality in every human before God.

We perhaps fool ourselves into thinking that Western society has progressed so much further than the Old Testament. It is true that laws enshrine the right for each individual to be free, but there is no right for every individual to be fed and housed. Slaves had guaranteed housing, food, and, of course, work. Many individuals in modern society would love to be in the situation of ancient Israelite slaves.

Yet modern-day slaves are not in that position, and there is much more work to do in order for them to be free. Today, slavery is officially illegal throughout the world, but an estimated twenty-five to forty million people are still enslaved.4 The problem and scope of international human trafficking is greater than it has ever been. Through movements like Stop the Traffik,5 the church still has vital role to play in helping to fulfill God’s plan to bring freedom to all.




1^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Avadim 9:8 (TinyURL.com/MaimonAvadim9).
2^ Philo, Special Laws 2.68, trans. C. D. Yonge (TinyURL.com/PhiloSpecial2).
3^ Augustus made this limitation in Lex Aelia Sextia of AD 4 to prevent too many slaves being freed early. Census returns in Egypt and tombstones in Rome indicate that most slaves were indeed freed in their thirties. See more at TinyURL.com/LexJuniaNorbana.
4^ According to the International Labour Organisation; see TinyURL.com/ILO-Slavery.
5^ www.stopthetraffik.org.



This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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