Bondservants & Masters | Ephesians 6:5-9

Since I did not preach yesterday, I am posting my finally completed notes from an earlier portion of Ephesians from back in Kingdom Life that I also did not preach.


Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, 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.

Ephesians 6:5-9 ESV

We come now to the final portion of both the Kingdom Life section of our study and the household commands. Having addressed wives, husbands, the cosmic significance of marriage and the family, and lastly children and fathers, the apostle’s commands to bondservants and masters lay before us. However, unlike the previous subjects, the institution of slavery has been abolished throughout much of the world in our present day; therefore, these verses require a more focused emphasis upon how they applied to Christians of the First Century and of the Twenty-first Century. We will begin, then, by addressing the historical context before applying this text to ourselves.

BONDSERVANTS & MASTERS

Many today, sadly, take for granted the abolition of slavery from much of the modern world. Horrendously true stories still spill out regarding illegal slave trades, particularly of women and children, yet even as we rightly shudder to think of fellow human beings suffering such conditions presently, we would do well to be thankful that such acts are indeed illegal. The horrific reality is that for most of history slavery was an unquestioned societal practice. Masters always owned slaves, and slaves were always the property of their masters. Only something as monumental as the gospel of Jesus Christ could be powerful enough to demolish such a basic societal structure, which is, of course, exactly what the gospel did. But before we discuss how Christianity eventually brought down slavery, we must expound upon the actual commands that Paul gives.

As with wives/husbands and children/fathers, the apostle begins with the submissive role in the relationship, bondservants. Slaves are frequently instructed in the New Testament epistles for at least two reasons. First, some historians have estimated that around one-third of the population in the Roman Empire at any given time were slaves. Second, as Christianity spread throughout the world, it was received by a notably large number of slaves and women. These two groups that existed on the margins of society[1] were understandably drawn to the worth and dignity that the gospel granted them. Therefore, as Paul prepares to speak to bondservants, it is very likely that he was writing to a sizeable portion of the Ephesian congregation. Yet notice the great dignity that Paul has already given to them by only just now speaking to them as slaves. Throughout the first five chapters, the apostle has been teaching and commanding the church as whole with no distinction being made for certain persons. Thus, when he exhorted the Ephesians to bear with one another in love (4:2), it was made to all Christians because all followers of Christ are children of God (1:5). In fact, he is only addressing bondservants as their own category now for the purpose of teaching them how to let the gospel shine forth in their relationship to the masters. In other words, slavery was no longer their identity; they were now in Christ. And being in Christ, their servanthood was now an opportunity to display uniquely the servanthood of Christ.

With this backdrop of understanding, let us address the particular commands that Paul gives. In reality, the apostle has one big exhortation, obey your earthly masters, while the remainder of verses 5-8 clarify how exactly such obedience ought to look for a Christian. Thus, we should note that, while the gospel has not suddenly overthrown the master-slave dynamic, it did create potent and ultimately seismic shifts. Of course, the first descriptive clause is not very unusual: with fear and trembling. Given that a master could virtually do whatever he desired to his slave, a fearful obedience was certainly a prudent course of action. However, the following clause, with a sincere heart, is quite odd. Although Paul wants his fellow believers who are slaves to obey out of wisdom for their own security, he desires for their obedience to run far deeper. They must not only obey in fear of punishment for disobedience; they must obey from genuine and sincere desire to obey.

But how could a slave be simply commanded to obey sincerely? As you would Christ. Here is the key to their sincerity. They are to view their obedience to their master, Christian or not, as being obedient to Christ, their true and heavenly Master. The following verses continue to reinforce this glorious idea. First, Paul warns against the way of eye-service and as people-pleasers, which are both forms of hypocrisy. Such obedience is judged to be right by its appearance; however, it is purely self-motivated. The eye-service and people-pleasing obedience is only concerned with the tangible benefits of obedience, not with the sincerity of actually obeying. But that is not the way of obeying Christ. The hypocritical Pharisees were the primary targets of Jesus’ barbs of rebuke. Just as Christ must be obeyed sincerely, so must slaves obey their masters sincerely, for it is Christ who is truly being obeyed. Paul continues to press this point forward: as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man. The secret to obeying joyfully and sincerely, even a nonbelieving master, was the reminder that their obedience was ultimately to Christ.

Verse 8 continues to provide a rationale for obeying sincerely, yet it does so by pointing toward a gloriously cosmic reality beyond the temporal slave-master relationship. Paul reminds them that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or free. Within this sin-scarred world, sincere obedience does not always receive its fitting reward and is often ignored. Yet our Master never fails to see, and He will not let sincere obedience given in His name to go unrewarded.

Notice also that this principle runs far beyond the present application to slaves: whether he is a bondservant or free. Before the feet of Christ, we are all His servants or His enemies, and there are no exceptions. With “the name that is above every name,” one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9-11). Thus, Paul is assuring bondservants that their faithful and sincere obedience will not be with fruit, even if it appears to be so in this life.

