At the outset we must make clear the standards by which we are to judge the institution of slavery. As Christians, we cannot be subject to whims of the heart or fancies of the intellect. We cannot acquiesce to the norms of modern secular culture, instead we must hold firm to the norma normans, the norming norm, the Bible, the revealed Word of God to mankind.
We are fallen creatures, living in utter darkness, unable to see the light on our own: “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17.9). But God, through his grace, provided us with Holy Scripture, which is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3.16). It is the inspired, inerrant and infallible Bible that we must cling to as the absolute standard of truth.
The Biblical Case
Let us then briefly examine what the Bible has to say about slavery. At the outset it must be noted that no where does Scripture condemn slavery. Slavery was a standard practice throughout the ancient world. Jesus, Paul and the other apostles would have been intimately familiar with this institution — yet they uttered not one word in opposition to it. Surely had slavery been the anathema that modern secular society deems it to be, God would have made it clear that slavery is truly sinful. But instead He chose to remain entirely silent when it comes to opposing slavery.
But silence in and of itself is insufficient evidence upon which to base our case — so let us look at several Biblical passages that clearly support slavery.
Exodus 20.17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Here slavery is codified in the Ten Commandants, the unchangeable Law of God. Slaves are recognized as property, objects of covetousness in the same category as an ox or donkey. Likewise, we see that God provided clear regulations regarding the buying and selling of humans as property:
Leviticus 25.44-46 Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
In the New Testament we see a clear continuation and implicit endorsement of the institution of slavery:
1 Peter 2.18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.
Colossians 3.22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
Ephesians 6.5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
These are but a few of the Scriptures that lend clear support to the on-going practice of slavery. If we hold the Bible as authoritative in all matters of faith and practice, then it is incumbent upon us to follow through with its guidelines.
But in these matters, though we must hold to Scripture as our final authority, it is always wise to consider the wisdom of others. To that end, let us look at what several learned men of God have to say on the subject:
The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example. — The Reverend R. Furman
There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral. — The Reverend Alexander Campbell
If it were a matter to be determined by my personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I should be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery; for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be “wise in my own conceit,” and not to “lean to my own understanding.” As a Christian, I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusions, when I know that they are in accordance with the will of Him, before whose tribunal I must render a strict account in the last great day. I proceed, accordingly, to the evidence of the sacred Scriptures, which, long ago, produced complete conviction in my own mind, and must, as I regard it, be equally conclusive to every candid and sincere inquirer. — The Right Reverend John Henry Hopkins
These godly men, part of the Body of Christ and indwelt by the unchanging Holy Spirit, upheld Scriptural truth and were unswayed by popular opinion and secular “morality.” We would be wise to follow their example.
We therefore see that the Bible clearly supports the practice of slavery and no where condemns it. Slavery is a practice that has occurred throughout history, is codified and regulated in the Bible and is implicitly endorsed by God. To try and say otherwise is to deny the clear teachings of Scripture and to engage in selective reading, distorted exegesis and historical revisionism. Therefore, as Christians in search of the truth, it is incumbent upon us to uphold this Biblical practice. Admittedly, such an admonition may be a difficult task in the modern Western world. But Christianity does not present himself as the easy path. I will leave it up to the reader to work out the specifics of this particular orthopraxis, but remember: failure to heed the Word of God may have eternal consequences.