Was Slavery in the Bible “Less Harsh” than American Slavery?


I have noticed a growing theme among Christians who identify as complementarian (those who believe men and women are equal in human worth, but men are granted a higher level of human authority by God); some of them seem to believe that slavery in New Testament times was “less harsh” than the slavery of Africans in American (and European) history.

The conversation normally goes like this. The complementarian will say, “The Bible is clear that women are not to teach or have authority over men.” To which I reply, “Slave owners in America also said that the Bible was clear that slavery is permissible.” Then, some complementarians will actually attempt to justify “biblical slavery” by stating, “Slavery in the New Testament was less harsh than the slavery we have seen in American history.”

I have been tremendously disturbed by Christians that would seek to justify any type of slavery. As one who studied church history on a graduate level, I don’t agree that Romans and Greeks were “less harsh” with their slaves. Romans had no trouble throwing people to lions and would pack out large arenas to watch. With such barbaric practices, we are naive to believe that ancient slavery in the Roman empire was “not as bad” as the slavery we saw in American history.

Slavery in the ancient world was different from slavery in American history, in that it did not center on systematic oppression of one ethnic group by another. Instead, slavery in the ancient world was one of conqueror to conquered and there was nothing that resembled the transatlantic slave trade. What is worse about American slavery is the fact that from 1440 to 1870, around 11 million Africans were captured by Europeans and transported to the Americas.

Therefore, it is the “scale” of the slave trade in the Americas that is worse than the slavery we see in the ancient world, but individual slaves were treated just as cruelly and unfairly in the ancient world.

In other words, the only thing that makes American slavery “more harsh” than New Testament slavery was its organized effort to systematically oppress people due to their skin color. The truth is that any form of slavery is evil, and as Christians, we should openly condemn any and all types of slavery and never seek to justify it.

It should be noted that slavery within ancient Rome and Greece (New Testament slavery) should be defined as one human owning another human. This was culturally acceptable and added to the elitism of the rich and powerful.

Slaves in the Roman Empire did all sorts of jobs to make the rich richer and the powerful more powerful. Slaves served their owners as administrators, financial agents, secretaries, house servants, cooks, farmers, etc. Owning slaves increased a person’s social status and displayed their wealth. Elite wealth and status were built on the backs of slave labor, and allowed the rich to live lives of leisure (Source, P. 8-9).

It’s important to understand that slaves in the Roman empire had no control over their own lives. Ancient Greeks and Romans sought to own other humans for the same reason that modern slavery exists today: power and wealth. Slavery is about dominance, and it is always the most vulnerable in society that are victimized – the poor, minorities, women, etc.

Although biblical slavery was not as organized in its systemic oppression of another race, millions of individual slaves were treated just as unfairly and harshly. In New Testament times, if slaves disobeyed their masters or performed tasks wrongly, it was not uncommon for them to get flogged (whipped). Surely, some slave owners were kinder than others, but they still were practicing evil, because they took ownership of another human’s life (Source).

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul is both tolerant and intolerant of slavery. To truly understand the Apostle Paul, we must examine both his tolerance of cultural evils and his hope to abolish such evils with time and with the message of the Gospel. Put it this way, some of us are trying to abolish the unjust notion that husbands have authority over their wives, but we are also tolerant of this practice as long as the husband is treating his wife kindly.

In society, we are often tolerant of unjust establishments, because the only way to change them is to be tolerant. Why? Because if we are intolerant of our complementarian and patriarchal friends, they will not have ears to hear our message of equality. Yet, we still must speak the truth, as the Apostle Paul did, in hopes of pushing Christians towards redemption in Jesus Christ.

And so we see the Apostle Paul encouraging slaves to obey their masters out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 6:5), but we also see the Apostle Paul write, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).” Therefore, Paul’s ultimate mission is to see women, slaves, and all races treated equally; but in order to accomplish this, some measure of submission to culture was necessary.

For example, if a slave simply stated, “I am out of here. Jesus set me free and I don’t have to be your slave anymore,” the slave owner would not be turned on to Christianity, and he may even beat or kill his slave. But if the slave stayed and loved his owner and showed him Christ, the owner may see a change in the slave and want what the slave has.

Paul’s ideal would be that the slave introduces the slave owner to Christ and, in turn, the slave owner’s heart is changed and he willingly sets his slave free.

In the same way, we see the Apostle Paul encouraging wives to submit to their husbands so that their husbands may come to know Christ, and, in time, understand their calling to mutually submit to their wives and to empower women. In the ancient world, a man setting his slave free and submitting to a woman would have been an outrageous and humiliating thought.

As Christians in the modern world, we must join the Apostle Paul’s efforts and passion to see all slaves set free and all men and women treated as equals in both human worth and human authority. God’s story is one of redemption; we should partner with God in correcting all that is unjust and unrighteous in this world. After all, Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would like others to do unto us (Luke 6:31).

If every man and woman were honest, not one of us would want to be enslaved in any form of slavery, and not one of us would want to have less human authority due to our gender, race, or social status.


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  • “In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul is both tolerant and intolerant of slavery. To truly understand the Apostle Paul, we must examine both his tolerance of cultural evils and his hope to abolish such evils with time and with the message of the Gospel. Put it this way, some of us are trying to abolish the unjust notion that husbands have authority over their wives, but we are also tolerant of this practice as long as the husband is treating his wife kindly.”

    What an excellent way to put it, Jory!

  • The only approved slavery–bond-slavery as in Onesimus to Philemon…AND bond-slavery to Christ. I’ll take that one.

    • I guess I don’t understand what you’re saying, Betty. What is “approved”, and by whom, of Onesimus’ slavery condition? As someone else said, a slave is a slave is a slave. Onesimus had nothing better to do than be a slave? That was the only way he could exist? Sorry, I’m just venting. You see, I’m white, and my best friend in this large city is Afr-Amer. We talk a lot. She always makes me think.

      • I just loved that “Onesimus had nothing better to do than be a slave?”…that phrase truly expresses the evil of any kind of enslavement…why are some people forced to do things for other than what they truly ‘want’ to do…if there is no choice…it is enslavement…and God does not approve. The Exodus and the cross are proof…beware if you oppress others…God is not pleased! We should all be wearing the t shirt “Don’t Tread on Me”…it is a message for the ages…no matter what some pc folk are trying to do with it…it is a fine saying for all humanity…and should be the motto of the future for all mankind.

        • Paul was asking Philemon to take Onesimus back, after he met him in prison and led him to Christ. O had stolen from Phil and landed in prison where he met Paul. Paul is asking Phil to take him back, not as a slave but as a brother. Apparently, Onesimus wanted to go back and return to the good graces of Phil. The Bible doesn’t comment on whether he had anything better to do. But it does indicate that he wanted to return. Neither do we know whether Phil actually took him back (at least from the text). It’s a beautiful picture of someone who has wronged another being forgiven, having a change of status, and being received not as a slave anymore but as a brother/friend, like Jesus did for us and the Father.

      • I understand. I use “approved” because Paul calls himself a bond-slave of Christ, as a desirable position. One who chooses to be enslaved because of the beneficence of the Person to which he is emslaved. He was using extreme language to prove a point. And I suppose a cultural reference that his hearers would understand. I have no intention of advocating slavery. Just a statement that I,too, want to be a bondslave of Christ, using Biblical language.

  • “I have been tremendously disturbed by Christians that would seek to justify any type of slavery.”

    I agree…slavery is slavery is slavery…period. The degree of pain involved depends on the owner and on no one else…no doubt throughout history there have been a bell curve of slave owners varying from sick and mental to kind and generous…I find it ridiculous to try to make any form of bondage into better or worse than any other…it is an individual thing, on a one on one basis, but even the ‘kinder type” is evil and unconscionable.

    So here is where we part company for you have already said, how could anyone justify any kind of slavery…so why do you say this: “What is WORSE about American slavery is the fact that from 1440 to 1870, around 11 million Africans were captured by Europeans and transported to the Americas.”

    Worse than what? How can you paint slave owners as a group especially when you weren’t there and couldn’t be in every home of that time? There is no such group that you can say is UNIFORM in its treatment of slaves…Any slavery is evil. How can you even say that there is such a thing as American slavery, as an identifiable entity? …there can be no uniformity in humanity, period.

    And why is it so necessary for you to you insist on painting white men as the worst of the worst, Jory, as you have done in a previous post as well? I doubt that all white men are alike either, yet you vilify them as a historical group…interesting that this is therefore both racist and sexist. What about Muslim slave traders and their customers…How do you think they treated their slaves? Can you even guess? Uniformity is not possible in any group. This is like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    Secondly, it was not the Europeans who captured the Africans. It was Africans who were slave traders with the Europeans…so there you have the grossness of it. It was blacks who sold blacks for money. It wasn’t racism…it was economics. Indians sold Indians as slaves…it is purely a financial transaction. It really isn’t the point of how many were enslaved…surely over the centuries millions of Europeans were enslaved to Rome, and then to the mid and far east…it isn’t a political issue but you seem to be trying to make it one. Every nation on earth has had slaves…what do you think prostitutes in China or in any other nation were? Women have been enslaved by every nation on earth…this isn’t an American issue…the white guilt thing is ridiculous. Do you think any other nation on earth fought a war and shed their own blood to stop slavery other than Americans?…if you think so, name one. I think we are mighty fortunate that white men fought against white men to stop slavery and we own them a big debt of gratitude and honour.

