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That's a Good Question

Chains of Time: Defining Biblical Slavery

May 14, 2024

Jon Delger


Ryan Kimmel

So Hey everyone, welcome to That's a Good Question, a podcast of Peace Church and a part of Resound Media. You can find more great content for the Christian life and church leaders at That's a Good Question is a place where we answer questions about the Christian faith in plain language.

I'm John, I serve as a pastor as well as part of this show. You can always submit questions to Today, I'm here with Lead Pastor of Peace Church, Pastor Ryan Kimmel.

Hello, everyone. I'm also here with Pastor Mitch, our producer. Hey.

And today, we're going to address the controversial topic of what does the Bible say about slavery?

Yep. All right, here's our listener question. During your Philemon series, you said that the Bible does not support slavery. How can you reconcile that with other passages that instruct people how to treat their slaves or even be slaves like Ephesians 6, 5-9, Colossians 3, 22, Titus 2, verse 9, 1 Peter 2, 18. It seems like the Bible is promoting and teaching slavery. So isn't this an example of not being inspired and not the true holy word of God? I'm eager to hear how you respond to this because

this seems like a clear example of the Bible being outdated. So, not just what does the Bible say about slavery but does this mean that the Bible itself is outdated, can't speak to today.

Yeah. Isn't from God. Mm hmm. Lots on the line. So, I'm gonna respond firstly by saying that I think we're gonna talk about this question but I want whoever asked that question to know that as you respond, I'm not necessarily responding specifically to that person or I'm not gonna make assumptions or judgments about their faith, doesn't say if they're a Christian or not, they clearly were familiar with our church to the extent that they knew that we preached through the Book of Philemon and that I addressed slavery to that extent. So if you did submit that question, thank you for submitting that question, but please know that we're not, we're gonna answer just biblically with no preconceived notions or judgments upon where the motivation behind that question. I like the Gospel Coalition did an article on this and I like how they framed it. They said something to the effect of biblical instruction doesn't necessarily mean approval. That there's things that the Bible will instruct but doesn't necessarily approve or even to an extent like encourage. I think divorce is an example of that.

I think the overarching thrust of the New Testament is that married people should stay married through thick and thin, if you got married in the name of Christ. And although it does provide some instruction for divorce, at times, it gives instruction for it. Instructions on kind of parameters around it without giving a mandated approval of it. And I think when it comes to slavery, there's a lot of parallels to that. Now, one thing that you absolutely must underscore whenever we talk about slavery in the biblical sense is we have to make very clear distinctions between the slavery that the Bible talks about in both the Old and New Testament and what we here in America experience in the 18th, the 17th and 1800s, because it's different. And it's important to make those distinctions. And I know people don't want to make those distinctions. They just want to say slavery is slavery.

And I'd say that's a dishonor to those who suffered through the American version of slavery, which I think was uniquely horrendous and demonic. So why is it important to make that distinction? Because it's two different sets of bondage, you could say. Yeah. And that's why even the New Testament, you'll see a lot of the translators will go at great lengths to talk about the agony of translating the biblical words into slavery, knowing the cultural weight that that word carries for Americans and how it taints our understanding of what the Bible instructs and teaches and describes.

Yeah, to that point, here's a, I want to just read a quick section. This is actually, so the ESV Bible, the English Standard Version of the Bible, that's the one that we use at Peace Church. Plenty of good translations, but that's the one that we use. And in their preface, they actually address this particular issue, just with, they're talking about their translation in general, but they give the example of talking about slavery and how that's just kind of a hard topic. So they say, a particular difficulty is presented when words in Biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ebed in Hebrew and doulos in Greek, terms which are often rendered slave. These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings, either slave, bond servant, or servant, depending on the context. And then they go on to explain what you're saying, which is that there is a difference between when the Bible uses that word, doulos or ebbed, Old Testament and New Testament, versus, yeah, what we saw in the United States of America in the 1700s and 1800s.

