How Are We to Understand Slavery In Both The Old and New Testament?

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The Slave AuctionThe stark, harsh image that comes to mind when we think of slavery is that of the dark, sweaty bodies of slaves bent over rowing ships as the boss man beat them with whips. We picture the same men and women working in the hot sun of the Southern parts of the United States of America, sweating under the burden of carrying large bales of cotton. We see the slave master driving them along with rawhide whips. We see the naked men and women in the town market with chains around their necks, as they are being sold to the highest bidder in the slave auctions, wherein screaming children are torn from the arms of their weeping mothers.

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The greatest irony to one who has seen these images in a museum or in a Hollywood movie like “Roots” is that many slave traders and slave owners would have argued that they were deeply religious persons. Historian James Walvin wrote: “There were hundreds of such men, Europeans, and Americans, who praised the Lord for his blessing, giving thanks for profitable and safe business in Africa as they turned their slave ships into the trade winds and headed for the New World.”

During the days of slavery in America, some argued that God condoned the slave trade. This same argument is made by Bible critics today in their effort to undermine the Word of God. Slavery defended from Scripture, against the attacks of the abolitionists: in a speech delivered before the General Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church, in Baltimore, 1842 by McCaine, Alexander, ca. 1768-1856. Alexander McCaine stated that slavery was “ordained by God Himself.” Was McCaine and modern Bible critics correct? Did God condone the abusive slave trade and its kidnapping and raping of young girls, the ruthless separation of families, and the savage beatings that were part of the slave trade of McCaine’s day? Moreover, what about the millions that are still forced into a life of slavery under brutal conditions today? Does God approve such inhumane practices?

Think about Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor, it is one of the primary teachings of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, it is diametrically in opposition to the idea of oppressive slavery. Therefore, many people are stumbled spiritually at the idea of the mention of slavery in the Bible.

There is no getting around it, in Bible times, God permitted his people to own slaves. (Genesis 14:14-15) Even when we enter into the New Testament era, we find that some Christians were slave owners and some were slaves. (Philemon 15-16) Does this mean that the Bible condones slavery? It means that God allowed slavery but did not condone oppressive slavery.

The Social Structures of Satan’s World that Are In Conflict With Bible Principles

In looking at the Bible chronology, after Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, there were 1,660 years of imperfect humankind where wickedness got so bad that God destroyed all of the wicked humans and the Nephilim except Noah’s family in an earth wide deluge. Then, we had another 860 years before Moses penned the first five books of the Bible, wherein humans had already instituted social structures and economic systems that were in conflict with the principles of God and his will and purposes. Why God allowed wickedness, suffering, old age and death to enter into humanity is a question that is answered elsewhere. While some of the abusive practices of slavery that were involved were condemned in the Mosaic Law, God chose to not uproot the social norm entirely but to tolerate facets of it.

Concerning the social structure of the ancient nation of Israel, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Geoffrey W. Bromiley (1995) states: “It was meant to function as a brotherhood in which, ideally, there were no poor [and there was] no exploitation of widows, waifs, or orphans.” (p. 84) Therefore, more than merely allowing an already established social and economic structure, the Mosaic Law organized slavery so that, if followed, slaves would not be abused but rather would be treated humanely and lovingly as it also served as a protection against poverty and indebtedness.

Slavery and the Israelites

The Bible states that “man had power over man to his hurt.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9) This is possibly nowhere more apparent than in the abusive forms of slavery that man had devised and carried out. God is not blind to the suffering that slavery has brought humanity.

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For example, reflect on the situation that occurred with the Israelites. The Bible tells us

Exodus 1:14; 2:23-24; 6:6-8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. 23 After many days, the king of Egypt died, but the sons of Israel continued to groan because of the slavery and to cry out in complaint, and their cry for help because of the slavery kept going up to the true God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. Say therefore to the sons of Israel, ‘I am Jehovah, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. And I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am Jehovah your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am Jehovah.’”

Certainly, God did not approve of ‘man having power over man to his hurt’ through abusive slavery. Some would ask, “is it not true that God would later allow his people to be taken away into slavery? Yes, that is true. God allowed the Israelites to suffer the consequences of their own actions like anyone else. Moreover, slavery in Israel was far different from the brutal forms of slavery that have existed throughout history.

