Is slavery sinful? That’s not really a debate most Western Christians engage in anymore, as there’s just about as much consensus on the point as its possible to have. But then, consensus isn’t unanimity, and I have seen the question raised on Twitter recently.
It went over about as well as one would expect. It is, after all, unthinkable for most of us to answer anything other than “of course it is!” But it’s precisely the unthinkability that makes the question interesting to me. We may answer reflexively, but that’s certainly not been the case throughout the history of Christendom. Are we really so much wiser than so many of those who came before us that we so easily grasp something that eluded so many others?
It’s possible, certainly. Not because we’re a particularly wise people (hard to say that about those who cannot even tell the difference between men and women) but because every age and every people has its own blind spots and insights. That’s why reading old books is so rewarding.
But it’s certainly not a forgone conclusion that we’re wise either–not when you consider the kinds of faux-moral outrage that are systematically ingrained into us these days. Thus I found myself pondering: Is slavery really sinful?
Because this subject is so hard for Westerners to thoughtfully discuss, let’s start with some clarifications. First, by “slavery” I simply mean one human owning another (someone who is not a family member) as property and directing his actions accordingly. There have been countless variations on this, of course, but that ownership is the core of slavery. I’m not specifically referring to any one system–including American slavery.
Second, I’m going to lay out some fundamental theses as starting points. I don’t think I could really have a fruitful discussion about a Christian take on slavery without agreement on these basics. Where these are under dispute, other conversations must come first.
Slavery is bad.
This is the blatant Scriptural assumption from beginning to end when it comes to men owning other men. Noah includes it in a curse on his errant son Ham. Israel’s bondage in Egypt is treated as something worth escaping from. Israel’s bondage in Babylon is delivered as punishment. The assumption undergirds many of the New Testament illustrations that contrast sons and slaves. Thinking that slavery is a benign or neutral practice among humans would almost make some parts of the Bible gibberish.
Bad is not always the same thing as sinful.
There are a lot of bad consequences ultimately rooted in the Fall. But participating in those consequences is not necessarily sinful. The most obvious example would be killing. Man wasn’t even supposed to die, let alone to deliberately cause one-another’s deaths. But while murder is always wrong, killing is sometimes acceptable and sometimes even required by God. So even though slavery is a bad thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a sin to participate in the institution.
Both the Old and New Testaments accommodate slavery; neither requires categorical emancipation.
Yes, Westerners all wish this wasn’t the case, but let’s not engage in sophistry here. Both Testaments specifically exhort slaves and obedience is always included. Likewise, both Testaments specifically exhort slave owners, and categorical emancipation is never included. The closest the Bible comes is Paul’s deeply personal plea for Onesimus in the book of Philemon. But while Paul clearly wanted Onesimus freed as a gift, his almost passive-aggressive approach towards Philemon’s ownership of Onesimus is a very sharp contrast to how he treats a sin like, say, fornication–something from which to flee and unspeakable amongst saints no matter how common it was in the surrounding culture.
So the freeing of slaves is certainly treated as good just as slavery is treated as bad. But just like “bad” isn’t always the same thing as “sin” in a fallen world, “good” isn’t always the same thing as “moral obligation” in a fallen world.
The role of master is fundamentally altered by both OT and NT Law
While the aforementioned exhortations to masters accommodate rather than abolish the practice of keeping men as property, they do transform the way slaves are to be treated. The ancient Israelites were required to treat their slaves as members of the household in many respects, and put explicit limits on how they may be treated. Likewise, the New Testament requires Christian masters to be just, fair, and even non-threatening towards their slaves. They are reminded that God is their master, and He will show them no partiality compared to their property when it comes to how they treated them.
In short, while the Bible does not categorically emancipate slaves, it does categorically forbid their instrumentalization. Even as property, they must be treated as people rather than as mere tools. This is another sharp contrast with how slaves have often been treated in various times and places.
So those are the basics. That might not be all we want Scripturally, but it’s what we’ve got Scripturally. However, by themselves the basics do not completely answer the question of whether slavery is sinful. So let’s get to the main event.
