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Slaves, Women and Homosexuals by William J. Webb (Review by Steve Fuller)

June 26, 2007

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William Webb uses the question of slavery to illustrate how we should approach the Bible. He agrees that the Bible improves on the kind of slavery practiced in biblical times. But he also says that the Bible "does not directly address American slavery" (p.44).

He says that therefore we must not "stop where the Bible stops" on the slavery issue, and that if we want to attain a "better, more fully-realized" slavery ethic, we need to move "beyond the slavery ethic of Scripture as found in its isolated words" (pp.247,45).

This is a crucial point in his book. We all agree that American slavery was wrong. But if the words of the Bible do not explicitly condemn American slavery, then maybe Webb is right – maybe in some cases we must move beyond the actual words of the Bible to find a better ethical standard.

So – a large part of Webb's argument hangs on this question: do the words of the Bible condemn American slavery?

What the Bible does condemn

Note what God commanded in Exodus 21:16 –

ESV Exodus 21:16 "Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death."

Here God states that no one should ever capture a man against his will and sell him, and no one should keep someone taken against his will. Anyone who disobeyed this command was killed.

Paul repeats this prohibition of kidnapping and forced enslavement in I Timothy 1:9-10 –

ESV 1 Timothy 1:9 … "understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine."

The Greek word translated "enslavers" (andrapodistēs) means "kidnapper, slave trader" (Friberg's Lexicon). So Paul is saying that both the Old Testament law and his own teaching of sound doctrine command that we not kidnap and enslave others. Therefore God's Word clearly condemns one kind of slavery: the kind where you capture someone and force him into slavery against his will. But weren't there times when God told his people to forcibly enslave prisoners of war? Yes, assuming that's the meaning of "forced labor" in Deuteronomy 20:10-11. So how does this fit with God's prohibition of kidnapping and enslavement?

It fits the same way that God's command to kill Canaanite men, women, and children fits with God's command not to murder: in specific circumstances God called His people to take actions that otherwise went against His commands, without negating those commands. In other words, if at one point God called Joshua to kill men, women, and children, that does not change the fact that, apart from a special command from God, Joshua should follow God's command "Thou shalt not kill."

So God's command "Thou shalt not kidnap and enslave" is just as absolute as His command "Thou shalt not kill."

In light of this, I am puzzled as to how Webb can say that the Bible "does not directly address American slavery" – since the Bible directly addresses kidnapping and enslavement, which were the essence of American slavery. Without kidnapping and enslavement, there never would have been American slavery.

Why the New Testament does not condemn all slavery

This helps me understand why the New Testament does not give a blanket condemnation of slavery. It's because much New Testament slavery did not involve kidnapping and forcible enslavement; many people voluntarily chose slavery as their best option for survival and advancement.

Scott Bartchy lists 10 "distinctive and often surprising features of slavery" as it was practiced in New Testament times (Bartchy pp.1098-1099). For example, slaves were not the lowest social class. This lowest position belonged to free and impoverished persons who had to seek work each day on their own.

Scott Bartchy lists 10 "distinctive and often surprising features of slavery" as it was practiced in New Testament times (Bartchy pp.1098-1099). For example, slaves were not the lowest social class. This lowest position belonged to free and impoverished persons who had to seek work each day on their own.

Bartchy says slaves could own property, including their own slaves. They could accumulate funds which could be used to purchase their freedom. Education of slaves was encouraged, and some slaves were better educated than their owners. Many slaves functioned in highly responsible and sensitive positions such as workshop and household managers, accountants, tutors, personal secretaries, sea captains, and physicians.

Here's how Gordon Fee describes New Testament slavery:

Slavery was in fact the bottom rung on the social order, but for the most part it provided generally well for up to one-third of the population in a city like Corinth or Rome … the slave had steady "employment," including having all his or her basic needs met – indeed, for many to be a slave was preferable to being a freedman, whose securities were often tenuous at best. (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p.319).

This shows that much first-century slavery did not involve kidnapping and forcible enslavement. As Bartchy said, "not infrequently" people sold themselves into slavery. In these cases was there any need to condemn slavery? I can't see why. All that masters needed to hear was what Paul said in Colossians 4:1 – "Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven" (ESV).

But what about those masters whose slaves had been kidnapped and forcibly enslaved? Exodus 21:16 and I Timothy 1:10 speak directly to those masters: it is wrong to purchase and enslave people who did not voluntarily choose to be slaves. This kind of slavery is condemned by explicit statements in God's Word. God's Word calls masters to free all slaves who had not voluntarily chosen to be slaves.

No need to go beyond the biblical text

So God's Word does speak directly to American slavery – and all slavery. It prohibits anyone from enslaving someone against his or her will. And for those masters with voluntary slaves, it commands that they treat their slaves justly and fairly. What more needs to be said?

Therefore, to find an ethic of slavery, we don't need to go beyond God's Word. We don't need to find a better ethic beyond that given by the explicit words of Scripture. Which means that Webb cannot use the slavery question to support his approach to God's Word.


Bartchy, Scott. "Slave, Slavery," Dictionary of the Later New Testament & its Documents. Illinois: InterVarsity Press (1997).

Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company (1987).

Friberg, Barbara, Friberg, Timothy, and Miller, Neva. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Electronic Edition. Michigan: Baker Books (2000).

Webb, William. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. Illinois: InterVarsity Press (2001).

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