Is the Bible pro-slavery? Context is important, apologist says

Gavin Ortlund, author and pastor at First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California, speaking on the YouTube channel Reasons to Believe in a video posted on October 2019.
Gavin Ortlund, author and pastor at First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California, speaking on the YouTube channel Reasons to Believe in a video posted on October 2019. | YouTube/Reasons to Believe

A theologian and apologist says the Bible does not support slavery, explaining that the specific context of biblical era slavery needs to be considered when discussing the issue.

In a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday by the apologetics channel Reasons to Believe, pastor Gavin Ortlund of First Baptist Church of Ojai, California, began by noting that context is important when looking at verses in the Bible that appear to be in favor of slavery.

“I think in those passages,” explained Ortlund, “it is helpful to ask, ‘well, what does the term “slavery” mean? And what does the term “bondservant” mean?’”

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“In the Old Testament, slavery was not race-based … all kinds of slavery are wrong, but there are some versions of slavery that are particularly terrible.”

Ortlund contrasted America’s history of race-based “chattel slavery” with Old Testament slavery, which was “often based upon economics” and temporary rather than lifelong.

When asked by Reasons to Believe host Sandra Dimas about how Christians should approach biblical verses about slavery that do not condemn it, Ortlund responded that “you have to look at the whole of scripture to say that there might be something that’s accommodated to in one passage, but the whole of the Bible gives you a different picture.”

“I like to go all the way to the Gospel and say what’s the biggest picture we can get on the whole of Scripture and kind of the trajectory of what God is doing throughout redemptive history,” he continued.

“A good case can be made that from the sum total teaching of Scripture, any form of slavery is condemned and that we have good grounds to oppose all forms of slavery.”

Ortlund previously wrote about this topic on his website in May 2018, adding that the New Testament book of Philemon showcases an anti-slavery sentiment.

“Strikingly, Paul instructs Philemon to receive Onesimus ‘no longer as a slave … but as a dear brother’ — and he appeals to Philemon to ‘receive him as you would receive me’ (v. 17),” wrote Ortlund last year.

“In other words, Paul dissolves the slave/master relationship, and erects in its place a brother/brother relationship, in which the former slave is treated with all the dignity that the apostle himself would be treated.”

Eric Bryant, author and campus pastor at Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, made similar arguments on the subject in a piece published by The Christian Post earlier this year.

“In those days, slavery had nothing to do with race. You could be a king one day, lose a battle and be enslaved the next day. Many of those enslaved were paying off a debt. They chose servitude as a way to get out of their difficult circumstances,” wrote Bryant.

“Even in the Old Testament, the Bible calls for those who were enslaved to be freed every seven years (which is very different than forced slavery). The Bible does not advocate slavery.”

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