Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Jessica Brodie

Award-winning Christian Novelist and Journalist
Updated May 17, 2024
Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Never in the Bible does it command slaveowners to end their practice. Never does it say, “Slavery is against God’s will,” and never does it say, “Thou shalt not own slaves.” Given all this, many people wonder: Does the Bible condone slavery? The answer is no — the Bible does not condone slavery, nor does it outlaw slavery. 

Slavery is mentioned quite a lot in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Scripture tells us the Israelites were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1). Joseph’s brothers, the other sons of Jacob, intentionally sold him into slavery (Genesis 37). Hagar was the Egyptian slave of Sarai, Abraham’s wife, whom Sarai gave to her husband as secondary wife and who bore a child for him (Genesis 16).

The New Testament also talks about slavery a number of times, encouraging slaves in their Christian faith and in how to behave within their circumstances. It also urges slaveowners to treat their slaves with kindness and fair treatment.

Never in the Bible does it command slaveowners to end their practice. Never does it say, “Slavery is against God’s will,” and never does it say, “Thou shalt not own slaves.”

Given all this, many people wonder: Does the Bible condone slavery?

The answer is no — the Bible does not condone slavery, nor does it outlaw slavery. That being said, it does have much to say about a person’s equal status and beloved nature as created children of God made in his image.

Instead, the Bible addresses slavery by offering regulatory wisdom and guidance, much like other human practices including money, marriage, and more.

Is There a Biblical Definition of Slavery?

Slavery is the ownership of another person as property, usually for labor purposes. It has existed almost since the beginning of time. The first mention of the word “slave” comes in Genesis 9, when Noah cursed his grandson, Canaan, saying, “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers … May Canaan be the slave of Shem” (v. 25, 27). This came about because Canaan’s father, Ham, offended Noah by seeing his father naked and telling his brothers about it (v. 22).

Other early biblical texts mention slaves and slavery. The earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia had slavery, and its Hammurabi Code, a system of laws, recognized slavery. Ancient Greece was the first major “slave society,” relying on its slave population for much of its economy.

We know that by the time of Exodus 1, the Egyptian Pharaoh considered the large population of Jews living there so much of a threat that he enslaved them and “put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor” (Exodus 1:11).

The transatlantic slave trade, which largely impacted the 15th through 19th centuries, was a dark time in which people from across Africa were kidnapped and then forced to labor in the Americas.

Today, slavery still occurs in many part of the world, and an estimated 50 million people are slaves through forced labor, forced marriage, and sex trafficking.

What Did the Old Testament Say about Slavery?

Beyond the Israelites rising up against their slave masters and escaping Egypt, the Bible indicates slavery was a negative experience. Exodus 2:23 tells us, “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out.”

When God introduced himself in Exodus 20:2 before issuing the Ten Commandments, he proclaimed, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

But those commandments do not outlaw (nor advocate) slavery, nor do his directives in Mosaic law throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. However, they do contain a lot of language regulating slavery. Sometimes the word used for slave is “servant,” but the meaning is much the same.

For instance, slaves were to be treated well (Leviticus 25:39-40). The law permitted Israelites to sell themselves into slavery by other Israelites if needed, such as in the case of debt, but every seven years, they were to be set free (Exodus 21:2). Slaves had some basic rights and should not be ruthlessly abused (Exodus 21). If a slave was released, a slaveowner was not supposed to send them off emptyhanded, but with some provisions (Deuteronomy 15).

But forced slavery, such as by kidnapping someone and selling them to another, is clearly a despicable practice. God decrees in Exodus 21:16, “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.”

What Did Jesus Say about Slavery?

Jesus mentioned slavery throughout the course of his ministry, not condoning it but not prohibiting it, either. He spoke of slavery as he did other aspects of human life in that day, such as money, taxes, marriage, or wine-making, using it to make a larger point about God’s kingdom.

As Christians, we who embrace Jesus’s ultimate message can’t possibly imagine Jesus thinking it is good and righteous to own another human being and force them to do labor or otherwise work for us. But he also likely recognized it was a state of existence for some people during that era.

In John 8:34-36, he talks about sin as a bad thing, oppressive and evil, stating, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

He uses an equally negative connotation alongside sin — slavery — noting that those who sin are “slaves” to sin. The Greek word for “slave” used in this passage, doulos, refers to someone owned as a possession, someone with low social status.

