Why was there slavery in the Old Testament? Why didn't the early apostles condemn slavery? Will there be slavery in the Millennium?


We can safely say that it was never God’s intent for man to engage in the kind of slavery which has brought so much misery and pain on others. We can also say that it was never God’s original intent that there should be any form of slavery. And we conclude that it will be very unlikely that there will be any slavery in the Millennium.

To give an overview of the ORIGIN of slavery in the Bible, let us quote from The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, by James Hastings:

“The causes of slavery are at first sight manifold. It may be the result of capture in war; it may be the punishment for crime or debt; or a man who is starving may sell himself or his children to buy food. But, the more we examine the subject, the more we find that the primary cause is capture in war, particularly when the war is between different races…”

As to the primary reason for slavery–capture in war–this concept won’t exist anymore in the Millennium as there will be no more wars in the Millennium (Isaiah 2:1-4). Also, since all will live in prosperity and there will be no more poverty, that reason for slavery won’t exist anymore, either (Micah 4:1-4; Zechariah 3:10). Finally, “slavery” for punishment of crime or debt in the Millennium might likewise be non-existent, as people might not be allowed to actually carry out crimes or go into debt, necessitating that kind of punishment or treatment (compare Isaiah 30:20-21).

We should also mention that it was never God’s original intent that men should be poor in the first place (Deuteronomy 15:1-6). Nor was it God’s original intent that men should go to war, as we explain in detail in our free booklet, “Should You Fight in War?” It was only when man decided that he wanted to fight, that God gave laws which regulated warfare and its consequences–mostly to prevent the kind of terrible abuses which were so prevalent in other ancient societies and which are still so prevalent today.

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, by James Hastings, continues:

“Slavery existed among the Hebrews, as among all the peoples of antiquity, but it appears in milder forms and was inspired by a more humane spirit than in either Greece or Rome…”

The Nelson Study Bible adds:

“… the Jews practiced slavery… A Jewish slave belonged to the family of the owner and had certain religious and social rights. If the slave was a Hebrew, the term of slavery was limited to six years… But even if the slave was a Gentile, the owner’s power was limited… If a master punished and injured a slave in his possession, the slave was to be set free. If the punishment resulted in the slave’s death, then the master was to be punished. The slave was viewed as a person and was to be treated fairly, which differed from the Roman system of slavery…”

It is indeed correct that the kind of “slavery,” as described in Old Testament passages, cannot be remotely compared with the terrible curse of slavery which had been adopted by other cultures in ancient antiquity or which was later practiced and carried out by other cultures, including those of the “Christian” Western societies.

We are setting forth below several examples showing the “humane spirit” of the ancient biblical concept of slavery, while remembering that God had never intended that slavery should exist at all. Still, God saw to it that slaves would have rights and privileges:

As mentioned above, the Bible prohibited the abuse of slaves and required the punishment of the master or the freedom of the slaves in case of physical abuse (Exodus 21:20, 26-27).

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 described the rights of a female slave who had been captured in war.

Deuteronomy 23:16 expressly prohibited that an escaped slave would be returned to his cruel master.

In 1 Chronicles 2:34-35, we find that an Egyptian slave became the son-in-law of his master.

Slaves could even become heirs to the property of their masters (compare Genesis 15:2-3).

Slaves were included in God’s command of rest on the Sabbath, and they were exempted from forced labor on that day (Exodus 20:10).

Slaves were allowed to participate in the Passover, after they were circumcised (Exodus 12:44).

Slaves of priests were allowed to eat the food dedicated to the priests (Leviticus 22:11).

And in Job 31:13-15, we find Job’s exclamation that a godly master would respect the rights and causes of his male or female slave, pointing out that God had made them as well as Job.

In this light, we need to examine why we don’t find explicit condemnation of the concept of slavery in the New Testament.

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, by James Hastings, writes:

“There is no explicit condemnation of slavery in the teaching of our Lord. It would even be difficult to say how much He refers to it, as the Greek can mean ‘slave,’ ‘bond servant,’ or ‘servant.’… it is in the Epistle to Philemon that St. Paul’s teaching is most clear. Onesimus was a runaway slave whom the apostle was sending back to his master Philemon… there is no condemnation of slavery…”

The Nelson Study Bible writes:

“At that time [when Paul wrote the letter to Philemon], the slave-master relationship was as common as the employee-employer relationship is today… In his letters the apostle Paul did not approve of slavery, but he also did not condemn it. He exhorted slaves to demonstrate Christian obedience and humility even to their masters… In turn, Christian masters were to treat their slaves fairly… Yet at the same time, Paul declared the equality of both slaves and free persons before Christ [compare Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 12:13], a principle that would eventually undermine the institution of slavery… The letter [to Philemon] is basically an earnest plea for a Christian love that would confront the cruelty and hatred embodied in the cultural institutions of that day…”

It might appear that Paul’s approach seemed to have been in opposition to the explicit command in Deuteronomy 23:16, not to return a slave to his master. But this is only the case at first glance. If we review these passages more carefully, we find that Deuteronomy 23:16 prohibits the return of an abused slave against the slave’s will. In the case of Paul, the escaped slave Onesimus [the Bible does not tell us WHY Onesimus ran away] perfectly agreed to return to his master Philemon, as Paul encouraged Philemon to receive his slave back with Christian love and to treat him as a brother in the faith.

