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Freedom is a wonderful ideal. But in reality, none of us lives a life that is totally free. We all have restrictions in life. Some of these restrictions arise from good things. The concrete circumstances of our life—our relationships, our family, our work, our commitments, our upbringing, our national status, and more, might all be good, but they also place real constraints on us. For example, most of us must work to earn a living; few of us can spend all day, every day, doing exactly what we want. And for some people, economic constraints are particularly pressing and severe. For some, life is so strongly controlled by economic constraints and obligations that the ideal of freedom is simply a pipe dream.
In Ephesians 6:5–8, Paul is writing to people in this kind of situation. He’s talking to “slaves”. But we need to be careful here. For those of us who live in the modern Western world, the word “slaves” conjures up particular images. The word “slave” today is commonly associated with the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th-early 19th centuries, during which traders captured people from Africa and sold them as slaves to the Americas and the British Empire. Thankfully, this trade was legally abolished in the early 19th century, due to the efforts of many—especially Evangelical Christians in England such as Hannah More and William Wilberforce. Today, slavery is still universally illegal. Yet tragically, this illegal slavery continues to be a huge problem in our world. The wickedness of the modern criminal slave trade, especially the sex-slave trade, is widespread even in modern Western countries. The International Justice Mission, a Christian organisation that is a leader in this field, currently works very hard against slavery, and is worth supporting. The modern criminal slave trade is supported by the pornography industry (and by the way, please realise that if you are using pornography, you are actively supporting some of the most vicious criminal slavery, abuse and human misery that has existed in history. It’s not true that it doesn’t hurt anybody).
However, the slavery Paul is referring to here was broader and more varied than either the transatlantic slave trade or the modern criminal slave trade. “Slaves” in the ancient Roman Empire were very common, because state-endorsed slavery was a fundamental building block in the Empire’s economic and social fabric. As a result, “slaves” were everywhere, and they lived in a wide variety of conditions. Some slaves were treated terribly; others were looked after very well and had quite good prospects in life. And slavery was not necessarily permanent: slaves could be freed or could buy their freedom. But of course, not everyone got this opportunity. So slavery was a widespread and varied phenomenon. Still, there was a common factor to all slavery: state-endorsed restriction of economic and personal freedom. A slave was someone who was legally tied to the household of a master, and so was not free to live where and how he or she wanted to live. These “slaves” are the kind of people Paul is addressing here, when he says:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, with whole-hearted sincerity, as obeying Christ, not just serving to be seen, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ doing God’s will from within, serving with a good attitude, as rendering service to the Lord and not human beings, recognising that for each one of us, whatever good we have done, this we will get back from the Lord—whether slave or free.Ephesians 6:5–8
The situation of slaves: Limited freedom
At this point in his letter, Paul is speaking about various circumstances in which believers in Christ are to “submit to one another through respect for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). One of these circumstances is slavery: slaves are to submit by obeying their earthly masters. But this kind of “submission” is different from the other kinds of “submission” Paul was talking about in the previous verses, i.e. the relationships of wives and husbands, children and parents. Those kinds of “submission” have to do with God’s good order, grounded in his designs for creation, in relationships that are inherently good. In the Bible, however, slavery is never said to be inherently good. Rather, whenever this state-endorsed restriction of freedom appears, it is simply treated as an economic reality of human life: a condition that people live in. That’s why elsewhere, Paul encourages slaves to gain their freedom if they can (see 1 Corinthians 7:21; cf. Philemon 16–17). In fact, in Ephesians itself, what Paul says about the equal status of all those in Christ before God (Ephesians 2:19) rules out any idea that slaves are a lesser class of people. So for Paul, the state-endorsed “slavery” of his day was just an economic and social reality that people lived in.
