The subject of slavery is nearly as old as the story of the Bible itself. It is during the time of Joseph that God’s people go to Egypt, ultimately to be enslaved by the pharaoh there. It is not until the Lord raises up Moses that the people are set free in the Exodus, but not without some hardships. The Lord wanted his people to turn to him and to trust him at that time, but they found themselves following after the flesh and their sinful desires. An interesting quote from Pope Benedict XVI states this –“The primary objective, indeed the only end of the liberation from slavery, is worship. And this can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise as suggested by Pharaoh. Israel departs, not in order to be a people like all the others; it departs in order to serve God as God wants to be served.” This may be something that the Paul has in mind as he shares concerning slaves and masters in this section of the Ephesian letter. It is also similar to something he would share with Onesimus and Philemon in his letter to them. This is not a matter that our current culture can relate to directly, but certainly was a critical issue 150 years ago. There were six million slaves in the Roman Empire at the time in which the Ephesian letter was written. Slavery was an accepted institution. And what is interesting is that there is nothing specific condemning slavery in the Bible, but the overall thrust of the NT is against it. Paul’s ministry during his time contributed to the encouragement of freedom and the curtailing of slavery.
How do we take Ephesians 5:6-9 and apply it to us today? Paul could very well mean “servant” as well as “slave" in section, and can be translated either way depending upon context. The principles that he outlines could just as well apply to Christians in the workplace today. In the context of the passage, some of the tasks assigned to the slaves they detest, but they are to perform them, just as long as they are not disobeying the will of God. The right attitude of heart is essential, especially since an educated, cultured Christian slave might receive even harsher treatment from his master because of his faith. He still does his best, because he serves Christ and not men. Believers shall receive their ultimate reward from Christ and not men. (Colossians 3:13) On the other hand, Christian masters seek the workers welfare and do not threaten them. Jesus brings harmony to the slave/master relationship as he does to the employer/employee relationship, which we will discuss. Not only does the servant work for the master, but the master also works for the servant.
Paul indicates that there is a principle at work in this section that should apply to people today – Christians are to be obedient, as he shares with Onesimus (once he becomes a believer). While it may be true that most people do have masters according to this world, in the sense of being employees…for believers, their true Master is in heaven. The fact that an employer or an employee is a Christian is no excuse for either not to be diligent in their tasks -- there is to be a sense of responsibility. A Christian employee should show proper respect for his/her employer and not seek to take advantage in any way. Employees focus attention and energy on the job at hand and do what they are called to do. It may not all get done in one day, but there is diligence to do the work. This is also a good way to witness for Christ. Paul indicates that Christian workers will be rewarded for doing God’s will. A Christian can perform any good work as a ministry to Christ to the glory of God. If an employer expects the workers to do their best for him, he must do his best for them.
The master must serve the Lord from his heart if he wants his servants to do the same. A good leader must not exploit or lord it over workers. Authoritarian leadership is not Biblical leadership, although many church leaders exercise authoritarian methods. They threaten when things are not done when things are handled as they see fit. Nor should a Christian employer play favorites with those under his authority. Paul shares this message with Timothy (1 Timothy 5:21). Partiality is a fast way to divide followers and lose their confidence. It is an unfortunate matter when an employee says, “My boss is supposed to be a Christian, but one would never know it.” Paul suggests here, and in Philemon, once again, that Christian masters have (or find) a better way to encourage obedience than threats or manipulation. A good leader still leads by serving. The Christian example is the shepherd, and this is how we all should function to the best of our ability. Whether we are employees or employers, we must not forget that we are servants first…that we are Christians first.
We are slaves, servants of Christ. We need to do whatever is required in order to live submissively for Him wherever we are and in whatever we are doing. We need to be fair and consistent in our treatment of others and not exploit them in any way. It is truly important that we invest our time and energy in being builders and not wreckers. It is important that we have the right hearts as we approach our lives and ministry. We need to have an attitude of submissiveness to Christ whether we are employers or employees. And these principles are not regarding what we do at the workplace, but also in how we approach our work, ministries for the Lord. We may not be being paid for our service to the church, for example, but we have a responsibility to be just as committed to what we do for the Lord and the church (and perhaps even more so, as it bears eternal rewards) as what we would do for our employers. As in all of these things, we need to remember that we are working for the Lord and not for men. We have an accountability to give to Him. So, we need to take seriously our responsibilities, whether we are working for our employers or for our greatest employer, the Lord.