Slavery and Alcohol

Seemingly two disparate topics, no? I don’t know of a direct connection, but I’d like to examine current Christian reactions to both. This post is prompted by remarks made by D. A. Carson at the EFCA Theology Conference and transcribed for us here. In these comments, Carson notes the difference between the American slave trade and slavery in the ancient Roman empire. The American slave trade was basically ‘men-stealing’ (Ex 21.16; 1 Tim 1.10), whereas the Roman system functioned in many ways as a social safety net for the insolvent (men-stealing was also involved, but was not the primary source of Roman slaves).

Is there anyone today who would argue that Christianity allows for any legitimacy to slavery at all? We don’t deny that Christians, sadly, have made such arguments. It’s more than sad, its an embarrassment that otherwise respected Christians of the past could not see the evil of the slave trade.

What is the Christian argument against slavery?

We agree that slavery is an evil. We stand together against it. On what basis do we take this stand?

A man named Theodore Weld argued against slavery in his book, The Bible Against Slavery (4th edition; New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838). Among his arguments was the issue of men-stealing (see Ex 21.16) (pp. 13-15). Another argument is the fact that men are made in the image of God and it is therefore wrong to treat men as property (pp. 8-9, 15-17). He also argued from the eighth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, saying that the commandment prohibits the taking of anything that belongs to another, and slavery takes everything that belongs to another (pp. 10-11).

Does the same Bible which prohibits the taking of any thing from him, sanction the taking of every thing? Does it thunder wrath against the man who robs his neighbor of a cent, yet commission him to rob his neighbor of himself? Slaveholding is the highest possible violation of the eighth commandment

All citations of Weld by Wayne Grudem in “’A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic: The Slavery Analogy’ (Ch 22) and ’Gender Equality and Homosexuality’ (Ch 23) by William J. Webb” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2005; 2006), Volume 10:1, 106.

What kind of arguments are these?

Weld’s arguments, we suspect, are typical of those made against slavery by abolitionists leading up to the Civil War. I am sure other arguments of a similar nature could be made as well. Carson, in the article cited above, suggests that if Philemon took the apostle Paul’s comments to heart, slavery would be dead, at least in Philemon’s home.

But what sort of arguments are these? Is there a direct commandment against slavery in the Bible? We can point to direct commandments about men-stealing, but what else? Can we argue against a kind of indentured servitude as practiced by the Romans or even to some extent in later periods by the growing Western nations of the 18th and 19th centuries?

I think we can make these kinds of arguments on Biblical principle. The doctrine of the image of God in man resonates strongly in our hearts. The better we understand it, the more abhorrent slavery becomes to our minds.

Applying the thought process to argumentation against alcohol

Fundamentalist Christians have long been associated with an abstinence position on alcohol. This position, along with many others, is under some attack these days. A strong point of attack comes from assertions that the Bible nowhere strictly forbids alcohol and, some say, even endorses its moderate use.

Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that this attack is true, that the Bible has no direct prohibition on alcohol. How, then, is the abstinence argument formed from the Bible?

The strong warnings of the Bible against drunkenness and the deceptiveness of alcohol are cited. The facts about the difference between alcohol produced by natural fermentation vs. modern methods are pointed out. The fact of significant dilution of wine in ancient times is cited. Biblical principles of testimony, holiness, freedom from the control of addictive substances, etc., are raised.

The anti-abstinence advocates scoff at making authoritative arguments from such principles and prohibitions of over-indulgence. “No authority here,” they say. “No ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” And so argument from biblical principle is discounted and dismissed as not authoritative or binding.

How then, can we argue against slavery? If principles are not authoritative and all we have is a prohibition of man-stealing, how can we stand up as Christians and say slavery is wrong?

In fact, we are quite ready to proclaim that slavery is wrong, a moral evil, basing our authority for the statement on principled arguments from Scripture.

Likewise, we are ready to proclaim that drinking alcohol is wrong, a moral evil, basing our authority for the statement on principled arguments from Scripture.


  1. d4v34x says:

    Hi Don, I’d quibble with your assertion that fundamentalists have long been associated with an abstinence position on alchohol. I’d say they’ve been associated with a prohibitionist position (I’m not strictly speaking of the legal-political movement). There is a difference. I abstain and generally advocate abstention, despite seeing no Biblical prohibition.

    • Interesting. You might be right about the quibble on terms. However, would you say that it is legitimate to advocate for a prohibitionist stance towards slavery, or should we merely abstain?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. d4v34x says:

    Well, it is my unstudied opinion that slavery should be prohibited. There is a primary difference between the two acts, though, that may break your analogy. One may not hold an unwilling slave without violating/harming another person. One could more easily argue that a person could drink beverage alchohol in sufficient moderation as to never become intoxicated, never harm another person, and never harm one’s self.

