Troublesome Topic: Why Did God Allow Slavery?

Lesson 2 of 4

I don’t pretend my answer to this question will be completely satisfactory to you, but I trust it will give you a different perspective and something to think about.

First let me make clear that I believe it is wrong for one person to forcibly control another, to cut off their options, to control their future and eliminate most of their exercise of free will. No one can do that to another human being and think they are doing the right thing. This applies not only to human trafficking but also to an abusive spouse, a boss who is a controlling megalomaniac, etc. I also am convinced that slavery is a great bruise on the history of any country that has engaged in it. I am ashamed that it is part of the history of my country, the USA.

Maybe you have wondered, as I have, why in the Bible, God seemed to show concern that the slave receive fair treatment,

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but no concern that the slave receive his freedom, or that his condition as a slave be temporary,

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but not eliminated. I struggled with this for years before coming to the position I now hold (which you may or may not like).

Usually the answer that Christians give to this question is simply to say, “That’s the way things were back then,” or to say, “It was a different type of slavery.” While true, I find those answers unsatisfactory. I’m glad that there is more to it than that.

God is more concerned with our spiritual freedom than our physical freedom.

The main issue is this: We value our physical freedom more than God does. He is primarily concerned with our spiritual freedom. He knows that man will always be a slave to someone or something. Observe what it says in Romans 6.

Romans 6:16


Don’t you know that you are slaves to the one you obey, e.i. the one you yield yourselves to as obedient slaves, whether that be to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?


Don’t you realize that, when you  submit yourselves as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one you obey, whether you submit to following sin, which leads to death, or whether you submit to following obedience, which leads to righteousness?

Romans 6:18


Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves to righteousness.


Since you are no longer bound under the power of sin to serve its ends,

you are now bound under the power of righteousness to serve its ends.

Romans 6:22


Now however, having been set free from sin, and having become slaves to THEOS, you hold your fruit unto holiness, and the end

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is eternal life.


However, now that you have been set free from sin, and at the same time have become slaves to THE CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS, you already have in your hands the fruit of your new status which leads you to a holy life, and the final result of a holy life is eternal life.

So you see, though we live and work, buy things and sell things as free men, our souls are slaves either to good, or to evil, to God or to Satan. I think one can make the case that God did not want us to think of ourselves as totally free, because then we would think we can do whatever we want. Someone who is totally free may think, “No one can tell me what to do.” In reality all of us have people over us who can place restrictions on what we do or assign consequences for our actions. The “don’t tell me what to do”  attitude is dangerous because our attitudes about physical aspects of life tend to spill over into spiritual aspects. While God does not force us to do what He wants, He has established consequences for our actions. Adam and Eve found out that they could not do whatever they wanted without consequences. So in the end, we are never totally free spiritually, unless you argue that freedom is found in serving God as a bond servant—a slave by choice. Therefore, God chose to make an issue of only one type of freedom, the kind that matters for eternity.

If God had focused on physical freedom the way we do, He would have hampered His own efforts to teach us that we are all slaves in a spiritual sense, slaves to sin by choice or slaves of righteousness by choice.

Unlike God, we have made a bigger issue of physical freedom than we have our spiritual freedom. True freedom is that which allows us to finally be what we were created to be. The apostle Paul spoke about spiritual truths relating to free men and slaves alike; in Christ all those categories were set aside, for freedom of the soul is not influenced by the condition of the body. No one can put a chain around my heart, only I can do that.

However, I must make it clear that God does not ignore our pain. Actually He hurts with us. But He leaves pain and sorrow and hardship in this world because without the pain we would not likely turn to Him. God is very good at bringing good out of bad situations. I Invite you to also read the lesson called What Would Life Be Like Without Pain?

2. We live in a sinful environment and God has not promised to change that, rather He wants to change us from the inside out.

Ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, this world has been full of violence, suffering and death. God will not change that until the end has come.  In ancient times, life was often rough. There were many wars, people were taken captive as slaves, the rich oppressed the poor, and I could go on. Jesus did not do much to change the living conditions of the people of His day. He did not eliminate poverty or sickness or suffering. He did not try to overthrow the wicked Roman rulers; He did not try to replace the corrupt religious leaders with righteous ones. He focused on spiritual renewal, not political renewal.

The Jews thought the Messiah would come to free them from Roman rule. They thought it was wrong and evil that the Romans ruled over them the way they did. The Jews yearned to be a free people and expected Jesus to bring them political freedom. But Jesus wanted them to see that they accepted enslavement to sin and even participated in it, despite their complaining about being oppressed by Rome. It was a contradiction they were not even aware of.

Regarding the slavery of that day, God did not try to change the living conditions which caused their suffering because it was their suffering that reminded them that they were under a curse of sin.

If God made everything easy for us, we would not sense the need to seek Him. While we wish God would change all those bad things in our world, He chooses to focus on the one truly important thing – for us to be reconciled to Him.

