How moral can a bible be that fails to condemn slavery?


I’ve been pondering of late how the bible is held as authority for Christians. Moral authority even. The Word of God. Lamp unto my feet. Light unto my path. And so on.

And yet this revered and hallowed book doesn’t even have the insight, or, if it does, the courage, to condemn slavery. (nor the subordination of women)

But even with it’s failings (am I alone in seeing this as a failing of scripture? ie God working with what He has available to Him…) this book has the audacity to present the stunning doctrine (though it’s a tiny minority that embrace it) of Universal Restoration.

What’s up with that??



There are portions of OT and NT both which, when followed out, would logically lead to the abolition of slavery. St. Paul, to give one notable example in his letter to Philemon, expects Philemon to do the right thing and free Onesimus as a brother in Christ, without having to be commanded to be Paul (even though Paul says he can make it a command.) In the OT, to give another notable example, slaves are expected to be freed every Jubilee year: something that rarely if ever happened in practice, but the principle was there.

The Jubilee makes the best example, perhaps, because it illustrates something that either Chesterton or Lewis (I don’t recall which) once wrote: Christianity (and Judaism) could exist in a world with slavery. But it could also exist in a world without slavery, and looked forward to a time when this would be true; and to that author’s eye this was not something that could be said about any of the other worldviews on option at the time. Similarly, the beliefs could exist and operate in a world with war; but (like many other beliefs this time) could look forward to existing without war, too.

These things would be accomplished by the time (or by the coming) of the Day of the Lord. But it would be wrong to simply put off acting toward the fulfillment of these freedoms until that day. Thus the exhortation to peacemaking and slave-freeing in the Jubilee Years. Thus also the propensity of Christian cultures to sporadically attempt to end slavery in their civilizations throughout history.

The question of subordination of women is even more complicated; but it helps to be aware of cultural contexts, especially in comparison with other cultures of the time. In that regard, Judeo-Christianity was one of the more favorable environments for women to live and operate in by a significant margin. (Sociologist Rodney Stark, who wasn’t much interested in the religious truth-claims of Christianity at the time he initially started studying the factors, decided that the relative friendliness of the beliefs toward women was a key factor in the growth and maintenance of both beliefs in Greco-Roman society.) Was there room for improvement? Yes. But there was a significant amount of chivalry, too, when looked at from the proper contextual angle.

To pull a random example out of a hat: the ban against touching a woman during her period and soon after birth, helped protect her from infection during times when she was most vulnerable to blood-bourn illness. Circumcision is especially chivalric, as it leads to increased pleasure and safety for the woman, again helping prevent her from contracting disease. Yet I don’t recall these rationales being brought forth in the scriptures; perhaps because men simply weren’t in a position yet to understand and accept them as such. It’s one thing to cut off one’s foreskin to show how awesomely dedicated you are to faithfully following God. It’s quite another to do so to be so awesomely dedicated to serving your wife! (Especially when starting from a standpoint of almost no respect for women in a macho gung-ho culture of tribal raiders. From a hindsight perspective thousands of years later, what strikes me is that in setting up this symbol God effectively says that those men who aren’t sacrificing themselves for women are not being faithful to Him.) There’s an echo of this in the disciples plaintively asking Christ about His strictures regarding divorce, which when carefully examined turn out to be in favor of protecting women again: “If this is how things are to be between a man and a woman, then better not to marry!” Christ’s answer is pointedly sardonic–a fact often missed in interpretations: in effect He says that if men can’t live up to this, then the honorable thing to do is become a practicing eunuch!


First off, I took the title of this thread from a dismissive comment made to me by an unbeliever – and I thought it was a valid critique. However, while I must agree that our bible does not explicitly condemn slavery, it was in fact bible reading and believing courageous men (eg Wm Wilberforce) who took that same bible and from it derived a very logical and forceful repudiation of slavery.

Thus, it seems to me this accusation about morality and the bible reminds us all of three very important things which seem to be lost on a very secular world.

First, there really is such a thing as a moral code. Simply pointing to a moral code which is less mature or sophisticated than one believes their own to be does not negate the existence of a moral code. (This reminds me of the mocking derision of those fallen preachers whose very public failings and sins have been so excoriated. They preached one code, yet fallen lived another. Interestingly, those who have been loudest in their derision offer up no similar moral code upon which to judge THEMselves.)

The second point, and an incredibly crucial one, is that the validity and value of a moral code does not depend on humans ability to adhere to it. That is to say, fallen human souls unable to live perfectly moral lives does not negate that moral life as goal. The validity of the goal is not negated by a certain persons inability to live it fully.

This all merges very naturally with the idea that all of us are growing in grace and in wisdom and in knowledge of the incredible depths of holiness to which God calls us. While we are not to model the ancient believers specific morals, we are to model their burning quest to do better and to humbly be willing to listen when we are to rebuked and reproved. The one after God’s own heart can never say his journey to perfection is complete.

Thus while we may not embrace the actual choices of our forefathers, we certainly can embrace the God they served and the dynamic of humble willingness to grow in grace. That we do not endorse their specific choices does not mean we do not stand on their shoulders. So to speak.

The implications of this for UR should be obvious it seems as we discover the inclusiveness of a God who was formerly perceived to be exclusive…



Quite so. :slight_smile:

(Repeat several times as applicable… :mrgreen: )