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God’s Law stated,

Exodus 20:10; 21:12, 16 , 26-27; Leviticus 22:10-11; Deuteronomy 21:10-14 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Jehovah your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 12 “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 16 “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death. 26 “‘And if a man strikes the eye of his male slave or the eye of his female slave and destroys it, he shall let him go free because of his eye. 27 And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth. 10 “No stranger shall not eat of a holy thing; no foreign guest of the priest or hired worker shall eat of a holy thing, 11 But if a priest buys a soul [slave] as his property with his money, he may eat of it, and those who are born in his house may eat of his food. 10 “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and Jehovah your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and [a]trim her nails. 13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever to her own soul; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not enslave her, because you have humbled her.

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The slave/servant aspect of the Mosaic Law benefited the Jews in many ways. First, it saved many families from poverty and homelessness, as they could sell themselves into servanthood for a number of years until they made it out of poverty. Other Jews willingly became slaves to their fellow Jews to repay debts. These laws protected the Jews from starvation and actually allowed many to recover from poverty. Moreover, when the set amount of time ended, the slaves/servants were to be free if they so desired.  (Exodus 21:2; Leviticus 25:10; Deuteronomy 15:12) Commenting on the Mosaic Law concerning slaves, Jewish scholar Moses Mielziner stated that a “slave could never cease to be a man, he was looked upon as a person possessing certain natural human rights, with which the master even could not with impunity interfere.” (The Institution of Slavery Among the Ancient Hebrews: According to the Bible and Talmud, 1894) This is no way near the abusive slavery that has plagued mankind from the beginning. Then, there is the fact that many slaves freely chose to remain with their master after their debt was paid or they overcame poverty.

Slavery and Christians

Under the Roman Empire, slavery was part of the economic system, which the first-century Christians lived under. This does not mean that disciples of Jesus were abusive slave owners. (Philemon 10-17) Similarly today, you have Christian employers and employees. (Matthew 7:12) The Bible in no way indicates that God’s original purpose for man was to enslave others. The Bible does not condone the ill-treatment of others in any way. Man has enslaved man. (Micah 4:4; Acts 10:34-35; Luke 6:31) The Bible says that Christians are to humbly view others as superior, despite their social standing in life. (Philippians 2:3) Neither Jesus Christ himself nor his apostles preached a gospel of social liberation as if attempting to reform the slavery system of his day. Rather, both slaves and slave owners were counseled to love one another as spiritual brothers. – Colossians 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:2.

On slavery and the slave laws of ancient Israel Douglas K. Stuart writes,

Excursus: Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Israel

The various Hebrew terms translated by terms such as “servant,” “slave,” “maidservant,” occur more than a thousand times in the Old Testament. The present passage reflects the broad semantic range encompassed by these terms and the concepts to which they refer. Although the laws in Exod 21:1–11 address primarily the circumstances of six-year contract servants, they do not implicitly distinguish among categories of employees. The most common vocabulary word used for the servant is ʿebed, which can mean “worker,” “employee,” “servant,” or “slave.” Anyone in any of these categories came under the protection of Yahweh’s covenant law. The laws of this section also do not differentiate types of employers: the standard term used here, baʿal, can mean “boss,” “employer,” “master,” or “owner.” Similarly, the words translated “buy” in 21:2 (qānâ) and “sell” in 21:7–8 (mākar) can refer to any financial transaction related to a contract, much as in modern sports terminology a player can be described as being “bought” or “sold” from one team to another. Players are not actually the property of the team that “owns” them except as regards the exclusive right to their employment as players of that sport.

