The Bible does not seem to prohibit slavery (whether using the modern definition or an alternate like "indentured servitude"). Does the Bible explain why it does not prohibit these practices?

  • 4
    Asking for speculation on why God does or doesn't do/say something is not a good fit for this site. It may make for an excellent discussion topic, but that's not what SE is about. If you can frame your question more along the lines of "Why does X tradition condone slavery?" that would probably be a much more answerable question.
    – Flimzy
    Dec 8, 2011 at 23:15
  • 1
    My question isn't intended to be speculative. I thought there may be a definitive answer within the bible.
    – rpeg
    Dec 8, 2011 at 23:20
  • 3
    Are we presuming the Protestant Bible? If so, are we presuming the Protestant interpretation? This is a doctrinal question, after all, although it may not seem like it.
    – Richard
    Dec 12, 2011 at 19:15
  • 1
    I think Richard has made a good case for this being a doctrinal question. Who's interpretation would you trust as an answer to this question or whose interpretation do you want to learn about? It will be people's interpretation methods (closely related to their doctrinal framework) that determines how they answer this. Northern states used the bible to condemn slavery, southern states to defend it. Obviously somebody was misunderstanding it somewhere but that's not the point here. The point is who do you actually want to learn about here?
    – Caleb
    Dec 12, 2011 at 21:36
  • 2
    @rpeg: Yes, your understanding about the site is wrong. We are not about giving one right answers to life's persistent questions, we're about giving one right answer to specific questions about Christianity. In this case you are asking a vague "why" question about something that isn't self-documented, so in effect you are asking for interpretation, which is something that various Christian traditions vary. Some might not have a doctrine about this at all, some might but come to different conclusions. Think of it like having to include your distro when asking a Unix question on U&L.
    – Caleb
    Dec 14, 2011 at 22:08

2 Answers 2


Anything can be harmful. If you're going to talk about something being harmful, you have to keep this in mind and ask whether it is more harmful or less harmful than the alternatives.

If you actually study the Mosaic laws on the subject of slavery, a couple things become apparent.

First, that indentured servitude under the Law was a contract that a person could enter into voluntarily in order to work off debts that they could not pay. (What are the alternatives? Take a look at the rest of the world. Depending on where and when you look at, they tend to involve prison, extreme physical punishments up to and including death, exceptionally harsh and inhumane consequences for one's family, or some form of slavery.) The evils of slave capturing and slave trading were completely absent from the law.

Second, the bulk of the laws regarding slavery were on one point: defining and protecting the rights of such a servant. For example, it was not legal to separate a slave from their family (unlike in the American South,) nor was it legal to physically abuse a slave. The punishment for doing so was for the slave to be immediately freed, which was equivalent to the debt being annulled. As the primary reason for the use of slave labor has always been economic in nature, (you don't go buying slaves just because you wake up one day, give your mustache a good twirl, and get the urge to go out and oppress someone) this legal protection provided quite a strong deterrent!

Our brains operate on association and analogy. When we see things that are similar, we tend to lump them together by nature. It works really well, right up until we run into things that look superficially similar but are in reality completely different. And the indentured servitude in the Old Testament was completely different from the horrific evils perpetrated by slave holders in the American South or by human traffickers today. Trying to equate the two is a mistake.

  • 3
    + 1. The "slavery" of the Bible is closer to employment or conscription than the oppressive kind of slavery.
    – Waggers
    Dec 8, 2011 at 22:48
  • 2
    Can you cite where it offers a nuanced definition of "slavery"?
    – rpeg
    Dec 8, 2011 at 23:11
  • 2
    @rpeg: A quick search turns up several in-depth discussions of the topic, such as rationalchristianity.net/slavery_ot.html (consisting heavily of citations with some explanations) and ccmlinks.com/posts.php?id=31 (which is more of an explanatory FAQ-style page with less direct quotes.) Both are worth reading, though they mostly cover the same ground as each other.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Dec 9, 2011 at 15:34
  • 2
    for a good time, check out the Servile State by Hillaire Belloc. He sheds light on the 'nuanced definition of slavery' obviously it's not in the Bible, it's just what it is! How would they know about modern notions of slavery?
    – Peter Turner
    Dec 9, 2011 at 16:56
  • What a rational and insightful answer. Thank you :) Jul 1, 2012 at 23:56

While the Bible does not, to my knowlege, prohibit slavery, it certainly does condemn it:

1 Timothy 1:9-11 NIV1984

We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 1that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

Regarding those two highlighted words, slave traders, it is only used here in Scripture. Scholars differ as to whether it is referring to making people a slave by force or trading in slaves. See this link for some commentaries on this.

However, many people raise the question you have asked. Perhaps this is because other translations use different (possibly less clear) terminology, e.g. the Amplified uses kidnappers and the KJV uses menstealers.

Furthermore, the principle of keeping people captive was condemned by Jesus (Luke 13:10-17) and the opposite, freedom, He considered an aim of salvation (John 8:31-36).

One caveat: when considering slavery in the spiritual sense, it is important to consider who is the slave owner. Paul describes this in detail in Romans 6, saying that we should not be slaves to sin but that we should be slaves to righteousness.

  • 1
    Spiffy. FFR when you quote or link to a translation the hover tip on links often contains a clue to the translation if you know what to look for in URLs, but I was (and often am) on mobile and that is a piece of information you can't get without going off-site unless its spelled out in the text. Thanks, and good reference link. +1
    – Caleb
    Dec 10, 2011 at 18:29
  • 1
    Great answer! This one actually references the bible. I don't know why the other answer has such high ratings.
    – styfle
    Dec 15, 2011 at 4:35

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .