How have the Bible's passages concerning slavery been interpreted and applied throughout Christian history, especially passages such as Exodus 21:2-11, Leviticus 25:44-46, and 1 Timothy 6:1-2?

Have Christians historically applied these passages to employer/employee relations as many commentators have suggested, or is this an inappropriate cultural parallel?

Note that I am not asking, "Does the Bible condone slavery?" You may of course share your opinion on this question when giving your response (I understand that this question is somewhat implicit), but I am specifically interested in how the Christian Church has historically interpreted and applied these passages.

  • I’m still amazed this wasn’t closed as too broad haha
    – Dan
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 17:39

2 Answers 2


Historically, these verses have not been applied to employer/employee relations, at least not in the sense that we understand employment today.

In ancient times slavery was fairly common; employment, however, was not. Most free people lived and worked on the family farm. Employment contracts did exist, but only to protect the employer's interests. Contracts usually bound the employee to the employer for a set time; as such, employment was just a limited form of slavery.

In medieval times slavery was gradually replaced by serfdom. Serfs had more rights than slaves but were bound to the land on which they worked. If the land was sold the serfs were required to work for the new landowner. Employment remained a subset of slavery.

With the rise of the merchant class and the beginning of the industrial revolution this began to change; however, as recently as the early 1900s the majority of the population even in industrialized nations lived on family farms. Instructions on employer/employee relations simply were not relevant to most people's lives.

With all that in mind, it should not be surprising that commentators historically have not applied these texts to contractual employment.

Here's a few examples of what they have said.

In the 4th century, John Chrysostom wrote commentaries covering most of the New Testament. He did not comment on 1 Timothy 6:1-2, but he did say this about Colossians 3:22.

“Servants,” he saith, “obey in all things your masters according to the flesh.”

And see how always he sets down the names, “wives, children, servants,” being at once a just claim upon their obedience. But that none might be pained, he added, “to your masters according to the flesh.” Thy better part, the soul, is free, he saith; thy service is for a season. It therefore do thou subject, that thy service be no more of constraint. “Not with eye-service, as men-pleasers.” Make, he saith, thy service which is by the law, to be from the fear of Christ.

Commenting on 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Chrysostom said,

“Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called. Hast thou been called, having an unbelieving wife? Continue to have her. Cast not out thy wife for the faith’s sake. Hast thou been called, being a slave? Care not for it. Continue to be a slave. Hast thou been called, being in uncircumcision? Remain uncircumcised. Being circumcised, didst thou become a believer? Continue circumcised. For this is the meaning of, “As God hath distributed unto each man.” For these are no hindrances to piety. Thou art called, being a slave; another, with an unbelieving wife; another, being circumcised.

Astonishing! where has he put slavery? As circumcision profits not: and uncircumcision does no harm; so neither doth slavery, nor yet liberty. And that he might point out this with surpassing clearness, he says, “But even (Αλλ' εὶ καὶ δυνάσαι) if thou canst become free, use it rather:” that is, rather continue a slave. Now upon what possible ground does he tell the person who might be set free to remain a slave? He means to point out that slavery is no harm but rather an advantage.

Jerome, writing Against Jovinianus, referenced Exodus 21. He said the laws about setting slaves free do have application outside the physical practice of slavery, but he was thinking in terms much larger than employment contracts.

And if we read that every Hebrew keeps the same Passover, and that in the seventh year every prisoner is set free, and that at Jubilee, that is the fiftieth year, every possession returns to its owner, all this refers not to the present, but to the future; for being in bondage during the six days of this world, on the seventh day, the true and eternal Sabbath, we shall be free, at any rate if we wish to be free while still in bondage in the world. If, however, we do not desire it, our ear will be bored in token of our disobedience, and together with our wives and children, whom we preferred to liberty, that is, with the flesh and its works, we shall be in perpetual slavery.

In early modern times, Bible commentators focused on the plain meaning of the text or extrapolated to general moral principles.

Matthew Henry comments on Exodus 21

The Israelites had lately been servants themselves; and now that they had become, not only their own masters, but masters of servants too, lest they should abuse their servants, as they themselves had been abused and ruled with rigour by the Egyptian task-masters, provision was made by these laws for the mild and gentle usage of servants.

He adds, a little later,

This law will be further useful to us, (1.) To illustrate the right God has to the children of believing parents, as such, and the place they have in his church. They are by baptism enrolled among his servants, because they are born in his house, for they are therefore born unto him, Eze. 16:20 . [Emphasis in original]

Henry extrapolates a further application not to employees but to children, because like servants they belong to the household.

John Gill says

Now as this servant, in the state of servitude, was an emblem of that state of bondage to sin, Satan, and the law, which man is brought into by his theft, his robbing God of his glory by the transgression of his precepts; so likewise, in his being made free, he was an emblem of that liberty wherewith Christ, the Son of God, makes his people free from the said bondage, and who are free indeed, and made so freely without money, and without price, of pure free grace, without any merit or desert of theirs; and which freedom is attended with many bountiful and liberal blessings of grace.

Regarding 1 Timothy 6, Henry says,

Here is the duty of servants. The apostle had spoken before of church-relations, here of our family-relations. Servants are here said to be under the yoke, which denotes both subjection and labour; they are yoked to work, not to be idle. If Christianity finds servants under the yoke, it continues them under it; for the gospel does not cancel the obligations any lie under either by the law of nature or by mutual consent.

John Wesley says,

6:1 Let servants under the yoke - Of heathen masters. Account them worthy of all honour - All the honour due from a servant to a master.Lest the name of God and his doctrine be blasphemed - As it surely will, if they do otherwise.

6:2 Let them not despise them - Pay them the less honour or obedience. Because they are brethren - And in that respect on a level with them. They that live in a religious community know the danger of this; and that greater grace is requisite to bear with the faults of a brother, than of an infidel, or man of the world. But rather do them service - Serve them so much the more diligently. Because they are joint partakers of the great benefit - Salvation. These things - Paul, the aged, gives young Timotheus a charge to dwell upon practical holiness.

Gill says,

these things teach and exhort;

the Syriac and Arabic versions add them; the servants. The apostle was not above instructing and exhorting persons of such a capacity, and in so low a state of life; and it became Timothy to do so likewise; and every minister of the word.

None of these commentators gives the slightest hint that they thought this passage could apply to employer/employee relations.

  • I've re-read this and wish I could upvote it again.
    – user3961
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 23:34


One major example is the USA Southern States (The South) in the four or five decades leading up to the Civil War of the USA (1860's). Slavery was very common in The South and using the Bible and other religious arguments was very common to justify the morality of it. Although the verses you site were not as commonly used, except perhaps 1 Timothy 6:1-2 (see long answer), it was very common to quote the story in Genesis 9 of Ham seeing Noah, his father, naked, then Noah cursing Canaan, Ham's son, and all his descendants to servitude. Ham and his descendants later settled the southern parts of the Earth which are largely populated by Black peoples today. However, it should be noted that there was also racial motivation for the continued enslavement of the Black people in America. That same motivation does continue today among Racist/Hate groups, who will use this same argument if they happen to be a Christian of some kind.

But one should ask this question: what was the dominant Christian denomination in the South at that time? I will not answer the implications but that group was the relatively new Southern Baptist.citation The Southern Baptist is still the largest denomination in the South today.

As for other applications in History I think you are asking too general of a question, however, moral objection to slavery was not common worldwide until the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps not many historical examples exist.

As for applying these verses to employer/employee relations is somewhat unknown to me, but, imo, is off-putting, so that might be why I don't hear about it much, although I do not think it inappropriate.


The only example I can think of is in relatively modern history in the four or five decades leading to the Civil War in the USA (1860's), specifically in the Southern States. Slavery, as a moral issue, was not really questioned on a wide scale basis until Great Britain ushered in the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century and Europe and The USA followed suit in the mid 19th century. Inventions such as the cotton gin made large scale manual labor less and less needed. The history behind the Industrial Revolution and its effects on American slavery is long and complicated and beyond the scope of this site, however, how Southerner's religiously defended slavery is not beyond the scope of this site.

The most notable, and I think most quoted, biblical reference to defend American Slavery was the curse of Canaan, Ham's son who was Noah's son (The Noah of the flood in Genesis). This is primarily because American slavery was clearly outwardly shown, where black skinned persons were likely slaves and white skinned persons were never slaves (other races and opinions on whether they should be slaves, according to the people group in question, is not part of this answer).

In the book of Genesis, chapter 9, Noah 's youngest son Ham saw the nakedness of his father and had him covered, by his brothers. Noah then cursed Ham to be a servant to his brothers forever, Genesis 9:25-26 "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers". ... Many interpret Ham's curse as placed upon people of darker skin color, Africans more specifically. The argument is that since Ham's descendants were to be slaves forever and Africans were already slaves and inferior then they should remain in slavery.1

First, I will note a common misconception that the curse was on Ham. It was actually on Canaan, one of Ham's sons of about 30, which is later shown in Genesis. What is also shown later in Genesis is that Ham and his family moved south to settle the southern region of the Earth, which happens to be predominately populated by black skinned persons today.

More references to scripture concerning the morality of slavery abounded:

Defenders of slavery noted that in the Bible, Abraham had slaves. They point to the Ten Commandments, noting that "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, ... nor his manservant, nor his maidservant." In the New Testament, Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master, and, although slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, Jesus never spoke out against it.2

Also noted on occasion was that Jesus even had parables which include slaves (sometimes called servants, which is a blurred line for the ancient Greeks), but never to speak out against it.

Even without scripture, proponents to slavery argued that slavery was a Divine charge:

Defenders [argued] that [slavery] brought Christianity to the heathen from across the ocean. Slavery was, according to this argument, a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said, "Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually."3

Concerning Ex 21:

2 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.4

Ex 21:2-4 was not likely to be fully quoted by slave holding Americans of the 19th century because the status quo for a slave was that freedom can only be granted by the master at his discretioncitation needed (further I cannot find any laws that required the release of a slave against the master's will before the end of the US Civil War, except in seizure of property for debts owed). Further, American slave marriages had no legal binding and could be dissolved by the master. The slave typically pledged a marriage vow that read more like "till death or distance do we part" and may have even excluded the typical vows concerning faithfulness, etc.5 Although the following statistic implies ignorance to the above scripture it does not necessarily imply practices that contrast with the teaching of Ex 21:3-4.

A study of slave records by the Freedmen's Bureau of 2,888 slave marriages in Mississippi (1,225), Tennessee (1,123) and Louisiana (540), revealed that over 32 percent of marriages were dissolved by masters as a result of slaves being sold away from the family home.6

Ex 21:7-11 was also not likely to be discussed because sex with slaves was almost always illegitimate and certainly taboo.citation needed (although I consider common knowledge)

Concerning Leviticus 25:

44 Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.7

The American slave holder may have used this verse, but likely only to show that ancient Hebrew law allowed slavery so long as it was not part of your own kinship.

Concerning 1 Timothy 6

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.8

This verse would most definitely be used by American slave holders because it was New Testament, specifically address slaves respecting their masters, and implies greatly that slavery as an institution is neither good nor bad.


  1. The Purpose of Slavery
  2. The Southern Argument for Slavery
  3. ibid. ?
  4. Bible - New International Version
  5. Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman (1889)
  6. Slave Marriages
  7. Bible - New International Version
  • I suppose then this is to imply that the Southerns at the time thought that these verses used in their arguments were trans-cultural.
    – user3961
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 7:17
  • Bruce's answer really illuminates a few things on the history of employment that makes us look differently at the question.
    – user3961
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 20:54

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