Biblical Economic Commentary on Slavery

Editor’s Note: I have searched every biblical commentary on the bible’s mention of slavery in my seminary’s library and the only ones that did not gloss over the relevant passages were the liberal, critical, and largely unbelieving commentaries. What follows is my first encounter with a biblical commentator, though in topical fashion, who actually addresses the bible’s teaching on slavery.

The following is an extended quote from David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, which is a reply to Rodney Sidon’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.


The Bible permits slavery. This statement will come as a shock to most people. The laws in the Bible cslavery-in-Egypt-from-1728-Dutch-bible1oncerning slavery have very seldom been studied, much less preached upon. But the biblical laws concerning slavery are among the most beneficent in all the Bible. The biblical institution of slavery has as its basic purpose the elimination of poverty and its foremost cause, the slave mentality. Ron Sider constantly connects slavery with oppression, and seems to think the two are identical. “Slavery is an example of an institutionalized evil,” he tells us; and he speaks of “the sin of participating in slavery.”12 Many people, when they think of “slavery,” think of the pre-Civil War South, where certain aspects of slavery were in violation of biblical law. Thus many know only of an abused, unbiblical form of slavery. But since the Bible allows for slavery, it is clearly unbiblical to speak of slavery as being wrong or sinful. (Even Southern slavery was not as unbiblical as many have charged. The common conception of the slavery of that age is quite distorted; the Abolitionists were often as. guilty of transgressing God’s laws as were slave-holders, – as we shall see in our next chapter.) If slavery were a sin, God would not have provided for it. Indeed, since God is the Standard of right and wrong, the fact that He gives rules for the proper management of slavery shows that to disregard the laws of slavery is a sin. For example, since fornication is a sin, God does not give directions for the right management of a brothel. Nor does he offer instructions about successful methods of murder or theft. Slavery is not a sin, but the violation of God’s slavery laws is.

To understand God’s slavery laws, we must understand a basic biblical fact: slavery is inescapable – no culture is without it. Apart from God’s grace, all men are enslaved to sin. Salvation liberates us from slavery to sin and makes us slaves of righteousness, obedient to God’s word rather than to Satan’s (Romans 6:16-22). I am not playing with words here, for this point is central to social and cultural issues. If men are not slaves of God, they are already enslaved to sin. As sinners, they abandon their duty of dominion over the creation, with the result that they become slaves of other men, worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). The issues of the flow from the heart (Proverbs 4:23), and a man’s relationship to God, or lack thereof, has immediate and long-lasting consequences in every area. Every culture that has not served, the true God has eventually become enslaved to the state. Ron Sider’s thesis will not “liberate” anyone in this regard: his solution to the problem of poverty is merely a plea for increased slavery to the state through radical government intervention in all of life.

Since slavery will always exist, the biblical answer is not to try to abolish it, but to follow God’s laws for slavery.14 While many of these laws may seem harsh, we must recognize that, first, these laws are remedies for irresponsibility, and seek to drive men out of slavery; and second, the laws of God are not nearly so harsh as the laws of men. While God’s law produces a responsible, stable social order, man’s slavery laws are chaotic, oppressive and tyrannical. The biblical worldview is not a fairy-tale, or romantic perfectionism, but a realistic appraisal of men with their sins and shortcomings. God’s word meets us where we are in our slavery, and shows us the way toward responsible dominion under God.

1. Obtaining slaves.

Kidnapping is forbidden as a method of acquiring slaves, and deserves capital punishment (Exodus 21:16). Basically, there are only four legal ways to get slaves. They may be purchased (Leviticus 25:44-46), captured in war (Numbers 31:32-35; Deuteronomy 21:10-14), enslaved as punishment for theft (Exodus 22:1-3), or enslaved to pay off debts (Leviticus 25:39; Exodus 21:7). We should especially note God’s merciful justice here. Heathen slaves who were purchased or captured in war were actually favored by this law, since it placed them in contact with believers. They received the relatively lenient treatment of the biblical slavery regulations, and they were also able to hear the liberating message of the gospel. Slaves making restitution for theft or debt were also benefitted by this law. The Bible does not allow imprisonment (except for a man held for trial or execution). The thief was not caged up at taxpayers’ expense and treated like an animal; he labored productively, in an evangelical family context, and made proper restitution to the victim for his crime. He earned back his self-respect, and restored what he owed to his victim (If those who so. fervently desire “social justice” wouldn’t mind a suggestion, here’s one: Work to implement “structural change” in our criminal and penal codes, .and bring back restitution. Whoops-that would mean slavery! Oh, well. Better to keep the status quo, and let the victims of theft live with their losses while supporting their attackers in tax-financed penitentiaries. Better to pen up the criminal with murderers and homosexuals in an “impersonal” environment than to have him work in a godly home.)

