Slavery was an established institution when Paul penned the words of Ephesians 6.5-9. It had been in existence for millennia. God’s people were slaves in Egypt for centuries. There were provisions in the Law (Exodus 21) designed to protect the slave and prevent abuse. Under the Law, a slave only served seven (7) years and then was released by his master with plenty of goods from his master’s house (Deuteronomy 15.12-15)…unless the slave loved his master, in which he could stay and be a slave forever (Deuteronomy 15.16-17). Undergirding these laws was the reminder that Israel had been a slave in Egypt (verse 15). Surely, there was abuse, but to do so a Jew would have to trample underfoot the Law.
In the rest of the unenlightened world, the cruelty and depravity of the sinful heart of man was normally displayed in the slave-master relationship. True, there were pockets of light where slaves were treated well and special bonds formed (Pliny lamented when slaves he loved died), but the norm seems to have harsh & horrible treatment of slaves: runaway slaves were branded with an “F” on the head for fugitivus; slaves were crucified or fed to beasts for minor offenses; slaves were killed when an owner lost his/her temper; old slaves were discarded to the rubbish heap to starve to death; female slaves had their hair torn out and skin ripped from their faces by their mistresses’ nails. A slave was not a person but property (versus under the Law, the Hebrew slave is called “your brother”). Under Roman law, “Whatever a master does to a slave, undeservedly, in anger, willingly, unwillingly, in forgetfulness, after careful thought, knowingly, unknowingly, is judgment, justice, and law” (Barclay 213-214). The Roman world was full of slaves. Estimates ventured tell us that somewhere in the neighbor of one-third to one-half of the Roman population was enslaved to the other portion of the empire.
Into the chaos of injustice and abuse, God speaks a word of order. He does not call for rebellion; He calls for respect. God does not call for a revolution; He calls for reverence. Slaves are not to be subversive, but submissive. The instruction herein contained, while not a direct parallel, is useful for those on the job and in the workplace. In other words, verse 5-9 impact how Christians behave 9-5.
God’s Word to Workers (6.5-9)
Slaves and masters have mutual obligations to one another in order to grow in the Lord.
5Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,
[Slaves]: These are household slaves; Paul is still dealing with relationships in the family. Further, Paul is addressing Christians slaves, hence, the heavy emphasis on Christ throughout this section.
Obey…trembling: Obey is the same word used for children to their parents (v.1). Earthly masters stands juxtaposed with the heavenly Master (i.e. Christ). Fear (Gk phobos) and trembling is not terror & dread but rather respect & reverence, eager to fulfill one’s duty. These are regularly connected with obedience in the New Testament (cf. 2 Corinthians 7.15; Philippians 2.12).
With a sincere heart: As opposed to duplicity & double-mindedness which would accompany one who was only seeking to please man (v.6). This is the same kind of devotion which accompanies obedience to Christ; His slaves serve from a single or united heart (cf. Psalm 86.11).
As you would Christ: Of course a Christian slave would obey Christ with a sincere heart and respect & reverence. Render this same kind of obedience to your earthly master as though he were the Lord.
The temptation for 21st century American Christians is to read Paul’s words through the lens of our own dark history of slavery. This would be a mistake for a couple of reasons. First, the slavery of the 19th century in America is a different animal from the slavery of antiquity. The largest difference was the slavery of antiquity did not discriminate based upon race, sex, or other qualifiers. Second, and more important, Paul’s concern is not the slavery institution (right, wrong, or otherwise), but how one behaves when in that relationship. Paul neither condemns not condones slavery; he explains how Christian slaves & Christian masters are to relate to one another in Christ. His emphasis is ethics among believers who were in the institution. There is no diatribe bemoaning the evils of slavery. Neither is there a treatise on the benefits of slavery.
6not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
Not…as people-pleasers: In his typical style, Paul presents the negative first followed by the positive. Christian slaves must never be the kind of slave who render their service only for the eye.
But as [slaves] of Christ: Every Christian is a slave of Christ. This is a principle which runs throughout the New Testament (1 Corinthians 7.22; Philippians 1.1; James 1.1; Jude 1).