    The only reason “blacks” were enslaved wasn’t racist either! Farmers around the world enslaved others to do their work for them…the reasons blacks were enslaved in the deathly heat of the equatorial areas was because of the climate. Western “Indians” were not good slaves in central and South America because they fainted under the hot sun…whites were unable to take the heat also…that is why blacks were enslaved there ….because of their physical stamina, period….and because their black brothers knew they could get rich selling their black brothers to slave traders…not just Europeans slave traders either but to Muslim slave traders too and Jewish slave traders as well.

    The point is slavery is slavery…women have been enslaved for time immemorial and are still enslaved. I think in America the other race slave issue is just a political talking point that, if it comes to fruition will finally fall at the feet of the Democratic party from the beginning until now.

    Interestingly the popular book “50 Shades of Grey” painted slavery as a beautiful thing…and tragically women bought it like crazy…I would neither care if my enslaver was kind or cruel…it would still be the same…an unbearable evil…and may God give us the wisdom to stop every vestige of it before He brings judgment on the Earth.

    • “And why is it so necessary for you to you insist on painting white men as the worst of the worst, Jory, as you have done in a previous post as well?”

      This is an odd question and I don’t at all agree with it. Remember, I am white. My father is white. My husband is white. My uncle is white. My grandfather was white. I have had wonderful white men love me my whole life. So, I have NO ISSUES with white men.

  • P.S. while I am truly grateful for the white men and women who sacrificed their lives and families to fight against slavery…I truly wish all men today had such an abhorrence for bondage that they would look to the oppression women experience in many churches at the hands of men supposedly in the name of God, and do something about it! ☺ I can assure them that if they would truly search the infallible and inerrant scriptures they would find plenty of food for concern about their interpretation of the 5 verses that claim Paul agrees with them rather than with Jesus and their behaviour…God hates oppression and bondage…and commands us not to do so to others…so how can Paul be against God on this? “ye shall not oppress one another” “Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates:” (He)” shall break in pieces the oppressor.” “Their ENEMIES also oppressed them, and they were brought into subjection under their hand.” “Deliver me from the oppression of man: so will I keep thy precepts.” “Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; ” (there are 110 references to “oppress” in the Bible, none favourable)…being in subjection is oppression…so what argument can there be?

    Christians are told:
    “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”…Huh? what free? I spent over 30 years in a fundamentalist church…until I left I was not free…but I thought I was pleasing God…then He showed me through His Word that He isn’t to blame for the oppression and bondage…it is Tradition of Man…”ye have made void the word of God by your tradition”….yup.

  • Jory,

    I see some significant problems here. I realize it’s only a blogpost, but unless I missed it, there is no interaction with the Old Testament teaching on slavery, which undoubtedly formed the understanding of Paul and others when it came to its practice.

    You are obviously correct that slavery in the ancient world could be as bad as more recent slavery in terms of its treatment of slaves within the system, but as far as I am aware, one of the most significant differences is that ancient slaves could eventually purchase their freedom and in the case of ancient Hebrew slavery, they were to be released after a period of time unless they wanted to remain with the slaveowner as his slave. In such cases, they could become a permanent slave (Ex. 21:1–6), so that should at least qualify your contention that all forms of slavery are inherently unjust. Apparently not all Hebrew slaves thought so.

    Hebrew slavery was not identical to Greco-Roman slavery, of course, but there’s little reason to think that Paul and the other NT writers would not expect Greco-Roman slaveowners who were believers to at least follow the Hebrew guidelines that protected slaves, such as giving them a day of rest, not breaking up families, etc. After all, Paul can turn to the just treatment of animals under the old covenant as an argument for how to treat ministers well (1 Cor. 9).

    Furthermore, you have a significant issue with Philemon and Onesimus. If your contention that Paul only tolerated slavery in hopes of winning the master to Christ, why did he not command Onesimus, a Christian, to release Philemon? He certainly had the Apostolic authority to do so. One can read the letter to Philemon as perhaps encouraging Philemon to make the decision on his own to release Onesimus, but there is no “If you don’t release him you are in sin.” Furthermore, Paul has much to say to CHRISTIAN slaveowners, and he never tells them to release their slaves. This is quite strange if slavery in all forms is inherently wrong.

