Before we start, let’s establish what we mean by slavery. If you mention the word slavery to most people in our society they will immediately think of the slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries where Africans were forcefully removed from their lands, transported on cramped ships and made to work on places like plantations in the Caribbean and the southern United States.
This is not what the bible means by slavery. In fact that practice of ‘man-stealing’ is clearly spoken against in the bible. For instance, in Exodus 21:16 it says that if anyone does that, then they should be put to death! It’s also clearly listed as a sin in 1 Timothy 1:8-10.
Slavery, however is mentioned many times in the bible. The Old Testament especially, mentions slaves frequently. It was a very common practice in ancient times, often resulting from the displacement of people due to war etc. Slaves were often treated really badly and thought of as no more than property to be treated how their master liked. In the Mosaic law God provided for slaves so they were treated respectfully and humanely. They were even to be released from their obligations after 6 years, unless they themselves chose to stay with their master (Exodus 21:2) These regulations that God provided for slaves, were really radical in ancient times. God cares for individuals but especially for the poor, destitute and marginalised.
As we are talking about slavery in the bible, let’s analyse why there was slavery in Israel. Without any form of social security it would have been easy for someone to fall upon hard times and selling yourself into slavery might be the only way you could provide for your family (Leviticus 25:39) A thief who was caught might have to go into slavery to pay off his debt (Exodus 22:3) people heavily in debt too could sell their children into slavery (2 Kings 4:1) This may sound cruel but it ensured their children were provided for.
In New Testament times slavery was still equally prevalent and universal. It was still a means for people to pay off debts and even survive if times were really hard. This is probably why slavery was not condemned outright in the bible. If Christians had somehow managed to get slavery banned, there would undoubtedly be more deaths, so you could say keeping slavery in that society was actually the humane thing to do! So rather than condemning slavery, Paul and the writers of the New Testament wrote some very counter cultural advice on how slaves and masters were to behave in a society where slavery was very normal. Their attitudes were to be radically different to the way the rest of society behaved, which is no different to how we should behave, as Christians, in our workplaces.
As long as there has been human sin and mankind’s inhumanity to his fellow man, there will always be a form of slavery. Don’t for one minute think that in our modern age that slavery has been eradicated, far from it. In a 2014 comprehensive study it was reckoned that there are currently 35.8 million slaves living in the world today! (http://www.walkfree.org/)
The bible knows that the human heart is in slave to sin and that while we walk in that sin, slavery will always be prevalent. But far from condoning slavery, the hope of the gospel is that everyone who puts their hope in Jesus will stand victoriously free, no longer in Physical slavery or spiritual slavery and that is something to look forward to.