Ephesians Study 17: Slaves and Masters


Teaching Text: Ephesians 6:5-9

5 Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 9 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. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 6:5–9). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

In this lesson, we are looking at another specific relationship. Remember, we are talking about practical ways that Christians should act to maintain unity in the body of Christ. This idea of unity as the body of Christ was introduced in chapter 4 and then we have continued to build on it, first with general directions for how to treat one another. Paul then begins parsing out specific relationships. First he explored the marriage relationship, then the relationship between parents and children. Now, he moves into talking about the relationship between bondservants and masters.

The ESV uses the term “bondservant,” but other translations use the term “slave” instead. The term “slave” is loaded in our modern day vernacular. With history in the U.S. of slavery that was a completely inhumane treatment of fellow imagebearers, it’s hard to not see the word “slave” as anything other than a bad term. And I don’t want to downplay the awfulness of American slavery at all, but it is worth at least noting there is a difference in what a slave or bondservant was in ancient Rome compared to the American version.

I note that to say that these verses, and others mentioning slavery in the Bible, have been used to defend slavery. Those who have done that completely misuse the Bible and do not look at their fellow human beings through the lens of which we have been talking. We should not look to restore slavery. And while we do not deal with a master/bondservant relationship in the same way today, in our country, we do have similar relationships to graft these ideas onto.

So let’s examine these few verses in the context of work relationships. Especially as some of you have begun working and will also be transitioning from full-time school to employment relationships over the next few years. (I will add that some of this could also apply to the student/teacher relationship, so keep that in mind.) We will look at both sides of the equation; the one working and the one over the one who is working.

A Theology of Work

Before jumping into the different roles, it’s important to frame this as we get into talking about work. After creating man and woman in Genesis 1, God gives them work:

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ge 1:28). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Humans were given this task of subduing the earth even before the fall when sin entered the world. The world and the things in the world were given to man by God.

29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ge 1:29–30). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Though man was to work and have dominion over these things, it all came from God. Man would be nowhere without God.

Why bring this up? It is important to see that our work is given to us by God. And what we do in our work is in response to his desire for us. Often, our “day job” is not seen in this light of being a calling or a gift from God. In fact, often in society, work can be prioritized in its importance. And there are certainly jobs and careers that have more impact or would be more detrimental to lose. The danger comes in when we see institutional church work as being a higher calling than our work in jobs and careers. Having that mindset leads to a separate view of what is sacred and what is secular.

There truly is no division between sacred and secular except what we have created. And that is why the division of the legitimate roles and functions of human life into the sacred and secular does incalculable damage to our individual lives and the cause of Christ. Holy people must stop going into “church work” as their natural course of action and take up holy orders in farming, industry, law, education, banking, and journalism with the same zeal previously given to evangelism or to pastoral and missionary work.

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperOne, 1999), 214.

This isn’t to say that the mission or work of the church is not important. The end of Matthew gives a pretty clear charge to us to make disciples of Jesus. This work is foundational and the rest of the New Testament shows it in action.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 28:18–20). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

We see from this passage that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Christ. We have a new “boss” in Christ regardless of who our earthly boss is or what our working situation is. And it’s with this idea that we will move back to the passage in Ephesians.