    Jesus and Paul and the other Apostles were certainly not afraid to flout societal norms. Jesus had women disciples, for example. But given the chance to strike a blow for equality as we moderns understand it, they almost never do. And perhaps most significantly, Paul sees Himself as a slave/servant to Christ. Very odd to borrow that analogy if slavery in all its forms is inherently wrong.

    This is not an apologetic for slavery. One can perhaps see that a reason why Paul did not order manumission of slaves was that such would cause societal and economic upheaval and might leave the slave unable to provide for himself or herself. Fair enough, and I think that explains some things. Nevertheless, there is no command to release slaves after giving them vocational training or to release slaves with some seed money so that they could provide for themselves. If slavery in all forms is inherently evil and if in all forms is incompatible with a Christian profession, this is a very strong counterargument against what you have said.

    Scripture simply won’t be domesticated into our modern notions of fairness, equality, and rights. None of this is to say that there should be slaves; it’s simply pointing out that the Bible does not seem to condemn slavery in at least certain cases (to pay off a debt, for example) as long as it is bounded by protections for the slaves, which are given both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. And if this is the case, your argument regarding slavery can’t work as an argument against complementarianism.

    With all due respect, I think you have some more lifting to do with regard to this argument.

    • Robert: “that should at least qualify your contention that all forms of slavery are inherently unjust. Apparently not all Hebrew slaves thought so.”

      Interesting this comment! Perhaps not all Hebrew slaves thought slavery was unjust! Perhaps so. Yes, and even today many women think female subjection is not unjust…does that make it so? No. They THINK this is God’s way… so blindly live happily with their lot. With plenty of brainwashing, many people will accept any foul form of oppression…even socialism…with a smile and naive happiness…All over socialist Cuba there are huge billboards “socialism or death” in Spanish, of course. They are told that whatever financial disaster their system brings upon their heads, even if they have to move into caves in the mountains, socialism is still the best system…and they happily believe it…medical doctors making the same money as floor washers and cab drivers…just enough to make it as long as they become prostitutes on the side to survive…Meanwhile Castro has 8 homes and imprisons all who buck his system and Canada has bailed them out for years, thanks to Pierre Trudeau our socialist former PM, while the USA had an embargo on them…it is little surprise that your current socialist president ended the embargo, because like Trudeau he is part of the world-wide socialist takeover…slavery is unjust no matter how the eye of the beholder perceives it…it is just that ignorance might make it seem an acceptable way of life…God help them, please! If they only knew how desperate their way of life is…but their system makes sure they have no way to compare…in a way your mainstream media is the same, hiding from you the truth about your situation…only those who seek other international radical news sources know what is really going on, but there will never be enough of them to rescue you. And in the end, perhaps even Wikileaks is being bought off…will they ever release those emails that they said would put Hillary in prison?…you can bet they won’t be released or they will be changed…they too have learned that Hillary is for sale to the highest bidder and too many people have too much to lose if they don’t have her in the White House working for them. If these emails aren’t released and if they don’t put her in prison…then be assured that your last chance at that truth has been bought off. Slaves are those who have to do what others tell them to do…even if they don’t know they have been under orders…i.e do you own your home? No. If you don’t pay your government taxes what will they do? Take your home…it is only yours on loan from them…

      • Judy,

        “Perhaps not all Hebrew slaves thought slavery was unjust! Perhaps so. Yes, and even today many women think female subjection is not unjust…does that make it so?”

        Not necessarily, but the question is this: Where does the Bible say that slavery in all its forms is evil and unjust? Where does it say that about female submission? I’m not necessarily arguing that it doesn’t. I want exegesis to support the points being made, not platitudes. Maybe there’s actual exegesis elsewhere on this site, but this essay is very weak on it. Jory simply doesn’t deal with the fact that the instructions about slavery aren’t given only to those who have non-Christian masters. If the point of the instructions to the slaves is simply to win their masters over to Christ, then what in the world is Paul doing not telling Christian slavemasters to manumit their slaves?

