“Surely you can’t believe the whole Bible. What about those passages which condone slavery? Surely you don’t believe slavery was a good thing!”
Frequently in the UK I get asked this question in one form or another by an impassioned individual expressing why they don’t embrace the Christian faith. They are speaking from a place of sincere moral conviction. Sometimes young Christians are unsure how to respond. The result is that Christians have less confidence in the Scriptures because, “Hey, if the Scriptures are wrong about slavery, maybe they are also wrong about other things.”
Fortunately the questions which are usually raised about slavery are easily answered.
When asked by someone if I believe slavery is a sin I respond with a question: “Are you referring to Hebrew, Roman or New World/European slavery?”
Responding with this question alone will usually knock the smile off their face and produce a bit of humility. This is good and not just for the sake of winning a debate. It will help them to realise they may not know everything about the faith they have rejected and help them to listen to what else you have to say.
You could continue to give your would be questioner more of a response by saying:
The New World slavery which Wilberforce and other Christians fought against was race based and for life. The Hebrew slavery which God allowed the people of Israel was one which people sold themselves into in order to pay a debt. It was never allowed to last more than seven years and they could save money and buy their freedom early if they wanted. Compared to what European and American people know of African slavery, it was very humane and more like servanthood than slavery.
The slavery of the Roman Empire was a mixed bag ranging from more humane to more cruel expressions. Generally it was not raced based and one could buy their freedom, but not always. That is why the New Testament says that if a Christian does own slaves, they must treat them with great respect, like a brother. It also condems as sin any form of slavery which involves kidnapping (1 Timothy 1.10) which the African slave trade was almost entirely based upon. Wilberforce fought against slavery not inspite of what Scripture said, but because of it.
It’s under these circumstances that slavery was allowed, but not commanded. It was the growth of Christianity which helped put an end to slavery in the Roman Empire and when Europeans restarted the practice over 1,000 years later, it was against great protest from the Papacy.