Who We Work For

The Point:  Work for Christ.

Instructions to Slaves:  Ephesians 6:5-8.

[5]  Slaves, 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 servants 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 slave or free.  [ESV]

[5-8]  “Paul next addresses the relationship between slaves and masters, the third and final set of household relationships in the household code. As with the other two pairs (wives-husbands, children-parents), Paul first addressed the subordinate member of the slave-master pair, and as with the children-parents pairing, he devotes most of his energy to the subordinate party. His advice to slaves consists of a main admonition to obey their masters, followed by a series of phrases that describe the quality of this obedience. Basically, slaves are to perform their duties for their masters with integrity and consider their work as done for Christ. Paul next gives the reason why slaves should do this: God will repay everyone, whether slave or free, for the good they have done. Surprisingly, he then tells masters to do for their slaves what he has just required slaves to do for their masters, 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. Throughout the section the emphasis lies on the leveling effect that Christ’s lordship has on human relationships, and the reciprocity that should result from this among members of the household. Paul achieves this emphasis rhetorically by comparing the lordship of Christ with the lordship of the slave master. He achieves it theologically by appealing to the principle of God’s impartiality on the final day of judgment. 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 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. Paul addresses slaves first, just as he has addressed wives and children first in the other two pairs of relationships. Paul’s advice to slaves, like his advice to wives and children, moreover, is that they submit to the authority of the male household head. For wives, the submission is voluntary, but the term used for slaves is identical to the term used for children: they should obey their earthly masters. Paul’s use of earthly subtly communicates that there is another master, Christ Himself, whose authority is greater than that of the earthly master and to whom the believing slave’s ultimate loyalty lies. Eventually Paul will develop this thought in a direction that, from a theological perspective, levels the ground between slave and master. In 6:9 he reminds believing masters that both they and their slaves have a Master in heaven, who is no respecter of persons. For the moment, however, Paul uses five phrases to describe the slave’s obedience, and each phrase emphasizes the sincerity with which slaves should obey. First, they should obey with fear and trembling. Within the New Testament, this phrase occurs only here and in the undisputed letters of Paul, where it can refer to the Philippian believers’ manner of working out their salvation: they should do so with fear and trembling [Phil. 2:12]. It can also refer to the Corinthian believers’ willingness to obey Titus when he came to them with corrective advice from Paul: they welcomed Titus with fear and trembling [2 Cor. 7:15]. In a slight variation of the phrase, Paul says that he came among the Corinthians in weakness and in fear and much trembling [1 Cor. 2:3]. The phrase, then, seems to refer to the recognition of the subordinate and weak position that one occupies with respect to others. There is nothing here to indicate that the subordinate party fears physical punishment, and insofar as Paul speaks to slaves with believing masters, he makes it clear that he expects masters not to use even the threat of violence against their slaves. Slaves, then, are to obey in full recognition of the subordinate position they occupy with respect to their masters. Second, slaves should obey with a sincere heart. The term sincere means integrity, and coupled with heart it refers to inner sincerity. It was a virtue highly valued in Hellenistic Judaism [1 Chron. 29:17]. As a virtue, it specified the personal integrity that accompanies the correspondence of inner feeling with external expression. In the New Testament, sincere is a strictly Pauline word, appearing here, in the parallel passage in Colossians 3:22, in 2 Corinthians [1:12; 8:2; 9:11,13; 11:3], and in Romans 12:8, where it consistently refers to a sincere attitude, often expressed in giving generously to others. The obedience of the slave, Paul says, should have this straightforward character: there should be no division between the quality of the labor produced and the attitude of the one who produces it. Third, slaves should obey as you would Christ. Just as in 6:7 and Colossians 3:23, Paul contrasts laboring as a slave for human beings with laboring as a slave for the Lord. It is not that the master represents Christ to the believing slave, but almost the opposite: the master is factored out of the equation and replaced with the Lord. Work that believing slaves have no choice but to do now becomes a way for them to walk worthily of their calling as believers [4:1]. Fourth, slaves are to obey not merely when the slave master’s eye is on them, as if they were merely to please people, but from their inner being as people who are slaves of Christ and committed to the will of God. Paul couples eye-service and people-pleasers in verse 6 to refer to service that is performed only under the gaze of one’s overseer and does not come from the inner person. Paul emphasizes the importance of sincerity and honesty in one’s dealings with others. This ideal of acting sincerely and according to one’s inner convictions was widely valued in ancient Greco-Roman and Hellenistic Jewish ethics. Fifth, Paul says that slaves should do their assigned work with a good will. Slaves should obey their owners, then, with a positive attitude. Perhaps recognizing that this could be difficult because of the innate injustice involved in the institution of slavery, Paul urges slaves to consider their obedience as rendered to the Lord and not to man. In sum, slaves should obey their masters with sincerity and integrity, recognizing the subordinate position they occupy. They should avoid a division between the obedience they render and their willingness to render it. Their obedience to their masters should instead arise from their inner commitment to the Lord. Paul next in verse 8 gives the reason why the obedience that slaves give their masters should arise from the inner attitude of goodwill he has just described. Any good thing an individual does is repaid by the Lord, and this is true of the slave as much as it is of the free person. The term receive often means to receive in the sense of repayment in kind. Paul uses this term in this way in 2 Corinthians 5:10 to refer to the appearance of believers before Christ’s judgment seat so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Although it is possible that the reference here in Ephesians is to the mundane rewards a master might give a slave to encourage the slave’s cooperation and increased productivity, it is much more likely, in light of the parallel in 2 Corinthians 5:10 and the application of the principle to both slave and free, that Paul describes the eschatological reward that those will receive whose inner convictions have given rise to good conduct. The phrase whether he is a slave or free is reminiscent of other statements in the Pauline writings that nullify social and ethnic divisions for those who have been baptized and who have thus put on Christ. The implication of the statement is clear: ultimately there is no difference between slave and free in God’s eyes. This would come as an encouragement to slaves, whose freedom was often limited merely to the attitude they took toward what they were commanded to do, and it would come as a warning to masters, who may have thought of themselves as free to do whatever they wished with their slaves.”  [Thielman, pp. 405-408].

