What Does the Bible Say About Child Labor?
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What Does the Bible Say About Child Labor?

Child labor is a complex and controversial issue. As Christians, it’s important that we seek biblical wisdom when forming our views. In this post, we’ll explore what the Bible teaches about children, work, exploitation, and more. We’ll aim to develop a balanced perspective that upholds human dignity while considering cultural realities.


Child labor remains prevalent across the globe today. The International Labour Organization estimates that 152 million children between 5 and 17 years old are engaged in child labor. Of these, almost half are performing hazardous work.

As Christians, how should we think about this issue? Does the Bible prohibit children from working altogether? Or does it present a more nuanced perspective?

To find answers, we must examine the cultural context of the ancient world. We’ll also look at Bible passages about children, parents’ authority, work, and exploitation. As we’ll see, the Bible promotes the care and dignity of children while recognizing the need for all members of a household to contribute.

The goal is not to proof-text. Rather, it’s to develop a holistic theology of child labor that upholds Christian values. This requires wisdom, nuance, and sensitivity to different cultural situations.

By the end of this post, you will better understand:

  • The cultural context of child labor in the ancient world
  • Biblical perspectives on children, parenting, work, and exploitation
  • How these perspectives can inform a balanced view of child labor
  • Key takeaways for applying biblical principles on this issue

Let’s begin by exploring the cultural background.

The Cultural Context of Child Labor

To understand biblical perspectives on children and work, we must first consider the cultural context. In the agrarian societies of biblical times, the household was the central economic unit. Most people worked as small-scale farmers or herders.

In this setting, everyone in the household contributed to economic production from a young age. Children worked alongside their parents to plow fields, tend livestock, cook meals, make clothing, and more. There were no formal schools for the masses. Skills and trades were passed down from parents to children.

This was the reality across the ancient Near East. Biblical passages that mention children working reflect this cultural context. We cannot impose modern western notions of childhood on ancient societies.

At the same time, we must be careful not to romanticize the past. While children may have worked at young ages, the Bible still reveals principles that protected against exploitation. Parents had authority over children but also responsibilities for their welfare.

As we’ll see, these principles remain relevant for developing a balanced theology of child labor. The Bible recognizes that children must grow up and provide for themselves. Yet it upholds their dignity and cares for their overall nurturing and growth.

With this background in mind, let’s explore some key biblical themes.

Biblical Perspectives on Children

What does the Bible teach about children and their place in society? Several passages provide insights into biblical views on raising children:

Children are a blessing from God: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3). Children are gifts to enjoy and raise in God’s ways.

Parents have authority and responsibility: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Parents have the duty to train children rightly.

Children must honor parents: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long…” (Exodus 20:12). Respect for parents is commanded.

Children are dependent: Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Children require care and nurturing.

Children can have faith: Jesus commended children’s faith in Luke 18:15-17. He welcomed them as models for the kingdom.

These passages reveal that the Bible sees children as blessings requiring protection and nurturing. Yet children also have dignity and ability. Parental authority is not totalitarian but aims to raise children well.

This provides the foundation for a biblical view of child work. Children deserve care but are also capable of responsibilities. The key is avoiding exploitation while nurturing overall growth.

Biblical Perspectives on Work

What does the Bible say more broadly about work? Several themes emerge:

Work is ordained by God: Even before the fall, Adam was called to work the garden (Genesis 2:15). God created people for purposeful labor.

Work is dignified: Solomon wrote, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings” (Proverbs 22:29). All ethical work has dignity.

Hard work should be rewarded: “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). Employers must compensate workers fairly.

Providing for family is commended: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith” (1 Timothy 5:8). Working to meet needs of dependents is honorable.

Laziness and exploitation are sins: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands” (Ephesians 4:28). Work should not rob others’ dignity.

Rest is needed: God mandated rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-10). We must balance work with renewal.

These principles affirm the dignity of work in providing for oneself and family. Yet exploitation and overwork are condemned. Accounting for children’s dependent state, parents must guide them toward responsible contribution without undue strain.

Insights on Exploitation and Negligence

Beyond general perspectives on work, Scripture contains specific injunctions against exploiting the vulnerable. It also condemns negligence in providing for dependents. Key passages include:

Condemnation of oppression: “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them…I will kill you with the sword” (Exodus 22:22-24). Strong words against exploitation.

