Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Does the Bible condone slavery?

This entry continues a critique of Christian Morality written by Dean Dowling. You can read previous parts by clicking on the links below:
  • Part 1: Introduction/General Comments
  • Part 2: Does the Bible provide justification for the persecution of the Jews?
The next accusation Dowling makes against the Bible is that it condones slavery. His evidence for this is, firstly, that Cruden’s Concordance contains two pages of ‘biblical references condoning slavery’. Secondly, he claims the Christian Church became the ‘largest slave owner’. Thirdly, the early Church Fathers adopted Aristotle’s view on the nature of a slave. Fourthly, Pope Paul III granted ‘all clergy the right to keep slaves’. The first thing to point out here is that all but the first piece of evidence have nothing to do directly with the Bible. Just because the early Church Fathers, the Christian Church as a whole, or the Papacy condoned and promoted slavery doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bible condones it. It may be that these individuals and organisations are misusing the Bible (once again) to bolster something immoral. Secondly, recall that Dowling has claimed that the Bible is a necessary condition of the immoralities he lists, including slavery. He contradicts this, however, by stating that the early Church Fathers adopted Aristotle’s view on the nature of a slave as ‘an inspired tool of his master.’ If Aristotle believed in and condoned slavery then it can hardly be said that the Bible is a necessary condition for slavery. In fact, ‘[s]lavery predates writing and evidence for it can be found in almost all cultures and continents. Its many origins remain unknown.’ (Slavery 2006) Clearly, people didn’t need the Bible for justifying slavery! But even if Dowling’s history is flawed, does the Bible, in fact, condone slavery? No, it doesn’t. The only biblical evidence offered by Dowling is that Cruden’s Concordance has two pages of references condoning slavery. The problem with this is that a concordance doesn’t do any more than list all the places in a book where a word occurs. It provides no commentary or analysis. So stating this fact doesn’t tell us anything and to assume that, because the word occurs in the Bible, the Bible condones slavery is naïve at best. The fact is that the Bible doesn’t condone slavery. It does, however, assume it as a cultural practice. Slavery was a common feature of cultures in biblical times. The Bible neither condones nor condemns slavery. What it does do, in some places, is provide moral guidance that, if followed, would make the lot of a slave better than commonly experienced. We will look at some of these shortly. Before that, we need to take a look at the specific biblical references that Dowling selects for his reader to consider. The first is Luke 12:42 which follows a parable Jesus told, the purpose of which is not to teach about slavery but about faithfulness using a cultural practice familiar to his audience. A similar situation occurs in Luke 17:7 where Jesus is using the behaviour of a master in relation to a slave as an analogy to teach that his disciples should not expect rewards for doing what is obligatory anyway. Matthew 18:23 is also part of a parable, the purpose of which is to teach the grace of forgiveness, not to teach anything about slavery. Dowling cites a number of sayings from Pauline literature but, once again, he doesn’t discuss them in their context or with consideration to their purpose. In 1 Corinthians 7:20-22, Paul is telling people not to be concerned about their earthly situation when they were called to be followers of God. If they were slaves, they should consider themselves to be free in the Lord. If the were free, they should consider themselves to be slaves to God. In other words, slave or not, being followers of God is what gives them their true identity. In 1 Timothy 6:1, Paul is addressing some advice to those who are already slaves, calling them to honour God within the situation they find themselves so as not to bring disrepute to God. Titus 2:10 is similar, where Paul is offering advice to a number of individuals, including slaves, exhorting them to live godly lives whatever their situation. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a plea from Paul to Philemon to treat Onesimus, a slave that had absconded, with mercy and goodwill. Paul’s letter is not about the practice of slavery but, rather, a recognition that Onesimus would suffer if Philemon treated Onesimus within the master/slave relationship permitted by the law of his day. Other Pauline texts offered by Dowling (1 Peter 2:18; Ephesians 6:5-6; Colossians 3:24) are all similar in that Paul is offering moral guidance to slaves who are living within the social structure of their day. In all of these cases, Paul’s purpose is not to comment on slavery per se, but to help slaves, who were also Christians, live godly lives under the circumstances in which they found themselves. The civil laws regarding slavery found in Exodus 21 must also be understood as providing proscriptions within the culture of the time. These proscriptions provided a safeguard against the abuses that so often accompanied these social structures and practices. All of this shows how naïve Dowling’s reading of the biblical text is. He is using the biblical material in much the same way that slave-owners used to use it – out of context to bolster up their own views. What Dowling fails to show is the way the trajectory of the biblical material is moving towards the eradication of all forms of oppression. The clearest example of this is Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:
Now before faith came, we [Israel] were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (vv. 23-29, NRSV)
In this passage, Paul (whom Dowling accuses of being pro-slavery) preaches that, now that Christ has come, all of the barriers that divided people are demolished – Jew/Gentile, slave/free; male/female. To suggest that Paul condones slavery per se is just incorrect when he is read in the entirety of his writings. Racism, sexism, and slavery are all gone in Christ, despite the fact that they have persisted culturally. It is absolutely true that Christians, themselves, took centuries to realise the implications of Paul’s gospel. But they did eventually. As long as slavery has existed, their have been those who have worked to abolish it. The book of Exodus in the Bible describes what is perhaps the first detailed account of slave liberation (Slavery 2006). Christians, themselves, have been prominent in abolitionist causes. For example, Wikipedia describes the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade which formed in 1787 which was made up mostly of Quakers and Anglicans. This committee was instrumental in bringing about the end of slavery in Britain (Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade 2006). And, as John Coffey (2006) points out, the teachings of the Bible were central in driving the agenda to abolish slavery. He points out how
The profoundly Christian character of the abolitionist movement constitutes a serious stumbling block for secular commentators who rail against the ‘mixing of religion and politics'. Increasingly these days, secular Europeans and Americans are inclined to see religion as an essentially malign force in human affairs, one that should be excluded from public life, and securely locked away in a privatised compartment. Yet as the abolitionist movement illustrates, public religion has proved a powerful force for reform in Western society. In the last half-century, Christian churches made a vital contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement, the overthrow of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Christian charities also played a central role in the worldwide campaign for the abolition of Third World debt, giving it the biblically resonant name, Jubilee 2000.
Once again, then, we see that Dowling has provided a deeply flawed argument against the Bible and Christian morality. He constantly makes the fundamental mistake of not distinguishing the biblical text from the abuses and distortions made by those who wish to perpetrate evil. Yes, the Christian Church has erred in supporting slavery in the past. But slavery came to an end because of many Christians fighting against it on biblical principles. Dowling’s reading of the Bible and history is naïve and simplistic. Once again his argument fails dismally. References Coffey, J 2006, The abolition of the slave trade:Christian conscience and political action, The Jubilee Centre, viewed 2 January 2006, <http://www.jubilee-centre.org/online_documents/TheabolitionoftheslavetradeChristianconscienceandpoliticalaction.htm%3e. Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 2006, Wikimedia Foundation, viewed 2 January 2006, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Committee_for_the_Abolition_of_the_Slave_Trade%3e. Slavery, 2006, Wikipedia, viewed 9 December 2006, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery%3e.


