Does God Condone Slavery?

It seems that when I ask atheists why they don't believe in God, one of the topics that invariably comes up is that of slavery.  These people, in a seeming attempt to cast God as a moral monster, pull select verses (often taking them out of context) to show that God advocates slavery and is thus not worthy of worship.

I've looked for awhile now for a good source to pass along on this subject, and the other day I found something that was quite impressive to me.  In Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God, the author offers an excellent response to this question.  Given that it comes up so often, and is (on the surface, at least) a bit of a challenge to answer, I thought I'd provide his quote below for everyone's reference (from pages 113-115):

"When I first came to New York City almost twenty years ago, the main problem people had with the Bible was in the areas just discussed - science and history.  Today things have shifted somewhat.  I find more people now especially upset by what they call the outmoded and regressive teaching of the Bible.  It seems to support slavery and the subjugation of women.  These positions appear so outrageous to contemporary people that they have trouble accepting any other parts of the Bible's message.

"In the early days of Redeemer [the name of Keller's church in Manhattan] I spent a lot of time with people who were reading the Bible for the first time.  As a result I was constantly responding to people who were choking on some particularly indigestible verse.  I remember one black-clad young artist who came up to me after a service.  He had just discovered the verse 'slaves obey your masters' (Ephesians 6:5ff.) and was almost apopleptic.  Here's how I advised him and other people on how to deal with a Scripture text that appeared objectionable or offensive to them.

"Many people simply run viscerally from any consideration of the Bible once they find such a Biblical passage.  I counsel them instead to slow down and try out several different perspectives on the issues that trouble them.  That way they can continue to read, learn, and profit from the Bible even as they continue to wrestle with some of its concepts.

"One possibility I urge them to consider is that the passage that bothers them might not teach what it appears to them to be teaching.  Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context.  Take the text 'slaves obey your masters.'  The average reader today immediately and understandably thinks of the African slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or of the human trafficking and sexual slavery practiced in many places today.  We then interpret the texts to teach that such slavery is permissible, even desirable.

"This is a classic case of ignoring the cultural and historical distance between us and the writer and readers of the original text.  In the first-century Roman empire, when the New Testament was written, there was not a great difference between slaves and the average free person.  Slaves were not distinguishable from others by race, speech, or clothing.  They looked and lived like most everyone else, and were not segregated from the rest of society in any way.  From a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free laborers, and therefore were not usually poor.  Also, slaves could accure enough personal capital to buy themselves out.  Most important of all, very few slaves were slaves for life.  Most could reasonably hope to be manumitted within ten or fifteen years, or by their late thirties at the latest.

"By contrast, New World slavery was much more systematically and homogeneously brutal.  It was 'chattel' slavery, in which the slave's whole person was the property of the master - he or she could be raped or maimed or killed at the will of the owner.  In the older bond-service or indentured servanthood, only slaves' productivity - their time and skills - were owned by the master, and only temporarily.  African slavery, however, was race-based, and its default mode was slavery for life.  Also, the African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapping.  The Bible unconditionally condemns kidnapping and trafficking in slaves (1 Timothy 1:9-11; cf. Deuteronomy 24:7).  Therefore, while the early Christians did not go on a campaign to abolish first-century slavery completely, later Christians did so when faced with New World-style slavery, which  could not be squared in any way with Biblical teaching."

Personally, I have found this to be one of the better responses to the charge that God is supportive of slavery.  It raises the necessary points for our non-believing friends to consider while retaining a compassionate and caring tone.  And if you're interested in reading the book yourself, I can say that it is sprinkled throughout with similarly excellent insights on a wide variety of questions.  Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the book is that Keller addresses these issues as a minister of the gospel and not a philosopher or a scientist (who can, admittedly, sometimes come across as a bit dry and technical in their presentation).

Hopefully this quote will help you the next time you're asked the question about God's support of slavery.  As Keller said, when we think of the slave trade in 19th century America, we really are making an apples/oranges comparison with the slavery of the ancient world.  Hopefully now you've got a better grasp of some of these differences.

May God bless all of us as we seek to share His love with a lost and hurting world...

Scott

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