It’s true that Paul doesn’t here push to overturn all the political conditions in the Roman Empire connected to slavery. But there are reasons why he wouldn’t do this here. Firstly, he (and most of his audience) aren’t in a position of political power themselves: after all, Paul is writing a letter of encouragement from a Roman prison, not a political treatise from the Roman senate. And secondly, it’s not directly a salvation issue. That is, Paul doesn’t see salvation as happening through overturning the political order of the Roman Empire. Rather, he sees salvation as happening, first and foremost, through Christ’s death and resurrection (see e.g. Ephesians 2:4–7), and so through the gospel message about Christ’s death and resurrection (see e.g. Ephesians 1:13). So here, Paul writes to people who, though they have indeed been saved and raised with Christ, and have that incredible status and security as dearly loved children of God, are nevertheless living in a situation of state-endorsed limited economic freedom. So he wants to show them how to live in that particular situation, in light of the gospel of Christ.
In some ways, what Paul says here applies to anyone who finds themselves in a situation of economic constraint. For example, it can apply to modern employees, because an employee is someone who needs to work to earn money to live, and so has an economic constraint. We need to be careful about drawing too strong a link between modern employees and ancient slaves, of course, because many employees actually have a great deal of economic power and freedom. But given that caveat, these verses still apply to modern workers. And in fact, there are many other modern situations in which these verses apply, even more directly. These situations involve people who are under real economic constraints and don’t have much power at all in the situation. This is true for many people in our world: for example, those who’ve got themselves into severe debt or are bankrupt, those who are bound to serve in the military, those in prison, employees who really are bound to a low wage or truly stuck in certain conditions, foreign workers whose freedom is limited by the government of their host country, and many carers.
If this describes you, then Paul is not saying you must stay in that situation or that the situation itself is perfectly OK. However, he’s making an important point here. He’s addressing the issue of what to do, as believer in Christ, if you find yourself in a situation of limited economic freedom. He’s saying that the situation can be transformed by the gospel. Once you have the security that comes from the gospel of Christ, you are able to see yourself and your situation in an entirely new light, and lift your eyes to live life in service of him, even in these hard situations, rather than simply living as a slave.
Serving the true master
Paul tells slaves: “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear”. At first glance, this might sound like a simple instruction for slaves to just do what is expected. The phrase “respect and fear” can be translated “fear and trembling”. Masters in the ancient world often controlled their slaves through fear of punishment. However, the word “master” here is the same word for “Lord”, and the phrase “respect and fear” is also used to describe reverence and awe before God (see e.g. Philippians 2:12). So this instruction to slaves has something greater behind it: the “respect for Christ” that Paul described back in Ephesians 5:21. As Paul goes on, he makes it clear that slaves are to act in their lives in light of the greater reality: “as obeying Christ”, “as slaves of Christ”, and “as rendering service to the Lord and not human beings”.
The point Paul is making here is that we do have a true master, a real master, i.e. “the Lord” Christ. And this “Lord” is wonderful. Being a “slave” of this master is an incredibly privileged position. Slaves need to remember who their true master is, and what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for them. Back at the start of his letter, Paul spoke about Christ as the one in whom we have “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3–14): in him we are chosen, forgiven, adopted, and being given knowledge and hope. This is the Lord we serve. We are raised with him (Ephesians 2:6–7), secure in the power we have in him, above all other powers and authorities (Ephesians 1:19–21). And this is what gives us the strength to serve him gladly. This is the reality behind our service of our earthly masters: our service of our heavenly Lord Christ.
That’s why there are limits to the “obedience” slaves should render to their masters. Paul is not giving an absolute command here. He’s not saying, for example, that slaves must obey their masters’ commands to do immoral or idolatrous actions. If a master asked a slave to do these things, the slave’s “obedience” to Christ would involve taking the consequences for not doing it, or maybe even appealing to the courts for justice if the requirements were illegal.
The key point Paul is making here is this: in the day-to-day life of economic constraint that slaves find themselves in, they should lift their eyes to see themselves in terms of the deeper reality of serving Christ, not just serving their earthly masters.
How to serve Christ
How should slaves serve? In fact, what Paul says here is applicable to any situation we as believers might find ourselves in where we are bound and obliged to serve others. Paul spells it out both negatively and positively.