Next, the apostle turns to address masters with a shockingly short exhortation. First, he simply commands do the same to them. While this certainly does not mean that masters were also called to obey their bondservants, it does mean that they must treat them in the same manner. They must no longer think of their slaves as simply a piece of property but as humans created in the image of God, who are either fellow a fellow brother or sister in the Lord or need to believe the wonderful message of the gospel.

He then drives this point home by stating, 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. This was the incredible idea that eventually collapsed the legal institution of slavery.[2] There is no partiality in the presence of the Master. Ben Myers writes,

The ancient institution of slavery didn’t vanish all at once. But when slaves and free persons stood side by side and confessed that Jesus is Lord, the days of slavery were numbered. When early believers entered the waters and took the name of Jesus on their lips, the tectonic plates shifted. The slow revolution had begun.

The Apostles’ Creed

Is that not what we have been noting throughout Kingdom Life but particularly with the household commands? Our God, who transcends time and space, is patient. He is always playing the long game because He is the Author of history. As followers of Christ, we must be content with not changing the world in a day (or even a lifetime), yet we should take comfort that according to God’s providence the ordinary faithfulness of everyday Christians must eventually upend structures built on sin.

EMPLOYEES & EMPLOYERS

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is profitable “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” which means that we cannot leave these verses solely within the First Century. We must, therefore, now ask how they teach, reproof, correct, and train us today in the Twenty-First Century. Yet the problem of interpreting how this passage applies to us lies in the abolition of slavery. How do these verses still instruct us now that the institution of slavery is no longer in effect?

The most natural parallel of the bondservant-master relationship today, I believe, is that of employees and employers. Although there are some key distinctions (which we will discuss), this employment dynamic is still fundamentally one of authority and submission. An employer, though not a master by any means, is still gives orders to his or her employees, and the employees are expected to obey or face certain disciplinary actions. Therefore, the fundamental message of verses 5-9 still applies here.

If you are an employee (which today is likely a far larger percentage than one-third), you are called to respectfully obey your boss and to do so from a sincere heart. For example, Christians should not participate in bad-mouthing their boss with fellow employees. Instead, you ought to work for your employer as though you were working for Christ. Refrain from being a people-pleaser who uses relationships to scale the corporate ladder or make a profit. Refrain also from only working whenever others are watching. Work, instead, with integrity. Such working practices will reinforce your workplace witness for Christ, whereas a lack of sincerity will only hinder it.

Employers, you must likewise treat your employees with dignity and respect. Do not think of your workers as though they are cogs in your business model; instead, strive for their genuine good. Such conduct will also display the goodness of Christ to nonbelieving employees.

We should, however, take care that we do not assume a one-to-one replacement in our application. The most glaring difference between modern employment and ancient slavery is that employment is a mutually agreed upon relationship, while slavery was ownership. Thus, an employee today has the ability to quit his or her job. We can certainly think of many factors that make people feel stuck in a particular job, but the simple reality is that anyone can terminate their employment at almost anytime and for almost anything. This fact adds an interesting dynamic how these verses might be applied.

While a Christian employee is free to quit one’s job, he or she should take care to do so in a respectful manner as well. Bombastic quitting stories may go viral on social media, but they do not display the long-suffering and tenderness of Jesus. Believer, you need not remain at your current employment; you are, however, eternally in Christ and it should be your utmost desire to see your employer and fellow employees following after Christ as well. Therefore, consider deeply how to best display Christ as you leave a job.

Similarly, a Christian employer is not bound by this text never to fire an employee. Employment is a contract that must be fulfilled by both parties, or the relationship may be terminated. In fact, we can easily imagine a scenario where an employer would actually be hindering many of his employees by refusing to let an underperforming employee go.  Nevertheless, the act of termination should still be done with respect and care.

Most Christians today will be employed or employ others at some point in their lives, and many are around their coworkers as much, if not more, than their own families. Work relationships, therefore, are a basic element of our society. As with our households, the ordinariness of our work makes it easy for us to believe that it is unimportant to the kingdom of God; however, as we have seen, His kingdom is meant to thrive through the ordinary. Our God is great enough to care about each mundane day of our lives, even those that pass into oblivion from our memories. How we work is how we display Christ to those around us, just as teaching our children is how we disciple the next generation of Christ followers. In marriage, in parenting, and at work, these are specific, ordinary arenas where the gospel is most difficult to display and yet must be displayed most urgently. Just as the gospel toppled slavery from the inside out, the good news of Jesus Christ transforms the world through the unyielding faithfulness of God’s people in the most ordinary facets of life.

Brothers and sisters, walk in a manner worthy of your great calling in Christ, especially among your own household.


[1] There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule. For instance, a slave who managed the entire estate for his wealthy master almost certainly had a “better” life than many freemen who lived in poverty. Yet the condition still remains that the slave belonged to his master. Likewise, the reality that many husbands certainly treated their wives with dignity and respect does not change the reality that women in antiquity did not possess the rights that modern women have.

[2] In fact, I would argue that the particular racial form of slavery in the United States was something of a volatile death throw of slavery. Since Christianity had infiltrated Western culture, arguments against the full humanity of slaves were required to justify continuing the practice. Slavery’s end, however, was already written during the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s