Is Slavery Sinful?

'The Slave Market' (Gustave Boulanger)
One day in class, my American Cultural Heritage teacher began describing the Christian faith of the United States’ Founding Fathers.

An African-American girl in the class suddenly broke him off and rudely asserted that the Founding Fathers could not have been Christians because they owned slaves. Following her assertion, the other Afroethnics in the class began shouting in agreement with her.

The teacher quickly realized he had whipped up a mob of furor and suddenly changed tone. He began condemning the Founding Fathers for the “abomination” of slavery. I was astounded by his cowardice.

The fear of being called “racist” has sent Christians running from clear biblical teaching.

Ante-bellum American slave holders were well aware the Bible endorses ethnic based slavery.

After God liberated the Israelites from Egyptian bondage he established a new ethno-state in Palestine. After freeing a people from slavery one might imagine God's would abolish slavery in the new polity he created. It was the perfect opportunity for God to finally condemn slavery. But what we find is far different from we might have expected.

God didn’t end slavery, he didn’t condemn slavery, and he didn’t discourage slavery. He established slavery.

Consider Leviticus 25:44-46:
“And as for thy bondmen and thy bondmaids, whom thou shalt have; of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your lands: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession; of them shall ye take your bondmen forever: but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigor.”
How much clearer can it get?

God told the children of Israel they could keep the ethnic “other” as slaves, pass them down as possessions to their children, and buy and sell them. God’s established slavery sounds exactly like American slavery. God not only endorsed and established slavery, he endorsed ethnic based chattel slavery.

Any honest person will concede that God allowed for slavery in the Old Testament. The real question, some argue, is whether Christians are able to own slaves under the New Testament.

It's important to remember that the first-century Roman world was packed with slaves. Slavery was a booming business. In fact, it might have been the biggest business there was. In Italy, slaves constituted 30 to 40% of the population, and around 15% of the entire Empire's population. [1] In 1860, slaves were about 13% of the inhabitants of the United States.’ [2]

First century Mediterranean slavery was bigger than nineteenth century American slavery. If there was ever a time for outrage against institutionalized slavery the early church was right in the middle of it.

And yet... nothing.

The early church, so courageous in condemning the abominations of Roman idolatry and first-century immorality, had absolutely nothing negative to say about slavery. The apostle Paul even compared Christ to a slave holder in Colossians 4:1.

The New Testament epistle to Philemon was written about Paul sending a slave back to his master because it was immoral for the slave to run away in the first place (Underground Railroad?). Nowhere in the epistle did Paul tell Philemon (the master) to liberate Onesimus (the slave).

In Ephesians 6:9, masters were instructed to treat their slaves well because they also had a master in heaven.

We find the Old and New Testament consistent with early church tradition. Christianity was in near unanimous support of slavery for well over a thousand years after its founding. At the Synod of Gangra (300 years after Pentecost) the Church condemned the heretical Manicheans for encouraging slaves to liberate themselves. [3]

The idea that slavery is sinful was largely invented by radical abolitionists during the seventeenth through ninetieth centuries. Today, almost all Christians condemn slavery despite Biblical and early church support of it. This can probably be accredited to falling rates of Biblical literacy and a century of brainwashing begun during the abusive Reconstruction Era and advanced after the 1960s.

Though few people would like to see institutional slavery return, the idea that ante-bellum American slave holders were “racist” sinners because they owned slaves is an absurd claim contradicted by the most basic familiarity with God’s word.


NOTES

[1] "Slavery." Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Black History. 2015. Accessed November 25, 2015. http://academic.eb.com/blackhistory/article-24157.
EXCERPT: "Roughly 30 percent of the population [of Roman Italy] was enslaved."

[2] "Civil War Statistics: Slaves as a Percentage of the U.S. Population (1800-1860)." The History Guy. 2011. Accessed November, 2015. http://www.historyguy.com/civilwar/statistics_slave_population.html.
EXCERPT: “Year: 1860. Slaves as a Percentage of the Total U.S. Population: 12.8%.”

[3] "Synod of Gangra (4th Century)." New Advent. 2009. Accessed November, 2015. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3804.htm.
EXCERPT: "If any one shall teach a slave, under pretext of piety, to despise his master and to run away from his service, and not to serve his own master with good-will and all honour, let him be anathema."