Justice for the needy: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). God cares deeply for the vulnerable.

Rebuke of child sacrifice: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5 NIV). Children’s lives are sacred.

Providing for family is key: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith” (1 Timothy 5:8). Meeting children’s needs is crucial.

Generosity, not greed: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). Greed can drive exploitation of children’s labor.

These passages underscore God’s concern for protecting the vulnerable. This includes condemning financial gain at the expense of child welfare. Parents must balance instilling responsibility with avoiding exploitation.

Key Biblical Principles Concerning Child Labor

Drawing this background together, here are several key biblical principles to guide perspectives on child labor specifically:

  • Children deserve nurturing: They require care, education and time to develop properly (Deut 6:6-7, Eph 6:4). Labor should not undermine this.
  • Moderation: Child responsibilities should align with changing abilities through different phases of growth (Ecc 3:1-8). Extremes are unwise.
  • Dignity: Children have full human dignity. Work should fit their age and not rob them of essential joys of childhood.
  • Vulnerability: Children are dependent and easily exploited. They require reasonable protections aligned with their developmental state (Ex 22:21-24).
  • Family provision: Contributing responsibly to meet household needs can foster good stewardship and strong work ethic when age-appropriate (1 Tim 5:8).
  • Education: Parents should facilitate education and training opportunities to equip children for future livelihoods (Deut 4:9-10, Prov 22:6).
  • Rest and renewal: Overwork without seasons of restoration is unbiblical and harmful, for children and adults alike (Ex 23:12).
  • Generosity over greed: Avoiding exploitation requires foreswearing unjust gain that comes through children’s undue labor (1 Tim 6:10).

These principles provide guidance for assessing child labor in diverse contexts. Work that instills responsibility while allowing time for nurturing and education can have value. Exploitation for financial gain clearly violates biblical values.

Application requires carefully weighing these principles along with cultural factors. There are rarely blanket answers when navigating complex realities. Yet God’s word provides wisdom.

Key Takeaways on a Biblical View of Child Labor

As we’ve seen, the Bible recognizes the need for all members of a household to reasonably contribute while upholding the care and dignity of children. Several key takeaways emerge:

  • The cultural context of subsistence living in biblical times required children to work with their families from young ages. This starkly differs from modern realities in most countries.
  • The Bible affirms parental authority over children, but condemns arrogance and neglect of duties to nurture and train children in godly ways.
  • Passages on work reveal its inherent dignity along with injunctions against laziness, unjust gain, and exploitation of the vulnerable. Employers must compensate workers fairly.
  • God condemns greed which undergirds exploitation. But providing for family through ethical work is honorable. There is dignity in responsibility.
  • Key biblical principles emphasize children’s need for nurturing, moderation in responsibilities, honoring their dignity, protecting from exploitation, providing education, and allowing rest.
  • Application of these principles requires wisely weighing the effects of work on children’s overall growth. Light responsibilities that train character can have value when age-appropriate. But excessive labor violating children’s developmental needs is unjust.
  • In economically necessitous contexts, total prohibition of child work may be untenable. Yet exploitation for profit remains morally wrong. Improving social supports, education access, and protections for children should be priorities.
  • Christians must steer a middle course between unrealistic ideals and harsh realities. With wisdom and compassion, we can advocate applying biblical principles in real-world contexts. This upholds justice while considering complex challenges faced by families.

The Bible provides authoritative guidance through timeless principles. But wise and nuanced application is required when dealing with specific cultural realities. As Christians, we must seek God’s wisdom in discerning how to uphold ethics while also extending grace. Our goal is protecting children’s holistic nurturing while promoting human flourishing within difficult constraints.

By understanding the cultural context of biblical times, exploring Scriptural teaching, and aiming for balanced application of principles, we gain insight into a godly view of child labor. Christians can contribute to just and compassionate social responses rooted in biblical values. This requires continually seeking the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and moral discernment.

Above all, we must remember that God cares deeply for the vulnerable. Our motivation should be standing up for children’s best interests as image bearers of God. Though complex in practice, this biblical priority can help guide our perspectives and responses regarding child labor.

Pastor Duke Taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.