Bart Barber is Wrong About Slavery



Bart Barber, in a series of articles written in 2014 at SBC Voices, argued that slavery is not wrong, even though much wrong has been done through it. He also argued that the Bible does not teach total abolition of slavery. Barber is wrong. This article will show that slavery, people owning people, is entirely a result of the fall, a result of sin, and is therefore inherently sinful because it is ungodly partiality. For slavery to be good, ungodly partiality would have to be good. God permitted slavery for a time with the intent of abolishing it at a later date. Thus, slavery happened in biblical times for at least three reasons: 1) the hardness of people’s hearts, 2) God’s judgment against His enemies, and 3) God’s judgment against His people. Slavery occurred among God’s people in the Bible for the same reasons that divorce, polygamy, and concubinage did.

Slavery is Wrong

When I tweeted the quotations from Barber’s articles, he responded by posting on his “Frequently Asked Questions” section on his church’s website what he called a succinct explanation of his views. He wrote,

Repeatedly in the Exodus, the theme of the story is given to us. The people are removed from servitude to Pharaoh that they may be transferred into the servitude of Yahweh. The message of the Bible is that no one is fit to be your master other than Jesus, and that it is inevitable that you will be the slave, the servant, of someone or something.

This is still God’s message in Christianity. No one can become a Christian apart from declaring that Jesus is his or her LORD. Jesus is the Master of every Christian. We are His servants, and the New Testament is so replete with this language that we could not possibly cite every instance in this article.

So, it is for THAT reason—to commend to us our servitude to God—that the Bible is not an abolitionist document with regard to slavery. The Bible does, however, serve so well to help us see that no man other than God is fit to be a master, as does any look at the history of human slavery. Even in commending to us the example of Abraham and Eliezer above, I closed the article by pointing out Abraham’s shameful behavior toward Hagar. The best slaveholder proves unfit to fill the role of master.[1]

Notice that Barber says in his articles he claimed that the Bible is not an abolitionist document, and that this refers to our servitude of God. In other words, because we are God’s slaves eternally, the Bible does not teach the abolition of slavery. But that’s not what Barber argued in his articles. He did say that we are eternally slaves of God, but he did not say that this was the only reason the Bible does not teach abolition. No, Barber praised slavery in his articles; he said slavery is not wrong, but that it can be used wrongly. Read Barber’s quotes for yourself:

Jesus nowhere advocated the abolition of slavery.[2]

Slavery is separable from the abuses that occur under it,[3]

My position is that slavery is not wrong. Wrong can be (and often has been) done through slavery.[4]

Jesus’ approbation of slavery is therefore not wrong, since slavery is not wrong.[5]

Freedom is to be preferred to slavery, but the Bible does not condemn slavery ipso facto.[6]

…to eliminate slavery in a society without money, without markets, without credit, without insurance, and without any functioning government to guarantee rights and provide access to basic justice is to take away one means of survival from people who may not have any better alternatives at their disposal.[7]

The achilles heel of every system of slavery has been the sinful hearts of the slaveholders.[8]

When judged on its own, apart from nineteenth-century slavery, some forms of slavery encountered in the Bible were as humane as or even more humane than some practices that we readily accept in our own society today.[9]

HERE’S where we differ: You think an exegetical case can be made that Jesus really was teaching the abolition of slavery in any and all forms, albeit coyly. I find that exegetical case to be unconvincing.[10]

Here’s a scorecard on the ongoing dialogue…

All slavery, regardless of how it is conducted, is evil.
Bart: Disagree

The New Testament position is an unequivocal repudiation of all forms of slavery.
Bart: Disagree[11]

Slavery is wrong because it is slavery” is a level above which present-day discourse rarely rises, and as the next essay will demonstrate, this is an idea diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ,[12]

…in times more primitive than ours and cultures unlike ours, slavery can serve some limited positive function that justifies it’s not having been abolished in biblical times,[13]

What’s more, when Paul DID have the power to influence a slaveholder (see the Book of Philemon), rather than influencing him to abandon his slaveholding ways, he urged him to take back into slavery a runaway slave.[14]

Paul did not even HINT that Philemon should emancipate Onesimus.[15]

Barber clearly said many things that contradict what he claimed on his “summary” of his articles, that he said the Bible is a non-abolition text because we are God’s slaves eternally. To summarize, Barber said, 1) Slavery can be separated from the abuses that occur under it. 2) Slavery is not wrong, but wrong can be done through it. 3) In certain societies, slavery is a better alternative than freedom. 4) The issue with slavery is the sinful hearts of the slaveholders, not slavery itself. 5) The New Testament does not unequivocally repudiate all forms of slavery. 6) Jesus does not teach that slavery is wrong because it’s slavery. 7) In certain primitive cultures, slavery can have a limited positive function that justifies it not being abolished in biblical times.

All of these quotes from Barber are unbiblical. Jesus repeatedly condemns ungodly partiality. And slavery is ungodly partiality of the greatest kind. The Bible is pro-authority. The Bible is not pro-slavery. Image-bearers cannot own image-bearers. And Christians especially cannot own other Christians.

Barber is wrong about Jesus. First, Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10). If there is no slavery in heaven (and there’s not), then Jesus taught us to pray for slavery to end on earth. The ending of slavery is God’s will. And not only must we pray, but we must work to end slavery, because God will end slavery eternally when His kingdom fully comes to earth. Christians do not own other Christians in Heaven today, and they will not own other Christians in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Second, Jesus told us the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-39). Slavery is ungodly partiality. Why? Slavery means you own another person, for a specific time period, for a specific purpose. As Barber said, slavery is “any situation in which another person, not your parent and not as a consequence of any crime that you have committed, gains absolute and total authority and responsibility over your economic life without paying you a monetary wage in return.”[16] It is not equal-image-bearing, equal dignity and value, for there is a master and a slave.

Barber is also wrong about the apostle Paul in Philemon. The fact is that none of the Scripture writers owned slaves. And the clear example we have in the New Testament is Paul telling Philemon to free Onesimus. Based on Colossians 4:9, we believe Philemon freed him since Paul sent Onesimus to Colossae with Tychicus (Col 4:7-9; Colossians was written after Philemon). The apostle Paul in Philemon 1:8-16 said,

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

We see in verses 8-9 that the apostle Paul had the authority to command Philemon to forgive and free Onesimus (Eph 2:19-20), but because he loved Philemon, he appealed to him to do the godly thing, instead of demanding he do the godly thing.

In verse 10, Paul calls Onesimus his own child, because he led him to the Lord. The apostle Paul refers to other Christians he led to the Lord as his children as well (1 Cor 4:14-17). Onesimus, when he was an unbeliever, was evidently not being a good worker, even though he was enslaved to pay a debt he owed to Philemon; or possibly, Onesimus stole money or goods from Philemon when he ran away (Philemon 1:11).

Yet, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, because he respected the authority Philemon had over Onesimus, similar to respecting the authority governments have over citizens and foreigners (Rom 13:1-7). Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him so that Onesimus could serve him and encourage him on Philemon’s behalf while he was imprisoned (Philemon 1:12-13).

Therefore, Paul decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon so that Philemon would free Onesimus from his debt, and so Philemon would send Onesimus back to Paul to encourage him (Philemon 1:14).

Paul argues that maybe something Onesimus meant for evil, God used for good (Philemon 1:15). Onesimus ran out on his debt to Philemon because he was sinful and wicked, but God used his running away to bring him to his knees in repentance and faith in Christ. Onesimus ran in rebellion, but he could not outrun God!

