One of the common charges levied against the Bible is that, since the New Testament writers exhorted slaves to obey their masters in the Roman social system, the Bible actually approves of slavery and has contributed to inhumanity and oppression.
First of all, the atheist has no moral or logical ground to stand on to condemn slavery. If our actions are determined by random collisions of molecules in our brain – as many atheists believe – then slavery cannot be morally wrong. It would be an expression of natural selection.
Unbelievers vainly boast that humans, not God, put an end to slavery in America while the slave traders justified their dehumanization with some Bible verses. The fact is, the abolitionists were Christians, and they appealed to the Bible to support their anti-slavery stance.
The chancellor of Protestant University, William Wilson, stated that slavery was “at war with the image of God in which man was created” as it treats other humans as less than human as God created him and lowering the person to property.
On the other hand, the biblical texts the pro-slavery advocates were able to cobble together were weak, astutely wrenched and tortured paths.
These men were simply a bunch of wicked, racist and bigoted folks who used the Bible to rationalize their atrocities. That didn’t mean the Bible was really on their side.
Even the most well intentioned religious text can be misinterpreted and misused by people for their own advantage. Interestingly, the Western slave masters and modern atheists are united in their absurd misinterpretation and mutilation of the Bible. They approach the Book the same way a butcher approaches a hog!
It’s not enough for skeptics of all stripes to quote some extracted Bible verses (often to “prove” their preconceived notions), we must examine the complete testimony and see the big picture.
Of course, the dogmatic Bible hater will derisively dismiss this, but once their false assertions are refuted, their propaganda collapses into a pile of pixie dust.
The following texts are often quoted to “prove” that the NT upholds slavery:
“Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22).
“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (Ephesians 6:5)
“Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative” (Titus 2:9).
1. Jesus Christ had already pointed to the mission of freedom from all forms of slavery: spiritual, mental and physical. Quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, He declared:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed“ (Lk. 4:18).
The practical application of this verse is what led to the elucidation of freedom and the denunciation of forms of slavery.
2. The church was born into an already existing secular social world. Christianity didn’t come with a social reform programme for Israel and Rome, because that is not how the kingdom of God – which is inward, rather than geographical – works.
Therefore, when apostle Paul exhorts slaves within the Roman systems to behave themselves, he is not promoting or advocating the situation they were in, but was calling for good conduct while in such an already existing predicament in the hopes that their masters would see such good conduct and convert to Christianity and be saved (Titus 2:10). It was for the benefit of people’s eternal salvation.
3. The apostles weren’t revolutionaries and the early Christians were minorites. The older religions within the Roman Empire (Heathenism, Mystery Religions, State religion) should have borne a higher responsibility of emancipation of slaves because they had greater political might.
As for Eph. 6:5 what did unbelievers expect Paul to say? Should he incite Christian slaves to defy their Roman masters? What do they think happened to insubordinate slaves under Roman law? Did they even bother to think that far?
Under Roman law, a runaway slave was often mercilessly dealt with:
“He could be scourged branded, mutilated, or fitted with a metal collar, perhaps even be crucified, thrown to beasts, or killed. (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon, Doubleday Publishing, 2000, p. 28).
I am sure that if the NT had admonished Christian slaves to rebel against their Roman masters, modern atheists would still find a way to gripe over that. If believers walked by the Tiber, cynics would still say they walked because they couldn’t swim.
4. Paul exhorts slave masters to treat their slaves well. He commands those who are slave masters in this existing social system to be good to and not threaten their slaves.
“Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your hearts. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:6-8)
5. Paul affirmed freedom over slavery
“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor. 7:21).
Gleason Archer has shown that while Paul exhorted slaves to obey their masters, he said that slaves should do do all in their ability to purchase their own freedom. (Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Zondervan, 1982, p. 87).
6. The Bible does not support Slave and Master casses
Slavery runs on the cultural machinery of racial, political, religious and social-economic superiority. But the Bible elevates man as created in the image of God and affirms the equality of all men. This conflicts with the idea behind slavery.
“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).
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
“Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1)
Here, apostle Paul affirms both slaves and masters are equal having a true master in heaven, and that masters on earth must not mistreat their slaves.
7. The Bible condemns slavery and the slave trade
“We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:9-10).
Notice that slavery is included in the list of vices here and slave traders are grouped together with murderers and ungodly people.
In Revelation 18:10-13 Babylon is rebuked and judged in the context of trafficking slaves and greedily making wealth with merchants:
“And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore … cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.”
Most unbelievers are fond of selectively citing bible passages and neglecting cross-references, hence giving a distorted picture. And the most arrogant part is how they believe they know the Bible more than Christians who have spent the whole of their lives studying it.