Is slavery a sin? I would contend that slavery is subjectively but not objectively sinful. By that, I mean that while it does not violate any God-given moral absolute, it can violate God-given moral wisdom in different times, places, and circumstances. In other words, “thou shalt not own or trade slaves” is not a moral law the way “thou shalt not murder” and “thou shalt not commit adultery” are. Rather, slavery falls under moral wisdom the way proverbs like “do not answer a fool according to his folly” and “answer a fool according to his folly” do. (They are both true proverbs, but obviously neither can be absolute; which one applies depends on the situation.) Now let’s unpack that.
The reflexively outraged are at least correct about one key point: Realizing that slavery is sinful really is a no-brainer for modern Western Christians. But despite the usual posturing, it’s not because of how clearly we understand God’s explicit commands or how completely we grasp fundamental parts of the Christian worldview like man being made in the image of God. And it shouldn’t be because we hold to faulty Enlightenment ideals like progress and equality (though if we’re honest, it often is.)
Slavery is sinful for us because of the Golden Rule.
Because we live in an emancipated society, we absolutely loathe the idea of being enslaved or being held as a slave ourselves. But even though that loathing comes from our society rather than God’s Word, we are not wrong to disdain slavery because as we’ve already asserted, slavery is bad. And because we would be horrified at the idea of being enslaved, we shouldn’t even consider doing it to anyone else. On that account, slavery is indeed blatantly sinful for us, and we don’t really have to think about it before arriving at that conclusion. However, it’s not because we’re so much wiser, but merely because we’re so much more fortunate in that respect.
And there is a limit to how we can take the Golden Rule and use it to judge others–especially in the past. “As you would have them do unto you” makes the Rule inherently subjective. But as scary as the word “subjective” is to modern ears, it doesn’t mean false, non-factual, or disregardable. Subjectivity is simply an art rather than a science, as it involves exceptions, uncertainty, variability, and the like.
The Golden Rule is a true proverb given by divine Wisdom that summarizes God’s Law, and Christians are absolutely obligated to follow it. We are sinning if we violate it. But even so, many of the specific behaviors the Golden Rule demands of us are not moral absolutes. The Golden Rule will not always forbid or enjoin the same actions among different peoples, and when it does, it will not always forbid or enjoin them in the same way or with the same priority.
Don’t misunderstand; I am not advocating moral relativism here. Morality rests on absolutes that are not in any way relative. For example, the Golden Rule is certainly limited by moral absolutes. Saying “I would want to have the option of murdering my unborn child, so I’ll allow others to murder theirs” doesn’t wash because murder is always evil–you’re wrong even to want that yourself.
The Rule is also informed by moral absolutes. For example, I know that children are an absolute blessing from God, and so I will not affirm my neighbor in his anti-child attitudes even if he would prefer that I do. I know better than he does, and so “as you would have them do unto you” does not equate to “as they would have you do unto them.”
Even so, some subsidiary aspects of morality are culturally relative. For example, everyone absolutely must honor their father and mother as per the 4th Commandment. However, the specific details of exactly what honor looks like can change from culture to culture. For example, do you rise up before the hoary head to honor an old man or do you bow down instead because “rising up” implies defiance in your culture? Or at what age/rite-of-passage does a son’s strict obedience begin to fade from the permanent responsibility to honor? Subjective customs like these ultimately play a huge role in the nuts-and-bolts of daily morality.
Vocation likewise influences the way we carry out the Golden Rule. If I were an employer, then the reasoning “I would like my salary tripled, so I should triple my employees’ salaries” would not compel me to do so. As an employer, I have a responsibility to both my company and my employees; the latter does not cancel out the former. Our good judgment given for the sake of our vocations plays an important role in how the Golden Rule works out in practice.
The way we interact with slavery is one of those aspects. The practice is undoubtedly abhorrent and unthinkable for us, but that was not always the case. Slavery was an ordinary way of life in many cultures throughout history. Sometimes it was the result of kidnapping (an absolute moral transgression.) Sometimes it was the result of selling a child whom you were unable to feed or shelter (a horrifying choice in horrifying circumstances.) Other times it was one of the many ugly facets of ancient warfare (a brutal exercise of governing authority.) But however slavery got there in any given case, it was embedded in many different customs and institutions throughout the world.
That reality means there have existed many circumstances in which the Golden Rule would not have required emancipation. In times and places where slavery was normal and lawful, master was a true vocation.