Why should we seek a relationship with a God that allows those things to remain in our world? He did not cause those things; they were caused by man’s sin. Before Adam and Eve sinned, no death, suffering or pain existed.

God sees a long-term benefit in leaving pain and suffering in our world. This is much like a parent who allows the child to fall and get hurt and cry over and over again as he learns to walk. In fact, we encourage our toddlers to keep trying. How cruel of us! Do we really think there is some benefit in letting the poor child continue to try and fail? Actually, yes.

If God removed all our pain, we would not realize we need to seek Him. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, man has been separated from God unless we repent and believe. So He leaves those things here so we will constantly be reminded to go to Him and make things right again. He understands and feels pain. He was also willing to bear our guilt and shame and the ache that goes with those things when Jesus died on the cross. He took all our guilt all at once; what a terrible burden that was!

3. There were different types of slavery in ancient times and different causes of it.

(This is the most common answer, but I feel it is weak by itself.) In the Old Testament, some people sold themselves or their family members into temporary slavery in order to pay off debts that they could not otherwise pay. The key here is that in those cases the slavery was temporary and self-induced. Others were slaves because their people had been conquered in battle and they had been captured alive while others around them had been killed. In fact, many women sought to be taken as slaves rather than to be killed. One could say that both the self-induced slavery and keeping prisoners alive displayed an element of mercy.

In contrast the slave trade that ripped people out of their normal lives in Africa and brought them to the British Empire (including America) for the purpose of being permanent slaves was a particularly evil type of slavery. That type was rare in ancient Israel.

Likewise, modern day human trafficking for the purpose of providing sex slaves was also rare in ancient Israel. The option of multiple wives played a role in mitigating against such activity. In ancient Israel, prostitution simply for money was frowned upon, and prostitution at the fertility cults was more common, even though God strictly forbade both kinds.

This explanation of the types of slavery in ancient Israel is not intended to condone any of them. I consider all of them wrong and unacceptable. It does show, however, that the types of slavery that were common in the Old Testament were of the mild variety. However, I would not want to be in any of those situations.

4. By focusing our attention on the issue of physical slavery, we can ignore the various habits that we have allowed into our lives which are in essence a type of slavery.

We are enslaved by, you may say addicted to, many things that control us, instead of us controlling them. This is true not only of physical substances that we may put in our bodies, like coffee or pop, but of other things too. Some of us set our schedule around a certain TV show; some are unable to spend a day without Facebook; some interrupt any activity, including driving, for an incoming text message. We may be addicted to getting attention, getting good grades, or the approval from our superiors at work, or pornography, or comfort food, or any number of other things. In the final analysis there is much more slavery and much less freedom in our lives than we have assumed.

We choose to focus on one type of slavery, while God calls us to be freed from all types of slavery except self-imposed servitude to Him. Our focus is on the kind of slavery caused by others, God seems to focus on the various kinds of slavery caused by self. He wants us to be free to worship and follow him. That is possible even if someone is physically a slave to someone else, but it is not possible if we have given ourselves as slaves to a bad habit or faulty ideology. We care about what is visible in the here and now; God cares about what is invisible and eternal.

So, in the end, a topic that many people use to point a condemning finger toward God, actually condemns us all. The fact that we are sensitive to this issue says more about us than it does about God. Our sensitivity about this issue does not conclusively prove we are concerned about the well-being of others; rather it may prove we don’t others to know the stupid things we have enslaved ourselves to.

Maybe what I have explained above is still not enough. I do not pretend to be able to answer all your doubts and bring your raging emotions to a state of peace. What I challenge you to do is this: take some healthy blocks of time in prayer and in His word, and ask God to help you see things from His perspective. His perspective lifts holiness to such an elevated position that most other aspects of our daily lives look insignificant by comparison. His perspective will also give us a different outlook on suffering, hardship and evil. May God help us to see things through His eyes, and begin to value holiness as He does, without getting bogged down in arguments that have no end, or questions which produce emotional responses but cannot produce peace or faith.

The next lesson in all three Covenant series is called “Don’t Marry Foreigners” Sounds Racist.

The next lesson in Why Is That in the Bible? is: Stone My Own Son? Are You Kidding Me?


1: Ex 21:26

“Now if a man strikes the eye of a male servant, or the eye of a female servant, and destroys it, he must let him (or her) go free [to compensate] for the eye.” 27 “And if he knocks out the tooth of a male servant or the tooth of a female servant, he must let him (or her) go free [to compensate] for the tooth.”


By temporary I mean that the year of Jubilee guaranteed that Israelite slaves be given their freedom in that year. So in reality, when an Israelite sold himself into slavery (usually to pay off debts), it was a lease program that would last only until the next year of Jubilee.


The word I have rendered as “end” can point toward a purpose that is kept in sight until the end is reached, or the result that has come from reaching the end. Context must tell which meaning was intended. In this case it can go either way, but I think the context favors the idea of “result” over “purpose.”