The Bible and Slavery #BustingBiblicalMyths

“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the Land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”  This witty quote very much encapsulates the perception people have about the role of Christianity in the Transatlantic Slave trade. The Transatlantic slave trade alone, saw some 10 million Africans transported to the Americas between the 1400s and 1800s. According to many, the Bible motivated the slave masters to brutally rob Africa of its vital and vibrant human resource. How true is this?


We must first establish the fact that the issue of slavery is quite complex. The characteristics of slavery is so complicated that it is almost impossible (and largely erroneous) to provide a generalized definition of the term. That makes perfect sense considering the fact that child labor, indentured service, chattel slavery, forced labour, sex trafficking, apprenticeship-internship etc. were all commonly referred to as ‘slavery’ during biblical times. Since the mention of slavery brings to the table several forms of servitude, this discussion will employ terminologies to help identify the form of servitude being spoken of at each point in time.


It is very sad that people blame the New World chattel slavery (slaves were treated as actual property, had no legal protection and no means to attain liberty) on Christianity when the traditional leaders of the land exchanged their own people for manufactured goods, weapons, sugar, mirrors,whiskey etc. How do you bypass this fact to blame the Transatlantic Slave trade on the supposed ‘tool’ the oppressor used? Slavery is against the human rights of human beings. The world has come a long way in the fight for human rights. Is it not ironic that Christianity played a major role in the abolishment of the New World chattel slavery especially in the U.S? Even long after the New World chattel slavery was abolished, the black civil rights movement was also spearheaded by people like Dr. Martin Luther King. And although many forget this fact, he was a reverend minister. A house divided against itself shall not stand. If the bible indeed promotes such form of brutality, how come Christians made major contributions to its abolishment all over the world?


The Old Testament alone contains many alarming instances of slavery that open our eyes to how widespread and lucrative it was in those days. Remember the story of Elisha and the wife of the prophet… the prophet who left his wife at the mercy of his creditor when he died? One of the things the creditor told her was that, either she paid up all the money her husband owed him before his death or risk having her sons sold into slavery. This compelled the widow to contact the prophet Elisha for help. Again, this scenario tells us that slavery was very widespread and lucrative then. It appears one could easily have contact with slavers. I made this inference from the manner in which Joseph’s brothers sold him to slave-merchants who later sold him into slavery in Egypt. Speaking of Egypt, it is obvious that Egypt was probably one of the ancient hubs of the slave trade. Remember how the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel for about 430 years? The unfortunate thing is, many people tend to disassociate Egypt from Africa. No, Egypt is very much an African country. And historical accounts show that some other African countries had slaves from other continents too.


Indeed some of the most heinous crimes ever reported in human history are said to have been motivated by supposed approval culprits discovered in the bible. This includes the New World chattel slavery. It is very alarming, considering the level of damage the Slave Trade has done to Africa as a continent. But none of it is true. The bible doesn’t tell Christians to go about enslaving anybody they can overpower.

Enslaving defeated foes was almost like the winning prize of a war. Considering the number of wars in the bible, I believe that gives you a fair idea of how many instances of slavery there are in the bible.


Slavery was a form of punishment in the bible too. Anytime the Israelites rebelled against God or reverted to idol worship, God allowed their enemies to defeat them in a war and capture them. This scenario recurs so many times in the Old Testament that one would wonder if the Israelites didn’t ever learn from their past mistakes and that of their forefathers.


Obviously the Israelites must have had slaves too. As stated already, slaves are amongst the ‘spoils’ soldiers brought back home from wars. The issue here is what the bible says about how the children of God should treat slaves. One of Paul’s unconventional epistles in the bible is the book of Philemon. We see Paul use a more soft and apologetic tone in this epistle. This is even more stunning considering the fact that Paul was talking to someone he had authority over. He states it clearly that he could compel Philemon to do as he says, but out of love he would rather appeal to his conscience to do the right thing. All this was in connection with Philemon’s slave,Onesimus. Onesimus had wronged Philemon and had left to be with Paul. It appears his departure is what caused the rift between him and his master. Paul worked closely with Onesimus and had great love for him. The former slave was now a staunch Christian. Paul was sending him back to his former master and required Philemon to treat him like a brother in Christ and not a slave. He could have imposed this initiative on Philemon but chose to make an appeal out of love. Here, we see Paul making a great contribution to the liberation of a slave.


