I’m preaching on 1 Peter 2.18f this week, a passage that talks about servants submitting to their masters. Such passages make you wonder about the ethical questions regarding slavery. I thought I would lay out some of the thoughts I’ve had this week regarding it. This is by no means meant to endorse slavery outright or even meant to be an exhaustive study. I merely put these thoughts out as some clarification.
In the Bible…
I. Forced slavery is absolutely wrong, except in the case of prisoners of war or the purchase of foreign slaves
The Bible sates in several places that it is illegal to compel someone to be their slave. For instance, in Deut. 24 it condemns this practice. It says that if someone is found stealing one of his brothers and forcing him to be his slave or selling him off as a slave, then he is to be put to death! Death mind you. This was a capital offense!
I want to make this clear because the issue of slavery is one of those things that is bandied about by anyone and everyone who is critical of the Bible. Someone will inevitably say that “The Bible allows slavery!” And they will make great cries of how terrible such a thing is. But look here. Forcing someone to become your slave was a crime punishable by death. To say that the Bible permits slavery in this capacity is simply wrongheaded.
The Apostle Paul is clear about this too. In 1 Timothy 1 he lists enslavers (i.e. those who kidnap and force people into slavery) among the types of murderers, perjurers and the sexually immoral. Hardly could it be said that Paul tolerated form of slavery.
Now, having said that, let me say that the Bible does tolerate the enslavement of foreigners. But when you think about the implications, you’ll realize that this was still not slavery as we may originally think of it. First, prisoners of war were permitted to be forced labor. Now what exactly are you supposed to do with people who attack you and you capture. You could let them go, but chances are they’ll be back to attack you again. Another thing you could do is kill them. I think that you will agree that putting them to work is a bit more humane.
Finally, foreign slaves could be bought by Israelites and made to work for them. Now, we don’t have any evidence of this happening, so we don’t know if it did happen. But let’s think together. Would you rather be a slave in Syria or Israel? Would it be better to be a slave in a pagan country where you were simply property to be battered and beat, or would it be better to be a slave in a country where your personal dignity would be regarded with the utmost respect? I submit to you that this kind of slavery was an act of mercy. I think this will become clearer in a few minutes too. So let me move on to the next item.
I just said that in most cases, forced slavery is wrong. But the Scripture says…
II. Slavery may be permitted on a voluntary basis.
In the Old Testament you could, by your own volition, become soemone’s slave. This was a means of survival in those days. If you could not provide for yourself—if you had become impoverished and had no means by which to live—you could give yourself as a slave to another person. And in doing so, you could be saved from your utter destitution.
Again, no one could force you to do this. Someone couldn’t come along and compel you to be their slave. That would be what we call man stealing or kidnapping, and the Bible is clear in its denunciation of that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
For it to be legal, slavery had to be voluntary. You had to come into it willingly and express your own personal desire to enter into that mode of living.
And this leads to the next item regarding slavery.
III. Biblical slavery was only to be for a limited amount of time.
It was never for life (unless you wanted it to be). There were a number of ways to be freed, most notably at the end of a 7 year cycle. To be sure, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Even if you worked all seven years, it wasn’t a long time.
IV. In any case, slaves were to be treated with the utmost respect
The slaves ought to be treated with the utmost respect. You are never allowed to violate their personal dignity. There is nothing in the Scriptures that permits men and women even in bondage to be denigrated or treated with the least disrepute. They always have to be cared for with fatherly affection and given the best possible means for their livelihood.
In this sense, a slave would be much like an employee that we would understand today. He might not make money, but at the very least he is giving his life and work in exchange for the basic provisions of life (i.e. protection, shelter, and food, perhaps also medical assistance and other physical cares).
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