Ephesians 6:5-9 Paul's Instruction To Slaves and Masters

Our text this morning is Ephesians 6:5-9,

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.

I have often tried to imagine Paul as he would stand before a congregation that was full of slaves and masters and speak on this issue. I would imagine that it took a lot of courage for Paul to stand up before these Christian congregations and say, “Bondservants, slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”

There have been many times when I have stood before this congregation and read a text that made me tremble in some way. I would tremble because there are many texts in scripture that will tend to bring out some strong responses from the listeners.

As William Barclay speaks about slavery in Paul’s day, he says, “Often there were bonds of the deepest loyalty and affection between master and slave...But basically the life of the slave was grim and terrible. In the law he was not a person but a thing. There could never be friendship between master and slave, for they had nothing in common; for a slave was a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.”

As I have pondered this text and how to approach it, I have made the decision to begin by saying that I do not want to ignore the uncomfortable nature of this text and how it may relate to the social issues that we are experiencing in our culture. I do not want to come to this text and to immediately draw a correlation between the slavery that Paul is addressing and the parallels between employees and employers in our culture today. It seems as though that would be missing an opportunity to address some of the very real conversations that need to be had today.

In our culture, we see the problems that slavery has caused in our nation. We see the profound hurt that has been caused by prejudice and racism. We are a nation that is wondering how we can free ourselves from these sins and find healing for, and display love towards, every person in our communities.

First, I would like to ask the question, “Why does Paul not stand up and condemn the institution of slavery?” How is it that Paul simply tells servants to obey their masters. And why does he only tell the masters to have a gracious disposition to their slaves and not tell them to immediately free them?

Secondly, I would like to ask, ‘What gave Paul the confidence that a slave, who may have hated their status and situation in life, would be willing and able to obey these words?’ And I would like to ask, ‘What gave Paul confidence that a master, who may have habitually threatened his slaves (v.9), would become kind, caring, and gracious to them?’ (Ephesians 6:9 - Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening...)

#1 - Why does Paul not simply demand that slavery be demolished?

Commentators have given several reasons for this and I do not simply want to expound on their thoughts. What I would like to do is to remind us that God always begins in a different place than we do. He begins in the heart and we begin with the externals. God transforms our affections, our desires, our motives, our thinking; but we will generally begin with the demand for external change, believing that at some point the internals will catch up. But does this really happen? Does external change alone bring internal change?

Proverbs 29:25 describes our natural disposition when dealing with these things. It says, “Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that a man gets justice.” In the end, it is folly to seek justice from a ruler if our hearts never turn to the LORD. It is only the LORD who can give true justice.

Even in Paul’s century there were many reforms that were beginning to take place for the betterment of slaves. Dr. John Stott lists some of these things in his commentary. For example,

  • In AD 20 a decree of the Roman Senate specified that slave criminals were to be tried in the same way as free men.

  • In AD 50 Claudius enacted that sick slaves who were deserted by their masters should be free if they recovered.

  • In AD 75 a female slave could under certain circumstances be freed if she had been prostituted by her master.

  • In AD 90 Domitian forbade the mutilation of slaves.

  • Early in the second century laws were made to prevent the sale of slaves for immoral or gladiatorial purposes, and may have forbidden the execution of slaves by their masters.

Every person ought to grieve and mourn the sin of slavery in every form that it takes and in every place that it occurs. Every believer ought to work towards laws that protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and rejoice when the fruit of this is seen.

This week I went back and looked at a timeline of all of the laws that were made since the middle ages that sought to abolish slavery. There were times when laws came quickly. There were seasons when the laws came slowly. There were times when these issues would move forward, and there were times when these issues would have set-backs and gains would be lost.

In our day, there is a rising call for reform and justice; but can this alone bring healing? We can change the books but can we see our hearts changed through such things? And if so, why has it not happened already? Even with all of our advancements in the laws concerning these things, why is there still so much hatred, anger and mistrust?

Notice that in our text Paul speaks often of a heart change that has occurred in the believers life. In Ephesians 6:5 the slave is to obey with a sincere and generous heart, as they would Christ. In Ephesians 6:6 slaves are to not serve men as people-pleasers, but they are to do the will of God from the heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:8-9 has encouraged me this week as I have considered these things. It says, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”