Doing the will of God from the heart: Christians are first & foremost God-pleasers. God is pleased when we do His will from the heart (Gk psuches, lit. soul).
A slave’s obedience was Christocentric – every verse, every exhortation to the slave was focused on Christ: “as you would Christ” (v.5), “as servants of Christ” (v.6), “as to the Lord” (v.7), “back from the Lord” (v.8). So for the Christian employee, our work must be consecrated unto the Lord. “For a Christian, there is no distinction between secular and sacred” (Patzia 281). “The Bible allows no distinction between sacred and secular” (Foulkes174). Everything we do matters to Christ. We are His slaves. He is the recipient of every act we perform. Everything we do on the job, regardless of what your job may be, is ultimately done for Him. Ephesians 6.5-9 tells us how to live 9-5. All our work take on new meaning; how we treat people on the job is affected. Whether we cut grass, clean pools, fix cars, educate children, administrate educators – whatever our job or career, Christ is the Boss and so everything and everyone is important. “What we do and how we do it matters because all life is live in, to, and for the Lord” (Snodgrass 333).
We are slaves 24/7, 365. If we are not, we are not in Him and therefore alienated from God.
7rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man,
Rendering…not to men: This is a complete transformation of the Christian’s standard for work & service. The Christian slaves works with a good will or zealous desire to be of benefit to their Master. Everything we do on the job should be done as though we would present it to the Lord.
Herein lies the great principle for all working Christians: You work for the Lord. “The conviction of the Christian workman is that every single piece of work he produces must be good enough to show God” (Barclay 215). Jesus is Boss over every boss you happen to be employed by throughout your life. By faith we we see beyond this transient life, beyond our fleshly master to our heavenly Master and realize that whatever service I render, I render it unto the Lord.
8knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.
Knowing…anyone does: Lit. “having come to know” through Christian instruction. Whatever good (or bad) pertains to our ethics. Whatever good we render on the job…
This he…from the Lord: The Lord rewards His people for faithfulness, especially when the circumstances are difficult and “unjust” (1 Peter 2.18). So slaves could find encouragement from the apostle’s words that 1) they are the Lord’s & 2) He rewards their good works.
Whether he is a [slave] or is free: But this principle is not merely for a slave; the freeman must take note also that God is a Rewarder of those who pursue faithful service.
Think about this: what you do on the job has an impact upon your eternal destiny. I don’t know that a lot of Christians grasp this. Or if they grasp it, they only grasp it in part – like they know they shouldn’t have a job which would be in violation of God’s word (like a stripper or drug dealer). I am persuaded that this thing climbs into our lap and eats our lunch. How can we be salt & light on the job when our language is salty and our heart is so full of darkness? “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” and if you have heart full of darkness it will come out in what you say 9-5. What do you with anger on the job? How do you handle it? Do you cuss out an employee or slander your boss behind his back (“Why that good for nothing so-and-so!”). Philippians 4.8, “think on these things.” Why? Because God repays for the good we do on the job.
9Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.
[And] Masters: And joins masters and slaves. Masters are Christian slave owners.
Do the same to them: i.e. do “whatever good” you can do to your slaves.
Stop your threatening: One common practice to control slaves was through threats—punishment, sale, beatings, even death. But a master who came to know Christ their Master had to abandon that and change their attitudes and actions toward their slaves.
Knowing…in heaven: Lit “having come to know” again through Christian doctrine. These masters came to know the Master…in heaven. Further, they knew that He is Master of all—both slave and free. In fact, these masters are the Master’s slaves (see 1 Corinthians 7.22).
There is no partiality with Him: The Master will be merciless to a merciless master. Conversely, to a merciful master the Master will be merciful. In other words, His judgment is just.
Husband, father, & master are all the same person. Since Paul is dealing with “house rules” and how each member conducts him/herself in the household, the head of the house – husband, father, master – is addressed in each of these discussions. If you get the head of the house, you get the house. God knows this which is why He addresses the man of the house three (3) times.