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Published Date: April 13, 2016

Published Date: April 13, 2016

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Justifying Injustice with the Bible: Slavery

Complementarians are absolutely convinced that what they teach on the man-woman relationship is what the Bible teaches. To reject their teaching is to reject the Bible, and because the Bible is literally God’s words, to reject that teaching is to disobey God himself. After giving a lecture outlining CBE’s position, one Sydney theologian told me publicly, “You reject what Scripture plainly teaches. Those who disobey God go to hell.”

When faced with such weighty opposition, it is helpful to note that we find exactly the same dogmatic, vehement opinion voiced by the best of Reformed theologians in support of slavery in the 19th century and Apartheid in the 20th century. They too appealed to the Bible with enormous confidence, claiming that it unambiguously supported slavery and Apartheid.

However today, virtually all evangelicals believe they were mistaken in their understanding of the Bible, that the Bible condemns slavery and Apartheid, and that these things are not pleasing to God!

In Part 1 of this series, we will examine the biblical case for slavery. In Part 2, we will explore the biblical case for Apartheid and compare the complementarian position.


In the 19th century, the best Reformed theologians in America gave their able minds to perfecting a “biblical theology” in support of slavery. They defiantly set themselves against the human liberation abolition represented. Those who made the greatest contribution in support of slavery were the best evangelical and Reformed theologians and scholars of the day.

The Biblical Case in Summary

Slavery Established

“The curse on Ham” (Gen. 9:20-27) was thought to be the divinely-given basis for slavery.[1] The Genesis text tells us that when Noah woke from a drunken stupor to discover one of his sons, Ham, had seen him naked, he cursed him saying, “a slave of slaves shall you be to your brothers” (Gen 9:25). Ham was taken as the father of the African race, Shem the father of the Semites, and Japheth the father of the white race.

Slavery Practiced

The fact that all the patriarchs had slaves was judged as greatly significant. Abraham, “the friend of God” and “the father of the faithful,” brought slaves from Haran (Gen. 12:50), armed slaves born in his own house (Gen. 14:14), included them in his property list (Gen.12:16, 24:35-36), and willed them to his son Isaac (Gen. 26:13-14). What is more, Scripture says “God blessed Abraham” by multiplying his slaves (Gen. 24:35).

In Abraham’s household, Sarah was set over the slave, Hagar. The angel tells her, “return to your mistress and submit to her” (Gen. 16:9).[2] Joshua took slaves (Josh. 9:23), as did David (2 Sam. 8:2, 6) and Solomon (1 Kings 9:20-21). Likewise, Job, whom the Bible calls “blameless and upright,” was “a great slaveholder.”[3]

If these godly men held servants in bondage, it was impossible to consider slave-holding a sin. To argue otherwise was the sin. A.B. Bledsoe said the “sin of appalling magnitude” was not slave-holding but the claim by the abolitionists that slave-holding was a sin. To suggest such a thing was “an aggravated crime against God.”[4]

Slavery Sanctioned and Regulated By the Moral Law

The fact that slavery is twice mentioned in the Ten Commandments (the 4th and 10th) was thought to reveal the mind of God. The ceremonial law, they agreed, was temporary, but not the moral law. They said that the existence of this legislation indicated that God approved of slavery. The sanctioning of slavery in the law was a fundamental element of the biblical case for slavery.

Proponents of slavery argued that the specific apostolic commands to slaves to accept their lot in life were not simply practical advice to slaves living in the first century, but that they were timeless, transcultural directives predicated on the moral law.

Slavery Accepted By Jesus

The Gospels do not record a single word by Jesus that could be read to explicitly endorse slavery, a point the abolitionists were quick to note. But his silence, rather than being a criticism of slavery, the southern evangelicals argued, showed that he approved of slavery. Thornton Stringfellow sums up the case thus:

I affirm then, first (and no man denies) that Jesus has not abolished slavery by prohibitory command: and second, I affirm, he has introduced no new moral principle which can work its destruction, under the Gospel dispensation: and the principle relied on for this purposes is a fundamental principle of the Mosaic law, under which slavery was instituted by Jehovah himself.[5]

Slavery is Endorsed By the Apostles

If the Gospels do not say anything explicit about slavery, it is different in the epistles. In no less than seven passages, the apostles demand that slaves accept their lot in life, often adding that masters should treat their slaves kindly (1 Cor. 7:20-21, Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-25, 1 Tim. 6:1-4, Tit. 2:9-10, Phm. 10-18, 1 Peter 2:18-19).

Evangelicals who felt that their conscience was bound by the letter of Scripture truly believed that the apostles endorsed slavery.

In most instances, the instructions to slaves were given in parallel to instructions to wives to be subordinate and children to be obedient. They reasoned that rejecting the comments about slavery would call into question the authority of husbands and parents.

Slaves were to be subservient and content with their lot because this was how they were to serve Christ (Eph. 6:5, Col 3:22), honor God (1 Tim. 6:1, Tit 2:9), and learn the Christian virtue of suffering (1 Peter 2:18).

White preachers sought to impress on their slaves that if they wanted to be saved, they needed to obey God’s commands. Not to be submissive and accept their lot in life could lead them to hell. To disagree with what Scripture so plainly taught was not to disobey the preacher, but God himself. No wonder the vast majority of slaves internalized and owned their slave status. Slaves themselves even gave such sermons.

To Sum Up

The force of this cumulative argument for slavery, based primarily on biblical exegesis, is impressive. Those who propounded this “biblical theology” thought it irrefutable. 

In 1835, the Presbyterian Synod of West Virginia fiercely assailed the case for abolition, calling it “a dogma” contrary “to the clearest authority of the word of God.”[6] In 1845, the Old School Presbyterian Assembly decreed that slavery is based on “some of the plainest declarations of the Word of God.”[7] Charles Hodge wrote, “if the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and the apostles was wrong.” To call slavery sinful, he added, was “a direct impeachment of the Word of God.”[8]

Southern evangelicals, steeped in Reformed theology and committed to the authority of Scripture, were totally convinced that the Bible endorsed both the practice and the institution of slavery. What we must admit is that their “biblical” case for slavery was impressive. They had far more in Scripture to build their “biblical” case for slavery than do “complementarians” today in their case for the permanent subordination of women.

In Part 2, we will more closely examine the parallels between the complementarian case for female subordination and the historical defense of slavery and Apartheid. 


[1] See further on this text, L. R. Bradley, “The Curse of Canaan and the American Negro,” CTM, 42/2, 1971, 100-110; G. P. Robertson, “Current Questions Concerning the Curse of Ham (Gen. 9:20-27)”, JETS, 41/2, 1998, 177-188: R. Hood, Begrimed and Black: Christian Traditions on Blacks and Blackness, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1994, 129-130, 155-163.
[2] See A. B.  Bledsoe, “Liberty and Slavery,” in Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments, 338-340; T. Stringfellow, “The Bible Argument: or Slavery in the Light of Divine Revelation,” in Cotton is King, 464-472, or in more detail, J. H. Hopkins, A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, from the Days of the Patriarch Abraham to the Nineteenth Century, New York, W. J. Moses, 1864, 76ff.
[3] See Stringfellow, Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments, 470-471. He refers to Job 1:15-17, 3:19, 4:18, 7:2, 31:13, 42:8 etc where Job speaks of his slaves.
[4] Cotton is King, 340.  
[5] Cotton is King, 480.
[6] H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, 79.
[7] Quoted in J. Murray, Principles of Conduct, 260.
[8] Cotton is King, 849.