Yeah. The other thing that's important to note is not just the slavery, the form of slavery, but the cultural and societal context in which that institution played out. The American, you know, the American landscape of the 1700s and 1800s and how that society was functioning and with that new government, drastically different than what we see under the Romans or under the theocracy of the Old Testament.

And how life played out in those contexts were radically different, which is important for when we understand why the Bible teaches what it does in regards to slavery. And so one thing I did appreciate about the question that was asked is that they stuck with New Testament. If you noticed, the question that they asked, they referenced a bunch of verses, but they simply stuck to New Testament. They didn't go to the Exodus 21s and those sort of instructions that we see

from the Old Testament. I was going to say, actually, yeah, if you go to Exodus 21, the first 11 verses, I think to modern ears, that's going to be even, that's going to be far more shocking than the stuff you're going to read in the New Testament.

Yeah, so it's surprising to me that they didn't go there because I think, I think this person who asked that, they're thinking and they understand, they understand the notion of progressive revelation. And so they stuck with some of the New Testament passages. And so to say, how do we, well, I can't remember exactly how it was phrased. The Bible supports it? I think it was said, how can we say the Bible supports it? And doesn't that prove that the Bible or show that the Bible is outdated? Yeah, it says, how can you reconcile that with other passages that instruct people how to treat their slaves? Yeah. Yeah, it seems like the Bible is promoting and teaching slavery. Yeah, so I would say it's not promoting it. I'm saying it's giving parameters for how Christians are supposed to operate in a society where that is part of the air they breathe.

And one thing I said in the Philemon series is for the ancient world, a society that didn't include slavery was almost impossible for them to conceive. And probably something they didn't even attempt to conceive. I put it, I said it's similar to the Ark Society. We can't imagine a society that doesn't have money or a society that doesn't operate or an economy that doesn't operate based on the dollar. So we just have to learn to live with it and we try to make the best of it, even though

some of the dangers that come with it. Same goes with slavery. They, that was the society that they were in. And so how do Christians live as good stewards and is the light in those in those environments and if you notice so those are they quoted everything that Paul wrote except for one of the Peter, the one that Peter wrote and I believe Mitch, you can probably check this later.

I believe the Peter passage doesn't that's not the do loss isn't the word. Yeah. It's simply servant, which can I think it can mean anything. I think it can be a lot of different things. But when you look at the letters that Paul wrote, when he wrote it to the church, Ephesians and Colossians, that was to a church and those sections on bond servants or slaves is connected to the household instructions. So these were people seen as part of the household. And so as you had due losses, as you had slaves or bond servants in your home, how did you treat them? The instruction is given alongside how husbands and wives are supposed to treat each other and how kids are supposed to operate. So there are, right, there's a notion there that this is part of the family, this is part of the household, and so we're gonna treat them with honor and respect. And then the other ones are Titus and Timothy, was it?

Yeah. So Paul's writing to pastors in that one, or church planters. And so he's helping these young, younger pastors, church planters to know how to teach about this part of life. And so again, I think when you see instructions on bond servants or slaves, the American mind, which is very understandably so, but very skewed because of the slavery of our own cultural and history in our country.

It's very easy to understand why people come with such a visceral reaction, and the only thing they want to hear is that it's condemned, and that it's bad, and that it's evil. The notion that the Bible would try to describe how to operate in the midst of slavery in that society, we can't get our heads around that because of the scars of our nation's history. And so, yeah, go ahead. If you don't mind, so real quick, just to tie off kind of that loop.

So let's talk about the ways that it was different. The ways that slavery in the Bible times was different. Here's one way. These people were stolen and sold into slavery. That's what I was gonna start with. So here's Exodus 21, 16.

So the Bible says, whoever steals a man and sells him and anyone found in possession of him shall be put to death. So the Bible is talking about a world where slavery exists, and even in that world, it says that to steal somebody and put them into slavery, that that was punishable by death.