In verse 16, Paul tells Philemon to take Onesimus back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than that, as a beloved brother. He encourages Philemon to receive Onesimus because he is Paul’s brother in the flesh and in the Lord himself, which points to the reality that Paul expects Philemon to free Onesimus of his slavery and his debt. He told Philemon to receive Onesimus in the same way he would receive Paul. He even offered to pay Onesimus’ debt, even though Philemon owed Paul his very life due to him sharing the gospel with him (Philemon 1:16-20). Paul even encouraged Philemon to send Onesimus back to him, which would cost money. He asked much of Philemon’s finances, but Philemon owed Paul more than he could give. Eternal life is of eternal value, and God used Paul to share the gospel with Philemon.

Barber argues,

For my part, would I choose to be a slave? That depends. A slave to whom? And what are my other choices? I would much rather be Abraham’s slave Eliezer than…

  1. …A Lame Beggar in First-Century Jerusalem.
  2. …An Inmate in the Texas Prison System.
  3. …A Steelworker in Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Mill.
  4. …Any Lifelong Minimum-Wage Employee.
  5. …An Abandoned Senior Adult in a Cheap Nursing Home.

In some ancient Oriental societies, in fact, every citizen was considered to be a slave to the state.[17]

Barber’s syllogism here proves nothing. I imagine most women would rather be King David’s concubine than King Xerxes’ concubine, but this does not prove that David’s concubine system is not inherently wrong. Barber’s syllogism is the equivalent of telling a prostitute under a physically abusive pimp, “Wouldn’t you rather go be that other pimp’s prostitute? He doesn’t abuse his women.” The fact that some forms of slavery are more moral than other systems in society does not prove that slavery is or can be a moral system.

Barber writes,

The achilles heel of every system of slavery has been the sinful hearts of the slaveholders.[18]

Slavery is separable from the abuses that occur under it… my position is that slavery is not wrong. Wrong can be (and often has been) done through slavery.[19]

Barber is wrong here. The Achilles heel of every system of slavery is slavery itself. We should view every system of slavery as evil because it could or would only happen in a fallen world. The fact is that there was no slavery in the Garden of Eden. And in God’s cleansing of creation in His universal flood, He ended slavery, for there was no slavery on Noah’s ark. And, although Barber tries to point to Scripture showing us as God’s slaves, as proof that slavery has inherent holiness, the difference is in the fact that God is holy and His partiality is holy too. God is the Creator; we are the creature. He is other than we are, but we are not other than one another. There’s the big difference. Being God’s slave is inherently holy, from Adam to Christ, and in eternity as well. But being slaves of one another is not inherently holy. Owning image-bearers is not inherently holy, for it should not be. God owned Adam and Eve and owns every other human being and the rest of creation as well, since all of life is derived from Him and He depends on nothing or no one to exist.

Barber writes,

“…to eliminate slavery in a society without money, without markets, without credit, without insurance, and without any functioning government to guarantee rights and provide access to basic justice is to take away one means of survival from people who may not have any better alternatives at their disposal.”[20]

This sounds exactly like the argument against the abolition of slavery over 150 years ago. “It’s gracious to continue the system of slavery.” No, slavery did not exist in the Garden of Eden; it should not exist on earth, and it will not exist in the New Heavens and New Earth. Now, before Barber chimes in and says, “there is slavery in heaven,” an actual quote from him referring to our eternal relationship to God, let me say that slavery to God is not immoral, but is the only possible holy response from God toward His image-bearers and the only holy response of His imager-bearers’ towards Him. God is our Master. We are His slaves. God is worth more than us. He is not the same as we are. Therefore, our enslaving of one another is not the same as God being our Master.

Here are the facts about slavery in the Bible:

Slavery was permitted in Israel for a time for the sake of abolishing it at a future date. How do we know? In Exodus (Ex 21:2), Israelites could own one another. Why? Because slavery was all Israel knew for 400 years under Egypt. Instead of abolishing slavery when God saved them from Egypt, He made the system more moral until He abolished it. By the time you get to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Israelites could no longer could own one another. Consider Leviticus 25:39-46,

39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.

