The slavery tolerated by the Scriptures must be understood in its historical context and should not be equated with type of slavery seen in the pre-Civil War American south or in the sex-trade slavery all across the world. Old Testament laws regulating slavery are troublesome by modern standards, but in their historical context they provided a degree of social recognition and legal protection to slaves that was advanced for its time.
In ancient times, slavery existed in every part of the world. Slaves had no legal status or rights, and they were treated as the property of their owners. Even Plato and Aristotle looked upon slaves as inferior beings. As inhumane as such slavery was, we must keep in mind that on occasion it was an alternative to the massacre of enemy populations in wartime and the starvation of the poor during famine. It was to the people of this harsh age that the Bible was first written.
In New Testament times, slave labor was foundational to the economy of the Roman Empire. About a third of the population was comprised of slaves. If the writers of the New Testament had attacked the institution of slavery directly, the gospel would have been identified with a radical political cause at a time when the abolition of slavery was unthinkable. To directly appeal for the freeing of slaves would have been inflammatory and a direct threat to the social order. Consequently, the New Testament acknowledged slavery’s existence, instructing both Christian masters and slaves in the way they should behave. At the same time, it openly declared the spiritual equality of all people.
The gospel first had the practical effect of doing away with slavery within the community of the early church. It also carried within it the seeds of the eventual complete abolition of slavery in the Western world.
The fact that the Bible never expressly condemned the institution of slavery has been wrongfully used as a rationale for its continuance. In the American South prior to the Civil War, many nominal Christians wrongly interpreted the Bible’s approach to slavery and used their misunderstanding to justify economic interests. The terrible use of African slave labor continued in spite of those who argued from the Scriptures for the spiritual equality of all ethnicities. Today the Christian message of the spiritual equality of all people under God has spread throughout the world, and it is rapidly becoming the standard by which the human values of all nations are measured.