There is Nothing Intrinsically Wrong with Slavery

The Reconquista Initiative


 There is Nothing Intrinsically Wrong with Slavery

One of the arguments that Christians routinely hear unbelievers make against both the Bible and against Jesus Himself is something along the following:

“Jesus and the Apostles never condemned slavery and the Old Testament actually encouraged both indentured servitude and slavery; and so, in light of these points, both Christian morality generally and Biblical morality specifically, as well as the personal example of Jesus Himself, are all suspect and unworthy of being fully followed.”

And indeed, I have heard an objection like this one being used as a moral indictment against both the character of Jesus and the moral code found in the New Testament, as well as serving as an objection against the Bible as a whole. As such, this is not some fringe objection to Christian truth but one which many people consider to be a serious issue for Christianity.

Now, in answer to this objection, many Christians try to explain that the commands of God in the Old Testament were unique to the Jews and were very specific to their particular circumstances, and so while slavery may have been allowed at that point in time, it no longer is. Or, alternatively, Christians try to claim that slavery was simply part of the ancient world and could not be easily or quickly changed, which is why Jesus nor the Apostles condemned it outright at that time, for to do so would lead to the end of the Christian message before it could even start. Or some Christians claim that opposition to slavery, and its condemnation as evil, is made implicitly through the other teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, and so these Christians argue that the New Testament actually does condemn slavery, but only via inference from other teachings. And finally, some Christians simply shift the discussion by pointing out that Christians, and primarily Christians, led the push to outlaw slavery, and so the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament ultimately did lead to the end of slavery, which thus points to Christianity’s ultimate opposition to the institution of slavery.

Now, while all the above responses have merit, and while they are all true to some degree, I wish to answer this objection in a totally different, and perhaps shocking, way. In essence, I will argue that the reason that Jesus never condemned slavery is because there is nothing intrinsically wrong with slavery; indeed, I contend that, in-principle, slavery is not necessarily immoral, and so there was no reason for Jesus to condemn it as such. And to explain why this is the case, a short thought-experiment can be made. But before that occurs, it needs to be clear that by slavery, or more specifically by the word ‘slave’, I mean “a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them”, which is how the online Oxford dictionary—accessed on the 5th of December 2016—defines the term. And the Cambridge dictionary online, accessed on the same day, defines a ‘slave’ as “a person who is legally owned by someone else and has to work for that person.” So this is what is meant by the idea of slavery. Additionally, note as well that some versions of slavery or bondage could be set for a certain period of time, such as with indentured servants, or they could be indefinite, such as with slaves or bond-servants. Thus, the length of time that a person serves in servitude can vary, but whatever amount of time this is would not negate one’s status as a slave during that time.

Note as well that, in this essay, it needs to be absolutely and categorically clear that I am not claiming that, say, the kidnapping or abduction of a person to make him into a slave is moral; indeed, such an action would be immoral. But the fact remains that there is no necessary connection between slavery and the kidnapping of people to make them into slaves, for while the latter action is indeed immoral, for no one should be taken against their will, that does not mean that slavery itself is moral. After all, it is true that a person could volunteer himself to become a slave, much like is the case with indentured servants, and so there is nothing which in-principle connects the idea of slavery with an immoral way of acquiring a slave. So it must be clear that this short essay is not arguing that all the means of acquiring a slave are moral, for they are not, but the essay is arguing that there are moral means of acquiring a slave—such as the slave consensually volunteering to be a slave, thus being an indentured servant—and also that the idea of slavery itself is not intrinsically immoral. And lest one think that no one would ever volunteer to be a slave, note, for example, that the Bible itself provides for just such a possibility in Exodus 21:5-6, and there are stories of freed slaves in the past who wished to stay with their masters even though they did not have to.

So, with all that stated, let us conduct the aforementioned thought-experiment to see why slavery is not, in-principle, immoral.

