Is Slavery Sinful?

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.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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13 Responses to Is Slavery Sinful?

  1. bruce charlton says:

    A good analysis.

    My only quibble is that modern people are Not in practice absolutely opposed to slavery; in the sense that slavery has been reintroduced in recent years and is tolerated.

    Slavery is tolerated when it is done by ‘minorities’ and recent immigrants – but not among the native British population. Thus there are many thousands of slaves known to to the authorities who live in Britain now, presumably many more un-known, and nothing effective is done.

    In practice, we see that antiracism is now a higher value than anti-slavery – thus slavery is tolerated when practiced by those who are privileged and protected by antiracist values.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Bruce. And I think you’re correct. Slavery was thrown out the front door, but it is sneaking in through the back. Ask pretty much anyone and they’ll say they oppose slavery, but contemporary progressives think in terms no deeper than good guys and bad guys. There’s no real place in their worldview for “good guys owning slaves,” so they instinctively ignore or obfuscate slavery when its observed among the “good guys”.

    • B. Gordon says:

      Bruce, we keep showing up in the same places- we obviously can discern good writing and analysis!

      (“Bruce B.” on your blog). Using a pseudonym here. I really need to use a consistent online identifier.

      May I also recommend Oz Conservative (Mark Richardson) for very similar analysis e.g. non-loony “redpill” analysis on sex, nationality, etc.

  2. B. Gordon says:

    I have seen arguments that our understanding of “ownership” during antebellum slavery was dramatically different than it was in medieval European servitude or NT biblical slavery. Something to do with “chattel” ownership. Unfortunately, I don’t remember all the details. The Catholic Church wrote a great deal after experiences with New World slavery (Latin American slavery was much worse than North American) but I also can’t remember most of it beyond “it’s bad.”

    “white and black Americans struggle to figure out whether or not we’re truly the same nation.”

    We’re not really. Nation means blood and birth. America is not a nation, it’s a multi-ethnic and multi-racial empire. Nations have a sense of distinct (from other nations) common origin that is more than just “descended from Adam and Eve.” Nations are quite Biblical as Lutheran Aaron Wolf (RIP) used to point out.

    • Nathan Rinne says:

      B. Gordan,

      I think that is certainly debatable. Are you familiar with a certain kind of rubric that would distinguish nations and empires? Would you contend that if there remain certain distinct groups in a land that do not fully integrate and enmesh we necessarily have an empire?


      • B. Gordon says:

        Nathan Rinne

        I think our projection of power world-wide, our consolidation of most of an entire continent (and beyond) composed of a great diversity of peoples, etc. makes us an empire. Polyethnic, polyracial and increasingly polyglot empire.

        Maybe I’m missing something on the textbook definition of an empire.

    • RMS3 says:

      Chattel slavery was practiced by ancient Romans and Greeks. It means the slave was nothing more than a tool or implement that happened to have a voice. The slave had no human rights and a master could dispose of the slave at a whim. This sort of slavery died out in Late Antiquity. It never existed in the Christian West, let alone in America. The use of the term “chattel slavery” was introduced by radical abolitionists in their campaign of slander to discredit Southern slave holders.

      American slavery is properly called “domestic slavery” – the master has a capital ownership right to the slave’s labor, not his person or soul.

  3. Matthew Etzell says:

    Following up on Matt’s post and Bruce Charlton’s comment, here is a post from Bonald I recently came across.

  4. RMS3 says:

    This article started out sounding like it was going to attempt an honest, biblical assessment of slavery but then just slouched back into the same old shibboleths derived from the values of Enlightenment humanism and American civic religion.

    The pivot point was where the author claims that slavery is “sinful for us” because of the Golden Rule. He then goes out to observe that the Golden Rule cannot be used as a warrant for one to demand whatever he desires (I would want my salary tripled, therefore according to the Golden Rule, I must triple my employees salary). So, he correctly observes that the Golden Rule generally involves a balancing of interests, or as Rev. R L Dabney said, it requires that we treat people equitably according to the circumstances. (Dabney said this in the context of arguing against abolitionists who were appealing to the Golden Rule to denounce slave holders.)

    Slavery is not a topic that requires subtle balancing of tensions between interests to decide whether it is evil. Contrary to the author’s claim, the bible does not merely “accommodate” slavery, it expressly sanctions it and God does so in the very act of setting his people apart to holiness and specifying commandments for their holy living:

    Lev 25:44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever.

    Paul addresses Philemon as a brother in Christ and sends his runaway slave back to him in recognition of his lawful property right. In spite of what people desperately want to read into the text, Paul does not command or urge Philemon to manumit Onesimus and refuse to impose or presume upon him to do so. He only instructs that he treat Onesimus with love and forgiveness as a brother in Christ (Philemon could have had Onesimus severely punished or killed under Roman law)

    To argue that slavery is sinful per se (which is not what the author is saying) or to argue that slavery is inappropriate or sinful for Christians under the New Covenant are both anti-biblical statements and contrary not only to scripture but to historic church teaching.

    As for the practice of slavery in America, it was introduced on a large scale starting in the early 18th century (not 1619) following the Treaty of Utrecht which awarded the British Crown the “Asiento”, the slave trading monopoly in the New World. It was an immensely profitable enterprise driven by greed and indifferent to cruelty – and had virtually nothing to do with people living in British North America (except for New Englanders who participated in the slave trade). Virginia repeatedly protested against the introduction of large slave populations because of the social upheaval it caused.