Likewise, where slavery was normal, emancipation wouldn’t even necessarily be desired by the slave 100% of the time. You can even see this codified into law in Ancient Israel. The owner of a Hebrew slave was obligated to offer him his freedom after 6 years, but the same law also accounted for the possibility that he would say “no.” Staying for the sake of a wife and children he loves is understandable to us, but it’s one that immediately makes us imagine someone cruelly leveraging a man’s family to force him to remain enslaved. Yet Exodus includes “I love my master” alongside wife and children in that very same rationale. That’s entirely unthinkable to us, and yet understandable to other peoples.
Likewise, we should not assume that our own vehement reaction to being a slave would be shared by absolutely everyone throughout history. Gaining freedom falls into a “no matter what” category for us. In other times, it would just be one pro on a whole list of pros and cons to consider. Sometimes people would even sell themselves into slavery because they believed it to be their best option. Would setting a slave free really be an improvement to his prospects even from his own perspective? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it’s not a foregone conclusion the way it would be in America today. We cannot equate perpetuating the ordinary status of slave with inflicting our own culture’s obscene & unthinkable status of slave.
That is one of the reasons why we shouldn’t be so quick to judge every slave-holder throughout all of human history as being objectively guilty of mortal sin. Pretty much every Old Testament patriarch and king ended their lives as unrepentant slave-owners, but we shouldn’t treat that the same as if they had been unrepentant murderers. Slavery was bad then just like it’s bad now. That doesn’t mean everyone’s involvement in the institution was sinful (even though much of the involvement in it clearly was).
Now I don’t think the Biblical rational stops there either. There is a case to be made that mass emancipation is inevitable in a Christian civilization. The more one treats their slaves according to Biblical instructions, the more slavery naturally transforms into other forms of employment. Likewise, wisdom might lead Christians to save some slaves from evil masters by buying and freeing them–as some Christians did and as Christ did for us. Not as the imposition of a universal law, but as a subjective calling to help those we encounter who are in need. So I don’t think it’s any accident that the slaves were eventually freed in Christendom–however one might feel about the particulars of how that was done.
So what then of American slavery? I’m not going to claim that American slavery was the worst slavery ever. (As many African slaves were sold to the Middle East as to the West, but there’s no large population of their descendants there now. Ponder the implications of that for a moment.) Nevertheless, there’s no denying that American slavery leaned hard into the kind of instrumentalization explicitly forbidden by Scripture; they were often treated as inhuman property rather than human property. So on a whole, it was absolutely a sinful endeavor. But that doesn’t mean every American slave-owner was automatically guilty of this, or guilty of it to the same degree. So we have no obligation to condemn every slave-owner (and certainly no need to cancel and memory-hole them.)
But wherever any individual falls on that subjective scale, the enterprise as a whole was an outright disaster for everyone involved. God, in his sovereignty, saw to it that American slaves were freed (whether by liberating heroes or God punishing one knave by means of another–take your pick.) And I can’t help but think America still bears God’s punishment for refusing to pick her own cotton. It not only split the country in the Civil War, but still divides us today as white and black Americans struggle to figure out whether or not we’re truly the same nation. And in that respect, slavery is sinful simply on account of it being foolishness. But hindsight is 20/20, so foolishness still fails to be a cudgel we can wield against our ancestors.
And that cudgel is ultimately why the question matters to most Westerners today. Nobody is debating whether or not we should reintroduce slavery in the West–thank God. And the people who most assiduously condemn slavery as a past institution seem less concerned than you’d think about ongoing slavery and human trafficking in other parts of the world today. They want a weapon of political convenience more than they want a moral law.
For some, that weapon is a tool with which they can finally vindicate their ancestors and achieve retribution for the injustices done against them. For others, the weapon is a tool to tear down one civilization so that they can build a new one in its place. For still others, it’s a ceremonial weapon they like to carry on parade to display honor they never earned. And, of course, for those on the receiving end, the weapon is a tool whose purpose is to threaten their families and coerce them into betraying their heritage.
But the Bible does not hand anyone that weapon. The Golden Rule does bind me against enslaving and against encouraging or perpetuating enslavement. But it does not require me to categorically condemn my ancestors, or offer up my nation, my heritage, or my family as recompense for their sins. As for those who do take up that weapon… They ought to think long and hard about who actually handed it to them.