Slavery is defined as the state of involuntary (forced) servitude. This practice was an entrenched institution in much of the ancient world. Since slavery is today considered a great moral evil, some wonder why the biblical authors didn’t categorically condemn the practice. Others even insist that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) actually condones slavery.
It is true that the Bible does not formally and explicitly condemn slavery as an institution. So how do we account for this? Two important factors bear careful consideration.
First, it is possible that certain moderate forms of “servitude”—for example, indentured (voluntary) servitude—were considered morally beneficial before God under certain circumstances in the Old Testament. Examples of this are seen in voluntary indenturement in order to earn a living or to learn a trade. It may also have included the indenturement of a criminal in order for the offender to render restitution. But in none of these kinds of cases would the so-called slave be viewed as a mere piece of property without human rights. Nor would the time of servitude be constituted as a life term of bondage. Therefore it is clear that some forms of servitude practiced in biblical times bear little resemblance to the tyrannical types of slavery found in many parts of the ancient and modern world.
Second, and more importantly, the institution of slavery (in the usual sense of total and lifetime ownership of a human being) was so deeply rooted in ancient culture that it could not be dismantled overnight. It was viewed as playing a critical role economically and politically for the various states. However, God’s way of eliminating slavery was to allow biblical teachings to spread throughout the culture. Indeed, it was the Judeo-Christian teaching that human beings have intrinsic value and worth as a result of being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) that brought an end to slavery. Many in the abolitionist movements of England and America in the nineteenth century were evangelical Christians.
It should also be noted that the Bible clearly indicates that in God’s sight there is “neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28), and that both are accountable to God (Ephesians 6:5-9). In fact, in the apostolic church, slaves were granted all the rights and privileges of free men (see the Book of Philemon).
So while the Bible doesn’t formally and explicitly condemn slavery, the unique ethical message contained in Scripture concerning human dignity was the moral force that succeeded in eliminating slavery as an institution. The gospel message remains a powerful force against human evil and social injustice.
For more on the topic of slavery and the Bible, see Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).