In the New Testament, Christian ‘slave masters’ are admonished to treat their slaves like brothers and Christian slaves are admonished to honour their masters no matter how mean they are to them. This is where the contention is. It appears by admonishing slave masters to deal with their slaves kindly, the issue of slavery hasn’t been dealt with at its roots. As stated earlier, several forms of slavery did occur in biblical times. In Timothy 6 for instance, Paul made reference to economic-based slavery (known as ‘indentured service’) where people offered themselves as slaves to work for other families in order to survive or pay off a debt. God regulated this form of servitude by establishing a set of strict laws to protect men and women (be it Hebrew or Gentile) from any form of cruel treatment by their masters. Below are some of the laws God used to regulate this kind of slavery:


  • Forbade masters from running big interest charges on servant’s loans (Leviticus 25:35-38)
  • Provided marriage rights (Exodus 21:4,10-11)
  • Physical protection rights ( Deuteronomy 10:19; 24:14, Leviticus 19:34, Exodus 21:26-27, Leviticus 25:39-41)
  • Provided freedom rights (Deuteronomy 15:1;12, 23:15)


NB: Most of the laws of the Ancient Near East gave room for chattel slavery as the laws provided very little or no protection at all for the slaves. God’s Law on the other hand offered protection for slaves in Israel at that time amidst harsh conditions faced by their counterparts elsewhere.  


It’s no surprise then that some slaves rather preferred to stay behind looking at the great benefits that came along with working in their master’s home. Most of them for instance had access to formal education and also had the opportunity to learn a trade like carpentry and medicine. There was the sense of belonging to a family unlike chattel slavery that equated one to nothing more than a piece of furniture. ‘To fire a bullet into a slave was like firing a bullet into a pumpkin, not like firing a bullet into a human.’, as one researcher described the plight of chattel slaves. It’s sad that many feel God’s Law made provisions for chattel slavery when in the actual fact, God’s laws prohibited any form of servant mistreatment (check scriptural references above). In the Bible, kidnapping people and making them slaves against their will was clearly a crime punishable by death! (Exodus 21:16). Paul actually emphasized God’s disapproval of this kind of slave trading in his letter here. What Paul is doing over here is harking to Old Testament ethic and condemning chattel slavery alongside heinous acts like lying, murder and sodomy. Several forms of master-servant relationship existed under God’s Law BUT nowhere in scripture did He ever endorse a dehumanizing relationship such as New World chattel slavery. Yet skeptics will somehow manage to read a portion of scripture and criticize it for supporting such brutality while the entire Bible, in its rightful context, makes plain God’s disapproval of any deplorable acts of cruelty and injustice.


Anyway, with respect to warning Christian slave masters to treat their slaves kindly, there’s a potential problem we need to bring to light over here. There’s almost always the tendency for one to abuse his or her newfound freedom. This is nothing new. Just as many of the women at that time misunderstood their newfound freedom in Christ (referring to gender equality), it was very likely some slaves had also began to overstep their boundaries by disobeying their masters. Some probably got complacent, seeing no need to either work hard  or show respect to their masters–someone they were now equal with because of Christianity. Well, too bad because Christianity came not to extinguish social positions BUT rather to make them completely irrelevant to accepting the new life in Christ. This is how Christianity differed from the Greco-Roman culture: the latter placed much emphasis on one’s status based on one’s family or wealth. In God’s family, both the Jew and Greek, Circumcised and Uncircumcised, Male and Female, Barbarian and Scythian, as well as the slave and free are all in a common relationship with Christ Jesus. One group has absolutely no basis to undervalue another group because there’s no such thing as superiority/inferiority. The slave master in this case isn’t better than his servant because he himself is also a slave to the True Master in Heaven! This is why Slave masters were being admonished to treat their servants with utmost respect and dignity as a means to exemplify the approved relationship between those who were in a similar position. After all, each servant bore the image of Christ and as such deserved to be treated as God’s beloved.