    • In the early years of the 20th century, a young Baptist missionary to Bolivia, Earl Merrick, was put in charge of running a large ranch that had been deeded to the church. The people who had run it before him had had no problem with the fact that the work on the ranch was done by “serfs”, people who were in somewhat the same position as “protected” slaves. They were treated fairly well; they had their own huts and families; they rarely went hungry. However, they belonged to the ranch and could never leave or own anything in their own right. This bothered the young missionary and he made a plan to change things. His first impulse was simply to declare them free, but then he realized that that would be unfair. The serfs had spent generations living the way they did, and how would they adapt positively to sudden freedom? So his plan included five years to give them some education, and to help each move to a five-acre plot of land where he could, with the collective’s help, build a house and plant a garden. The plan also included continued employment on the ranch for those who wanted it, but everyone would be free to make their own choices. After the five years, he had deeds drawn up for all the plots of land and houses that had been constructed, and letters certifying the freedom of the serfs. This so inspired the serfs throughout Bolivia that within a few decades, a number of revolutionary movements led to the end of the centuries-long serf system (in a relatively peaceable way).

      The apostle Paul was not a settled person in charge of anything. He was not in a position to oversee the beginning of a societal revolution. As Jory pointed out, he established the ideal of the Kingdom of God: In Christ, there is neither slave nor free. That was all he could rationally do, unless he wanted to instigate a movement that would leave his apparent beneficiaries starving, as the Bolivian serfs would have done if they had simply been set free and sent on their way.

      The mere fact that a societal evil can be moderated by people of goodwill, and that God would urge such moderation upon His chosen people, does not change the fact of the evil.

      • Sharon,

        Good point, but the fundamental question is where does Scripture say that all forms of slavery are evil? The Galatians 3:28 text does not, necessarily at least, advocate changing all those structures. It says that all are equal before God and possess the Spirit. It doesn’t say how that equality plays itself out in society.

        And the fact remains that in the case of Philemon and Onesimus, Paul could have told Philemon directly to release Onesimus so that he could come back and help Paul, for Onesimus was useful to him. His needs would have been taken care of. But Paul doesn’t do that.

        I fear that what I see is a reading the Bible through early twenty-first century Western structures of morality taught to us through pluralistic democracy. We enlightened postmoderns know that slavery in all its forms is evil, so it must be evil. We enlightened postmoderns know that feminism is liberating and empowering so it must be liberating and empowering. And on and on.

        He’s quite unafraid to call directly for people to cease sexually immoral behavior. Even for the poor prostitute who didn’t have any other skills. No amelioration there. Paul wasn’t stupid. He knew such persons would have trouble earning a living.

        Of course, that doesn’t mean Paul thought slavery was an ideal, but its awfully hard to view him as thinking all forms of it were inherently evil in light of his other words and actions. Same thing with Jesus.

  • I appreciate this as an AA/Black woman. I often have a hard time trying to express in words to other Black people I talk to about reconciling my faith with what the Bible teaches on slavery.

    Reminding them that this was written PRIOR to AA/Black slavery in the U.S. helps and talking to them about CONTEXT helps. (I.E. Your remarking on the differences between the basis for U.S. slavery being racially specific vs. Biblical time slavery being about the rich/poor, conquer/conqueror dichotomy was very good.)

    I thought it interesting to point out this:

    8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 9 I would rather appeal to you through love. I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus— 10 appeal to you for my child Onesimus…. 14 However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. 15 Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. (Philemon 1:8-16, with some in between let out)

    Notice in verses 8 Paul says,”…though I have enough confidence in Christ to COMMAND you to do the RIGHT thing…”

    So, he’s speaking on the authority of Christ given to him to say what he’s about to say. That’s HUGE. Secondly, what is the RIGHT thing for the slave owner to do?

    ” Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave.” (Verse 15)

    As NO LONGER A SLAVE…NO LONGER…A SLAVE!!! Paul is imploring his brother in love (so that he might WILLINGLY do it), to release this man from slavery!!! That’s amazing!!!

    Most humbling of all, even with the authority of Christ given to him to COMMAND the slave owner to make him free (do the right thing), he says something vital that you touched on, Jory:
    Verse 14: “However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure.”

    This is the linchpin upon which rests the question that Robert asked earlier: “Why didn’t he just tell the guy he needed to free the slaves?!” It’s because Paul was just as concerned about the slave owner’s heart and soul as he was about the slave’s freedom. The slave was already eternally safe in Jesus’s grace…and while Paul was emphatically passionate about his earthly freedom, he was also passionate that the slave owner’s heart be turned in Christ and FROM that would flow his correct action of freeing the slaves.

    PRAISE JESUS! That really just hit me when I read all of this just now. Jesus is about freedom and He finds a way to make it so not just for the oppressed, but even for the worst of oppressors. Only He can accomplish so much!

    Thanks for your post, Jory!

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