Much misunderstanding of Israelite law has arisen from failure to appreciate the analogous distinction that prevailed in ancient Israel. When the law was properly followed, persons who were servants/slaves/workers/employees held their positions by reason of a formal contract that related primarily to the job that they had “signed up” to perform, for a period of time, much as one enlists in the military today. In addition, some of the misunderstanding of biblical laws on service/slavery arises from unconscious analogy to modern Western hemisphere slavery, which involved the stealing of people of a different race from their homelands, transporting them in chains to a new land, selling them to an owner who possessed them for life without obligation to any restrictions and who could resell them to someone else (although such did also occur in the ancient world). Whether one translates ʿebed as “servant,” “slave,” “employee,” or “worker,” it is clear that the biblical law allowed for no such practices in Israel. Indeed, the law reflects the fact that when obediently practiced by “boss/employer/owner” and “servant/slave/employee/worker” alike, Israelite service could be so beneficial to a worker that he or she would choose to enlist for a lifetime with the same employer (21:5–6).

What were the different categories of servant/slave? First, there were foreign-born servants whose lives were spared in war and who were allowed to live indefinitely, on the condition that they become permanent workers in Israel (Josh 9:23; 1 Sam 4:9). This is frequently referred to as “chattel slavery.” Second, there were six-year servants who contracted to work for an employer for six years in return for wages and other benefits. Third, there were servants born in the boss’s household who owed the boss something for the housing and food he had provided them until such time as they might choose to leave his property and/or employment. Fourth, there were various sorts of temporary employees and permanent employees who may have worked for a given individual under various sorts of arrangements, including day laboring. These categories of slaves/servants/workers were employed in all sorts of ways: as personal servants, as farm workers, as conscript laborers (1 Kgs 9:21; 2 Chr 8:7–9), as temporary “hired hand,” and the like.

We should note also that virtually all industry in ancient times was “household” or “cottage” industry. Corporations or business partnerships as we know them in modern times did not exist. Almost all business was “small business” in the sense of family owned and family operated business, and someone who was in any sense an “employee,” not the owner of his own business, worked for the head of a family, usually lived with or near that family on its property, and was paid according to a formal written or verbal “contract” that was somewhat more like the terms of enlistment used to enroll someone into military service today than a casual agreement expecting only certain hours to be worked at a place of employment.

Finally, Israel’s service/slavery laws should be understood in terms of their own history of slavery in Egypt. The Egyptians made the Israelites slaves on the basis of their ethnicity,[1] forced them to serve as slaves for life, did not compensate them properly, if at all, and worked them unbearably hard as a means of keeping them weak and/or causing at least some to die under the burden of their slavery (1:9–14). Against this sort of historical experience, the Bible’s laws protect all sorts of workers, guaranteeing them the right to gain their freedom after a set period of time (21:1–4) as against the Egyptian practice of permanently enslaving Israel. Biblical law allowed service out of love rather than out of necessity (21:5–6) as opposed to involuntary service under oppressive masters in Egypt. Biblical law also gave immediate freedom to those who had in any way been physically abused (21:26–27) as opposed to the severe abuse the Egyptians had imposed upon the Israelites. God’s laws, then, provided divinely enforced covenant protections for those who worked for former slaves and made sure the former slaves did not return evil for evil once they had the opportunity to do so. Indeed, God’s laws implicitly condemned the Egyptian treatment of the Israelites as illegal by prohibiting the very practices the Egyptians had used to suppress and weaken God’s people in Egypt. (See T. D. Alexander, “Exodus,” NBC (Twenty-first Century Edition), 108–10.[2])[3]

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On Slavery in the Bible, Norman L. Geisler writes, 

PHILEMON 16 – Doesn’t Paul approve of the institution of slavery?

PROBLEM: The Apostle Paul seems to favor the institution of human slavery by sending a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his owner. But slavery is unethical. It is a violation of the principles of human freedom and dignity.

SOLUTIONSlavery is unethical and unbiblical and neither Paul’s actions nor his writings approve of this debasing form of treatment. In fact, it was the application of biblical principles that ultimately led to the overthrow throw of slavery. Several important facts should be noted in this connection.

First, from the very beginning, God declared that all humans participate pate in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). The apostle reaffirmed this, declaring, “we are the offspring of God” (Acts 17:29), and He “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).

Second, in spite of the fact that slavery was countenanced in the semitic cultures of the day, the law demanded that slaves eventually be set free (Ex. 21:2; Lev. 25:40). Likewise, servants had to be treated with respect (Ex. 21:20, 26).

