“The Bible Supports Slavery!” – How to Respond
The Bible supports Slavery. This slogan provides atheists with an easy reason to dismiss the Bible. They will say: “How can you support the Bible when it supports slavery! It’s an immoral book that only a blind idiot would follow.”
This is a good opportunity for you to educate the objector. Learn these points and you’re off and running. First and foremost: “Slavery” in the Old testament context does not mean what most people have in mind. It does not refer to “chattel slavery,” especially that of the African slave trade, which involved kidnapping and immense cruelty.
Here’s a shocking (but true) point. Slavery is not intrinsically wrong. If you utter this, prepare to clarify it in less than 1.9 seconds. Here’s the clarification. The word “slavery” can be used in at least 3 different ways and only one of those ways is intrinsically wrong.
Most people call to mind “chattel slavery” which involves forcing people into service indefinitely, cruelty, and a reduction of slaves to mere property. While this was indeed common in the African American slave trade (and horribly wrong), it’s not what the Old testament describes. So, we can stand with the skeptic in condemning this.
Other Types of Slavery
The Old testament “slavery” is really a process of “indentured servitude” that the poor and destitute (or those with enormous debts) would make use of for a time. They could “sell themselves” as servants/slaves to pay off a debt or obtain sustenance for themselves and their families (there are no government welfare programs in the wilderness!). While this type of “slavery” is not ideal, it is not intrinsically wrong.
Lastly, sometimes “slavery” refers to “penal servitude” where wrongdoers are punished with forced labor. This is also not intrinsically wrong though it may not always be prudent in various circumstances. In fact, most people know that some crimes come with a penalty of forced community service. This is analogous to the idea of penal servitude.
The bottom line: people registering this objection rarely make these distinctions. We must make them. When they are made, we clear the Bible of the charge of endorsing intrinsically wrong practices. Reveal these distinctions to the skeptic, and you will enhance the conversation. The types are:
- Chattel slavery: Comes with kidnapping, cruelty, and a reduction of persons to pure property.
- Indentured servitude: Selling one’s labor for a time (or indefinitely) to provide sustenance for oneself or pay off debt.
- Penal servitude: Punishment for a crime amounts to a specified amount and type of service.
Note: I am indebted to Dr. Edward Feser for making these distinctions in an article here.
Why Didn’t Jesus Say Anything?
Some protest that if He were truly a good person, Jesus would have publicly disavowed such a vile institution. There are many ways to answer this. Here’s one: Jesus had a greater purpose than eliminating slavery (or calling out folks for any other immoral political practices at the time).
Moreover, Jesus commanded us to love God above all things and love our neighbors as ourselves. This clearly precludes servitude practices that are intrinsically wrong.
The charge that “the Bible supports slavery” reveals a misunderstanding of terms. Upon deeper analysis, we find that Jesus condemns the morally despicable practice of chattel slavery. Moreover, we find that not all forms of slavery are intrinsically wrong. We diffuse this atheist slogan and instruct the skeptic in the process. In part 2, we look at a specific “clobber passage” related to slavery.
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