Slaves during that time could purchase their freedom, but the liberty Jesus speaks about here is not earthy liberty but true freedom: eternal freedom. He’s telling them that those who believe in and follow him have true freedom and a forever home in God’s heavenly kingdom and family.

Jesus also used a slave and slaveowner in several of his parables. For example, in Luke 12:47-48, Jesus says, “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

While some translations use the word “servant” in place of “slave,” the original Greek for “servant” here is doulos, the same one used above in the “slave to sin” passage (John 8).

The point of this parable is not to justify slavery, nor is it to present God as a mean, ruthless tyrant, but to help us understand he’s speaking about someone who is disobedient, who outright rejects what the master (in this case, God) is asking. He wants us to know that we must submit to God; we refuse at our own peril.

Jesus also talked about slavery and servanthood when he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13). He knelt and performed the foot-washing to their shock — washing feet is what a slave would do. But Jesus said that he was doing so to provide them an example of how they must lead — as servant leaders.

In John 13:14-17, he explains to them, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Again, the word used here for “servant,” doulos, is synonymous with “slave.”

He’s not condoning slavery but rather making a statement about equality; we are all one, all equal, with the Lord God Almighty as our sovereign.

What Does the Rest of the New Testament Say about Slavery?

The apostles also addressed slavery in their writings. Slavery was common during that time, and many people who heard the Gospel were slaves or perhaps had slaves.

In Ephesians 6:5-9, the apostle Paul urges slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”

And in 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Paul urges those who are slaves to “consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.”

Here, he’s not endorsing slavery. He’s offering advice to people who are already in this situation.

Consider also: Christians were already deeply unpopular. Paul himself was later executed, as were most of the other apostles. The message of the cross was a controversial one, and its big point was not to speak out about slavery, a temporary earthly concern, but rather to advocate for belief in Jesus as the son of God and savior of the world, a decision with eternal consequences.

Did Christians Use the Bible to Condone Slavery?

Sadly, many Christians over the years have used the Bible to condone slavery. People have twisted God’s words and God’s message to suit their own personal agendas and beliefs for a long time. Some have used the Bible to keep women out of the church or to justify spousal abuse — things Jesus and his disciples clearly did not condone, either.

During the dark times of the transatlantic slave trade, some American pastors promoted the idea that Africans were the descendants of Ham, cursed in the book of Genesis, and thus their enslavement was “appropriate.” (This is, of course, incorrect.) Other pastors, as well as slaveholders, noted that the Israelites of the Old Testament owned slaves, as if this justified slavery in America.

However, they didn’t note that the slaves the Israelites owned were typically bondservants, who agreed to serve as slaves for a period of time because of a debt. They also didn’t talk about how forced slavery, especially the kind involving kidnapping, was prohibited by God.

Many also removed the Book of Exodus from a version of the Bible they provided to slaves, often called the Slaves Bible, because they feared it might encourage the slaves to rebel.

But thankfully, biblical Christians were the ones who led the fight to abolish slavery.


How Did Christians Use the Bible to Outlaw Slavery?

Many Christians then and now use the Bible to outlaw slavery, for over and over we understand that God is a God of love, who cares about his people. He made us all in his image (Genesis 1:27). He urges us to provide for the widow, the orphan and the poor.

As Galatians 3:28 proclaims, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Many abolitionists in the early 19th century, such as Angela Grimké in her “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” spoke vehemently against slavery, arguing both about the hypocrisy of the practice as well as the consequences pro-slave advocates would face on Judgment Day. Other abolitionists used verses about equality, particularly about being one in Jesus, to censure slavery.

Philemon 1:16 and its message about the slave as one’s brother was also used a great deal.

The Bible preaches a message of love, obedience to God, personal holiness, and the saving grace we all have through Jesus Christ.

Jesus acknowledged we live in a difficult world, a world where we will have trouble and face suffering (John 16:33). Slavery, poverty, disease, and other calamities were issues at that time just as they are today.

One day we will live with God in eternity. There, we’re promised, “God himself will be with (us) and be (our) God. He will wipe every tear from (our) eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Until then, let’s strive to do our best to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. And make no mistake: God’s kingdom does not include slavery.

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Photo credit: ©Getty Images/cineuno

Jessica Brodie author photo headshotJessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Her newest release is an Advent daily devotional for those seeking true closeness with God, which you can find at Learn more about Jessica’s fiction and read her faith blog at She has a weekly YouTube devotional and podcast. You can also connect with her on Facebook,Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed