This is an adapted excerpt from my eBook on Ephesians, Motley Tribe: Real Community Is Not Ideal. You can download your FREE copy here.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ… Masters… stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him, (Ephesians 6:5-9).
An apparent ethical misnomer that is often pointed out concerning the Bible is that nowhere in Scripture does the Bible explicitly condemn slavery.
Many Americans look back on our history with great shame, anger, or regret, yet Scripture doesn’t seem to give us any indication that the institution we now consider an abomination should be outlawed or done away with. This has caused confusion for many Christians, as well as immediate dismissal of Christianity for many non-Christians.
What I want to do is show you a few differences and similarities between slavery in the ancient Roman world and American slavery. And then I’ll share some counter-cultural ways the Bible called slave owners to live that helped to put us on track for abolition in the 19th century.
SLAVERY OUTSIDE OF THE BIBLE
4 ways ancient slavery was different from modern slavery
1. It was not based on race.
“The two biggest causes of slavery in the ancient world were war and poverty, not skin color,” says Jonathan Morrow in his book Questioning the Bible. If you lived during the time of ancient slavery, you would not be able to recognize a slave in public.
There was not a skin color, a required style of clothing, or even an economic status that made slaves similar or recognizable. Slaves spanned every ethnicity, and were slaves for a variety of reasons.
According to the Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, “The poor who were unable to pay their debts could offer themselves as slaves (Ex. 21:2-6; Neh. 5:1-5). A thief who could not repay what he had stolen could also be sold as a slave. Children born of slave parents became ‘house-born slaves’ (Gen. 15:3; 17:12-13). Sometimes children would be taken as slaves in payment for debts (2 Kings 4:1-7).”
This, of course, stands in stark contrast to American slavery, where we immediately associate the wicked institution with African Americans.
2. Slaves were generally educated.
“Education of slaves was encouraged, enhancing their value; some slaves were better educated than their owners… Partially as a result, many slaves functioned in highly responsible and sensitive positions such as workshop and household managers, accountants, tutors, personal secretaries, sea captains and physicians,” says Geoff Ashley of The Village Church.
In other words, some slaves were very smart and even powerful.
Biblical examples include Daniel the prophet, who was on the king’s council in Babylon. This, again, differs from American slavery where the education of slaves was discouraged to keep slaves ignorant and, thus, entirely dependent on their masters for survival.
3. Slaves were not necessarily poor.
“By no means were the enslaved regularly to be found at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Rather those free and impoverished persons who had to seek work each day without any certainty of employment occupied the lowest level…” according to Mr. Ashley.
Think of Joseph from Genesis 39. He was a slave who was also the manager of a rich man’s house, and he eventually became second in command over the entire nation of Egypt.
In the ancient world, slavery didn’t necessarily confine you to a particular class or economic status.
4. Slaves were set free regularly.
“Slaves were allowed to secure their freedom,” according to the Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, and this was a regular occurrence. In fact, “Roman owners freed their slaves in considerable numbers: some freed them outright, while others allowed them to buy their own freedom,” an article at PBS says.
With few exceptions, American slaves were never set free until slavery was abolished.
2 ways ancient slavery resembles 19th-century slavery
1. It was legal to beat, or even kill, your slave.
“Slaves were often whipped, branded or cruelly mistreated. Their owners could also kill them for any reason, and would face no punishment,” according to PBS. While there are significant differences between American and ancient slavery, we cannot be disillusioned to think it was an entirely different practice.
Ancient slavery, while far less horrific than American slavery, was still far from wholesome. It still boiled down to the ownership and control of another person.
“All slaves and their families were the property of their owners, who could sell or rent them out at any time,” PBS says. While they did enjoy privileges and safety that was foreign to colonial America, they were nonetheless the property of another human being. They were bought, sold and rented out.
The loss of a slave more closely resembled the loss of a valuable piece of property than the loss of a person.
SLAVERY IN THE BIBLE
As you can see, there are some encouraging differences, as well as horrific similarities between ancient slavery and American slavery. However, neither of these were the same as Biblical slavery.
While the Bible never explicitly condemns or forbids slavery, it does call the people of God to a radical way of life in the area of slavery. This begins in the Old Testament, and intensifies in the New Testament.
4 Old Testament Commands About Slavery
1. Hebrew slaves were freed every seventh year.
“When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing,” (Exodus 21:2). While non-Hebrew slaves did not participate in this regular cycle of freedom, it was nonetheless extremely counter-cultural to have a federal law dictate freeing slaves regularly.
2. Kidnapping was illegal.
“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)
3. When slaves were freed, they were not to leave empty-handed.
“And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).
4. Value of life
“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth” (Exodus 21:26-27). This is in contrast to even ancient slavery, as mentioned above, where if you hurt a slave there was no punishment since he or she was your property.
New Testament Slavery
The New Testament takes these standards to another level.
Where the Old Testament simply addresses the dos and don’ts, the New Testament addresses the heart, and is in many ways the bedrock for the abolishment of slavery.
1. A call to brotherhood
Paul wrote a letter to a man named Philemon in Scripture. Most scholars believe that Philemon was a slave owner and Paul wrote to him about a runaway slave. Paul writes, “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart… that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but … as a beloved brother,” (Philemon 1:16).
The stories we’ve heard about runaway slaves in colonial America make a couple of things clear. First of all, it was suicide for a slave to run away. And second, if a slave did run away, only heartless folk sent them back.
But here you see three amazing gospel-informed actions. First, Paul sent Onesimus back, not because Paul was cruel, but because he understood gospel reconciliation and community. Second, Philemon received Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother. And third, Onesimus actually went along with the idea. Paul didn’t send him back in chains. Onesimus could have refused.
2. Equality in Christ
In Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (Gal. 3:28–29).
While it’s true that the Bible never explicitly condemns slavery as a whole, that doesn’t mean Scripture turns a blind eye to it. The Bible gives some of the most countercultural and radical commands concerning slavery that the world had ever heard of at that time.
It is Scripture and the obedience to Scripture that put much of our world on a trajectory for abolition around the 19th century.
This is an excerpt from my FREE eBook, Motley Tribe: Real Community Is Not Ideal. Download it here.