Though the Bible is against practices that abuse and dehumanize a human being, many still feel the New Testament writers should have outlawed all forms of slavery altogether. If you’ve been following closely, you’ll agree that annulling the morally permissible, economic-based slavery would’ve done more harm than good to impoverished families. In the sense that this was the only means by which they could fend for themselves. Moreover, about 40% of the Roman population comprised slaves; most of which were young children but some were adults. Paul really understood the times he was living in knowing very well the social catastrophe he would have caused had he managed to persuade the Roman government to free all slaves. This is not to say that Paul had no future plans of instructing the church to move away from the general slave system. We already know that Paul opposed slave-trading (1 Timothy 1:9-10) and in addition to that, advised people to pursue freedom (1 Corinthians 7:21-23). Until a much better social welfare program had been established, tearing down the only ‘welfare program’ that existed at that time would have exposed many to the harsh environment out there.


Written by Elvis Sampson and Elikplim Sabblah


References: 1 Timothy 6, Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11, Philemon, Does God Approve of slavery according to the bible?, The Atlantic slave trade: what few textbooks told you – Anthony Hazard, Does God condone slavery in the Bible? – Glenn Miller.


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  1. 1

    On this I respectfully disagree. The bible has several passages pertaining to how to treat slaves. Rightfully so as a result of the times, but there none the less.

  2. 2

    Also exudos 21:16 reads “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.”

    Studying the passage reveals that this is not saying if one engages in slavery they will meet death. It is saying if one steals another man slave he will be. Note back then people were selling themselves into slavery, so it would be implausible to be stolen. Also slavery was a form of punishment for breaking laws, so they would not be stolen in that regard either.

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        I’m not saying it promotes it, but it is also not against it either. The scriptures you quoted to say God was against it was not referring to such in proper context and that is what I was pointing out to you.

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          Well, the one you pointed out isn’t the only one i quoted. How about the Apostle paul’s epistle to Philemon? The major command Jesus gave to his followers in connection with how to propagate the gospel was, “go ye into the world and make disciples”. This post is a reaction to the erroneous assertion that the bible fueled the Transatlantic slave trade. that is totally impossible. Plus, i really don’t think the bible would be indifferent concerning a serious issue such as slavery. Thanks for your contribution.

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            I am aware of the other you pointed out, but it still does not support the stance you claim it does. Taking versus and assuming what it means to support your stance is wrong and a fallacy. Not once did God or Jesus make the position of being for or against it. So while those who claim it promotes slavery are wrong, so are those who claim it does not.

            I understand the reason for your post, but it was greatly clouded by your own erroneous claims of bible versus meanings.

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    @Sharinalr, first of all thank you for making time to read and putting out your thoughts on the subject. Very much appreciated. However, I realized some issues with your thoughts and I want to attend to them. Concerning the issue of slavery, I believe it was quite clear in the article that different forms of slavery existed back then. That’s very important because once we universalize it, we are prone to misinterpret what scripture intended to communicate to us. Referring to the Exodus 21, do you know that the scripture was describing a form of SLAVERY in which people stole other people’s slaves and forced them to work for them? That form of slavery is called MAN STEALING. Why do you think one would steal another’s slave? What would be their objective for doing that? Well, let me announce to you that their objective was to FORCE them into another SLAVERY…a dehumanizing one! Kidnapping or stealing one man’s slave was a very early and very widespread crime…a crime that was not supported by God. It was punishable by death like we said. So yes, there were forms of slavery strongly disapproved by God because it demeaned men and women who had been made in His image and after His likeness. However, economic-based slavery which was morally permissible was heavily regulated by God because that was the means through which poor people could be catered for. Sometimes the word ‘slavery’ carries with it some form of negativity because of the other evil forms we are familiar with. Sometimes the word ‘servanthood’ is preferred to describe the economic based slavery that kept many poor people from dying. Anyway, The Ancient Roman World then thrived on slavery because half the population comprised slaves. No disciple of Christ was ready to destroy the fabric of society. That’s why many preferred to remain as slaves because 1. Their masters treated them well and 2. There was no good life out there. But of course, there were bad masters who mistreated their slaves and as I’ve said already, it was a NO NO for God! We must remember that over the years, the economic based slavery began to decline because there was the establishment of better ways to help people financially. In America for example, we have supporting structures like Food stamps, unemployment benefits,etc to help the needy. There’s credit card and all. What I need you to do is to read the scriptures again and you’ll understand that it was so clear there were forms of slavery the bible disapproved. As we said, any slavery that dehumanized and abused men and women is never supported by the Bible. Thank you

