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Does the Bible condone slavery? (in just one minute)

November 4, 2014

I’ve encountered many atheists who reject the Christian message because they claim it condones slavery (and hence makes Christianity morally repulsive). Here is a short response to this claim.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd once said that according to the Bible ‘slavery is a natural condition.’

Yet this is false.

It was Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher, who said slavery was ‘natural’. The Bible’s view is different.

The Bible acknowledges the social convention of slavery and even gives instructions on how slaves should be treated, but it never asserts that someone is ‘naturally’ a slave.

The trajectory of the Christian message is freedom. Freedom is preferred to slavery. An example is the Exodus in the Old Testament where God’s people leave slavery for freedom.

The Bible also plants the seeds for the demise of the institution of slavery. It asserts that all people are equal and valuable because they’re made in the image of God. Moral opposition to slavery only arose because of this Christian claim to equality. This is what drove William Wilberforce. And this is why we reject slavery today.

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11 Comments
  1. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Well done Rob. You could not have packed any more in the 1 min, but there are some points still to be covered!

    1.) If slavery is immoral according to the Bible – why did it thrive under Christianity for so long? Surely as soon as Christianity became the dominant religion in the late Roman period, it would have been phased out. Even Christians owning slaves were not instructed to free them.

    2.) I’ve looked up abolitionism on Wikipedia, it seems that the Enlightenment might have been the spark that got the abolitionists going. It mentions their writings back in 1748 while the Wilberforce group didn’t get going until the 1780’s. It could be that the Quakers were equally important in Britain, but if so, why just one Christian sect and not all the others? Methodism was well established by then and they were very strong on the Bible, but it seems they only followed if they were involved at all.

    3.) France freed slaves when it was at its most non-Christian soon after the Revolution got going.

    4.) The strongest Bible believing part of the USA was where the Christian culture so strongly resisted emancipation.

    We reject slavery today because we have access to our natural morality endowed to us by evolution because we are social primates. The process that first produced slavery was a practical one that overruled our instincts: as tribal warfare grew into larger conflicts with nations or empires clashing, then the victors had a choice: kill the defeated nation or enslave them. We now have better choices.

    • Ed. Nice to hear from you again. Glad you liked the little video! Trying to give some short answers:

      1. It’s complex. Not sure that it ‘thrived’, there was certainly moral opposition in the early church. Also remember that in the ancient world, there was no social security, so slavery was a form of safety net for bankruptcy. So it’s all very complex.

      2. Thanks for doing some research on this. Keen to have some well researched responses. What exactly about the ‘Enlightenment’ stimulated the abolitionists? In terms of your questions about the Quakers vs the Methodists, I think that the answer again is complex.

      3. Interesting about that comment about the French. Can you provide some more links/information. That’s an interesting thought. Did they ‘outlaw’ the slaves? Was there any flow on from the English abolitionists?

      4. Again it’s complex. There was also opposition to the slave trade in the US as well.

      I find your theory on why we reject slavery today interesting, but doesn’t explain why there are so many slaves today. Why is slavery so popular today?

      Nice to hear from you again Ed and hope you’re going well. Rob

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. You had to go quiet for a while and I found ThinkApologetics and I tried out some of my ideas on the host there. He seemed not to get me quite often, which was frustrating, so some of our exchanges went on and on.

        I’ve noted here recently that, at some stage, you’ll get onto whether the universe had a beginning. I’m looking forward to that.

        Look up ‘abolitionism’ on Wikipedia for what I said above. But I’m not sure it said what it was about the ‘Enlightenment’ that stimulated the abolitionists. I can imagine that all mankind being equal would have been an outcome. That would tally with the French Revolution. The French slave situation Haiti is something I’ve heard about, and there the ideas from the Revolution filtered through to the slave network and helped prompt a revolt. It led on to freeing slaves, which later the French went back on after the enthusiastic first flush of the revolution had passed on. So all rather messy and not a simple case of Enlightenment causing leaders to free slaves purely through altruism.

        On slavery today, it is now a crime and associated with organised crime networks, it is not state sponsored as in the British empire or the Roman empire or the ancient world before Rome. Unlike the past, slavery is no longer the accepted norm, as in ‘that is the way things are’, that was my point.

        Great to chat, Ed

      • Thanks. Great to chat as well. I am planning on something on the beginning of the universe, yes. Talk more soon

  2. I’ve been busy lately and missed some of the material posted here.

    Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd once said that according to the Bible ‘slavery is a natural condition.’

    Yet this is false.

    The context of what Kevin Rudd actually said about the bible and slavery was clearly about the way in which slavery is presented in the bible. There is no way that what he said ought to be interpreted as as “the bible states explicitly that slavery is natural”.

    The difference might seem subtle, but it is important, because you cannot say with any reasonableness that the point Kevin Rudd made is false.
    Both the old and the new testament do openly refer to slavery in a context that assumes it is a normal state of affairs.

    I find the apologetics on this so appallingly dreary, ignorant, insular, and telling.
    It’s a simple point. Do you believe the ownership of a person as if they are a piece of property is a moral wrong? Is it the case that it is a moral wrong today, and it was also a moral wrong in the time of Moses and the time of Jesus?
    If you answer yes to all of these points, then one should reasonably expect an edict to appear somewhere – anywhere – within the pages of the bible, that reads, to paraphrase, “God hath said that thou shalt not own another person as property…”

    No such commandment exists anywhere in the bible.
    I mean, come on… He’s said explicitly to not kill (that’s in the top 10), and that rule is kind of obvious. Also in the top 10 are the points about not coveting your neighbour’s donkey, or holding graven images and other egomaniacal nonsense. You might have thought He could spare a reminder that treating people like property is A Bad Thing.

