Uncle Tom and Simon Legree
Question: "I often hear the argument that the Bible approved of slavery and that either this means that the Bible should be dismissed as having any validity, or that things evolve over time, and so just as we no longer allow slavery, perhaps we should change our views on homosexuality. How should we respond?"
To answer this question we have to consider why slavery came into existence in the first place, what the Scriptures actually say, and how it came to be that most forms of slavery came to end in the civilized world.
Why Slavery Came into Existence
Slavery was a result of the fall of man. Because of human sin, men fought with one another, and some were forced into slavery. Prior to the 19th century, Slavery was a universal fact of life in every part of the world, including Africa.
Imagine for a moment that you were a member of an Indian tribe prior to the time of Christopher Columbus, and your tribe is attacked by a neighboring tribe. In the course of that battle, your tribe captures some members of the opposing tribe. Now what do you do with them? You don't have a prison system. You can't call for United Nations Peace-keepers to take them into custody. You really have three choices: 1). You could let them go, but then these same people would be back at war with your tribe, and perhaps will kill or capture members of your tribe next, and may not be so generous. 2). You could kill them all, but all human beings have a natural aversion to killing other human beings. 3). Your only other option is to keep them as captives. Eventually, you may trade them back to the other tribe in a prisoner exchange, but at least for some time they are now on your hands. Now your tribe is barely able to feed it's members, much less feed idle prisoners, and so you put them to work, so that they can be productive and help to earn their keep. So now you have slaves... people subjected to involuntary servitude. It is only when you have strong nation states that you begin to have other options when it comes when dealing with those captured in warfare.
And it should be pointed out that even today, though we have eliminated most forms of slavery, our Constitution still allows for involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime. We do not pay prisoners minimum wage, and yet we do put them to work to help earn their keep. We also still have the potential for a military draft -- and though many will object to this being a form of involuntary servitude, it is in fact involuntary, by definition, it does involve work, including fighting on the battlefield and risking your own life, and if you refuse to submit to the draft, you can be placed in prison, where you can still be compelled to work involuntarily.
What Does the Bible Actually Say About Slavery?
No where in scripture do you find slavery endorsed as a good thing. No where is it mandated that anyone should own slaves. In fact, if you read the book of Exodus, you will find that Slavery is presented as an evil. The Law of Moses addresses slavery, but it put restrictions on how slaves could be treated. The law put limits on how long an Israelite could be kept as a slave, and laid down rules on how slaves could be treated. In contrast, in ancient Rome, for example, the head of a family not only could kill his slaves for any reason, but he could kill or enslave members of his own family. He had absolute power over everyone in his family, and over any slave owned by his family. Slaves were considered to be living tools, having no more rights than a shovel or a hammer.
In the New Testament, St. Paul does say that slaves should obey their masters as they would the Lord -- and this is often cited out of context to discredit Scripture. However, the context also states that masters were to treat their slaves as their brothers. Now, one may object, "How can a master treat a slave as a brother and leave him as a slave?" The answer is that a truly Christian master would have no slave in the real sense of that term. And a Christian slave would no longer be a slave if he is serving such a master out of Christian love. And a Christian slave who was serving an unbelieving master had the hope of winning his master by his love and humility.
But of course many, perhaps most Christian slave owners failed to live up to the teachings of St. Paul, but this also created the discomfort with slavery that eventually ended it.
How Most Forms of Slavery Come to an End in the Civilized World?
As I said, slavery was a universal fact of life prior to the 19th century... but what changed? Out of all the religions of the world, a movement to end slavery arose... and that movement was spawned by the Christian religion. Christians, like William Wilberforce of England, and Charles Finney of the United States campaigned against Slavery. A book entitled "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was written by a Christian author, which appealed to the Christian sensibilities of the American public, and pointed out how even well intentioned Christian slave owners who considered their slaves to be part of their family nevertheless participated in a system that included unspeakable brutality, separated husbands from their wives, and parents from their children, and included the sexual abuse of women slaves. And in the character of Uncle Tom, who is a Christlike figure who is both humble, but also unbending when asked to participate in evil, the American public was moved to bring about the end of Slavery in America. There was also the Christian Tsar Alexander II, the Tsar Liberator, who ended serfdom in Russia, and did it without a civil war.
It is extremely ironic that Christianity should be especially attacked because of the fact that there is mention of slavery in the Bible, when it was Christianity that moved a slave-holding world to see the evils of slavery in the first place, and inspired them to end it. Islam still embraces slavery to this day, and yet Black Muslims act as if the reverse were true, and that it was Islam that was so much opposed to Slavery... when it fact the slave trade began largely with Muslim slave traders selling slaves to European Slave-traders. And if you are an atheist, there is no moral foundation for opposition to slavery... any more than you could be morally opposed to a cheetah eating an antelope. The strong make use of the weak as they see fit. And in fact, in militant atheist countries, Slave labor has always been and remains an accepted means of production.
And those who wish to compare the issue of slavery with homosexuality has a big problem. The Scriptures nowhere mandate slavery, or endorse it as a good thing; but the Scriptures clearly teach that homosexual sex is inherently sinful.
For more on that, I would recommend you read "Slavery, Homosexuality, and the Bible: A Response," by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
For more information:
Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible? by Rich Deem
Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (Old Testament), by Glen Miller
Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (New Testament), by Glen Miller
Stump the Priest: Laws about Slavery, by Fr. John Whiteford