2. The care of slaves.

Slaves have no economic incentive to work, since they cannot improve their situation regardless of how hard they labor. Therefore the master is allowed to provide that incentive by beating them (Exodus 21:20-27). Obviously, the slave is not regarded as having equal rights as a free man. But this very fact would keep a man from entering slavery too hastily. Slavery has certain benefits (job security, etc.), but it has serious drawbacks as well. Slavery was not allowed to become irresponsible welfare or paternalism. The law limited the master, however. If the murdered his slave, he was executed (Exodus 21:20). On the other hand, if the slave survived a beating and died a day or two later, there was no punishment (Exodus 21:21); there was no evidence that the master had actually intended to murder him. Again, this risk was a serious incentive against enslaving oneself. God did not want men to heedlessly abandon their freedom, and this law would tend to keep men working hard and living responsibly in order to avoid the threat of losing their liberty and civil rights. Relatively minor but permanent injuries (such as the loss of an eye or a tooth) resulted in the slave’s freedom (Exodus 21:26-27). This was also an economic incentive to keep the master from hitting the slave in the face, since a heavy blow could mean the loss of his “investment.” Naturally, this law protected slaves from severe mutilation.

3. Freedom for slaves.

Free Hebrews who had been reduced to slavery were freed in the seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-2), or at the latest in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:40-41), depending on, the severity of the situation. (Slaves who escaped from ungodly cultures were not returned to their masters, but were set free instead; Deuteronomy 23:15-16). A slave also had the right to save up enough money to purchase his own freedom (Leviticus 25:49) – a fact which indicates two things: first, the slavery laws, in common with the other Poor Laws, provided for “upward mobility”; and second, private property rights were protected at all levels of society, so that even slaves were able to acquire and dispose of property. Freed slaves were liberally furnished with gifts: from the master’s flock, threshing floor, and wine· cellar (Deuteronomy 15:14). The freed slave was thus enabled to make a living for himself, be fed, .and rejoice in his freedom. God’s law is strict, but merciful. A freed slave can get back on his feet and resume a productive place in society. To repeat the basic lesson: God’s law encourages responsibility. It provides many incentives against men enslaving themselves, and when men do become slaves, they are protected but when the period of slavery is over, they are able to hold their heads up with other men, possessing the tools with which to start over without debt.

For the heathen slave, however, the situation was different. Although he was protected by the same slavery laws, he was never freed (unless he redeemed himself) – not even in the Jubilee, which freed only Hebrew slaves (Leviticus 25:40-46). Unbelievers are slaves by nature, and there is no reason to free them as long as they remain in their spiritual bondage. The enslaved foreigner who was converted would, of course, .demonstrate his spiritual freedom by responsibly saving and purchasing his own freedom. Does this appear harsh? It is, certainly, a very different view of slavery than that held by Ronald Sider. But let us be sure that our standards in ethics really come from the Bible. If the slavery laws seem unjust to us, it is because we are wrong. God’s law is the perfect transcript of His justice. Any protest against God’s laws is a moral indictment of God, in the same class with the original sin in the Garden. By substituting our laws for God’s, we produce only injustice and increasing slavery. James B. Jordan comments: “The problem in the Old South came about because converted slaves were not freed, and thus no mechanism was instituted whereby men might rise to freedom. As we have seen, the purpose of the enslavement of unbelievers is evangelism, and the purpose of the enslavement of believers is to train them to be responsible free citizens. Thus, there is an upward thrust to the Biblical laws concerning slavery. It is the goal of slavery to eliminate itself by producing responsible free men. Where that upward rise is cut off by Statist legislation, as it was in the Old South under both slavery and paternalism, God is offended.“15

