Did Jesus Condone Slavery?

No, Jesus never condoned slavery.  He doesn’t really mention it, except that he talks about slaves in his stories and it’s mentioned as a frequent part of the culture he’s in.  But to not mention it, is not approval.  Such arguments from silence are really flimsy.  We can make Jesus condone child abuse, spousal abuse, and incest, if we insist that what he never commented on, he must have approved.  

But clearly, slavery is a part of his world and the world of the the Law and Apostles who DO comment on slavery. Now, we do well to note the slavery of that time is not what we assume since it was very different from American slavery.  The American slave trade was built on racist premises.  The black man was considered inferior to the white man and so it was his lot, his nature to serve.

Biblical slavery even from Moses time, was mostly economic.  You became a slave if your people were conquered in war, so as an alternative to killing all the conquered who lost the war, a person would often become the property of the victor.  This was considered (by both sides) just “booty”, reward for winning a conflict.  But a much more common form of slavery was indentured servitude which was when you sold yourself into slavery to pay unpayable debts.  As an alternative to death or prison, you could give the only thing you had left – your labor, permanently.

Now, because slavery in Bible times was a tool of economic “justice” mostly, you could buy your way out of it, or a relative could free you.  And in Israel, for Jewish slaves, there was this startling develop:  God said slave status would never last for more than 7 years, because in the Sabbath year all slaves were freed.

For this reason we shouldn’t be too aghast that the Bible doesn’t come forward with stronger condemnations of slavery.

  • First, it was not built on the horror of racist ideology.  
  • Second it wasn’t a life sentence, as it was for every black in America, who no matter what they gave to their masters, could never be free (laws were instituted that if a slave escaped to the North, they had to be returned, and if a Northern black came to the south, his free status was not honored).  
  • Third, slavery was checked by putting an upper limit on the value of slave labor – instead of saying a debtor must sell himself in perpetuity, the Sabbath and Jubilee years said, no debt is worth a lifetime of servitude.  Essentially then, human value got elevated in the Law since a person was too valuable to keep in slave status forever.  No debt was worth that much.

Thus the Mosaic law always seems to be taming slavery, putting limits on masters which essentially gave slaves rights (Ex 21:8-11)!!  That God would even give laws about slavery seems that he’s condoning it.  In actually, he’s beginning the process of ending it!  Slavery isn’t invented in the Law, remember – it pre-exists the Law.  So the law is containing it, limiting its abuses, even if it doesn’t abolish it in one move.

Then, Jesus shows up and he doesn’t teach anything about it specifically, but he declares that his kingdom is for the poor and oppressed to set them free.  This was first understood in a spiritual sense, and slaves flocked to the early church.  There they were taught that while they were someone else’s slave, in Christ they were free.  Their future was the kingdom of heaven.  They were blessed, not cursed.  So they were told to obey their master’s because they worked for God, not men, and the God who loved them would reward them.  If they could get their freedom, they should, of course, but don’t be too anxious if they can’t, God was on their side (1 Cor 7).

Masters also were in the church and they were told to love their slaves, not treat them harshly but fairly and like brothers.  And to remember that they were Christ’s slave.  In fact, in one case, a Master (Philemon) is told to forgive and we may presume also free a runaway slave (Onesimus) because this slave is a brother.  This is incredible!  How could Masters and Slaves be brothers in the same churches?  This teaching forecast that the institution of slavery could not long endure, with such radical ideas like the Gospel at the center of the New Community.

You could say the apostles should have been more direct in their condemnation of slavery.  But I would say their approach was much shrewder, and therefore more effective.  They attacked the values upon which slavery was based.  So without imposing a ban on slavery from a position of ecclesiastical authority, a ban which may have hopelessly divided a very young church and derailed her from her primary mission in the world, Paul undermines the whole institution with his words, “there is no longer slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ… Masters, serve your slaves as brothers, ETC.” (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:7-9, Philemon)

So in fact, slavery did die out first in the Church and then in all of Europe as the Church expanded.  Nowhere else on planet earth did this happen.  Not in China, not in the Middle East under Islam, not in Africa (where blacks enslaved blacks for millennia).  During the so called Dark Ages, slavery became almost unheard of in Europe, except of course, for the millions of slaves the Muslim hordes carried off to Arabia.  In fact, we get our word, “slave” from those millions, mostly Slavs – taken from Slovakia and other places in Eastern Europe.

Not until the other races of Africa and America were discovered, does slavery rise up again in Christendom.  But it was voices in the Church that railed against it.  You hear about Christian military men and governors and explorers who were avid slave traders.  But most of these were as Christian as your very nominal Christian neighbor is today.  EVERYONE in Europe was baptized Christian, but only a percentage were truly devout.  Meanwhile, the really devoted Christians, the Dominican monks, the Jesuits, and the papacy through repeated edicts railed against Slavery.  It advanced in spite of real Christians not because of them.

So the economy of Europe quickly became dependent on the slave trade and all sorts of Christian justifications ensued.  But these reasons were ridiculous.  For example, using the prophesy against Ham in Genesis.  Or the New Testament rules for slaves.  The hypocrisy and deliberate blindness of these lines of reasoning were self-evident, for any who took Scripture sincerely.  If it truly was the Bible, clearly understood and applied, that gave backing and justification for American slavery, why were the Scriptural rules allowing for the freeing of slaves, never invoked for the black man?

There is only one REAL reason, which has been repeatedly exposed in the laws and writings of the time:  It wasn’t the Bible, it was the evil of racist ideology.  Black men were assumed inferior.  Whites of the time (even some emancipation fighters from the North) had a hard time believing the African was in any way his equal.  This particularly odious idea could have never come from a Bible which declares repeatedly that humans are all genetically linked to exact same first parents, establishing our fraternity and equality forever.

So finally, it was the church again, by Papal Bull in the South Americas, and under names of devout Christians like Wilberforce and Lincoln in the North, who understood the full force of God’s Word regarding human dignity and value and equality, who lead the way to abolish the slave trade and eventually emancipate all slaves.  Every historian acknowledges the debt the world owes to the Evangelical church in England and the Northern states for leading the way for abolition.

Read again Lincoln’s second inaugural address and see all the Bible verses he quotes and alludes to, and ask if he thought that Jesus (or Scripture overall) condoned slavery.  Not a chance!