In trying to explain Paul’s approach, we find the following comments in The New Bible Commentary:Revised:

“Although slaves are mentioned in several Pauline Epistles, in none does slavery appear so vividly as in [the letter to Philemon], since the whole Epistle revolves around a runaway slave. The question arises why Paul did not take the opportunity of pointing out in a more direct manner the evils of the whole system. Certain factors must be borne in mind before an answer is suggested. Slavery was so integral a part in the social system that a direct confrontation with the State to abolish it, even if it had been possible for the Christian church to embark on such a crusade, would have resulted in nothing short of revolution. Paul was certainly no revolutionary…

“Although the Christian could not have hoped to make abolition of slavery a political platform, they could set an example to the world at large concerning the way in which Christianity… could mitigate its evils. This brief letter is a notable example of such an approach in that Paul argues that a new relationship must develop between Philemon and Onesimus, since both master and slave were now Christians…”

We must remember that Paul included several striking passages about “slaves” in New Testament times. Even though he demanded that Christian “slaves” work obediently and sincerely for their Christian or non-Christian masters (Ephesians 6:5-8), while exhorting those masters to treat their “slaves” fairly (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1), he did encourage slaves to sever the master-slave relationship, if that could be done (compare 1 Corinthians 7:21).

Paul also prohibited Christians from becoming voluntarily slaves of men (verse 22). These prohibitions also apply to us today in our “free” Western societies, even though the concept of “slavery” might not be that obvious at first sight–for instance, a true Christian should not volunteer to join the military and thereby become a slave of man.

Apart from these Christian principles regulating a master-slave relationship, we must understand that it has never been the role, function and responsibility of the Church of God to change the world now, or to undermine the systems and governments of this world. True Christians don’t participate in the wars of this world, nor do they vote in governmental elections nor participate in any attempts to overthrow the government. As explained in our free booklet, “Should You Fight in War?,” Christians are ambassadors of Christ and representatives of a better world–the heavenly kingdom–to be set up on this earth within a few years from now.

Focusing on these facts, we might understand better WHY the New Testament or the apostle Paul did not condemn or even address the concept of slavery per se: This is NOT God’s world, but Satan’s (compare Matthew 4:8-9); Christians are not here for the purpose of “improving” Satan’s rotten evil world (Galatians 1:4)–of trying to make this evil world a better world. They know that this world will be REPLACED by a better world (Daniel 2:44; Revelation 11:15-18)–attempts to IMPROVE or change THIS Satan-ruled world for the better are doomed to fail. However, Christians are to live in this world and its numerous systems as lights, showing as Christ’s ambassadors how they CAN live as Christians in this world, without becoming a part of it, regardless of what circumstance they might find themselves in. Even when they were imprisoned, Joseph or Paul continued to live as true Christians.

Paul was not trying to change the system. He taught that we are to obey our governmental leaders (Romans 13:1-7), except when their laws or directives contradict God’s commands (Acts 5:29; 4:19). His letter to Philemon shows how one can live in the world and within its systems, and still be a Christian.

Based on the foregoing, we feel that it is highly unlikely that there will exist any slavery in the Millennium. But how are we to understand a Scripture like Isaiah 14:1-2, which deals with the Millennium and might suggest the existence of some form of slavery? The passage reads:

“For the LORD will have mercy on Jacob, and will still choose Israel, and settle them in their own land. The strangers will be joined with them, and they will cling to the house of Jacob. Then people will take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel will possess them for servants and maids in the land of the LORD; they will take them captive whose captives they were, and rule over their oppressors.”

Upon closer examination, this passage does not seem to teach that men will enslave others in the Millennium. Note how some commentaries explain this Scripture.

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible writes:

“‘And they shall take them captive…’ — That is, they shall induce them to become proselytes; to be willing to accompany them to their own homes, and to become their servants there. It does not mean that they would subdue them by force; but they would be able, by their influence there, to disarm their opposition; and to induce them to become the friends of their religion… This is one instance where the people of God would show that they could disarm their oppressors by a mild and winning demeanour, and in which they would be able to induce others to join with them. Such would be the force of their example and conduct, of their conversation and of their deportment…”

The commentary of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown adds: “‘captives’ — not by physical, but by moral might; the force of love, and regard to Israel’s God [compare Isaiah 60:14].”

Finally, John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible states:

“… this will have… accomplishment in the latter day, when the Gentiles shall bring their sons and daughters in their arms, and on their shoulders, and on horses, and in chariots, to Jerusalem [Isaiah 49:21-23]… [They will choose] rather to be servants and handmaids to them, than to return to their own land, and who were a kind of inheritance or possession to the [Israelites]… It may be understood of Gentile converts…, who would willingly and cheerfully engage in the service of the church of God, and by love serve his people, and one another [Isaiah 61:5]…”

In conclusion, it was never God’s intent that there should be any kind of slavery in the first place–had mankind chosen to OBEY God. It is highly unlikely that God will use men to enslave others in the Millennium. This is not to say, however, that God won’t deal with uncompromising power and authority regarding individuals and nations who refuse to obey God, until they yield to God’s rule (compare Revelation 2:27; Zechariah 14:11–20; Ezekiel 38:18-23; 39:1-16).

In the meantime, Christians have to strive to live within the laws of man–whatever they might be–unless they contradict the laws of God. No matter what circumstance we might find ourselves in, we still can and should continue to live the way of God.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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