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Slaves and Masters

Ephesians 6:5-9


We must remember the series of lessons Paul has put before us. He begins the letter to the Ephesians with that central idea of the authority of Christ - and that all authority , rightly exercised, descends from the authority of Christ. For indeed we are taught that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Christ.

Paul then takes us through a series of personal relationships - those who lead the church, the husband and wife, the father and children - and ends this week with the relationship between slaves and masters. Recall that in his time the most common social unit was an extended household, consisting of a master and mistress, their children and their slaves and families. So Paul is simply continuing his comments on proper relationships. He now ends that series with what the world would have viewed as the lowest of people, the slave.

(Eph 6:5-9 NIV) Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. {6} Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. {7} Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, {8} because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. {9} And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

The Least Favorite of Virtues...

Is humility. But do let us recall why. If we are courageous, we may be rewarded in this life. If we are generous, we may feel good about it. But if we are humble, we are certain to discover that this world does not place any value upon it. Indeed, it is the central issue between this world's virtues and Christ's teaching: the issue of pride and humility. Pagan philosophers agreed about the need for courage, generosity and such; some even thought marital fidelity worthwhile. All held to personal honesty. But pride was the source of power for these things. To the Christian, God is the source of power. So it is that we must choose: are we to be virtuous because we are proud of ourselves, or because God strengthens us to do so? Consider how Paul commands the slave of his time:

·         The wife is to "fear" her husband; the slave is to obey with "respect and fear" (translated elsewhere as "fear and trembling.") Is this just because of slavery? Or is it the fact that our world demands lip service of the servant, but God will demand integrity?

·         The slave is to serve with "sincerity of heart." This means that we must forsake secret cheating and petty revenge. How often have you desired to "get even" with the company? In America the union movement is practically based upon the desire to "get back" at management. Yet our Lord commands exactly the opposite attitude.

·         There is most definitely an aspect of "turn the other cheek" in this. Are you a slave? Then bear with it, turning the other cheek, so that your Father in heaven will reward you. Are you oppressed on your job? Bear with it in the name of Christ, and Christ will reward you for it.

·         We are to serve "wholeheartedly." There is more to be said about that word, but at the very least it means that we are to embrace our station in life and to do the best we can with it. This is not sullen oppression, nor stoic acceptance, nor mystic resignation - but the complete enthusiasm of one who enjoys the day's work.

·         The situation is transitory. They are our masters "according to the flesh." That means two things:

·         First, that God recognizes no such distinction by right. It is something that man has done. It is therefore trivial.

·         Second, it is something which can last no more than a lifetime. We are meant to be eternal. It is a trivial thing; but if we are not faithful in trivial things, who will trust us with eternal things?

·         Do you need an example of the virtue of being a good servant? One should suffice. Christ, on the night before the Cross, washed the feet of the disciples. If your Lord and Savior was willing to do that (and the servant is not above the master) then tell me what you must not tolerate.

Words of Advice to Masters and Managers

Paul, in each section, has commandment for each part of the relationship. It is the same here; he has words also for the slave master and, by implication, for those in authority in today's workplace.

·         He begins with the concept that you must treat these slaves just as the slaves are to obey you. Think of it this way: treat your employees as if you had Jesus Christ as one of them. In a sense you do - for as often as you do it to the least of his brothers, you do it to Him.

·         You are to take this seriously - with the same wholehearted attitude the slave is supposed to have. This too is a matter of integrity. You cannot be a pious, generous man outside the office and a tyrant inside - and still maintain your integrity. Again, this comes back to pride. Are you serving God, or are you worshiping yourself?

·         One specific injunction is given: do not threaten them. Why does Paul focus on this one bit of behavior? I think it is because servants and slaves (and most employees) don't usually get a glimpse of "the grand plan." Whatever it is that management has in mind, most of us are convinced they haven't told us yet. In such an environment a threat is magnified beyond its actual words. "You'd better straighten up" can be heard as "I'm about to fire you."

·         He then reminds the master that he has a Master in Heaven. This has some very powerful thought to it:

·         It is an example of the "measuring stick" principle. You are a master? How do you treat your slaves? By that standard of treatment Christ will treat you, for you are likewise the bondservant of Christ.

·         Do your slaves offend you? Do they steal? Do they cheat you? Remember the parable of the Unjust Servant? "I forgave you all that debt - and what did you do to your fellow servants?"

·         Finally, there is this. We have a tendency to mistreat those who work for us because they cannot bring us any favors. But recall what our Lord said: you will be repaid at the Resurrection of the righteous.[1]

Our Lord is driving towards a concept of servanthood. Perhaps it is best expressed in the story of the Centurion. Do you recall how calmly that centurion assumed that his servants would obey - and that this was the example of faith for Christ? Indeed, Jesus was "astonished" at such great faith. Perhaps he was astonished because he had met a man who was the kind of master Christ wanted him to be - and therefore had the kind of servants Christ desires.

The Value of Work

At one time I had a college roommate who was a pre-medical student. He loved to tell the story of his interview at Harvard Medical School. The interviewer asked him, "Why do you want to be a doctor?" He would replay his reply with a sly grin: "To get rich."

That sums up our attitude towards work today. We do it to make money. We don't do it because it is worthwhile. Or do we? And should we?

Work is not just gainful employment

Whatever we do we are to do heartily, as if doing it for the Lord.[2] That's hard to do in some jobs (it's an interesting paradox to think of this idea with regard to, say, a prostitute or a thief.) But consider: most of us continue to work because of the paycheck. We continue to work at what we do because the accomplishment brings us a sense of satisfaction. How much more, then, if we also know that we are pleasing to God?

Work is honored by God

The Sabbath was created as a day of rest - from work. God worked in creation; Jesus worked as a carpenter. The laborer is worthy of his hire.[3] Therefore, we should not despise the working man - but work too.

Work fills the vacuum created for it

Man is - by result of sin - designed for work. If he does not work, something else will take its place. But Paul counsels us to work instead of stealing, for example[4], so that we will not by our lack of work be tempted back into theft.


Submission, as we have noted, is not popular. It implies humility and trust in God as the source of virtue - instead of pride. But submission is the weapon of the Christian:

·         It is the weapon by which the servant demonstrates the power of the Gospel to those in authority over him.[5]

·         Indeed, God tells us[6] that bearing up under injustice for the sake of Jesus Christ is commendable before God. If you suffer injustice on the job, and bear it for the sake of Christ, will he not reward you for it?

·         We often reject the idea of serving with "fear and trembling." But this same phrase is used of our salvation - we are to work it out with fear and trembling.[7]

·         To cap it all off, there is this: all things may be done to the glory of God. If it is your task in life to sweep the floors and be considered the lowest of the low, do it for the glory of God, and he will honor you for that.[8]

A Final Thought on Slavery

Slavery, per se, does not concern us much any more in America. It is of "historical interest only." But perhaps we should pay more attention to it. Have you ever considered where slavery came from? Here is what Chrysostom, writing in a time when slavery was commonplace (and not racial slavery, as in American history), tells us about the origins of the practice:

But should any one ask, whence is slavery, and why it has found entrance into human life, (and many I know are both glad to ask such questions, and desirous to be informed of them,) I will tell you. Slavery is the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery; since Noah, we know, had no servant, nor had Abel, nor Seth, no, nor they who came after them. The thing was the fruit of sin, of rebellion against parents. Let children hearken to this, that whenever they are undutiful to their parents, they deserve to be servants. Such a child strips himself of his nobility of birth; for he who rebels against his father is no longer a son; and if he who rebels against his father is not a son, how shall he be a son who rebels against our true Father? He has departed from his nobility of birth, he has done outrage to nature. Then come also wars, and battles, and take their prisoners.

Our Founding Fathers knew quite well that only a righteous people are fit to remain a free people. It is a lesson we have forgotten; it is a lesson we may soon learn again.

[1] Luke 14:13-14

[2] Colossians 3:23

[3] Luke 10:7

[4] Ephesians 4:28

[5] See 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and Titus 2:9-11

[6] 1 Peter 2:18-19

[7] Philippians 2:12-13

[8] See 1 Corinthians 10:31

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