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Slavery and the Bible: What are the rules?

A Persian slave from the Khanate of Kiva, 19th century
Credit: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Owning slaves. It’s an old idea.

But why doesn’t the Bible forbid it, explicitly?

The word “servant” in the Bible could be translated as “slave” in most cases. People did not pay servants, they just owned them, and provided for their basic needs.

Slavery was abolished, in the United States, on January 1, 1863. In Russia, about 23 million serfs were liberated, in 1861. Now, it is illegal everywhere to own slaves, although human trafficking by criminals is still a huge problem.

The abolition movement in North America was dominated by Christians like the Quakers, and the revival preacher Charles Finney, who banned slave owners from taking communion in his church. Those Bible-reading people hated slavery and worked to end it, everywhere.

On the other side, some Christian ministers argued that slavery was good for society, and God supported it. They challenged the abolitionists to find any place in the Bible where slavery was forbidden, by God.

I’m glad we don’t have those arguments today, but critics of the Bible, and of Christians who read it, can still bring up the old arguments.

Are we missing something?

It is true, the Bible doesn’t say that slavery was abolished and that owning slaves was forbidden.

There is a verse that bans discrimination among Christians: “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.” (Galatians 3: 28)

That is clear, but there is another verse that says, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” (1 Peter 2:18) That works better when the “master” is an employer who supplies a paycheck.

Probably the best answer for those preachers who advocated slavery is their unspoken assumption; “We” have the right to own “them.” That could easily change to them owning us, in simple logic. No one preached that “we” should make ourselves into slaves, only that “we” should be slave owners and “they” should be the slaves.

The best way to end slavery was to make it optional. Slaves didn’t go back to it once they were freed, and free people never chose that option for themselves. The only popular choice was to be a slave owner.

Have you heard of the slave Bible? When plantation slaves were becoming Christians, in large numbers, slave owners were worried that they might rebel. The owners didn’t want their slaves reading parts of the Bible that might provoke them to rebel and demand their freedom.

The Slave Bible was an English Bible, with many parts removed. I don’t know who did the editing, but someone went through the Bible and cut out all the sections that might inspire a slave rebellion.

There is one rare copy of a slave Bible, in a museum today:

If we could go back in time, when the slaves were emancipated, one good answer to the pro-slavery preachers, would be a slave Bible. Where did the Bible speak against slavery?

The answer came from the people who asked; Does the Bible oppose slavery? Apparently, it does.

One of those forbidden Bible passages was very popular with abolitionists and slaves who wanted to be free. The small book in the Old Testament, written by the prophet Habakkuk, contains words that were like a theme song for abolitionists, and these Bible words were forbidden by slave owners:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.

The Lord’s Answer

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!” (Habakkuk 1: 2 to 11)

For many Christians, who read the Bible, the fight against slavery was a spiritual command. History is something we should not forget:

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