Now contrast the biblical form of slavery with some of Ronald Sider’s proposals. He declares himself to be against slavery (since it’s a “sin”), but life in his statist paradise is a form of slavery that is truly oppressive, and outlawed by God’s word. The Bible warns us against slavery to the state, and biblical law works to prevent it (see, e.g., I Samuel 8). State-provided welfare causes dependence on the state, and is surely slavery. It is used by greedy politicians to buy votes and to create a class that is beholden to the rulers. Where we become used to benefits, we lose our reliance upon God, neighbors, family,and self, and we increasingly are unable to act responsibly. Already, it is common to find people (even Christians!) who simply cannot conceive of certain tasks being performed without state aid. It is a marvel to them that people have ever had housing, education, health care, jobs, transportation, postal service, food, and money apart from state monopolization. And this is slavery, as Auberon Herbert argued: “Treat the people as unworthy of trust, and they will justify your expectation. Tell them that you do not expect them to possess a sense of responsibility, to think or act for themselves, withhold from them the most natural and the most important opportunities for such things, and in due time they will passively accept the mental and moral condition you have made for them… . . Each man unconsciously reasons, ‘Why should I do that which the state will do for me?’ “16

Sider believes that the wealthy have unjust power, that they usually become wealthy by oppressing the (The validity of this notion will be examined later.) He thus seeks to break this economic power through granting more power to the state. Are those greedy, laissez-faire capitalists charging “too much” for their products? Are those “bourgeois running dogs” paying the noble worker an “unfair” wage? Let’s bring in some heavy- handed government clout to take care of the problem. What we need is an omnipotent state that will enforce price and wage controls on corrupt businessmen. (Never mind that such controls inevitably result in shortages and unemployment. Why, that’s a doctrine of the deist, Adam Smith. His law of supply and demand has been repealed. Lord Keynes has revolutionized us, ridding us once and for all of Enlightenment philosophies and secular economic theories.) Of course, various societies for at least the last 4000 years have attempted such measures before. Some men who implemented price and wage controls are, in fact, quite justly famous for their actions. One government leader of a generation ago will be long remembered. For a time, he was to stabilize prices, wages and employment at a level that modem bureaucrats can only dream of. He was so successful that even if you aren’t a history student you.may recall his name: Adolf Hitler.

The point is that economic controls require an omnipotent, enslaving state to enforce them. If you aren’t willing to have totalitarianism, the controls won’t work. Price and wage management is impossible without complete oversight of every sector of society. Halfway measures will not suffice. Hermann Goring, Hider’s economic planner, admitted this to an American correspondent in 1946, when he was· a prisoner of war. Speaking of American economic programs which were similar to some of his own past endeavors, he offered this revealing comment: “You are trying to control people’s wages and prices- people’s work. If you do that you must control people’s lives. And no country can do that part way. “19 That was the thrust of Hilaire Belloc’s mocking advice to those who desired “gradual socialism.” It cannot be done, he said; it cannot come about without violent expropriation. The basic rule is this: “If you desire to confiscate, you must confiscate.”

Ronald Sider claims to be working for liberation and equality for the oppressed. He declares that slavery is wrong, and appears to damn it with every breath. Yet his concrete proposals for reform look quite the opposite under the searchlight of biblical law. I am willing to grant him some measure of sincerity – some; but whether or not he is aware of what he is really doing, the effect of his proposals would be a totalitarian, oppressive regime the likes of which Hitler was never able to achieve. It would make the state nothing less than God. And when man plays god, the result is always bondage. During the Second World War, F. A. Hayek published a stirring warning to the people of England, who were blindly pursuing the policies which had brought the Nazis to power in Germany. He wrote: “The ‘substitution of political for economic power’ now so often demanded means. necessarily the substitution of power from which there is no escape for a power which is always limited. What is called economic power, while it can be an instrument of coercion, is, in the hands of private individuals, never exclusive or complete power, never power over the whole life of a person. But centralized as an instrument of political power it creates a degree of dependence scarcely distinguishable from slavery.”21

End Notes

11. Sider, “Words and Deeds,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa (December, 1979), p. 38.

12. Ibid., p. 49. Cf. Rich Christians, pp. 60f. [pp. 54f.].

13. For a fascinating history of an important aspect of this, see Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls, by Robert Schuettinger and Eamonn Buder (Ottawa, IL: Caroline House Publishers, Inc., 1979).

14. The best exposition of the biblical slavery laws is in James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), pp. 75-92; see also jordan’s Slavery and Liberation in the Bible (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, forthcoming).

15. James B. Jordan, “Slavery in Biblical Perspective,” term paper, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1979, pp. 44.

16. Herbert, pp. 65.

17. Sider, Rich Christians, p. 73 [po 65]; Cry Justice, pp. 31, 203, 210.

18. See Sider, Rich Christians, pp. 114f. [pp. 102 f.]. See the discussion of Smith below, pp. 179-83.

19. Cited in Schuettinger and Buder, Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls, p. 73. Italics added.

20. Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1977), p. 168.

21. F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (The University of Chicago Press, 1944), pp. 145f. Italics added.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s