“Servants, obey your earthly masters, anxious to please them with honest motives, as if you were working for Christ Himself. Do not serve them eagerly only when they are watching, but as servants of Christ, doing your duties willingly and sincerely. Realize you are rendering service to the Lord, rather than men. Everyone will receive their final reward from the Lord, whether slave or free. And you masters, maintain this same attitude as well, ceasing all verbal abuse, knowing that your Master in heaven is observing you. There is no partiality with Him, making no distinction between masters and servants.” (Ephesians 6:5-9, paraphrased)
Four centuries of bondage in Egypt taught the Jews some bitter lessons regarding the harsh treatment of slaves. God later commanded the Jews in the Promised Land never to enslave another Jew. They could not kidnap a person in order to enslave them (Ex. 21:16), but were allowed to purchase foreign slaves (Lev. 25:44).
A slave was sometimes beaten to death by his master. In these instances, the master was punished (Ex. 21:20). A servant who lost an eye or a tooth in the service of his master was set free (Ex. 21:26-27). In the Year of Jubilee, all slaves were liberated and allowed to return to their homes (Lev. 25:10). A former slave wore a ring in his ear if he voluntarily chose to stay and serve his master (Ex. 21:5-6).
Interestingly, there were laws regarding Jewish indentured servants. A thief who could not make monetary restitution could be forced to work off his debt. Although laws on this subject may seem contradictory, all were designed to preclude abusive treatment in Hebrew society.
Slavery was common in Roman culture. Because citizens saw work as beneath their dignity, the social structure functioned primarily by slave labor. The strongest and best citizens of conquered nations were in bondage to the dominant society. Some 60 million slaves toiled and died in the Roman Empire. Because the practice of slavery was so common in first century Rome, many cities had almost as many slaves as citizens.
Aristotle considered a slave a “living tool,” something that was “a little better than a beast who could talk.” Roman slaves had no legal rights and were regarded as commodities to be bought, sold, and frequently abused. They could be beaten or killed for the slightest offense. Brutality was commonplace. If a slave tried to escape, he could be branded on the forehead with an “F” for fugitive (fugitivus), forever marked as a flight risk.
The inhumane enslavement of other human beings is a powerful evidence of the universal existence of sin. It is very apparent throughout the world that those not led by God’s Holy Spirit tend to oppress others.
Many Gentile homes utilized slaves and the New Testament writers accepted this as an existing institution. While they do not condemn the practice, neither do they advocate its overthrow. Paul does not attack slavery directly. Demanding immediate emancipation would have branded Christianity as a subversive sect. Spartacus and the Third Servile War more than a century before proved the futility of open rebellion: six thousand slaves were crucified as a result. But as the Roman Empire eventually crumbled under the influence of the Church, so did its system of slavery.
At the core of Christianity is the spirit of liberation from bondage. However, it must be understood that newfound freedom in Christ is not liberty to do what we want but to do what He wants. Believers are taught to seek out and minister to the underprivileged (Mt. 25:34-40). The global emancipation movement was spearheaded by Christians throughout the centuries. It is a sad testimony slavery was not abolished in America until the 1860’s.
Every aspect of human life involves some degree of submission to authority. Because the basic problems of the human race are spiritual rather than social, Paul promotes the timeless principles of mutual love and compassion. Regarding this topic, he has already instructed husbands and wives (5:21); parents and children (6:1). His final illustration of submission concerns the relationship between slaves and masters. Paul’s remarks verify God is concerned about those deemed least important on the social scale.
The Apostle’s moral and ethical comments extend and apply to 21st century employer/employee relations as well. Workers today often demand more sick days, increased vacation time, better benefits, or increased pay. While none of these desires are intrinsically evil, Paul points out every motive of a Believer is under the scrutiny of Christ. Any workplace is empowered and blessed when Christian principles are applied.
“Slaves” is douloi and usually indicates bondage. Regardless of one’s position, correct attitude and behavior reflect a right relationship with Christ. Peter instructs servants to be obedient even to unreasonable masters (I Pet. 2:18-20). Paul’s compassionate plea to Philemon regarding his slave Onesimus demonstrates God’s heart for both servants and masters. Because slaves were so numerous in the Roman Empire, it is likely a proportional number of them were in the churches. In view of their newfound liberty in Christ, it was hard for many to reconcile their standing before God with their allegiance to a human master.
Paul informs servants the best way to maintain a consistent testimony is by willing obedience and productivity. To be constantly complaining, slothful, or perform tasks halfheartedly is a poor witness. Christian employees today are bound to these same standards, for submission to a superior is congruent with submission to God. Paul wrote to Titus that servants who are obedient and pleasant validate the doctrines of Christ (Titus 2:9-10). The phrase “according to the flesh” reminds slaves that that their service is limited only to this lifetime: their reward is futuristic.