Third, Israel, itself in slavery in Egypt, was constantly reminded by God of this (Deut. 5:15), and their emancipation became the model for the liberation of all slaves (cf. Lev. 25:40).

Fourth, in the NT, Paul declared that in Christianity “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All social classes are broken down in Christ; we are all equal before God.

Fifth, the NT explicitly forbids the evil system of this world that traded the “bodies and souls of men” (Rev. 18:13). Slave trade is so repugnant to God that He pronounces His final judgment on the evil system that perpetrated it (Rev. 17-18).

Sixth, when Paul urges, “Servants, be obedient to those who are your masters” (Eph. 6:5; cf. Col. 3:22), he is not thereby approving of the institution of slavery, but simply alluding to the de facto situation in his day. Rather, he is instructing them to be good employees, just as believers ers should be today, but he was not thereby commending slavery.

Seventh, a closer look at Philemon reveals that Paul did not perpetuate slavery, but actually undermined it, for he urged Philemon, Onesimus’ owner, to treat him as “a beloved brother” (v. 16). So, by emphasizing the inherent equality of all human beings, both by creation and redemption, the Bible laid down the very moral principles that were used to overthrow slavery and help restore the dignity and freedom of all persons of whatever color or ethnic group.—Thomas Howe; Norman L. Geisler. Big Book of Bible Difficulties, The Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Kindle Locations 5917-5931). Kindle Edition.

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COLOSSIANS 3:22 BDC: Did Paul’s Words Not Support Slavery?

Colossians 3:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

22 Slaves, obey in all things them who are your masters according to the flesh; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord:

Clearly, the apostle Paul did not condone slavery, nor did any of the apostle’s own slaves, including Paul. To understand the New Testament’s view on slavery, we must look at the historical setting. During the time of the Roman Empire, slaves were numerous in the extreme, with some individuals owning a few, while others owned hundreds, even thousands depending upon their station in life. Even some slaves were well off enough that they owned slaves as well. The Roman Empire protected the institution of slavery.

Let us look at how Christians were to deal with human governments, even those that were not favorable to Christianity. Under inspiration, the apostle Paul tells us, “Let every soul be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God, and those that exist have been placed by God. Therefore the one setting himself against authority has taken a stand against the ordinance of God; and those who have taken a stand against it will receive judgment against themselves.” (Rom. 13:1-2) Paul tells us elsewhere, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.” (Tit. 3:1) The apostle Peter tells us similarly, “Subject yourselves to every human authority for the sake of the Lord, whether to a king as having supreme authority.” (1 Pet. 2:13) What though if a superior authority (government; king; ruler) orders Christians to do something that is against the Word of God, such as, making all evangelism illegal? Then the words of Peter and John would apply, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

The Roman Empire was not forcing Christians to own slaves. Therefore, first-century Christians did not protest or openly oppose the governmental authority of the Roman Empire, just as today, Christians should not publicly oppose or take a stand against any law that is not explicitly imposed upon them but is contrary to the moral values of God. If the United States government legalizes homosexual marriages, this does not affect the work that Jesus assigned. Yes, it is repugnant and contrary to God’s Word and nature but to get lost in trying to change imperfect humans who are alienated from God, from walking in the fleshly desires of Satan’s world is futile. We already know that it is supposed to “progress from bad to worse.” (2 Tim. 3:13) If Christians are bogged down in trying to fix Satan’s world, they will be neglecting the work assigned by Christ: proclaiming the good news, teaching the Word of God, and making disciples. (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20; Ac 1:8) The first-century Christians respected the legal right of their fellow citizens.

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In many ways, many of the slaves in the first-century were nothing more than an employee. In some cases, they were quite satisfied to be under the house of a wealthy master, who housed them, fed them, clothed them, protected them, and even treated them like family. Yes, of course, some evil masters abused the Roman Empire laws on slavery, just as some evil employers do the same to workers today. The world of the first-century was very rough and painful, even life-threatening for the poor, who were uneducated, and had no real skills outside of their physical strength. Thus, they became the working class of that day. Just as we are disappointed, even outraged, at a sweat factory today that works humans like dogs in very difficult and demanding environments for a mere minimum wage, while the owner lives in a life of luxury, it was the same as the slave in the first-century. Then again, persons with good moral values, who pay their workers extremely well and treat them like family, own some companies today. The same held true for the master-slave (employer-employee) relationship under the Roman Empire.