So, let's talk about the ways that people did get into slavery in Bible times. Yeah. You wanna just highlight a couple of those ways? Yeah, I think a typical way was that, if you look at the population of people during the first century, a vast majority of these people are are either poor or, you know, are slaves. Right. And so they the huge contingent of the population. Yeah. Right. So the only options for them were to be day wage laborers, which they were people who ended up getting paid nothing. They couldn't really function. You went into the army if you were a man, or you could become a slave. So you could live in someone's house, you could work for them and work off the debt of living under their house. People voluntarily give themselves to slavery? This was a safe alternative to some of the more horrific avenues that you could go down. It was a form of that in the ancient world. Because they didn't have a government that where you paid taxes and they were gonna give it back to you when you retire to take care of you. There was no social welfare programs like that. This was, and the same goes back for the Old Testament. The same thing, I mean, they didn't have an overarching government that would care for its people.

The community had to learn to care for one another. And so people would give themselves in forms of slavery or servitude, servanthood. Yeah, I almost think about like people who have like live-in nannies or like, yeah, yeah, like, you know, obviously it's not as nice and neat and simple as an analogy, but you think about these people who say, OK, you know, I want to have a safe place to live. I want to work. And you end up living in with a family.

You know, it's not as like, it probably wasn't as nice as we're making it sound. I mean, there are definitely drawbacks of living in this kind of way. But- Well, even John was, you know, reciting about you can't steal a person and sell them into slavery. That's Old Testament, that's New Testament. The entire enterprise of the American slavery was diametrically opposed to biblical teaching. Yeah.

Right, I read one article today that said that, you know, what's been called the transatlantic slave trade, yeah, it was the 1700s, 1800s, that that was unique even in the history of slavery in general in the world, that typically, and the person writing the article had done some research into the history of slavery, that for most of the history of slavery, people were enslaving other people nearby to them, people of the same people group as them.

And like you guys outlined, it happened in different ways through, people had to pay off a debt in some way, or had to, one of the examples actually that I read about was parents, they weren't able to afford to take care of their children.

So they actually sold their children into slavery, which sounds absolutely horrible. And I'm sure it wasn't great. But I talked about actually that that was a way that they tried to give them a better life. Put them in the hands of somebody else.

We see still forms of that through open adoption. When a mother is carrying a child and doesn't believe that she can provide for that child, so she offers that child up for adoption. That's how that forms, that's how it plays out today. And exactly, it was a form of making sure that your child was going to be able to be cared for. It sounds atrocious to us modern, western, enlightened minds, but when you think about the cultural context of society that they grew up in, they had no other, they had no better options. Yeah. Right. Yeah. It was also not uncommon for a slave to own another slave. Like we're looking at fundamentally different types of slavery.

And that's why it's hard to translate due laws into slave. Dave carries such cultural weight and scars for the American mind. And so that's why it's important to go back to the context and look at this. But here's just the reality, and John, I know you're probably going to agree with this. If you want to hate the Bible, you can find reasons to hate the Bible. And us coming and trying, and not just trying to, but rightly explaining this, we're not even defending, we're just explaining what the Bible is saying in some of the cultural context, I understand a large contingent of our culture has no tolerance for that. All they want to hear is slavery is bad all the time and if the Bible doesn't say that then the Bible is outdated. You know, if you want to take that shallow of a view, then you're kind of doing the opposite, not the opposite, you're kind of doing a parallel thing that the transatlantic slave traders

did. They took a very shallow reading of scripture and used it to support a misapplication of biblical teaching, because I'm sure many from the transatlantic slave trade era would say, hey, the Bible outlines how to treat slaves, so hey, the Bible condones it. What you're seeing today is kind of like the inverse of that, or the opposite of that, parallel to that. If you want to take a very shallow reading of scripture and not try to understand the context from which it was spoken and the eternal truths that it dwells from, then you're always going to hate the Bible anyway.

