Bible Question:

Why if we as Christians believe that racism is wrong, why does the Bible say that slavery is okay? It says that slaves should obey their masters in Ephesians and what about Onesimus?

Bible Answer:

There is a song that I love to sing. It is a song that children often sing. Yet, it is a song that each of us needs to remember. The message is important.

Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so; Little ones to Him belong, They are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so . . .

Anna B. Warner

The song is a comforting one. It reminds me that Jesus loves each one of us. He cares for the rich, the poor, the sick, and the healthy. God loves us no matter what country we are from, where we live, what job we have, or our physical condition. Yet, we evaluate people based on their outward appearances and circumstances without really thinking about it. It comes naturally. It is our sinful nature.

Slavery is an emotional issue for those who were or are slaves and for those who have never been slaves. It is a subject that calls for compassion, understanding, and our protection of those who have been abused.

When we talk about God’s view of slavery or what the Bible says about slavery, we find that God never refers to a man’s or a woman’s skin color in the Bible. We find that God loves all races, nations, and peoples. The Bible talks about slavery but not about skin color. We will find the scriptural concept of slaves is different from our own. God gives us principles for the treatment of slaves rather than advocating social reform. There are four major passages in scripture that we will look at regarding slavery: Exodus 21:1-11; Leviticus 25:39-43; Deuteronomy 15:12-18 and Philemon 15-18. But first, some background is needed.

Slavery Illustrated

Slavery is illustrated for us in the book of Exodus by the people of Israel who were slaves in the land of Egypt. The event that led to this unhappy situation occurred when Joseph’s brothers sold him to some Midianite traders (Gen. 37:28), who then sold him as a slave into Egypt (Gen. 37:36; 39:17). In Egypt, Joseph was mistreated and put into jail and left there for at least two years (Gen. 39:20; 41:14). God eventually brought him out of prison and saved the Egyptians and other nations during a period of famine. Joseph died and scripture was silent for four hundred and thirty years (Exodus 12:40).

In the opening pages of Exodus we find the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. They were suffering under their Egyptian taskmasters with hard labor. The lives of the Israelites were bitter.

So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses . . . And the Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them. Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah, and the other was named Puah; and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” (NASB) Exodus 1:11

Moses was chosen by God as their great deliverer out of Egyptian slavery. Scripture says that Pharaoh did not know Moses. Yet Moses came to Pharaoh anyway and demanded that the Israelites be freed. The words were, “Let my people go!” (Exodus 5:1). After seven plagues, unbelievable suffering, and terrible pride, Pharaoh eventually, reluctantly, let them go. Moses in response calls upon the Israelites to,

Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the LORD brought you out from this place. And nothing leavened shall be eaten. (NASB) Ex. 13:3

To this day, the Jews celebrate their freedom from Egypt by a feast called the Passover. The familiar demand “Let my people go!” (Ex. 5:1) rings throughout the opening pages of Exodus and down through history. The slaves were freed from a hard hearted Pharaoh and their harsh taskmasters.

Does God Approve of Slavery?

Consequently, it is not surprising that the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, speaks to the issue of slavery. Slavery was common in the ancient past. It is well known that slavery existed in the ancient nations of Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, India, Hittites, Greece, Rome, and Attica. History records that hundreds of thousands of men and women were slaves. They were treated differently in different countries. Some countries treated their slaves brutally, and others did not. Slaves were owned and their lives were usually of little value. They were treated as things to be stolen and as property to be purchased, traded, sold, killed, and abused. The Israelites’ slavery experience in Egypt was not necessarily the worst.

When we talk about slavery, we must define what we mean by slavery. If slavery is simply defined as the absence of freedom to do what one wants, then we are all slaves. Every one of us is a slave to sin. When we become Christians, we are then slaves to righteousness. We are never spiritually free. We are always slaves – either to sin or to righteousness.

