If you are like me and you enjoy engaging nonbelievers in conversation, you have likely heard a carousel of arguments thrown at you concerning the validity of the Bible. They might be worded differently depending on the person, but there are really only a handful of objections about the Bible, like: “the Bible has been translated so many times that the books we have today are not accurate representations of the original manuscripts,” “the Bible is so old and outdated that it cannot be applied to our culture,” or, “the Bible was written by fallible men and fallible men could not possibly transcribe the words of God.” Another common argument is: the Bible condones slavery, therefore it cannot be a reliable book because slavery is the epidemy of a moral atrocity and a book inspired by God cannot promote something so evil. This is a reasonable objection, and a serious question that all Christians should be able to provide a gentle and respectful defense for.
A few verses quoted when it comes to slavery are:
Exodus 20:20-21 - “When a man strikes his slave, male or females, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money,”
Ephesians 6:5 - “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,”
Colossians 3:22 - “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.”
These verses seem troubling at first glance when they are not fully understood. For starters, whenever Americans hear the word, “slavery,” today, they automatically think back to the North African Slave Trade which was the slave trade that led to slavery in the United States during the 1700s and 1800s. This is a natural inclination for many since that is the primary example of slavery that Americans are conditioned to, but the word slave carries far more weight in modern times than it did during the 1stcentury. In fact, Crossway has recently discussed totally removing the word slave in the ESV Bible and replacing it with the word servant because of the way the meanings of those words have developed over time. Today when people hear the word slave, they wince and run images through their heads of white men beating black men, women, and children while forcing them to work farms. However, slavery in the context of the New Testament consisted of two different types people: indentured servants and war prisoners. The primary version of “slavery” in the Bible was actually what we would now call indentured servitude. This act of service played out in a couple different ways. It was a common practice during this era for a young man to be pledged to marry a young woman, and the young man would work for the woman’s father for a period of time so that he would approve and give overher hand in marriage. Another practice of Biblical era indentured servitude was for a younger man to work an agreed upon amount of time for an older man, and by the end of that time the older man would give over land to the younger man. Slavery in the context of indentured servitude was a facet for men to work and earn things for themselves. Slavery was also used in the context of war prisoners. It was a common practice across many civilizations at this time to have enemy prisoners work during the day in order to keep them from gathering together and fighting to escape.
In addition to this, you may hear the argument that the Bible was used to promote slavery in the United States particularly, and there was in fact a bible used to condone slavery during that time period, but it was not the Bible that we use today. Since the true Word of God clearly did not condone slavery in that context, the slave owners then required alterations to Scripture in order to fit their presuppositions into the Christian religion. One way they did that was by ordering the creation a new version of the Bible. In 1807, the Slave Bible was published in the United Kingdom by missionaries hoping to evangelize to Africans who were enslaved in Britain and in the U.S. We still have three surviving copies of these books today. Slave owners would not allow them to evangelize to their slaves using the Bible because of the clear teachings about human dignity and worth, and the teachings against oppression and hatred. Therefore, these missionaries were forced to remove 50% of the Old Testament, including the majority of the book of Exodus, and 80% of the New Testament. This was in direct violation of John’s command in Revelation 22:19, “and if anyone takes away the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” That is as clear of a prohibiting order as can be said: Do not remove a single word from the Bible. Therefore, we can conclude that the use of the Bible to promote slavery in the United States was an inherently unbiblical action, by all means.
It is also worth noting the true impact that God’s Word had on new world slavery. In about AD60 the apostle Paul wrote a letter to his brother in the faith, Philemon, and in this letter he instructs Philemon to accept his runaway slave, Onesimus, back into his household. Paul petitions Philemon to welcome back his servant, “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). This is converse to the idea that the Bible is an oppressive, slavery ridden book. In fact, Philemon was one of the New Testament books removed from the Slave Bible because of its antislavery implications, and it was also a book used later in the fight to abolish slavery.
Understand that whenever someone lays this objection on you, they are likely genuinely concerned about these verses that seem problematic to the faith. Therefore, we should use this information as an opportunity to gently correct them about this error and guide them towards truth. However, do not fear this argument or waver in light of it. Stand firm against this troubling misconception and unashamedly hold to the true Biblical ethic concerning slavery.