Our next passage in the book of Ephesians talks about the controversial subject of slaves and masters…
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5 NIV).
This teaching can be difficult to understand in our 21st century world because almost everyone today agrees that slavery (the idea that one human being can be made to serve as the property of another human being) is a violation of basic human rights. It’s also safe to say that most people today would probably (and rightly) agree that the whole idea of “slavery” is evil and totally unacceptable.
Because of this, it may be hard to understand why the Bible would instruct someone who was trapped within this situation to be obedient, respectful, and sincere. Is it possible that this passage of Scripture (along with others such as Colossians 3:22) can be used to show that God actually approves of an immoral practice like slavery?
Let’s see if we can answer this important question by looking at some assumptions first. For example, have you ever really thought about why most people view slavery as something evil? Well, we can start by defining “evil” as “the absence of something good that should exist.” In other words, when something good should exist -but doesn’t- then “evil” is the result.
For instance, if you have nice clear skin without any blemishes then that’s certainly not evil because everyone should ideally have good clear skin. However if someone loses their eyesight or hearing, then evil results because something good that should be there (like the ability to see or hear) is now missing.
“Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart” (Ephesians 6:6 NIV).
We can now take this definition and ask, “What good thing is absent when slavery exists?” Well, the good thing that’s missing from the practice of slavery is freedom because freedom gives us the ability to make real choices. The ability to make choices is good because it allows us to experience real love and love is good because it comes from God who is love (see 1 John 4:8).
Taken together, these steps help us understand why the practice of slavery is inherently wrong. Unfortunately, the problem is that people throughout most of human history have not viewed slavery as something evil, immoral, or bad.
For example, the Bible’s book of Exodus tells the well-known story of how millions of people were made to serve as slaves in Egypt. Later on in the New Testament period, it’s thought that there may have been as many as 60 million slaves (or up to ½ of the population) throughout the known world at that time. In fact, there were so many slaves during this period that it’s believed that slaves actually outnumbered free people in some areas. on>
While some slaves did manage to obtain high ranking positions with lots of status, slaves were mostly considered to be lower-class people without any rights at all. A slave was considered to be the “property” of his or her master in those days and a slave owner actually had the legal right to kill a slave if that slave became sick or couldn’t work. This attitude towards slavery was summed up by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who once said that a “…master and slave have nothing in common; a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.”*
“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (Ephesians 6:7-8 NIV).
So slavery was an accepted way of life at that time and as strange as it may sound today, there were Christians who owned slaves and other Christians who served as slaves. However, it’s important to understand that the existence of slavery didn’t necessarily come with God’s approval. The Scriptures tell us that all human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and that, “We are no longer Jews or Greeks or slaves or free men or even merely men or women, but we are all the same-we are Christians; we are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The problem is that a great moral wrong like slavery can become established and accepted when people don’t follow the God of the Scriptures. Jesus illustrated this attitude when He said to His followers, “You know that in this world kings are tyrants and officials lord it over the people beneath them” (Matthew 20:25 NLT). Jesus also said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34 NIV) so it shouldn’t surprise us to find examples of sinful human beings who act on this spiritual reality by physically enslaving others.
“And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him” (Ephesians 6:9 NIV).
So instead of mounting a direct attack on the practice of slavery through the pages of the Bible, God chose to use a more subtle but very effective tactic. First, the Scriptures told Christian slaves that they should work for their owners just as if they were working for God and always give their best effort- even when their boss wasn’t watching. Slave-owners were then told to treat those who worked for them in the same way. They were not allowed to threaten slaves and they also had to provide what was right and fair (Colossians 4:1). These instructions, along with Jesus’ teaching to “…treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12 NAS) meant that all Christians -slave or free- now had the equal obligation to treat each other with mutual respect and dignity.
Over time, these principles began to break down the divisions between people and helped to undermine the slave/owner mentality that existed. As these values began to change people on the inside, they also began to influence a change in attitude away from the old master/slave model of working relationships. So the Biblical teaching that both slaves and masters were equal in God’s sight laid the important groundwork that helped eliminate the once common practice of slavery and continues to do so today.