Twenty-five years ago, I received a letter from a reader who disagreed with my assertion that the type of slavery practiced in the United States was unbiblical because it was the result of “man-stealing,” a practice that is condemned by the Bible. As you can tell from the following paragraph, he is passionate about his beliefs. But is he right?
The Bible does not condemn slavery. The Bible does condemn abortion. Human legislation cannot make legal what God’s law condemns, or make illegal what God’s law allows. When you condemn what God’s law allows, you are a legalist and sin (Deuteronomy 4:3; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18–19). When you allow what God’s law condemns, you are a lawbreaker and sin (Exodus 20:1–17). When you can’t tell the difference, you can’t think as a Christian.
I responded in a brief note that the slavery practiced in this country was “man-stealing” (kidnapping) that is specifically forbidden in the Bible. West Africans were kidnapped, put on ships, brought to these shores, sold at auction, and placed in forced labor.
The Indentured Servant
Many of this nation’s earliest settlers paid for their passage as indentured servants. Indentured servitude is neither unbiblical nor unconstitutional. A thief who was unable to make restitution could be sold into servitude for his theft (Ex. 22:3b). Even after the abolition of slavery indentured servitude was retained by the Constitution as a legitimate form of punishment in the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
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We should, therefore, distinguish between slave (man-stealing) and bondservant (indentured servant). It’s interesting to note that the word “slave” appears only once in the King James Bible (Jer. 2:14a). The same is true for the word “slaves” (Rev. 18:13). The word slavery does not appear anywhere in the King James Version. (Gary North, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), 121.)
Stealing People for Profit
I quoted Exodus 21:16 to support my contention that the type of slavery that was practiced in America cannot be supported by an appeal to the Bible: “And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” The letter writer supported his position by claiming that Exodus 21:16 only applies to not kidnapping Hebrews (compare Deut. 24:7). Robert L. Dabney, who defended slavery in the South, disagrees:
It need hardly be said that we abhor the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade. It is justly condemned by the public law of Christendom…. It is condemned by the law of God. Moses placed this among the judicial statutes of the Jews: “And he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” (Robert L. Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, [And Through Her, of the South], Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party (New York: Negro University Press,  1969), 288.)
There is no indication that Exodus 21:16 only has Israelites in mind. If it does, then verse 12 would only apply to Israelites since its language is similar to that of verse 16 in the use of “a man” (“And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.”):
- “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death” (21:12).
- “And he who kidnaps a man whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (21:16).
James B. Jordan offers a good summary of the issues involved:
The Bible punishes all man-stealing with a mandatory death penalty. In Deuteronomy 24:7, the kidnapping of covenant members is particularly forbidden, but in Exodus 21:16, all man-stealing is prohibited. It might be maintained that if we read v. 16 in context of v. 2, it is only Hebrews who are protected and avenged by this law. The text simply says ‘man,’ however, and there is no indication in the immediate context (vv. 12, 14) that ‘man’ is restricted to covenant members.” (James B. Jordan, The Law and the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21–23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), 104.)
Setting the Captives Free
Defenders of Southern slavery appeal to Leviticus 25:44–46 to support their position since it describes the enslavement of pagans. Dabney bases his argument for slavery on the Leviticus passage without considering a change in its application under the New Covenant. (Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, 117–121.) The slavery of foreigners was legal in Israel. Gary North writes: “These pagans were being purchased out of their covenantal slavery to demonic religion. They were being redeemed (bought back). They were being given an opportunity to hear the gospel and see it in operation in households covenanted to God. They were being given the opportunity to renounce paganism and thereby escape eternal slavery in the lake of fire.” (North, Tools of Dominion, 145.)
The enslavement of pagan nations under the Old Covenant was tied to the jubilee laws described in the same chapter, Leviticus 25. The jubilee was fulfilled in principle by Jesus (Luke 4) and abolished historically when Israel as a nation ceased to exist with the destruction of its religious and civil governments in AD 70.
Also, the Gentiles are given a new status in the New Covenant. The coming of Christ was “a light of revelation to the Gentiles [lit., nations] (Luke 2:32; see Is. 42:6; 49:6). The gospel was to go to the nations, not to enslave them but to free them from the power of sin over their lives.