Paul said, “Those [slaves-employees] who have believing owners must not be disrespectful to them because they are brothers, but rather must serve more readily because those who receive the benefit are believers and beloved.” (1Ti 6:2) We did not live in the first-century, under that horrific environment so we cannot know that it was actually a blessing for a slave-employee to have a Christian master-employer, as he or she would know that the owner was under obligation to treat them right, just, and fair. (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1) Those who were slave-employees, who became Christians, would also become better slave-employees. “Slaves must be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not stealing, but showing all good faith.” (Tit. 2:9-10) Even if that Christian slave ended up with an evil master, they were still to carry out their work with a Christ-like personality. (1 Pet. 2:18-25) The apostle Paul wrote, “Slaves, obey in all things them who are your masters according to the flesh; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord: Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” (Col. 3:22-23; Eph. 6:5-8) This Christ-like conduct would leave no reproach on God, and it might very well win the owner over to Christ.

However, while a slave was to “obey in all things them who are your masters,” this did not include disobeying the Word of God, any more than it would have for a citizen to a government. If a master asked a slave to sin against God by doing something, not in harmony with, hence contrary to, God’s personality, standards, ways, and will, the slave would have refused. Thus, each Christian would have to depend on their Christian conscience to govern whether they obeyed their master or not. This is the same today in what an employer might ask an employee to do.

Of course, a slave’s ‘obedience in everything’ could not include disobeying God’s law, as that would have meant fearing men rather than God. Wrongdoing by slaves, even when committed at the direction of a superior, would not have ‘adorned the teaching of their Savior, God,’ but would have misrepresented and disgraced this teaching. (Tit 2:10) Thus, their Christian conscience would govern. In the Christian congregation, all were the same regardless of their social standing in society. All were born-again Christians, who shared the same hope as the others in the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11) The slave-employee, of course, would have been more limited in his ability to share the gospel with others. If the master gave him his freedom; then, he could increase his activity in making disciples.–1 Cor. 7:21-23

[1] I.e., the Asiatic origin of the Israelites was a basis for their being mistrusted to the point of being forced into slavery, lest they enjoy sufficient independence and resourcefulness to join with other Asiatics in war against the Egyptians should war break out. See comments on 1:9–12.[1]

[2] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006).

[3] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 474–476.

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[1] “A genetic predisposition (sometimes also called genetic susceptibility) is an increased likelihood of developing a particular disease based on a person’s genetic makeup. A genetic predisposition results from specific genetic variations that are often inherited from a parent.” – What does it mean to have a genetic predisposition to a .., http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/mutationsanddisorders/predisposition(accessed April 16, 2016).

[2] Scientists Get Closer to Genetics of Homosexuality in Men, http://consumer.healthday.com/health-technology-information-18/genetics-news-334

[3] See, e.g., Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse, Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000); Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996); Schmidt. Straight and Narrow?, 131–59; Gagnon, Homosexual Practice, 396–432.

[4] Thomas R. Schreiner, “A New Testament Perspective on Homosexuality,” Themelios 31, no. 3 (2006): 70–75.

[5] Is Animal Homosexuality Proof that It’s Normal?, https://www.probe.org/is-animal-homosexuality-proof-that-its-normal/ (accessed April 25, 2016).

[6] Gr., hamartete, a verb in the aorist subjunctive. According to A Grammar of New Testament Greek, by James H. Moulton, Vol. I, 1908, p. 109, “the Aorist has a ‘punctiliar’ action, that is, it regards action as a point: it represents the point of entrance . . . or that of completion . . . or it looks at a whole action simply as having occurred, without distinguishing any steps in its progress.”

[7] (Anders, Holman New Testament Commentary: vol. 8, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians 1999, 264)

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