“The Bible supports slavery, does it not?” This was the question posed to me by a bright, inquisitive student years ago when I was teaching a lesson for an ethics course. The student wanted to know what to do if our moral sense comes into conflict with divine laws. Recently I remembered this rather awkward exchange after watching the magisterial performance by David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in the recently released, Oscar-nominated film, Selma.
The movie, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is tremendous, and there are many worthy discussions that can be had after viewing it. But for the purposes of this post, I want to return to the question posed to me by my student. Why is it, in fact, that many well-meaning individuals look at the Bible as a pro-slavery text? Does the Bible really endorse the massively unjust institution of slavery and believe that human beings of different skin colors should be treated like property?
Consider what one prominent passage in the Bible says:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)
At first glance, this passage may seem like a full-blown endorsement of slavery. The author, who most scholars agree is Paul, tells slaves to obey their masters and work diligently with good will in order to please the Lord. At the same time, however, Paul implores slave owners to treat their slaves well and never to threaten them because God views everyone with equal favor. This position, while not challenging the seemingly unassailable institution of slavery in Paul’s time, nevertheless subverted the norms within the institution by calling on masters to respect slaves. In due time, perhaps Paul believed, this would undermine and weaken the system as a whole, for slavery depends on the imposition of inequality to bolster it. With the kind of egalitarian relationships that Paul projects among masters and slaves, slavery simply has no future.
If this interpretation seems like a stretch, look at what other passages in Scripture attest. In the Old Testament, the Book of Exodus tells a story of liberation from slavery. In opposition to the oppressive Pharaoh, Yahweh summons Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to a place where they can be free and fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant to be a blessing to all the nations (Gen 22:18). In another instructive OT passage, Hebrew law specifies that slaves are to be let go after a period of service and given gifts by their masters, but only if they wish to leave (Deut. 15:12-18).
In the New Testament, Paul admonishes Philemon to release a runaway slave named Onesimus, whom he considers a “dear brother” (Phlm 16). In a letter to the Galatians, he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28). Similarly, he tells his brothers “not to be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” because they “were called to be free” and worship God (Gal. 5:1, 13). In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, Paul again encourages slaves to gain their freedom if they can, but if they can’t, then know that the Lord is still their Master and that their earthly masters have no ultimate authority over them.
Whatever hermeneutical difficulties may surface in these passages (and there are definitely some tricky interpretive problems), a few things are clear. First, the slavery that existed in both the Old and New Testaments was vastly different from modern-day slavery. Neither is morally justified, of course, but the type of racially motivated, chattel slavery that existed in England and the American South was not the norm in the Bible. Second, in the passages above and elsewhere, what we find in Scripture is a consistent challenge to slavery even as it was recognized as a durable, tragic, and sinful human institution. As William J. Webb writes, “Scripture sides heavily with the plight of the slave, the poor, and the oppressed.” Perhaps this explains why, then, Martin Luther King Jr. drew upon the rich resources of the Christian tradition to establish the Civil Rights Movement. By understanding “the redemptive spirit of Scripture,” he and others were able to overcome enormous obstacles and actualize what the Bible really says about slavery.
 The fact that some slaves may actually want to continue serving their owners suggests that the context of slavery in the New Testament was far different from the slavery commonly practiced in the American South.
 William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 38.
 Ibid., 31.