    I do however concur with your general line of reasoning that we need not have an express command from the Bible to determine the best or “rightest” course of action in a give situation today. Discernment applies multiple applicable principles.

    • @ Dave

      Just to be clear, I am not making a case for equivalency of the two acts. I am attempting in this piece to argue for theological authority for a prohibition when such prohibition is not directly given in Scripture. In other words, I believe that things that were allowed and even regulated by Scripture can be seen by spiritually minded people to be quite wrong and entirely out of keeping with Scriptural teaching and practice.

      @ Brian

      Regarding the water, I once thought that the mixing was primarily for water purification. Further study has pointed out that while this may be a purpose for mixing water and wine in some cases, it quite clearly is not in every case or in most cases. There were two primary reasons for mixing water and wine from my research: 1) To hinder drunkenness, and 2) To extend supply, especially in regions where there were few grapes and/or great distance to markets.

      Regardless, these points are really extraneous to my argument here. In fact, what I am arguing here is that we can make biblical arguments carrying biblical authority to prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages by Christians, regardless whether it is diluted, fortified, hard liquor, moderated, etc.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Brian Ernsberger says:

    I’ll throw a curve ball a bit and add another slant on the alcohol side of things which is odd. Those who favor alcohol consumption have usually brought up idea that the water was “bad” to drink and therefore other beverages we necessary for human consumption. Yet, we have repeated verses throughout the timeline of the Biblical record stating for us that people consumed water on a rather regular basis throughout several millennia of recorded Biblical history.
    I see your link and approach to these to issues and do see them as valid points to be taken and used on both issues. The crazy notion that because there is not a specific, “thou shalt not” so that someone “shall” is in reality an argument from silence. Silence is neither a positive or a negative.

  4. Larry says:

    Isn’t Carson right that the consensus today that slavery in biblical times was significantly different than what most people think of as “slavery” today? The “manstealing” is the common idea, and is associated with what we think of as evil. But there were other kinds of slaves in the NT, including voluntary slaves that held positions of doctors, teachers, etc. They were able to buy their own freedom (manumission). So whatever else we might say about slavery, I think we need to be sure that we are clear on what we are talking about. God, whether through the Law or through Paul, felt no compulsion to make a blanket prohibition against slavery like he did against adultery, theft, etc.

    So iIsn’t it instructive, at some level, that the OT Law regulates slavery rather than condemning it? The same cannot be said for adultery, theft, etc. which are always condemned.

    So I am not sure I follow your connection here since it would seem to work against what you are trying to say.

    • Hi Larry

      Well, we don’t condemn slavery simply on the basis of manstealing, but the argument “slavery in biblical times was significantly different than what most people think of as ‘slavery’ today” is exactly one of the arguments we make about alcohol.

      The point is that we can biblically prohibit both without appeal to a direct imperative.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  5. Keith says:


    I’m not following at all — just more of my neo-evangelical mush headedness I’m sure.

    Man stealing slavery = always wrong
    Indentured servitude and other forms of what is referred to as slavery = not always wrong
    Drunkenness by wine = always wrong
    Other uses of wine = not always wrong

    What’s difficult about this?

    Also, the discussion seems to be totally missing the flow of redemptive history — the unfolding of God’s plan, and the progress toward the fully restored and glorified heavens and earth. I mean, the bad and painful things that resulted from the fall — things like slavery, indentured servitude, even burdensome toil for wages, as well as drunkenness — are fading away and will one day be put away completely as every tear is dried, BUT the good and pleasing things that are not a part of the curse — things like creativity and the wine God made to gladden the heart — will forever be used for our good and God’s glory.

    again, what’s difficult about this?


    • Hi Keith

      You’re a little late on this, in case you hadn’t noticed.

      If you think indentured servitude is OK, by all means go ahead and try to purchase a servant for your household. Let me know how it goes.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Keith says:

    Yeah, slow and late. Just saw it.

    But, late as it is:

    1) Most Americans (myself included) are pretty close to indentured servants today and our nation continues down the road to serfdom. How many can walk away from their jobs and houses? Technically they can. They just have to save up the money — that used to be called manumission.

    2) I didn’t say indentured servitude is ok, God did — for a time. Just like he said that, for a time, “Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; By the sweat of your face You will eat bread.” (Gen 3) Thankfully, though, the time of both is passing away, and for that I am very glad. I am glad that some day there will be no more slavery or servitude of any kind — we will all be free indeed. Just like I am glad that some day there will be no more toil of any kind (slavery, indentured service, wage work, etc.) in the thorns and thistles.

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, that at the same time that God will put an end to the curse, he will serve his people a banquet including aged wines:

    “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.” (Isaiah 25: 6-8)


    • Keith, sorry, I left this post unapproved for a long time. I was traveling when you wrote, then forgot about it. I am so late, I don’t really remember what we were discussing and I don’t have time to go back and review it. So I’ll thank you for your comment and leave it at that.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3