  1. Thanks for this post. I like your approach and generally agree with your conclusions. The main problem I have is with God's words to Moses found in Exodus 21: 20-21. Verse 21 seems to imply (from my reading) that it is OK (no punishment required) to beat a slave within inches of death (gets up after a day or two) because the slave is his property. I have never been able to get my head around this verse which is straight from God himself. Any thoughts???

  2. Yes, the idea of a person being the property of someone else certainly is not acceptable for us today. A couple of things to keep in mind when reading this text are:

    1. Compared to ancient culture, these passages on the treatement of slaves are an enormous improvement in that they see the slave as a person - something that ancient cultures were not known for.

    2. Even though the slave was considered the property of the owner, he has no right to beat the slave to death deliberately. The underlying principle seems to be that, if a slave is beaten but doesn't die, 'the master intended only to correct him, not to kill him. This is "accidental homicide", and the financial loss incurred by his master in the death of the slave is considered punishment and loss enough.' (Cole 1973, pp. 168-169)

    3. Verse 21 needs to be read alongside vv. 26-27 which provides for the releasing of a slave if they lose an eye or tooth during beating. Once, again, this would be an enormous advance for the time.

    Cole, commenting on these verses, writes:

    'The Torah accepts slavery as an inevitable part of ancient society, much as Paul did, but the new humanitarian approach will ultimately be the death-knell of slavery. In any case, slavery in Israel was rural, domestic and small scale. Not for her were the terrible "slave pens" of imperial Rome, although the mining and building activity of Solomon may have necessitated something of the kind at a later dat than Moses.' (p. 169)

    Overall, then, these commands should be seen as embedded in ancient culture, providing an improved situation for slaves, and moving toward the New Testament teaching of Paul where the gospel is seen to break down the distinction between slave and free. These laws were for Israel and, with the passing of the Old Covenant, no longer apply.

    Hope that helps!


    Cole, A 1973, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.