Instructions to Masters:  Ephesians 6:9.

[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.  [ESV]

[9]  “Although the duties of Christian slaves are spelled out in some detail, Christian slave-owners are given only three principles, all of which however have far-reaching implications against the background of the middle of the first century AD. First, do the same to them. That is, if you hope to receive respect, show it; if you hope to receive service, give it. It is an application of the golden rule. However masters hope their slaves will behave towards them, they must behave towards their slaves in the same way. Paul admits no privileged superiority in the masters; as if they could themselves dispense with the very courtesies they expect to be shown. Secondly, stop your threatening. As parents are not to provoke their children, so masters are not to threaten their slaves. That is, they are not to misuse their position of authority by issuing threats of punishment. Punishment was accepted in the Empire as the only way to keep slaves under control, and Christianity does not deny that in some circumstances punishment is legitimate, even necessary. But threats are a weapon which the powerful wield over the powerless. And a relationship based on threats is not a human relationship at all. So Paul forbade it. Thirdly, the reason for these requirements is their knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. Slave-owners were used to being flattered and fawned upon, but they should not expect (for they will not receive) such discriminatory favoritism from the Lord Christ. Thus all three principles were designed to lessen the cultural and social gap between slave and slave-owner. Instead of regarding his relationship with his slaves as that of proprietor to chattels, or of superior to inferiors, he was to develop a relationship in which he gave them the same treatment as he hoped to receive, renounced the unfair weapon of threats, and recalled that he and they both shared the same heavenly master and impartial judge.

In summary, there were three aspects to the transformed slave-master relationship which Paul taught in these verses. The first is equality. Of course nobody could imagine that in culture or in law, masters and slaves were equal. Quite patently they were not, since the one owned the other. Nevertheless, they were equal before God, because they had the same Lord and judge, who showed no partiality between them. Roman law was still in certain respects discriminatory; heavenly justice was not. Paul reminded both slaves and masters of this fact. For this was the theological foundation on which he built his doctrine of equality. Slaves were to give their earthly masters good service with a good will, as if to their heavenly Master, knowing that He would honor and reward them. Masters were not to threaten but to respect their slaves, knowing that they had the same Master in heaven. Thus, it was their shared knowledge of the lordship and the judgment of Jesus Christ which made them equal. If they remembered that Jesus was their common Lord now and would one day be their common judge, their whole attitude to one another would change. The second quality of their relationship was to be justice. What is implicit here in the general instruction to masters to do the same to them is made explicit in Colossians 4:1: Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. This injunction will have sounded extremely strange in the ears of those who first heard it. For although Roman law was becoming gradually more humane, slaves were still popularly regarded as the property of their masters, who had absolute power over them. And of course where there are thought to be no rights, there can be no justice. So justice for slaves was a revolutionary new concept. Essentially it was the gospel which insisted that slaves had rights. This is made plain by the reciprocal nature of the slave-master relationship. For if slaves had duties to their masters, masters had duties to their slaves. Then the master’s duties became the slave’s rights, just as the slave’s duties were the master’s rights. The third and highest aspect of the transformed slave-master relationship is brotherhood. It appears with conspicuous clarity in Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which he urges him to receive back his fugitive but now converted slave Onesimus, and to welcome him no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother [16]. The words would have sounded incredible to all but Christian ears. The concept of the brotherhood was Paul’s innovation and is one of the major themes of Ephesians. A message which thus united master and slave as brothers issued its radical challenge to an institution which separated them as proprietor and property.”  [Stott, pp. 253-259].