    There are plenty of things that modern Christians accept that the early bible writers got wrong. Eg., stoning to death someone who works on the Sabbath, mixing different crops in the same field or different fibres in the same garment, or eating shellfish, etc.
    Why can’t they accept this anachronism of human thinking from biblical times, admit that the slavery thing is something the rabbis and Christians didn’t get right in the old days, and just move on?

    • Paul, Great to hear from you again! Hope all is well?

      I’m not sure that I’ve misunderstood the context of Rudd. He said on Q&A last year “Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition. Because St Paul said in the New Testament, “Slaves be obedient to your masters.” And, therefore, we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US war.” He seems to be saying fairly categorically that slavery is a natural condition. I’m not sure how you can interpret ‘the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition’ any other way?

      I’d say that your question “Do you believe the ownership of a person as if they are a piece of property is a moral wrong?” creates a false dilemma. Consider the following (common scenario) – a man falls on hard times and is effectively bankrupt, he has huge debts to pay and in the absence of a social security system has the only option of selling himself into slavery to pay his debts. Is this morally wrong?

      I’m also unconvinced that we should find a commandment “God hath said that thou shalt not own another person as property…” in the Bible. As I’ve written elsewhere (http://citybibleforum.org/city/melbourne/blog/does-bible-condone-slavery) which I’ll republish on this blog. I can’t just accept your final comment because it was precisely because of Christian thinking that the seeds were planted which led to the abolition of slavery.

      Thanks for the comment again. Always incisive and to the point! (keeps me honest). Look forward to hearing from you again.

  3. Hi Rob, I’m doing well and I hope you are too.
    I expect that if I was a devout Christian, I too would be able to easily satisfy myself about the Christian God’s position on absolutely anything hinted at in the bible. This seems to core to Christian faith. As an aside, I’d be interested, briefly, on your views of inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. More on that later.

    “I’m not sure how you can interpret ‘the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition’ any other way?”
    So if you’re going to be defiantly literal about what was said vs. what was intended, can you tell me if there is any other way the following quote can be interpreted?
    “…And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves…”
    I’ve no doubt you can identify the source, chapter and verse. If you want to take me (and Kevin Rudd) to task on the use of the word of the word “natural”, let’s then give you that. I’ll concede that I (and Kevin Rudd) are incorrect about the biblical “naturalness” of slavery. On the other hand, you ought to then concede that the Bible not only fails to condemn slavery, but actually provides instructions in how to do it properly. Is that a deal? 🙂

    Consider the following (common scenario) – a man falls on hard times and is effectively bankrupt, he has huge debts to pay and in the absence of a social security system has the only option of selling himself into slavery to pay his debts. Is this morally wrong?
    This is weird option to bring up, Rob, because I had assumed (from everything else I’ve seen you write on this topic) that you would condemn slavery as a moral wrong. However, the implication of this hypothetical story is that there are circumstances under which (you think) slavery is morally ok.
    For the moment I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, because you’ve left a gaping equivocation in your story which you might want to address. In particular, it looks like you’ve asked the question from the moral standpoint of the enslaved, rather than the enslavor. Let me give you a re-wording of exactly the same scenario and see how comfortable you are with this:
    A man falls on hard times and is effectively bankrupt, he has huge debts to pay and in the absence of a social security system has the only option of selling himself to you as a slave to pay his debts. Is it morally wrong for you to own this person in order to solve his personal debt crisis?
    The question is not entirely rhetorical. I’m interested to know your personal answer to this.

    “I can’t just accept your final comment because it was precisely because of Christian thinking that the seeds were planted which led to the abolition of slavery.”
    Again, I understand that Christians can satisfy themselves that biblical teachings are responsible for slavery abolition, but the rest of us just find this unacceptable and hypocritical. For example, while you can insist that William Wilberforce initiated abolition because of his Christian beliefs, this basically amounts to assertion. What you cannot rule out is the motivation of Wilberforce (and others) to act on the basis of common empathy and humanity, and then apply their own specific interpretation of Jesus to support their movement. In fact, the evidence is compelling that Wilberforce and his contemporaries acted exactly in this way (ie., they were far more motivated by the visible horrors of the slave trade than they were by considered and inspired exegesis). Otherwise he, and in fact any other Christian, ought to have been able to come to the conclusion that slavery was morally wrong by simply reading and understanding the Bible, without having to be exposed to the misery it caused. (Afternote: Ambiguity not intended here, but it’s kinda funny, so I’m leaving it in! 😉 )

    I think there are arguments you make about the inherent equality of all people being taught in the bible, and perhaps that true. If so, can you please point to the core pieces of scripture that state this? The Christian doctrine of equality – when it comes from Calvanists in particular – is one of the most incoherent and inconsistent messages I’ve ever tried to comprehend. But that is different – although related – topic.

  4. lightbeamrider permalink

    Those ancient Canaanite cultures practiced ritual child homicide for perhaps 400 years. Today it is natural and right for the state to imprison or execute those who habitually murder infants or children. Ancient Israel had no prisons, enslavement considered an act of mercy as opposed to killing them. Does anybody here want to be an apologist for child murderers?

    As one goes through the Old Testament there is a revolt under Rehoboam the son of Solomon. Solomon used whips, Rehoboan promised scorpions. So the seeds of revolt planted under Solomon. That lead to a divided kingdom where former slaves settled in Israel (under Jeroboam) and Judah was to the south. Jeroboam reinstates Pagan worship (golden calf) which formally involved infant homicide. So the former non Hebrew slaves really did not change their core beliefs all that much. As soon as they got their freedom, they returned to their own vomit.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The “Enlightenment” and slavery | Atheist Forum
  2. Does the Bible condone slavery? | Atheist Forum
  3. An Abolitionist Bible? | counterapologistblog

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