Imagine a society where everyone was free to quit the work that they had and move around at will, but, for nearly everyone, all the work offered in every place in that society was such that 1) people had to work like dogs just to make enough to survive to the age of reproduction and they would die a few years after, and 2) they were given no holidays, and 3) they were fired from their job if they had a conscientious objection to some form of their work or they complained about their conditions, and 4) they were fired from their work if they did not accept the advances of their superiors, and 5) they were fired for having the wrong religion or the wrong views, and so on. But now imagine another society where nearly everyone who lives in this second society is a slave bound to a master whom the slave ultimately has to obey, and yet, in this society, the masters 1) ensure that the slaves’ work hours are entirely reasonable, and 2) that the slaves are very well paid (based on merit) and have full health and retirement benefits, and 3) that the slaves can change to different jobs if they wish to do so and are qualified to do so, and 4) that the slaves have self-chosen holidays and family days and sick days, and 5) that the views and opinions of the slaves are listened to and respected, and 6) that the slaves can move elsewhere if necessary, and finally 7) that the slaves can freely worship, speak, complain, and so on. Now, in viewing these two aforementioned societies, both of which are possible, it is clear—at least to me—that the immoral one, and the one that truly denigrates people made in the image of God, is the former ‘free’ society, whereas the latter ‘slave’ society is quite moral and genuinely respects men as being human persons made by God. In fact, in a strange inversion, the in-principle “free” society is the in-practice slave society, whereas the in-principle “slave” society is the in-practice free society. And note that while such a free “slave” society would likely not exist in-practice—for humans, being humans, would very likely mistreat any people that they owned as slaves—the point is that, in-principle, a slave society could be much more just, moral, and free than a free society could be. And indeed, note that, under slavery, there is nothing, in-principle, that could stop a master, whom the slave must obey, from telling the slave that the slave is free to do whatever the slave wishes to do; in fact, if he so wished, the master could decide to not even give the slave any command at all for the slave’s entire tenure as a slave! Thus, in-principle, a master could command a slave to act freely and to be free in a practical sense, even though, by law, the slave would be bound to obey the master in all things. In fact, in-principle, a slave master could, in-practice, free a slave while still indefinitely supporting the slave and paying for his livelihood, much like a financial patron would; and such a life, for the slave, would not only be moral, but could be considered even more moral and beneficial than a life of ‘free’ toil. So the whole point here is to realize that, in-principle, there is nothing about slavery which means that a slave must necessarily be mistreated, nor that the slave must necessarily be less-free, in-practice, than a man who is ostensibly considered free; thus, in-practice, a slave could be better treated and more free than a man who is theoretically free but is actually little more than a wage-slave.

Thus, what this little thought experiment helps to show is that a good case can be made that slavery, on a theoretical level, is not, in and of itself, immoral. Furthermore, this thought experiment helps to bring out the point that what is potentially immoral about slavery is how the slaves are treated and dealt not, not the fact that they technically fit the definition of being a slave. However, it is also obviously understood that, in practice, sinful men, being fallen creatures, would readily abuse their authority and nearly always abuse their slaves, and so the institution of slavery should be abolished and remain abolished for pragmatic reasons; but again, this does not therefore mean that, theoretically-speaking, slavery as such is an immoral institution, but only that men cannot be trusted to faithfully institute such a practice here on Earth.

And so, the long and short of it is this: a solid argument can be made to show that slavery, as a mere concept, is not necessarily immoral, but rather that it is how slaves are treated in practice that is the immoral aspect of slavery. But, if this is the case, then we would expect that Jesus and the New Testament would not object to slavery outright nor condemn it directly, but rather they would focus on how the slave is treated; and lo and behold, note that in Ephesians 6:5-9 and in Philemon—both of which speak to the fact that a slave should be respected and treated like a brother—that is precisely what the New Testament does indeed focus on. Thus, when it comes to slavery, the New Testament actually does address the primary moral point which should be addressed concerning slavery: namely, the treatment of slaves. And so the ‘slavery’ objection against the New Testament is, in light of this fact, much weaker than is normally assumed.

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Anno Domini 2016 12 05

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam


2 thoughts on “There is Nothing Intrinsically Wrong with Slavery

  1. Also worth noting that the distinction between slavery and being born into and bound by the laws of a society is substantially a matter of degree. Yes, there’s something noteworthy about being “legally considered property”. But in practice we all have a hierarchy of masters, and our status as “slave” or “not slave” is rarely the single distinctive factor in how we are treated by those masters.

    Finally, from a biblical perspective, every single person is ultimately God’s property (the NT writers even use words to that effect). Modern society has raised (the illusion of) self-determination to be the highest good. Scripture suffers no such delusion.

    In Roman times, even freemen and Citizens acknowledged masters, all the way up to Caesar himself. Moderns chafe at the very concept: the right proudly demands the right to freehold, while the left gladly trades away practical and political freedoms in order to be free from traditional morality.


    1. Andrew,

      Some excellent points. Plus, your point about everyone being God’s property will be the subject of a second essay. In fact, this topic will be turned into a series, and then a short book consisting of all the essays together. In essence, the book will seek to show why the objection to Christianity that Jesus never condemned slavery is rather weak and besides the point. It will also argue that we are all still slave holders today.


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