The fact that slavery existed in a country like America, supposedly founded as a Christian nation, one where Scripture was used at times by Southerners to defend chattel slavery1 prior to the Civil War, is seen as evidence of the dangers that come from mixing religion with politics.
Questions about slavery in the Bible are completely valid, especially because the term almost always conjures up images of the type of slavery practiced in the colonial/antebellum periods of American history. But historical documents clearly show that many of the founding fathers understood that using the Bible to defend chattel slavery was a serious misapplication of God's Word.
The Bible shows that slavery is an ever-present reality that has both a spiritual and a physical side:
To understand God's slavery laws, we must understand a basic biblical fact: slavery is inescapable no culture is without it. Apart from God's grace, all men are enslaved to sin. Salvation liberates us from slavery to sin and makes us slaves to righteousness, obedient to God's word rather than to Satan's (Romans 6:16-22).... If men are not slaves to God they are already enslaved to sin.2
This is a paradox of Scripture. When men are in God's yoke, under the lordship of Christ, they are spiritually free. Likewise, when a nation builds its laws upon God's Word and encourages its citizens to exercise self-governance under those laws, as Israel was instructed to do, that nation will outwardly experience political and economic freedom.
The Slavery of the Hebrews
The ancient world practiced different kinds of slavery. The newly-liberated Hebrews immediately understood the contrast between the servitude God prescribed to them in His law and what they had just experienced under Pharaoh's rule in Egypt. Their legal and economic system would be one wherein people's hearts and actions would be continuously weighed and judged before a just and holy God. Chattel slavery was not morally acceptable for those living under God's rule. Jews understood that their laws were supposed to be an example of justice and benevolence to the heathen nations that surrounded them (Dt. 4:5-6).
The context of relevant passages in Scripture indicates that the type of slavery described and regulated in the law was largely a form of bondservice, or indentured servanthood. There appear to have been different levels of Hebrew bondservice, but on a practical level its main purpose was to justly meet the needs of economically disadvantaged individuals in society. It also provided a means for criminals to make restitution to their victims.
Chattel slavery entails complete personal ownership of the slave and the "fruits" of his labor. In Hebrew bondservitude, the owner purchased the potential economic value of a servant's estimated productivity. This was usually done to relieve the slave's debts, which were often acquired through mishandling of finances or misbehavior.
Further, non-criminal Hebrews entered into servitude voluntarily (Lev. 25:39, 47; Dt. 15:11-12). This bondservice was primarily to help the poor gain economic independence (Lev. 25:35-43). Kidnapping and forced slavery were considered crimes punishable by death (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7). Most Hebrew bondservants were freed from debts and generally released either every designated seventh year (Sabbatical) or forty-ninth year (Jubilee), depending on the type of service contract (Lev. 25: 39-41; Dt. 15:12).
Certain conditions of Hebraic slavery were considered permanent. Some servants voluntarily chose to bind themselves to their rulers permanently, preferring the security of the owner's provision to personal freedom (Ex. 21:5; Dt. 15:16). Hebrews were allowed to purchase foreigners who were already slaves and were permitted at times to take women and children of conquered nations (Lev. 25:44-46; Dt. 20:14-15, 21:10-14). In such cases the heathen would be brought into the households of God's covenant community.
Those taken from pagan nations would have an opportunity to hear and embrace the message of God's covenant with man. This is an act of divine mercy when seen in light of the proposition that God owns all men and sovereignly controls their eternal destinies. Yet even within this state of servitude, a slave could gain his freedom if he were adopted into his ruling family. This act would have foreshadowed the adoption of a sinner held in slavery of sin into God's family by grace (Rom. 8:15). The slavery prescribed by God's law actually fostered freedom on both a spiritual and practical level.
Unlike chattel slavery, indentured servitude benefited many individuals and was practiced well into America's colonial period. America's founders understood that while both of these systems were types of servitude, one was moral while the other was not.
It was apparent to most of the founders that the "rhetoric of the Revolution — which emphasized the importance of liberty and the danger of enslavement — could not help but direct attention to America's own institution of bondage."3
Thomas Jefferson once remarked, Americans were holding a "wolf by the ears." However unappealing it was to hold on to, letting go promised to be even worse.... Were slavery to be abolished, the South would find itself with a substantial unpropertied laboring class.... The social tensions that would inevitably ensue would, Southerners feared, ultimately destroy the stability of society.... As a result, slavery survived.4
However, because of the Bible's influence, America began a long journey towards emancipation: "The subject of slavery was an explosive issue in the colonies throughout the Revolutionary War. Under the Articles of Confederation, slavery was abolished north of the Ohio River."5 After bitter debate, delegates to the Constitutional Convention eventually agreed that the new federal government " ... would have no authority to stop the slave trade for twenty years. To those delegates who viewed the continued existence of slavery as an affront to the principles of the new nation, this was a large and difficult concession."6 But America led other nations in limiting chattel slavery at this time.
The 19th century's abolition movement throughout Western culture was an overwhelmingly Christian-based social movement, and was set against the pagan cultures of slavery that influenced Western thought:
Aristotle believed slavery both natural and just, and here lies the difference between the plantation owner and Nero. Southerners, such as Charles Pickney and John Rutledge of South Carolina, may have seen slavery as a "necessary evil," but it was an evil; indeed, the South was continuously on the moral defensive until slavery was eliminated from American life. But Aristotle saw slavery, not as necessary, but as wholesome and good. His moral standards were different precisely because his god was different. The contrast between America and ancient Greece is as stark as the contrast between the God of scripture and the god of Reason.7
Humanists who scoff at the Bible's slave laws usually overlook the fact that chattel slavery has been a humanist institution throughout history. It is not God's Word that needs to be feared but rather the arbitrary laws of man established upon finite human reason. The whole counsel of God, including its slave laws, presents a message of total freedom to man. Scripture speaks not only of sin but its root cause as well. Jesus Christ is humanity's only genuine emancipator.
1. Chattel slavery is the type of slavery that considers the slave the personal property of the "owner." It differs from other types of slavery as discussed below.
2. David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1981), 60.
3. Richard Current, T. Harry Williams, Frank Freidel, Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987), 146.
4. ibid., 147.
5. Benjamin Hart, Faith & Freedom (Dallas, TX: Lewis and Stanley, 1988), 303.
6. Current, et al, 161.
7. Hart, 303.