Notice that the Hebrews could not own one another, because they were God’s “servants and shall not be sold as slaves” (Lev 25:42). If the Bible does not teach abolition as Barber claims, why did God tell Israel to abolish enslaving one another? This is repeated similarly in Deuteronomy 15:12-18, where if a Hebrew slave is sold, he must be treated as a hired worker, and can only serve six years; and in the seventh year, jubilee, he is to be freed and to receive a portion of his master’s goods. This sounds awfully like God’s goal is to end slavery in Israel; otherwise, why have the year of jubilee? And why free the slaves and give them a portion of their master’s goods? The answer is so they will never have to be slaves again. Slavery, as Leviticus 25:44-46 says, from then on, was an act of judgment against God’s enemies until the day when Christ would make one new people out of both Jews and Gentiles (Eph 1:6). And if there was any slavery in Israel after that among its people, it was due to their disobedience and/or God’s judgment toward them or God’s judgment towards His enemies (Deut 28:68; Neh 9:36-37).

The fact is that anytime Israel was owned by a foreign power, they viewed it negatively, regardless how they were treated; which indicates that slavery, image-bearers owning one another, is inherently evil. If slavery has an inherent goodness, why does the Bible always portray foreign powers owning Israelites as God’s judgment or evil?

Another example of total abolition is found in Nehemiah 5. After being in captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah led Israel to rebuild their walls. Due to famine, the poor were having to mortgage their lands and sell their children into slavery to survive. But Nehemiah rebuked the nobles for enslaving their brothers and he told them to return their fields, vineyards, olive orchards, houses, money, grain, wine, and oil, so they could live (Neh 5:11). If Nehemiah viewed slavery as a good or positive thing, like Barber does, why did he rebuke Israel for enslaving one another, a practice Israel had participated in at the Exodus (Ex 21:2)? If abolition of all slavery was not his goal, when nobles tried to reinstitute it, why did he abolish it? Granted, the nobles were charging the poor interest, which was forbidden by God; but Nehemiah rebuked the slavery in particular, writing, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us” (Neh 5:8)! In other words, “We’ve redeemed our brothers and you’re selling them again.” Nehemiah forbade slavery entirely, not merely the selling of Hebrew slaves to foreigners. Again, if slavery is inherently good, why did Nehemiah forbid it entirely?

Another example is found in Jeremiah 34. Jeremiah prophesies to Zedekiah king of Judah that he would be spared from Nebechadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. Zedekiah made a covenant with the people in Jerusalem, making a proclamation of liberty, that they should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, “so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother” (Jer 34:9). The people obeyed and set their slaves free, but afterward, enslaved their fellow Jews again, against their wills (Jer 34:10-11). God’s word came to Jeremiah, saying, “I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, 14 ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service.’ But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me” (Jer 34:13-14). As a result of their disobedience, God told them, “You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Jer 34:17). If abolition is not the goal, why did God reference his year of jubilee as abolition, and why did He make a covenant with Israel that they would free their slaves? Why did God command it? And why did God rebuke and punish the Israelites for re-enslaving their fellow Hebrews?

Furthermore, one secular proof that the Bible is pro-abolition of all slavery is the Slave Bible. The Slave Bible was a Bible printed by a missionary society that was seeking to win slaves to Christ without ticking off their masters, in the early 1800’s. There are only 3 that are known to exist today. One is currently on display in the “Museum of the Bible” in Washington, D.C. What they did was printed a Bible that removed 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament. They removed all the passages in the Bible that spoke of being free from slavery, and the ones that spoke against man-stealing. They also removed the entire book of Revelation, which emphasizes an eternal Kingdom of freedom under the Lordship of Christ, where there is neither slave, nor free, only people who are one in Christ Jesus, for all eternity! Barber says that there is nothing in the Bible that gives a clear abolitionist message. If that’s true, then why did slave-owners only permit their slaves to have Bibles that had 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament removed? [21]

Moreover, none of the New Testament Scripture writers owned slaves. And we see the clear example in Philemon, Paul telling him to set his slave free because he is his fellow Christian. Also, Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 wrote,

21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

Paul is clear that in the First Century if you were a slave when you became a Christian, don’t worry about it, but if you can be freed, do it. Why? Because you are Christ’s free man already. Your allegiance is to Christ not a mere man who claims to be your master. And if you are a free man, realize you are a slave of Christ. Why? Because your allegiance belongs to Him. He is greater than us, more valuable than us. He is our Master. We are His slaves.

