Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NIV)
Some people use verses like this as an excuse to run from Christianity. After all, why would anyone want a religion that supports slavery? And if Jesus really were from God, wouldn’t we expect that both he and his followers would denounce slavery? As we journey through Ephesians we do need to stop and ask if this criticism is fair.
First, let us look at what our passage says to the slaves and the slave owners:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. (Ephesians 6:5-8 NIV)
Wow, if I had slaves I would want them to be solid Bible-toting-and-quoting Christians! The Christian slave here is encouraged to be the best servant possible, serving their masters as an expression of serving God Himself. They are not worried about whether or not their masters are watching them for they are always hard at work, putting their all into it. Do employers today want to hire Bible-toting-and-quoting Christians? If as Christians we would consistently apply Biblical principles to our lives, it would be natural for all employers to desire a Christian staff! However, up to this point in our passage there doesn’t seem much to help change the mind of the sceptic. But let us read on:
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. (Ephesians 6:9 NIV)
Wow, if I were a slave owner, I’m not sure I would want to be a Bible-toting-and-quoting Christian! “Treat your slaves in the same way,” that is, serving your slaves with respect, fear, and sincerity of heart, serving them as a slave of Christ and with enthusiasm. And here, as with the preceding passages on wives and husbands, children and parents, the main encouragement still ringing through is from 5:18 that we be “filled with the Spirit,” and being filled with the Spirit we will “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NIV). If a slave owner’s life has been touched by Christ, if he has been filled with all the fullness of God as Paul has been praying according to 3:19, then the relationship between slave and master will be forever changed. The slave owner becomes a servant to the slave. We see a wonderful and real life example of this in the book of Philemon, a letter Paul writes to Philemon with regards to a runaway and thieving slave, Onesimus. Note Paul’s encouragement:
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 1:15-17 NIV)
What a change Christianity would bring to slaves! This change was not brought about by an attempt to change the laws or topple the government. This change was brought about by a transformation of people, and a transformation of relationships. This was Kingdom work, and the Kingdom of God is like a seed which though small, grows into a tree, or “like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matthew 13:33 NIV). Christianity would bring incredible change to society, but it would focus first on bringing incredible change in the lives of real people. We do well to remember this when the lawmakers pass laws that are decidedly unChristian in our time and place. Paul wanted to meet Caesar, but not so that Caesar could change some laws, but rather so that Caesar would be changed. Indeed Caesar himself was a slave though he didn’t know it, as we all are without Christ:
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. . . But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. (Romans 6:17, 22 NIV)
There are those who use the mention of slavery in the Bible to keep their distance from Christianity. Let us keep such in prayer that they would draw close to Christ and experience redemption from the worst kind of slavery.
Slavery would not be abolished in New Testament times, nor could a tiny minority group of weird people called Christians hope to overturn the laws of the land and create such havoc in the culture of the day. But slaves and masters would be changed, and so, slowly, but surely, as Christianity took hold, slavery would become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, there are those for whom the Christian religion was just their religion and not their way of life; they leave us the legacy of the slave trade. Many a slave trader and slave owner would have done well to study and live Paul’s good word to slaves and masters in Ephesians, and Paul’s good work with the slave Onesimus. We do well to study it too.