    However, if we confine the analysis to the period from Indenpendence to 1865, any honest, objective analysis reveals it to be a benignent institution, conducted generally in accordance with biblical standards and under which, the slave population thrived. Under American slavery, benighted pagans from Africa were introduced to monogamous marriage, civilized, evangelized, taught work and trade skills and were provided with food, clothing, housing, medical treatment, etc at a standard equal and in many cases BETTER than industrial workers in the north or England at the time. They enjoyed a life expectancy comparable to whites in Europe and only a few years less than whites in America (the longest life expectancies of the 19th century). The slave population grew, literally, 10 fold under the care and tutelage of Southern slave holders Free blacks, on the other hand, particularly in the north lived hard lives of impoverishment and brutal discrimination.

    American slaves were not miserable creatures longing to board the Underground Railroad to brighter prospects. Even during the war, when many of them could have escaped or rebelled while the men were off fighting, they remained loyal to their people. When northern invaders disrupted the plantation system and “emancipated” slaves, an estimated ¼ to ½ million of them (roughly 10% of the population) perished from disease and hunger – in other circumstances, this would be called genocide. How’s that Golden Rule principle working out for you?
    When 3000 former slaves were interviewed by the federal govt in the 1920’s and 30’s, 70 – 80% of the transcripts mention that either it was the happiest time of their lives and/or they spoke with deep affection of their former masters and how well they were treated. (These interviews are available online for you to read and see yourself in case you are thinking “What is this guy smoking”).

    American slavery, from Independence to the 13th Amendment, honestly considered, was a successful, large scale example of practical, applied Christianity. Contrast it to the social pathologies unleashed on blacks by the modern welfare state. Why don’t we have article pondering whether affirmative action or welfare is a sin for Christians?

    In spite of nearly 200 years of radical abolitionists propaganda, slavery is not a sin. American slavery was not sinful. What is a sin is propagating a lie and slandering Christians of another era who held slaves and treated them responsibly in accordance with biblical standards with the approbation of scripture and church leaders.

    • Matthew Etzell says:

      Well said.

      I would add that what the Bible does condemn (in Exodus 21:16) is man-stealing (kidnapping).

      ESV: Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.

      KJV: And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.

      NASB: He who kidnaps a man , whether he sells him or he is found in his possession , shall surely be put to death .

      NIV: Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.

      Note that this condemnation does not extend to anyone who buys the slave, even if the man is only a slave because he was kidnapped. In the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade the people guilty of man-stealing were primarily black. And, lest anyone claim that there would be no man-stealing in Africa absent the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I must note that the trans-Saharan slave trade began at least 900 years before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and only officially ended in the 20th century (unofficially, it is still ongoing).

    • Matt says:


      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Where I think we primarily differ is this:

      As you say, “[the golden rule] requires that we treat people equitably according to the circumstances.” I agree. However, America today has some very unique circumstances historically. Our question right now is not whether to own one of the many slaves in our culture, whether to accept an established role of master, whether to accept someone’s offer to become our slave to avoid destitution, or any of the other ordinary questions pertinent to most historical circumstances.

      Our question is whether to reintroduce slavery to a culture in which the institution is fundamentally despised. In those unusual circumstances, the Golden Rule produces a very unusual result. Because I myself would despise becoming someone’s slave, I am morally bound against enslaving any free man. And because I suspect that vast majority of Americans would take the same view about becoming enslaved, I believe the vast majority of us are bound the same way.

      As for American slavery, I’m not equipped to contest your view. I have heard stories of horror and stories of beneficence. I haven’t done a deep dive to determine which kinds of stories were more representative. And while I’m open to the possibility that everything I learned is wrong (we live in an age of propaganda after all,) I’m naturally skeptical of “it was for their own good” reasoning because of how convenient that sort of thing is as an excuse. But I don’t really *know*, so I’m not going to contest it here.

      • RMS3 says:

        “Our question is whether to reintroduce slavery to a culture in which the institution is fundamentally despised.” – well, in my experience, that is a question being asked by precisely no one, in any discussion, from any view point.

        The question that is being propounded every day, literally, is whether we we should condemn our forefathers and our race and by extension ourselves as beneficiaries, because a) some of them held slaves and b) slavery was a horrific sin.

        The answer to that question for the Christian must be an emphatic, unequivocal rejection of both assertions.

        If the question of reintroducing slavery were proposed today, I would endorse it for those who cannot live responsibly in an otherwise free society. In this case, consigning miscreants, vagabonds and wastrels into domestic slavery is no different than putting them in insane asylums.

  5. RMS3 says:

    “Moses legalized domestic slavery for God’s chosen people, in the very act of setting them aside to holiness.

    Christ, the great Reformer, lived and moved amidst it, teaching, healing, applauding slaveholders; and while He assailed every abuse, uttered no word against this lawful relation.

    His apostles admit slaveholders to the church, exacting no repentance nor renunciation. They leave, by inspiration, general precepts for the manner in which the duties of the relation are to be maintained. They command Christian slaves to obey and honor Christian masters. They remand the runaway to his injured owner, and recognize his property in his labor as a right which they had no power to infringe.

    If slavery is in itself a sinful thing, then the Bible is a sinful book.

    Rev. Dr. R L Dabney, Life of Lt Gen Thomas J Jackson

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