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
As Paul continues to discuss the application of walking as children of light, in love and in submission to one another, he brings up a particularly difficult relationship for us as modern believers to understand. He has already addressed husbands and wives, and children and their parents. But now he takes on the relationship between slaves and their masters. There are those who would label Paul as a proponent of the institution of slavery, because he does not speak out against it. But Paul, like Christ, was not out to revolutionize civil institutions or bring about social upheaval. He was interested in redeeming the lives of those who made up the society. So while it is true that Paul does not speak out against or condemn the socially accepted practice of slavery in his day, this does not mean he was a supporter of it. In fact, in his letter to Philemon, he appeals to his brother in Christ regarding one of his slaves, a man called Onesimus. Evidently Onesimus had run away from Philemon and had somehow ended up meeting Paul and, under his influence, had become a believer. He ended up ministering to Paul while he was a prisoner there. And Paul had encouraged Onesimus to do the right thing and return to Philemon, his master. Slavery was legal in Paul’s day and Onesimus was obligated to return to Philemon or face severe punishment. But Paul wrote his letter to Philemon to explain the change that had taken place in the life of Onesimus and to ask Philemon to see his former slave as what he now was, a brother in Christ.
For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT
This is exactly the kind of context Paul is addressing in his letter to the Ephesians. Slavery was a socially accepted, legally sanctioned part of the culture of the day. And yet Paul was calling slaves and masters who came to know Christ to radically change their perspective regarding this institution – from the inside out. The interesting thing is that slaves, who were viewed as property and sub-human in many ways, were coming to faith in Christ. Not only that, they were becoming members of the local churches. It was not uncommon for a 1st-Century church to have slaves and their masters as part of its congregation. And within the context of the church, there was a unity and equality that was unheard of anywhere else in the culture of that day. Which is why Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28 NLT). In the context of the body of Christ, everyone was on an equal footing. But while coming to faith in Christ set someone like Onesimus free from sin, it did not free him from slavery. In fact, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and told them, “Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:20-22 NLT).
Paul’s primary concern was the behavior of believers. He was focused on their walk – the daily living out of their faith within the context of their existing social relationships. Which he wrote to the church in Ephesus, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ” (Ephesians 6:5 NLT). We see once again, that their motivation was to be Christ-centered, as if they were serving Christ. He became a slave, a servant on their behalf, even dying in their place so that they might be freed from slavery to sin. Now He was calling them to serve their earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Rather than forced subservience, Paul was calling them to willing submission. Paul gives them some very specific instruction about how their faith should manifest itself in their relationship with their masters.
Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. – Ephesians 6:6-7 NLT
Notice that Paul encourages them to do the will of God with all their heart. What would the will of God be in their particular situation? To walk as children of light. To walk in love. To walk in a manner worthy of their calling. Yes, even within their context as slaves. Because in reality, they were slaves of Christ. Their earthly situation was temporary. So they could work with enthusiasm, performing their earthly responsibilities as if they were doing it for the Lord, knowing that “the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free” (Ephesians 6:8 NLT).
But Paul is not done. He also addresses those individuals in the churches in Ephesus who happened to be masters. He tells them, “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Don’t threaten them; remember, you both have the same Master in heaven, and he has no favorites” (Ephesians 6:9 NLT). Their faith in Christ was to have a relationship-altering impact on their lives. Their slaves were now their brothers. And everything they did was to be done as to the Lord. This was a game-changing, life-altering moment in the lives of these individuals. Can you imagine what kinds of renewing of the mind and shifting of their paradigm was taking place as they wrestled with the new-found faith in Christ and the reality of the social construct in which they found themselves? This particular relationship between slaves and masters would put the daily application of faith in Christ to the test like no other.
Jesus did not come to revolutionize the structures of society, but the lives of the people who make up that society. He did not come to radically alter institutions, but to redeem individuals. Political change or legal sanctions do nothing to remedy the condition of the heart. Overthrowing the evil social structures of a society through rebellion or civil disobedience may bring about external change, but it will never fix the problem of sin. Believers living as children of light in the midst of darkness, loving unconditionally, submitting to one another willingly, and obeying Christ joyfully are the true change-agents in the world.