Finally, in Mark 10:2-9, when Jesus was asked about divorce by the Pharisees, He appealed to Adam and Eve to argue that divorce is wrong because God designed marriage from the beginning to be a life-long covenant between one man and one woman. Jesus also argued that God permitted divorce in Israel because of the hardness of their hearts (Mark 10:2-5). By appealing to Adam’s and Eve’s marriage as the basis for all God-glorifying marriages, He also rejected flippant divorce, polygamy, concubinage, homosexuality, etc. Is it not also reasonable to point out that not only was there no divorce in the Garden of Eden, but there was also no slavery? And, not only this, but after God cleansed the world of evil through the universal flood, there was no divorce, polygamy, concubinage, or slavery on Noah’s ark either. Earth began again with no slavery.


In conclusion, image-bearers should not own image-bearers. Slavery is entirely a result of the Fall and is not God’s design for mankind. The Bible being pro-authority should not be mistaken for the Bible being pro-slavery. There was no slavery in the Garden of Eden; there was no slavery on Noah’s ark; there was no slavery of God’s people in the Promised Land, only if God’s people were in sin or being judged or as an act of judgment against God’s enemies; and there will be no slavery in the New Heavens and New Earth. God said to abolish Israelites owning one another in Leviticus 25:39-46; and Nehemiah forbade the enslaving of Hebrews in Nehemiah 5 and God did too in Jeremiah 34. And Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus, “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (Philemon 1:16-17). And Philemon did just that, for Onesimus is a free man in Colossians 4:7-9. Finally, Jesus told us to pray for God’s will to be the same on Earth as in Heaven, and He told us to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and our neighbors as ourselves. Just as the New Covenant left divorce, polygamy, and concubinage on the ash heap of history, it also left slavery on the ash heap of history as well. These realities overwhelmingly prove that Bart Barber is wrong about slavery. The Bible is pro-abolition of all slavery, not pro-slavery, because we should not own one another for we are owned by Christ and God. And only God has a right to own image-bearers.

[1] Bart Barber, “What Do You Think About Slavery?” Accessed June 10, 2022,

[2] Bart Barber, “The Bible and Slavery,” December 15, 2014,, Archive:

[3] Bart Barber, “Why the Slavery Question is Important,” December 20, 2014,, Archive:

[4] Barber, “Why the Slavery Question is Important,”, Archive:, Comment Section.

[5] Barber, “Why the Slavery Question is Important,”, Archive:, Comment Section.

[6] Bart Barber, “How You Begin and How You End Up: Two Different Things,” October 3, 2008,, Archive:

[7] Bart Barber, “The Dawning of Emancipation,” December 19, 2014,, Archive:

[8] Bart Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,” December 16, 2014,, Archive:

[9] Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,”, Archive:, Comment Section.

[10] Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,”, Archive:, Comment Section.

[11] Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,”, Archive:, Comment Section.

[12] Bart Barber, “Why We Find It Difficult to Talk About Slavery,” December 12, 2014,, Archive:

[13] Barber, “Why the Slavery Question is Important,”, Archive:

[14] Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,”, Archive:

[15] Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,”, Archive:, Comment Section.

[16] Barber, “Why We Find It Difficult to Talk About Slavery,”, Archive:

[17] Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,”, Archive:

[18] Barber, “I’d Rather Be Abraham’s Slave Eliezer Than,”, Archive:

[19] Barber, “Why the Slavery Question is Important,”, Archive:

[20] Barber, “The Dawning of Emancipation,”, Archive:

[21] Michel Martin, “Slave Bible from the 1800s Omitted Key Passages that Could Incite Rebellion,” December 9, 2018,

About Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *