Does the Bible Accept Slavery as a Legitimate Economic Institution? A Textual Survey and Its Import

David Burchard Christian Ethics, Culture/Current Events, Doctrine Leave a Comment

Recently a man asked me, “Does the New Testament accept, or even justify, slavery?”

In this post I will do 5 things:

1. I will answer the question.

2. I will make some preliminary comments on the question itself.

3. I will explain my answer from the Bible.

4. I will speak to why answering this question well, truthfully and in the right way, matters for Christians.

5. Lastly, I will speak to the significance of my answer for non-Christians.

The Answer

The New Testament does accept slavery as an economic institution.

Why do I say something so “self-evidently false”?

Comments on the Question

Six things before I explain myself.

1. When we come to the Bible, we need to check our feelings at the door. Our question when we read the Bible is, “What is true?”. It is not, “What do I want to be true?” or “What have I believed to be true in the past?” Our wants and past beliefs are to melt before the truth of Scripture. So, to be clear, when we ask what is true, our feelings are irrelevant. The question posed is purely doctrinal.

2. Institutions are different than their abuses. When we confuse the two, we are unable to think clearly. A monarchy is distinct from the abuse of monarchy. Male headship is distinct from the abuse of male headship. An abuse can be wrong without the institution that is abused being wrong.

3. Denying someone’s image-bearing status, and thus their inherent human dignity, is blasphemously sinful. It is to lie about the God in whose image they are made. Examples of actions that deny or deface someone’s image-bearing status include physically mutilating them without just cause, disregarding the validity of their marriage covenant or nuclear family bonds, raping them, killing them without just cause, literally saying they are less than fully human, refusing to sit beside someone in church because of a physical attribute, etc.

4. What someone is paid for their work says absolutely nothing about their humanity. A CEO gets paid tens of millions of dollars for his work. I get paid tens of thousands for my work. Someone at McDonald’s gets paid tens of dollars for their work. In those differences of pay, there is no statement that the CEO is more human than me. On that principle, I can increase pay indefinitely without ever speaking to someone’s humanity; and I can decrease pay to zero without speaking to someone’s humanity.

5. The prompt does not ask, “Is slavery best?” (I would make the case that it is not best for an economy). It asks, “Is slavery allowed?” To phrase it another way, “Is slavery inherently wrong?”

6. I am not concerned in this post with any one historical practice of slavery. That is irrelevant to the specific question being considered. The question flatly pertains to slavery as an economic institution, in which one human is a master and one human is a slave, in which a human labors and is paid zero units of the local currency, in which one human “owns” another human. Again, I am not speaking to one specific practice of slavery.

With those comments, I shall explain my position with attempted clarity and brevity.

Explanation of Answer

As an apostle, Paul is given the keys of the kingdom (see Matthew 16). So he has formal authority to declare the what of Christianity (true doctrine) and the who of Christianity (who is and isn’t a Christian, what can Christians do or not do). This same authority is given to each local church in Matthew 18. Paul unashamedly exercises this authority as he writes much to local churches on what is and isn’t Christian thinking and living. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, he denounces what was being believed and taught, being very clear that one cannot believe that message and be a Christian. You’re in or you’re out on that matter.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul denounces the life of a member of the church in chapter 5. He was both characterized as “brother” and characterized by a particular behavior, sleeping with his father’s wife. Paul is clear that such a man cannot be identified as both “Christian” and “with-father’s-wife-sleeper”. It is necessary, precisely because what the man was doing was sinful, for him to take off one of the two identifiers. Either he takes off the “I sleep with my stepmom” label in repentance, or he is to have the “Christian” label removed by the church due to his unrepentance. He is unrepentant and so Paul demands that the church, for the honor of Jesus’ name, the good of the church, the good of the sinner, and the good of the surrounding pagans, excommunicate the man.

Paul has a well-oiled apostolic trigger finger. His aim is sure. His shots pack a punch.

Paul also wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus. In chapters 5 and 6 of this letter, Paul takes time to discuss the righteous use of authority and righteous submission. He lovingly takes his time and canonical space to speak to particular subsets of those who would hear the letter written. So he writes to those who are both characterized as “Christian” and “husband” or “wife”. Far from saying that being a husband is sin and therefore husbands are characterized by sin and must either repent or be excommunicated, he instructs husbands on how to use their husbandly authority righteously. And he instructs wives to submit, for the sake of righteousness. He also talks to parents and their children. And…

He writes to masters and slaves. You can read what he says in Ephesians 6:5-9. I’ve saved you the look-up time by posting the relevant passage below:

Servants [slaves], be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

In these verses, Paul has words for men who had multiple identities. First, these men were identified as Christians. They were members of the church in Ephesus. He is not writing to those outside the church. He already made clear in 1 Corinthians 5 that he doesn’t bother judging those outside the church; for pagans shall pagan. These church members also did something that was so prominent that they are characterized, identified by it. They own slaves. They are slave masters.

