How Can I trust the Bible when it was used to justify slavery?
The theme of the Bible is freedom. The main event is a slave rebellion. The book was written by slaves and addressed to slaves. (Exodus 1:13). Throughout the Old Testament God reminds readers where they came from, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2). The Creation account given to these freed slaves announces that all human beings are “created in the image of God.” Equality and dignity are grounded in the Creator. The New Testament expands the theme to include freedom from sin and death.
Slavery is described in the Bible but it’s important to remember that description is not endorsement. Lots of other bad acts are also described: adultery, murder and war--this doesn’t mean God approves of them. It is simply a recognition of the human story that God must work with. This being said, it’s instructive to compare slavery in ancient Israel with the practice of American slavery on two fronts: motivation and treatment.
Motivation: American slavery was involuntary and coercive. Africans were kidnapped and taken to the new world. Kidnapping for the purpose of slavery was a capital offense in Israel (Exodus 21:16). Slaves in Israel became so voluntarily as a contractual agreement to pay off debt. The term of service was no more than six years. In the seventh year they were to be set free. (Exodus 21:2). Slaves were paid and they could save the funds to buy their freedom or their family could buy them back--this is the original meaning of the word “redeem.”
Treatment: American slaves had no legal rights. They were entirely at the mercy of their owner which resulted in unthinkable abuse. By contrast, Israel afforded rights to slaves under the law. If mistreatment was not addressed, God himself promised to come in judgment (Exodus 22:23-24). Every 50 years the law proclaimed a year of Jubilee in which all debts were forgiven and all slaves were set free. Both these notions of legal rights and human dignity as the image of God set the course for the eventual elimination of slavery.
The New Testament contains an implicit denunciation of slavery in Philemon. Paul wrote this letter to accompany a run-away slave, Onesimus back to his Christian owner, Philemon. Paul declares that by Christian faith, Onesimus is no longer a slave but a brother. This family language is significant. Paul does not order Philemon but he clearly appeals for him to voluntarily free Onesimus, “...though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for loves’ sake I prefer to appeal to you...that you might have him back...no longer as a bondservant...but as a beloved brother…”
American slaveholders used passages such as “slaves be obedient to your masters” to pacify their slaves. But the slaves were not deceived. Once they got a hold of the book for themselves they quickly realized it is a book about freedom. James Watkins, a former slave turned abolitionist recalled the moment when these truths led to his Christian conversion:
“Gradually as the truths of Christianity broke in upon my mind, I felt a new man, and I yearned for freedom with the most intense anxiety. The truths of the gospel filled my heart with excess of joy... I became filled with the love of Jesus. Teach the slave the gospel, and you will make him free...”
Take it from a freed slave: the Bible has a message that sets people free!