Servants are to obey “in fear and trembling.” However, this phrase suggests honor and respect rather than being afraid. If a master cannot be honored on his own merits, then he should be respected for the Lord’s sake. God is ultimately in control of the boss and those subordinate to him. Every workplace is a potential mission field. The attitudes and actions of employees can be a powerful testimony to fellow workers. We work with “sincerity of heart” when we perform our duties without gossiping, or criticizing. Whether secretary or salesperson, the Lord promises to promote those who wholeheartedly work “as unto Christ” (Mt. 25:21).
To be productive only when a supervisor is watching is both dishonest and unethical. Paul trusts Christian servants will see a more noble purpose in life. Working with “good will” (eunioas) implies enthusiasm. Those passed over for promotion today often become marginal performers. One who does “the will of God from the heart” is not concerned when the eye of a boss or a camera is on them. They perform every task efficiently, as if done for their heavenly Master (Eccl. 9:10). Throughout Church history, the Holy Spirit has continuously sought to eliminate ulterior motives. A good Christian understands his or her work can pass inspection both on earth and in heaven.
Jesus Himself is our great example, for He “took on the form of a servant” throughout His ministry (Phil. 2:7-8). He served His disciples when he washed their feet (John 13:14). He taught that He came not to be ministered unto, but to minister (Mk. 10:45).
Paul assures the Ephesians that God is impartial. Both slaves and masters will receive the proper reward if they are diligent, honest, and sincere.
An oft-repeated story illustrates this concept:
A missionary couple returned home after decades of service in Africa. Teddy Roosevelt was a passenger on this same ship, coming back from Africa after a big game hunt. Thousands of admirers and many reporters were present to greet the president, but no one came to welcome the missionaries. That night the husband complained to his wife about how unfair this seemed. “We gave forty years of our life to Africa, yet no one noticed when we returned. The President went there for a few weeks to kill animals and was welcomed home with great fanfare.” But as they prayed that night, the Lord spoke to them and said, “You have not received your welcome…because you are not home yet.”
Earthly rewards must never overshadow heavenly rewards.
Both masters and servants offend God if they allow bitterness to rule their lives. Paul reminds masters that instructions given to servants are to be administered according to godly principles. The word for earthly masters is kurios, but the same term is capitalized when referring to Christ (Kurios). The power to govern others is a God-given authority that demands responsibility. Paul understands slaves to be God’s property rather than human property. For masters, he trusts oppression and cruelty will be replaced with consideration and compassion. For slaves, he hopes dishonesty and laziness will be replaced with integrity and industriousness.
In the first century, workers herded flocks, performed household tasks, or tended crops. Contemporary employees have diverse ways of earning their livelihood. However, it is the pragmatic effects of the Spirit-filled life that effectively regulate human conduct.
The boss who intimidates his employees abuses his God-given position. Although he may exert control over them physically, he can never control them spiritually. Managerial temperaments are often volatile. But rather than resorting to threats and intimidation, Paul pleads for kindness and leniency. Seeking the welfare of subordinates and treating them with fairness and respect honors the Lord, who is always cognizant of our attitudes and behavior. He is impartial and plays no favorites.
Employees become more satisfied and productive neither by the promise of better benefits nor threats of demotion. In the end, all will stand on equal ground before the great Tribunal. The key for quality workmanship is the presence of the Holy Spirit, reminding all Believer they are actually working for God.
A Christian supervisor should be aware everyone in the workplace is ultimately under God’s authority and accountable to Him. Equal subservience to the same Master levels the field in the workplace, allowing everyone to enjoy His blessings.
Points to Ponder:
1. Paraphrase what Paul tells the Thessalonians regarding the work ethic. (I Thess. 4:11-12).
2. How is a Christian to work (Col. 3:22-24)?
3. Summarize the “work ethic” Paul presents to the Thessalonians (II Thess. 3:8).
4. Can the use of a company computer to access one’s personal social media be considered thievery? Explain your answer.
5. Who will stand on common ground at the judgment seat of Christ (II Cor. 5:10)?
6. What does Paul state regarding the slave trade in I Timothy 1:9-10?
7. What insight can I Corinthians 7:22-23 provide concerning a right attitude toward our circumstances in life?
8. Paraphrase Titus 2:9-10. Explain how God is “blasphemed” by a contrary and bitter spirit.
9. Read the short Epistle to Philemon. Explain in a brief paragraph how Paul wants Philemon to receive home his former slave.