Jesus began His public ministry with the reading of Isaiah 61:1, “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). We know that this release included Gentiles: “And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles…. And in His name the Gentiles will hope” (Matt. 12:18, 21). The book of Acts shows that many Jewish Christians had not accepted the fact that Gentiles were included in the covenant promises initially reserved for Israelites: “And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).
With the gospel’s breaking of national Israel’s old wineskin, a new means of foreign evangelism began. New Testament evangelists are to go to foreign lands as servants, not as slave-masters or their economic agents, slave traders. They are to warn men and women to submit to God’s rule voluntarily.¼ Christians are to bring the message of liberation which Jesus announced in Luke 4. (North, Tools of Dominion, 173.)
The history of the enslavement of African blacks has impeded the preaching of the gospel. Instead of being fishers of men, many in the church supported the notion of being the enslavers of men, in particular, black men. The Bible, including Leviticus 25, does not support enslaving exclusively African blacks as mostly took place in the United States. Racism seems to have been the culprit. Gary North writes: “Slavery as a system came to North America in the early eighteenth century, and it was grounded in the racist prejudices that increased with every shipload of victimized blacks. Racism seems to have been the foundation of slavery rather than the reverse.” (North, Tools of Dominion, 180.) With the coming of Christ Christians are to preach the gospel to make disciples of the nations; making them “slaves to Christ,” not slaves to other men.
The NT and Slavery
We know that in the New Testament Paul condemns slave traders (kidnappers) in 1 Timothy 1:10. The book of Revelation considers those who traffic in “slaves and human lives” to be immoral and destined for judgment (18:13). Nowhere does the New Testament support trafficking in slaves. Paul’s letter to Philemon does not support the notion that the New Testament tolerated chattel slavery. Onesimus was probably a bondservant who owed a debt to Philemon. Paul encourages the runaway Onesimus to return to Philemon and encourages Philemon to release Onesimus upon his arrival. Paul promises to pay Philemon if Onesimus “owes you anything” (Philemon 18). Paul’s mention of debt seems to indicate that Onesimus was an indentured servant.
Defending the Indefensible
The letter writer mentioned at the beginning of this article concludes his argument in defense of slavery by quoting Dabney. Dabney, as we saw above, abhorred “the injustice, cruelty, and guilt of the African slave trade.” Then why did he continue to support the holding of slaves? Dabney writes: “When the property has been acquired by the latest holder, fairly and honestly; … the last possessor is innocent of fraud in intention and in the actual mode of his acquisition of it…. Common sense says, that whatever may have been the original title, a new and valid one has arisen out of the circumstances of the case.” (Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, 288–289.)
While the slave trader may have acquired the slaves through immoral means, Dabney argued, the person who receives the stolen men, women, and children is not bound by the original illegality. In essence, he cannot be held accountable for the initial fraud since he purchased the “merchandise” in good faith. Dabney first begs the question. How can the purchase of human beings to be used for slave labor (a form of theft) be done “fairly and honestly” when Dabney fully admits “that the original slave catcher” who “captured the African was most unrighteous”?
The letter writer attempts to bolster Dabney’s argument by writing that “in 1981 a fraud gave me a bad check for $2,000 worth of silver dollars, then sold them to another dealer. When I sued to recover the dollars from that dealer, the court found that, although the criminal had acquired them by fraud, title had been passed to the next owner who had bought in good faith and could not now be disturbed in his possession.”
The key is that the dealer purchased the coins “in good faith.” If he had known that the coins had been stolen and still purchased them, he would have been cited with conspiracy to commit fraud. Those who purchased slaves at auction in the United States knew the slaves were kidnaped victims. The slave owners were not operating “in good faith” since they knew “that the original slave catcher” who “captured the African was most unrighteous” based on the reading of Exodus 21:16. The coin dealer did not know that the first transaction was fraudulent. Slaveholders knew the first theft of human beings was a moral evil therefore any subsequent sales of these human beings were also immoral.
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