Background.  Slavery seems to have been universal in the ancient world. A high percentage of the population were slaves. They constituted the work force, and included not only domestic servants and manual laborers but educated people as well, like doctors, teachers and administrators. Slaves could be inherited or purchased, or acquired in settlement of a bad debt, and prisoners of war commonly became slaves. Nobody queried or challenged the arrangement. The institution of slavery was a fact of Mediterranean economic life so completely accepted as a part of the labor structure of the time that one cannot correctly speak of the slave problem in antiquity. This unquestioning acceptance of the slave system explains why Plato in his plan of the good life as depicted in The Republic did not need to mention the slave class. It was simply there. To those of us who live in countries in which slavery has been abolished by law for one and a half centuries, it is hard to conceive how the ownership of one human being by another can have been countenanced in this way. It is even harder to understand how slaves can have been regarded more as things than as persons. This dehumanization of slaves in the public mind was mirrored in early Roman legislation. Legally they were only chattels without rights, whom their master could treat virtually as he pleased. The early Roman state left the problem of the discipline of slaves to their owners. Consequently, accounts of terrible atrocities have survived, especially from the pre-Christian era. Slaves were sometimes whipped, mutilated and eyes gouged out, they were even thrown to the wild beasts or crucified, and all this sometimes for the most trivial offenses. The fact that some slaves ran away (risking, if caught, branding, flogging and even summary execution), while others committed suicide, is sufficient evidence that cruelty towards them was widespread. At the same time, it would be a grave mistake to suppose that this kind of barbaric treatment was either habitual or universal, or that it continued unabated into the first century AD. Although the law at first prescribed no penalties for slave owners who ill-treated their slaves, yet more often than not they were restrained by other factors, either by their own sense of responsibility, or by public opinion, or by self-interest. As for public opinion, Paul’s Stoic contemporary Seneca was teaching the brotherhood of man and urging kindness to slaves. As for self-interest, masters knew that their slaves represented a high capital investment. It was, therefore, to their own advantage to take good care of their slaves, just as they did their farm animals and their furniture.”  [Stott, pp. 250-252].

“The Abolition of Slavery.  The new relationship which Jesus Christ made possible between slave and slave-owner was something new and beautiful. Understandably, however, it has seemed to many critics an inadequate Christian response to an unmitigated evil. Did the gospel offer no more radical solution to slavery than an adjustment of personal relationships? Even if Paul held back from inciting slaves to rise up against their owners and seize their freedom (as some hotheads wish he had), why did he not at least command slave-owners to emancipate their slaves? Why are the New Testament writers so feeble and mealy-mouth, instead of condemning slavery outright for the horribly inhuman thing it was? In whatever way we Christians seek to defend ourselves and our faith against such criticisms, it must never be by condoning slavery. For if the New Testament does not explicitly condemn slavery, it does not condone it either. Although there have been varying degrees of degradation in slavery at different times and places, and although Afro-American slavery was worse than Roman, Roman than Greek, and Greek than Hebrew, yet the Christian conscience must condemn slavery in every form. Its evil lies neither in the servitude it involves (for Jesus voluntarily made Himself a slave of others, and so did His apostle Paul), nor even in the element of compulsion, but rather in the ownership by one human being of others which degrades them into subhuman goods to be used, exploited and traded, and in the cruelty which often accompanied this. This being so, we again ask why the New Testament did not call for its abolition. The first answer is the pragmatic one, namely that Christians were at first an insignificant group in the Empire. Their religion was itself still unlawful, and they were politically powerless. Besides, slavery was at that time an indispensable part of the fabric of Roman society. In most cities there were many times more slaves than free people. It would therefore have been impossible to abolish slavery at a single stroke without the complete disintegration of society. There is a second reason why we do not find in the New Testament stronger expressions of indignation at the system. The apostles’ attitude is best explained by the unique way in which the Romans of the first century AD treated their slaves, and released them in great numbers. The Roman slave, far from living in perpetual servitude, could look forward to a day of opportunity. It became the common practice of the Romans to free their slaves and then establish them in a trade or profession. Many times the former slave became wealthier than his patron. This evidence helps to explain both Paul’s advice to Corinthian slaves, if they could gain their freedom, to seize the opportunity to do so, and his strong hint to Philemon that he should release Onesimus. A third point in alleviation of the New Testament’s position is that by that time the legal status of slaves was beginning to be eased and showed signs of further improvement to come. Sweeping humanitarian changes had been introduced into the Roman world by the first century AD, which led to radically improved treatment of slaves. Steadily they were granted many of the legal rights enjoyed by free people, including the right to marry and have a family, and the right to own property.”  [Stott, pp. 254-259].


Questions for Discussion:

1.         What was Paul’s advice to slaves? What five phrases does Paul use to describe the slave’s obedience?

2.         What was Paul’s advice to masters? What three principles does Paul give to slave-owners?

3.         What are the three aspects to the transformed slave-master relationship which Paul taught in this passage?  [Equality, Justice, Brotherhood].

4.         Our work as employees cannot be equated to being a slave. But we can still learn things about our attitude toward our jobs from Paul’s instructions to slaves in 6:5-8. What can you learn from this passage concerning God-honoring attitudes toward work? If you are a supervisor, manager, or owner, what can you learn from this passage concerning how you should treat those who work for you?


The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter O’Brien, Eerdmans.

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Ephesians, Frank Thielman, BENT, Baker.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts