Few times in the New Testament does Paul refer to slaves obeying their masters. One case in point would be in Ephesians 6.5-8, “Slaves, 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 servants 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 slave or free.“
Frank Thielman, in the BECNT volume on Ephesians, gives an example of commentators who thought Paul didn’t disapprove of slavery.
Is it often said that this passage accepts unquestioningly the institution of slavery as it existed in the first century. ‘There is doubtless no approval, but at the same time no disapproval of the existing slavery in itself,’ said Meyer (1880:318) long ago, and most commentators would agree with him. Some recent interpreters go further and see in the passage not merely an acceptance of slavery but also an attempt to provide theological support for the institution, particularly as it benefited the slaveholder [Glancy 2006; Harrill 2006] (404).
However Thielman disagrees, “Surprisingly, [Paul] then tells masters to do for their slaves what he has just required slaves to do for their masters (6.9a), and again he finishes with a clause that gives the reason why masters should do this: they too have a master, and he is no respecter of persons (6.9b-c).”
Slaves are to obey their masters, as the children are to obey their parents (Eph 6.1). Yet Paul deems these masters as ‘fleshly’, subtly indicating there is a greater Master, that of Jesus Christ himself, the One to whom the loyalty of a believing slave ultimately lies.
Paul uses five phrases to describe the slaves’ sincere obedience:
1. “Fear and Trembling”
Like when Paul come to Corinth, he recognized his weak and subordinate position among the Corinthians (1 Cor 2.3; 9.19).
2. “In Integrity/Sincerity of Heart”
The term ‘sincere’ (ἁπλότης, haplotes] is only used by Paul in the NT and is found frequently in 2 Corinthians (1.12; 8.2; 9.11,13; 11.3). “There should be no division between the quality of the labor produced and the attitude of the one who produces it” (406).
3. Obey “as You Would Christ”
Paul contrasts laboring as a slave for humans with laboring as a slave for the Lord. The master doesn’t represent Christ to the servant. In fact, the master is factored out of the equation and replaced by Christ. Like Paul the prisoner of the Lord, this provides away for slaves to “walk worthily” of their calling as believers (4.1).
4. Slaves are Not to Obey Merely When the Master’s Eye is on Them, But as Slaves of Christ, “Committed to the Will of God”
Paul emphasizes the importance of sincerity and honesty in one’s dealings with others (2 Cor 1.17-18; 2.17; 3.2; 4.2). It is acting sincerely and according to one’s inner convictions, something highly valued in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish ethics.
5. Slaves Should Do Their Assigned Work With “Good Will”
Paul understands that there are injustices within the institution of slavery, and so “urges slaves to consider their obedience as ‘rendered to the Lord'” (407).
The slave can know that whatever good he does, in honor of the Lord, will be “repaid/given back” to him by the Lord (6.8), something true to both slave and free.
And We Can’t Forget the Masters…
Paul goes on in Eph 6.9, “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.“
Paul gives one verse to the masters because he intends for them to follow the same instructions given to the slave. But who is the master’s master? Jesus Christ.
How do masters “do the same to them [the slaves]”? Most see this as meaning the masters should treat their slaves as well as their slaves treat them, or, in light of Christ as their Master, to treat their slaves justly and fairly.
- Having spoken of “fleshly masters” (6.5), Paul reminds both parties that they serve a greater Master. Both slave and free will be judged equally at the final judgment, as there is no favoritism with the Divine Judge of heaven to whom both are subject.
- There was a strong conviction in early Christianity following the teachings of Jesus that “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9.35; 1 Cor 9.19). The head of the household, if a believer, should consider the examples of both Jesus and Paul and follow this teaching.
- Eph 1-3 teaches that humans are united in their rebellion against God (2.2-3, 11-12) and through Christ are new creations (2.10; 14.22). They are one people and a family unit in Christ.
- He deprives masters of the threat of violence, something often used by slaveowners in Roman society to force their slaves to submit, or even just to vent their anger. Believing masters must now “give up” this form of coercion. This is not giving up “certain forms of threatening”, but “threatening entirely.”
Why? Because in the presence of the Lord there is no difference between slave and master (Gal 2.6; Col 3.25).
Within a traditional Greco-Roman household, how can believers “live wisely, do the Lord’s will, grow in maturity as human beings, and live in the Spirit (5.15-18)”? Both are now free in Christ to choose righteous attitudes and actions.
Paul undermines the whole system of slaveholding, as these slave-holding believers are, in a way, to submit to their slaves (5.21), serving them in the same way they desire their slaves to serve them.
As the notes [above have explained], however, this passage is more radical than the account of it given in either of these readings [by Meyer, Glancy, and Harrill in the above quote]. There is no explicit criticism of slavery here, but the level of mutuality and reciprocity that is assumed to exist between master and slave creates an atmosphere in which it would have been difficult for slavery to survive if the advice of the passage had been rigorously followed. The problem that the passage highlights is not its own failure to rise above this brutal and ubiquitous [ever-present] institution, but the failure of those who received the passage as authoritative both in antiquity and in more recent times to live out its radical implications (404-405; emphasis mine).