And so that's why it's important for a topic like this, because of the cultural scars we carry, to understand what the Bible is actually saying, because the message is good. We can't impose our worldview onto the text. That always ends up poorly. We have to allow the text to change and rejuvenate our worldview and, you know, work it through that way. And also, I think it helps us to remind us that when we read the thrust of the Bible, and we see it clearly more articulated, I think, as revelations progressively revealed, the goal and focus of our lives is to glorify God wherever we are and to seek to make disciples. That's the number one prerogative for all Christians. Glorify God wherever you are, whatever stage of life you are, and go and seek and make disciples. And whether that means you have a terribly crappy job and your boss treats you like crap, love him, serve well. And then I think that then also what you see then is from the New Testament times in the context of bond servant hood or slavery as we call it, or as it's often translated. Your goal isn't necessarily to go and improve your life, to go and make millions of dollars and now own other slaves. It's whatever context you were in, serve the Lord with all your heart, honor and love those around you, and lift up the name of Jesus. So how would you talk about the way that the New Testament looks at slavery in terms of like the identity of a slave versus how maybe chattel slavery would view and describe the identity of a slave.

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Yeah, chattel slavery treats human beings as property.

Yeah. I think that's one of the, one of the just the clear defining factors of what chattel slavery is, is it treats human beings as property. Whereas I think in scripture, We're also just clarified that you're, you, like the slave is owed nothing by the master. Yeah, sure.

Versus New Testament and Old Testament. And there's a lot of prerogatives that the master has upon the slave to care for and provide and take care. You don't see that. You don't see that obligation in child slavery. Right? Yeah, the Bible treats the slave as a person, as still a human being made in God's image.

They're in a tough situation, but they're a human being made in God's image. They have rights, they have value. In the New Testament, they can be, actually in Philemon's story, for example, they can be seen as a Christian brother or sister. Not as a piece of property.

And I think you kind of alluded to this, Ryan, but even in, so in the Old Testament, actually, there's stipulations on the length of servitude for somebody, so here's, I'm just, I've got a long list of references here. I'm just pulling these out as we go.

So this is Deuteronomy 15. It says, if your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years. And in the seventh year, you shall let him go free. And, here, let me keep reading. And when you let him go free, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. So it says, if you're gonna have slaves, you can only have them for six years, and when you let them go free, you've got to give them some of your stuff.

And it even provides parameters if the slave wants to stay. And I'm not going to do a great exposition on Exodus 21, but the notion here, it just further amplifies the difference between the slavery in the context of biblical times versus our slavery in our history. I know we talked about this before the podcast started, I don't know if we said it within the podcast, but the slavery for the New Testament and Old Testament was not race-based. Yeah. Correct.

Did we say that in this podcast? I don't think we said that. Just to also clarify, that's another reason I think that it was especially grievous, is that the American slavery, was it just enslave people simply on the basis of the color of their skin. Yeah. Totally contrary to God's design and God's view of human beings. They're made in God's image regardless of... But also, again, I just want to underscore that the notion that if people want to hate the Bible, if people want to use this as a reason to discredit the Bible, they're going to do it. But for those who actually have an open heart and mind to understand what the Bible's true message is, why this book consistently is the greatest bestseller every single year and will be for all time, is because the message is actually good. And if we're going to be patient enough with an open heart and mind to actually understand what the Bible is trying to say, it's the most beautiful piece of literature, the most beautiful words that were ever written. And yeah, this is hard. This is hard stuff. And I'm not going to say that it's not. But if we take some time and patience to understand the message, the message is ultimately good and it's better than what you can imagine.