Negatively, we should not just be “serving to be seen”, and “people-pleasers”. In this mode of “serving”, the goal is not actually to do a good job or care for others through your work; rather, the goal is to get away with whatever you can and to make yourself look better so you’re seen to be doing the right thing. It’s the kind of work you do when you really don’t care about your master or the job. Rather, we are to work “with whole-hearted sincerity”, “doing God’s will from within” and “with a good attitude”. This is how you work when you really care about your master, and want to align yourself with your master’s desires. It’s the kind of service that comes from an inner, not just external, commitment. It’s the kind of service that comes when you serve a good and kind master. And what Paul is saying here is this: if you realise that actually you are serving Christ, then no matter what kind of earthly master you’re under, you actually do have a great and loving heavenly master. So you have a reason to work well, for him.
Of course, earthly masters (and bosses) can sometimes exploit the good attitudes of their workers, and end up trying to squeeze every last job out of their workers’ willingness to keep working beyond the call of duty. This is unjust, and in the end, it breeds resentment (we’ll look at this more when we come to Ephesians 6:9). If you’re a worker in this kind of situation today, the Bible is not saying here that you should let your boss continue to take advantage of your good attitude. There is definitely a place for speaking up against being exploited by a boss who uses your good attitude and doesn’t set proper limits and boundaries for you. At the same time, it’s important to realise that you should not just be serving to be seen, but serving Christ, sincerely, from the heart.
Our work matters
In the final part of this instruction to slaves, Paul reminds us that our work matters. He says to serve “recognising that for each one of us, whatever good we have done, this we will get back from the Lord—whether slave or free”. Slaves in the ancient world seldom received a great reward or recognition for their work. The best they could normally hope for was to receive enough to live on. The same may be true for you in your own economic situation. There are some people today who get great rewards and recognition for their work, but many others simply don’t get a fair reward or recognition, even though their work is equally valuable. Yet, as Paul says here, there is a reward and recognition: a reward that comes from the Lord himself. Doing good has eternal significance, even if it’s not recognised here on earth. It’s not necessarily that the work itself will endure forever. But God does care about how you work. The acts of love and the service themselves, if you have done them for the Lord, matter to him. These good works don’t earn us salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9). But they still matter, because they are good works that God has prepared in advance for us to walk in, as his new creation (Ephesians 2:10). And so as we do them, we are acting as people who are taking part in the “will” of God (Ephesians 1:10), and as people who will receive an “inheritance” from him (Ephesians 1:14, 18), sharing in “the outstanding riches of his grace” (Ephesians 2:7).
Understanding this reward helps us to keep going when we just have to get on with it. If we’re stuck in a job we don’t want to be in or that seems futile, then it really helps to know that the job we’re doing is something done in service of Christ, and that God cares about how we act in it. Of course, this is not to say that you can never change your job if you get the opportunity. It’s important, if you are in a situation in life where you can make choices, to be wise about what work you decide to do. And being “wise” doesn’t simply mean applying worldly wisdom; it means applying the wisdom Paul describes in Ephesians 5:15–17: understanding “the will of the Lord”, not loving the things of the world or chasing after career, but aligning yourself to God’s plans through the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. Still, many people don’t have a choice, or are past the point where they can easily change their choices. If that’s you, then it’s important to remember that “just getting on with it” matters to God. It’s more than just meaningless drudgery. When Jesus returns, your sincere service will be acknowledged, and so it does matter. In fact, that’s true whether we’re a slave or free. That’s why at the end, Paul reminds us that we’re all in the same situation when it comes to Christ. There are no second-class citizens in him (see Ephesians 2:19). So knowing our security and status in Christ transforms how we act in our day-to-day obligations.
Are you in a situation in life where you are constrained rather than free? How does knowing that Christ is your true master help you to live in that situation?
In your own work (or parenting or study or job-seeking) situation, how does knowing that Christ is your true master help you to serve sincerely?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.