But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (NASB) Romans 6:17-18

Yet, many in this world like the slavery of sin – pornography, lust, greed for wealth, fame, and gluttony are a few examples. Few people complain about this spiritual slavery. Slavery must be defined. We are all slaves to our governments. We are not free to do as we want. We are not free to do what we want in our culture. When we work for someone, an employer for example, we accept certain limitations in order to earn money. For example, the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi was very gracious to “slaves.”

Many have quoted the Bible to “show” that God approves of slavery. This was common during the Civil War era in the 1800’s in the United States of America. It was a sad use of scripture. It resulted from either a careless reading of scripture or a desire to twist scripture to support one view. Others have read the Bible and condemned God because they find passages that seem to imply slavery is okay. They are disappointed that they did not find scripture that says slavery is wrong.

We must remember the Bible is a book of principles rather than a long list of laws and rules. Scripture does not specifically forbid many things that are sin. For example, the Roman Empire was an evil empire. It abused the people it conquered and yet God never called for its destruction or that of any other “evil government.” God gives us spiritual principles to govern a believer’s response to life’s circumstances. He does not major in promoting social reform. Once God changes a man’s heart, social reforms follow as a result of a Spirit-changed heart. In the New Testament God never called for the destruction of pagan temples or the end of temple prostitution. Yet, God calls sexual immorality sin. He also calls us to love one another.

Old Testament Laws

When we come to the Old Testament laws about slavery, we discover that God prohibited taking a man or a woman by force for any reason.

And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death. (NASB) Exodus 21:16

If this law had been used, the Civil War would not have occurred. All slave traders would have been killed and slave trading would have stopped. We also find that God prohibited the return of a slave who ran away.

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him. (NASB) Deut. 23:15-16

This is very different from our normal concept of slavery. God did not permit a man or a woman to be mistreated. If this is true, then how did a person become a slave in the Old Testament? How were they to be treated, and was it possible for them to get their freedom back?

Becoming A Slave

Slavery in the Old Testament usually occurred when a person sold or gave himself or herself to another person. It was voluntary. It was by choice. It was done to pay off a debt, or to provide money for a destitute family. In effect, it was a labor contract. But in every case, the slave was to be released after six years – on the year of Jubilee (Exodus 21:2).

. . . a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment. (NASB) Exodus 21:2

He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. (NASB) Lev. 25:40

A discussion of some difficult passages will follow. But first we will summarize the different ways a person became a slave.

It is important to note that scripture is providing guidelines for handling these situations and is not requiring these individuals to sell themselves, or saying that someone must be sold. In ancient Israel, very poor people sold themselves as servants or slaves to wealthy families in order to survive. God did not want poverty in the land. This was an ancient form of welfare. This is the background to the situations above.

However, there shall be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess . . . (NASB) Deut. 15:4

Ancient documents reveal that a father,

. . . driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. Documents recording legal arrangements of this kind have survived . . .

Nahum M. Sarna. Exodus. The JPS Torah Commentary.

The Jewish Publication Society. 1991.

The Jewish rabbis restricted the power of the father to do this. He had to be extremely poor in order to do this. She could not sell herself and she had to agree to the marriage. The Hebrew word for slave in Exodus 21:7 is AMAH and not the usual one EBED. There is another word for female slave, SIPHA. SIPHA has the idea of “property and a laborer” but AMAH has the idea of being a person with a higher social status. It means “servant” and not slave. In fact, a better term for what we find in scripture is not slavery but “servant.”

Ancient documents also tell us that a Jewish thief was required to give back or pay for what he stole. If he did not have the money, he could be sold as a slave in order for the payment to be made. In this situation, men and women became slaves involuntarily.