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      Thanks for the reply.

      ” Concerning the issue of slavery, I believe it was quite clear in the article that different forms of slavery existed back then.”—I did not say it was not clear on this matter as this is not my concern. If you take this as a concern of mine the you misrepresent my position on the matter.

      “Referring to the Exodus 21, do you know that the scripture was describing a form of SLAVERY in which people stole other people’s slaves and forced them to work for them? “—Which is actually what I mentioned above.

      “Kidnapping or stealing one man’s slave was a very early and very widespread crime…a crime that was not supported by God. It was punishable by death like we said. So yes, there were forms of slavery strongly disapproved by God because it demeaned men and women who had been made in His image and after His likeness.”—I never once made the claim that anything was “supported” by God. I simply stated he did not promote it, but he also did not condemn it. You pointing to that scripture is not supporting the idea that he was against slavery in some way. It really only shows that he was against stealing another man slave and profiting from it. You are interpreting based on what you feel he would mean and that is not what the scripture is indicating act all. It is a stretch to say he was against it. Same as it is a stretch to say he was for it.

      “As we said, any slavery that dehumanized and abused men and women is never supported by the Bible. “—I’m sorry but you have yet to support that claim. You wrote a lovely paragraph on thinks and belief, but anyone can interpret scriptures on that same merit and it should be taken at equal point. If this is your supported stance, then those who believe the bible promotes slavery have an equally as sound leg in the fight considering Exodus is clear on the treatment of slaves. To pick and choose what slavery is acceptable and not acceptable is a fallacy and then dives into goal post shifting. Was the point of the post to say God does not promote slavery? Or is it not he does not support all slavery?

      My whole point is very simple. The bible does not promote, but it also does not condemn. So far you have not shown otherwise.

      Thank you again.

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        @sharinalr, you just said in your reply: ‘You pointing to that scripture is not supporting the idea that he was against slavery in some way. It really only shows he was against stealing another man’s slave and profiting from it.’ This act, man stealing, that you said God was against was a FORM of SLAVERY. So to say He was against stealing another man’s slave and profiting(a form of slavery called man stealing)…what did it mean then? If someone is against something, please what does it mean? The kidnapping and enslaving of Africans in the 15th to 19th century is a very clear example of this involuntary slavery I’m talking about. Men and women were stolen and were forced against their will to work on a master’s plantation. The same happened back then and we’ve read from scripture that God was against it. You even agreed to that. The reason we make distinctions when talking about slavery is because the characteristics of slavery mentioned in the bible is very complicated. You can’t universalize it and once you can’t universalize it, you can’t afford to give a simple answer. Once you mention slavery with respect to the bible, careful examination reveals a cocktail of economic-based slavery, chattel slavery, sex trafficking, apprenticeship-internship,etc. it’s all mixed up in there and it takes painstaking efforts to line them up well to avoid a categorical error. To promote or abolish ‘slavery’, someone from the Old/New Testament time would ask ‘Which of them are you referring to?’ That’s what we’ve been trying to say. The Bible doesn’t promote or condemn slavery altogether. For example the Bible didn’t promote or condemn economic-based slavery; it heavily regulated this form of slavery because needs had to be met as described in scripture. And that was the only form of ‘governmental aid’ then. Then we have few examples like chattel slavery and man stealing…God was against those forms. In Exodus 23, God told His people through Moses that they weren’t to oppress any foreigners. The reason? Because they themselves knew how it felt to be oppressed when they were slaves in Egypt. I wish the apostles came out really strong on their denouncement of the other forms of slavery disapproved by God. But I’m not surprised neither should anyone be because these people weren’t hot-headed revolutionists. Their aim wasn’t to reform societal policies. The purpose of the Gospel and even the Bible at large was and has always been the regeneration of dead hearts. ‘Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good but dead people alive’ as Dr. Ravi Zacharias said. To influence society and to transform people entirely, their focus was the heart. To cause a change inside out. And once the heart can be regenerated and the mind transformed, we will have a lot of people thinking alike like Philemon who will come to understand that a slave is a fellow brother/sister in the Lord. For us to just write on slavery without going into details to reveal the forms the Bible speaks of will be a wrong academic exercise. We would only succeed in misinforming our readers. And thank you too