And again, like I have to constantly stress whenever I do come across this conversation with people, when I say slave, I'm making a clear distinction, in my mind at least, for what the Bible's talking about and what our American experience has been. Yeah, right. And that's what some translations use the phrase bond servant. Yeah, and I get how people are like, oh, you're just trying to change the words of the Bible. It's like, well, no, we're trying to choose words that are accurate in meaning and that you understand. Yeah, represent. Yeah, I think going back to what you said, I think we are asking the wrong question sometimes saying, is this what the Bible says? And therefore the Bible isn't true. I think sometimes, yeah, I think that's the wrong question. I think the question we need to ask is, is Jesus Lord, right? Because if we believe that Jesus is who he says he is, that he died to pay for the sins that we could never pay for, he lived the perfect life that we could never live, if that's the truth, then it doesn't really matter what stipulations the Bible puts on us, right? If the Bible then says you have to hop around the rest of your life on one foot, right? That's not just, but it's, you know, it's Jesus is Lord. There was a Francis Chan analogy once, wasn't it? Didn't he say, if the Bible said that all—he's an Asian man—

he said, if the Bible said that all Asian men must walk around on their hands for all their lives, then that's what I want to do. Yeah, he's just making the point that, obviously, the Bible doesn't say that and isn't going to say something crazy because God is a God of logic and, you know, His rules make sense. But the point is that, yeah, Jesus is Lord, God is in control.

So if we start with the assumption that, hey, God is the creator, he's the king, he's the one in charge, his word is simply what we're gonna do. Yeah. I once heard someone say something to the effect of that, the Christian message is acid upon the institution of slavery, that it will eventually slowly degrade it, erode it, into kill it. Slavery actually can't exist permanently in the Christian context, because there won't be that in heaven.

And so that's why you see, as Christianity continues to take hold over the world, you see that, it should, you see the slavery decrease, which is why all the abolitionists, the champions of that movement were Christians. Yeah. So yeah. Yeah, it is it can be confusing because the Bible isn't super clear right but and even at times Jesus talks about our our state with him being like slaves to him being owned by him, which isn't isn't a again a champion of of chattel slavery, but it is a identity marker of like well, who do you belong to? That would have been a really easy thing

for people to understand. Well, it's like this, do you own your children? You know, like that sort of like notion, like I don't think we're comfortable using that language, but they have to do what I say, I take care of them. They don't provide me an income, you know, like they're wholly dependent on me. I'm wholly responsible to provide for them. There's that similar to like, are we meant to be slaves of righteousness? Yes, are we God's children? Yes, those things are the same I think it's the idea of you know who are you a slave to your sin or to God right and right the idea of like? Who do you want to be owned by like? You're gonna have a master right? You can't serve two of them, correct? And you know the back to Philemon Paul wrote Philemon. Yeah about about Onesimus, who was a runaway slave who was owned by Philemon. Onesimus runs away from Philemon, comes to Christ under Paul's ministry. Paul sends him back to the master he ran away from with this letter, saying, welcome this guy back as a brother, not as a slave. Yeah, so it's an important topic, I think, for Christians to be aware of in today's world. These kind of conversations are coming up, I think, more and more as we talk about some of the issues in the United States of America about race and even reparations and all those kind of conversations. So I think it's important for Christians to understand what the Bible does say about slavery and how Christians should think about it. And I think, hopefully, you've gathered some important principles. Number one being that there is a huge difference between the ancient Middle Eastern, the biblical history context of slavery versus what we saw in the 1700s and 1800s on slavery. Yeah, it's kind of like polygamy, right? The Bible doesn't necessarily come down against polygamy. It's not part of the created order. Correct, but you read the Bible and you understand that what the Bible's message is saying is saying you can't be doing this right same with slavery.

You can't we can't be doing this All descriptions and stories of polygamy in the Bible are just atrocious right it never paints it in a positive light. Yeah Again, I just again like I just want to recap and just say like if you want to use this as a reason to hate the Bible and You can do that as long as you don't think deeply or investigate truly The message of the Bible in the context from which it was written.

But for those who want to have an open heart and mind, I think you'll come to see that what the Bible says about this is actually pretty amazing. Hard, definitely hard, especially for us Western enlightened Americans. It's a hard teaching, but if we look at the truth of the scripture and the beauty of the Christian message, it's one we should all embrace. Amen.

Awesome. Well, thanks guys for the great conversation. Thanks, everybody. Thanks for sending in the question. You can always send in more questions at You can listen to That's a Good Question wherever you find podcasts.

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