A few important facts need to discussed before we leave this section. First, Deuteronomy 20:10-19 has a curious discussion about forced labor resulting after war. God required the total destruction of the nations living in the land of Canaan at the time He gave the land to Israel in order that,

. . . they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God. (NASB) Deut. 20:18

This means there should have been only Jews in the land. Nations outside of Canaan, non-Jews, were to be offered terms of peace, that is terms of submission (Deut. 20:10-11). The meaning of the expression “terms of peace” has the same idea as the terms of peace offered to the Japanese and the Germans at the end of World War II. They had to submit themselves to the conquering allies. They were to be “forced laborers” – they paid for their crime. But neither history nor the Hebrew language give us enough information to know if they were part-time, casual or permanent laborers of the nation of Israel. Non-Jews who were living in the land could voluntarily choose to be slaves(Lev. 25:47).

Scripture also tells us that non-Hebrew ABAD, “slaves,” could remain with their master permanently (Lev. 25:44-46). The Hebrew word ABAD really means “worker, or laborer.” Ancient records again reveal that this individual was an educated worker. He was not considered a slave in the typical sense.

Mistreatment of Slaves

Slaves or servants were not to be mistreated. God required the master or employer to be punished for mistreating men and women servants.

Exodus 21:20 appears at first to be in contradiction with Ex. 21:12. But this is cleared up by the Hebrew meaning of the phrase “he shall be punished.” The phrase refers to capital punishment, any violence to a slave resulted in either life for life (master’s death) or the slaves freedom (Ex. 21:26-27). The master never had freedom to abuse his “slave.”


The Old Testament also gave the rules for releasing slaves – giving them their freedom:

When the year of Jubilee arrived, Hebrew slaves were to be freed. The person could have been a slave for only a short time or for six years; but when the year of Jubilee came, they were free men and women. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy requires that fellow Israelites who were slaves were to be released without regret. They were to be released and liberally given gifts from the master’s flock, food and wine (Deut. 15:12-18).

It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do. (NASB) Deut. 15:18

New Testament

The most significant example of slavery in the New Testament is found in the book of Philemon. A slave by the name of Onesimus had run away from his master, so Paul the apostle responds by asking the master to release Onesimus and accept him as a brother in the faith.

I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me . . . For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand . . . (NASB) Philemon 10-11, 15-19

Paul’s appeal is significant since he asks Onesimus’ master to give him his freedom. But Paul does not condemn slavery, or command other slave owners to release their slaves. In the New Testament God has a number of things to say about slavery.

Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. (NASB) 1 Cor. 7:20-22

With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. (NASB) Eph. 6:8

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eye service, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. (NASB) Eph. 6:5-6

God has established principles that will end slavery as practiced by the Romans and the world. God makes it clear that freedom is better than being a slave. But He does not specifically condemn slavery nor does He command all masters to release their slaves. In fact, God tells slaves to be obedient to their masters.


God established principles that will end slavery as practiced by the Romans and the world. God’s idea of slavery was that it should be primarily voluntary and it was primarily an economic resource for very poor people. It was usually for survival. He required release of slaves after six years of service. Yet, a man or woman could choose to remain permanently if desired. All other nations mistreated, abused, killed and devalued their slaves, but God makes it clear this was not acceptable.

God has told us to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39). Slavery as described in the Old Testament was a form of welfare. Neither man nor woman was to be mistreated. They were to serve as hired individuals. Their services could be purchased and it is implied they could invest their money and even buy back their freedom before the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:49). Paul made it clear that slavery should be changed (Philemon 1:10-11, 15-19). The Old Testament concept of “slavery” is not the usually accepted concept of slavery today.

Today each of us lives in slavery. Christians are slaves and non-Christians are slaves. Each one of us is a slave to either sin or holiness. Slavery is a picture of the human condition – sin or righteousness! A non-Christian is a slave to sin and free from righteousness. But a Christian is a slave to righteousness and free from sin.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. (NASB) Romans 6:20

But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (NASB) Romans 6:22

Christians have been forgiven of their sins by God the Father through Jesus Christ as a result of faith. Christians are slaves to serve God. Yet some Christians want freedom from sin and freedom from God. That cannot be. Whom do you serve?