  4. 12


    You are creating a position that I do not have and then rewording and repeating some things I already said as if I never said it.

    “This act, man stealing, that you said God was against was a FORM of SLAVERY”—Please quote where I said God was against it? I never said he was for or against it. I stated clearly over and over again my position is and remains that God did not promote slavery, but he also did not condemn it. That one scripture that you keep holding on to does not support the idea that from a general standpoint he was against slavery “in general”. As such this need to say “but he was against man slaving” does not support or change the idea that slavery as a whole was not something he condemned . I am not then saying it promotes the idea that he was for it either, but to try to use one example (erroneously) to support that is not better than the opposition using one to promote the idea that he is. My whole entire point centers around that this post is doing the exact same thing they are doing and calling it correct.

    “So to say He was against stealing another man’s slave and profiting(a form of slavery called man stealing)…what did it mean then?”– Was it or was it not the point of your post to show that God was against slavery? If so pointing out one form of slavery is not a sign he is against slavery. That was my point. Another way to look at that scripture is to say God was not against slavery, but did not condone stealing (regular thing in the scriptures) or Selling (stolen goods). Not saying that is correct, but…..

    “If someone is against something, please what does it mean? “—They are in opposition of it, but again. One scripture is not supporting he is in opposition of slavery.

    “The same happened back then and we’ve read from scripture that God was against it.”—But we have not read that God was against it. We read one scripture that seems to be the foundation of the idea that he was against slavery. Yet that one scripture does not support a general stance that he was.

    “”We would only succeed in misinforming our readers.”—But you are misinforming in other ways. When you title a post that God was against human slavery, then gloss over different forms only to point out one you believe he is against, then you are falsely saying to them that he condemns it because this one scripture speaks for all forms.

    I am not really sure what else can be said without repeating my position over and over again. The Scripture does not support the stance that he condemned slavery. Granted it also does not support the idea that he was for it either. As I originally stated, it was the times, but it really does Christians no favors when we have to manipulate scriptures to make a point. This is the main reason I spoke up. Non-believers constantly manipulate the scriptures to say it says something it does not, but as followers of Christ we should never stoop to that level and then excuse it or see it as okay. The idea that after several posts, you guys are still making an excuse on why taking that route is okay and acceptable tells me this is not the type of site I wish to follow or make further comments on. I wish to simply agree to disagree and good luck on your endeavors, but I pray that in future post you employ honesty and not tactics of the adversary.

    Good night.

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        I won’t be able to comment on it in it’s entirety at this very moment, but I will say it is very well written and it will be one I will share with non-believers, as well as Christians, who need a thorough explanation on how God viewed slavery. I agree fully that he was against Chattel slavery.

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          Right! I appreciate your time and comments. This is the third of a 4-part series we are doing. The rest are on the historical accuracy of the bible, feminism and misogyny in the bible and the last one (yet to be written) the deiry of Jesus. Do give them a read. Thanks

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