And so, like in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul recognizes that as sleeping with your stepmom is wrong, so owning slaves is wrong, denounces the fact that the Ephesian church is tolerating such gospel defamation, and demands the excommunication of those who would not repent. He says, “You either keep the Christian label and remove the master label, or you keep the master label and remove the Christian label.”

Well, no. That’s not what he says, is it? He actually believes that someone can be both marked as a Christian and a slave owner and be righteous. He actually looks at slave owners and says, “Rule this way. Rule in righteousness.” It is not possible to do something inherently wrong in righteousness. It can’t be done. That which is done in unrighteousness is unrighteousness.

Paul is clear. The dynamic of master-slave is not wrong. Paul is clear that slavery as an economic institution is not inherently wrong. It can exist righteously, even among church members.

So does the Bible allow slavery? Does the Bible permit slavery among Christians? Yes. Yes it does.

This matters for Christians.

When I say “this”, I mean not just getting the right answer to the question, but getting the right answer in the right way.

Why does this matter for Christians? It matters because it, for many in a very emotionally stoked way, gets to the heart of how we know what is true.

So, let me ask you this. How do you know if a counter top is level? You use a level. How do you know if a wall is straight? You hang a plumb line.

How do you know what is true and what is the right way to live? You read the Bible.

Fundamental to Christianity is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, that Scripture alone is the final rule and standard for all right believing and all right living. It is a doctrine that recognizes that this world is not our own. Everyone and everything was made by the eternally good and true Creator. He is the standard of truth and goodness; and he has made himself known in the Bible.

The Bible is wholly without error, since its source is Divine. The Bible is totally authoritative, since its source is Divine.

Now, walk up to a Christian and ask them if they believe this about Scripture, and they’ll say, “Yes.” If they don’t, they aren’t a Christian. A Christian is someone who submits to the Lordship of Jesus. And his kingly orders are declared in the Bible. If you make any other source equally authoritative in your life, you are trying to serve King Jesus and another master at the same time. And King Jesus does not allow that.

So while every true Christian you talk to will affirm Sola Scriptura, once you explain it to them, the sad reality is that far too many fail to functionally believe Sola Scriptura. Because even Christians still find themselves to be sinners, even Christians functionally let other things, other standards, rule them.

If you only agree with the Bible when it agrees with you, you do not functionally believe Sola Scriptura. If you only love the Bible when it makes you feel good, you do not functionally believe Sola Scriptura. If you only proudly affirm Biblical truth when it is popular with the surrounding culture, you do not functionally believe Sola Scriptura.

For many younger Christians, it seems that they are ruled not simply by God’s Word but also by their emotions. Emotions are great and God-given. But they are not to rule us.

So, suppose you’re a Christian. You’ve read this article and you are deeply offended that someone would dare say such things. That is fine. Being offended is ok. Just don’t stop there.

Ask yourself: Why am I offended? Do I disagree or agree with the argument made by the author as to what is true? If I disagree, with which arguments do I disagree, and why? Do I have a Biblical basis for my disagreement?

Is the Bible your final rule and standard for what you believe and how you live? If you’re a Christian, the answer is yes.

And don’t worry; the Bible is God’s Word. God is good. So his Word is good. It is not dangerous for you to surrender to it.

This matters for non-Christians.

Some Christians have unintentionally been unloving and unhelpful to you, non-Christian, for they have acted apologetically about truth. But let me be clear: Christians will not apologize for what is true; and they have no need to do so.

Because you are not anchored in the lasting truth of God’s Word for what you believe, your beliefs will come and go like the tides and seasons. And Christians will be unfazed by your unanchored fickleness. They, imperfectly, stand upon truth that shall endure into eternity, well after both of us have gone six-feet under.

Furthermore, maybe you’re of the persuasion that you cannot believe a book that accepts slavery, for such a book is immoral.

Well, allow me to briefly correct you.

1. You have no ability to say what is or is not moral, for you have rejected Him who is the perfect and universal standard of morality. How will you promote yourself to the position of moral judge and authority? How will you pronounce condemnation against the Holy God who made you and will send you to heaven or to hell?

2. You are deceived if you think you reject the Bible because it accepts slavery. That simply is not the case. You reject the Bible because you hate the God of the Bible. You have hated him since birth, since you were born as a sinner in opposition to him.

For that, he will unleash his wrath upon you forever in the fires of hell.

But there is good news even for one as insolent as you. God will forgive you and receive you as a friend and child in his heavenly courts if you repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus, God the Son who took on human flesh, was born into this world and lived a flawless life. He then took all of God’s terrible anger and fury against all sinners who would turn to him in trust when he died on the cross. Three days later, Jesus bodily rose from the grave, vindicating his name, confirming that his death was accepted by God, and securing eternal life with him for all those who would trust and follow him.

He presently sits on the throne in heaven, ruling as King. He is crushing all rebellion under his feet. And he will receive you gladly, even now, if you end your rebellion and worship him as the King who is worthy.

It is not too late. Today is the best day for you to believe in Jesus and be saved.

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