Masters and Slaves
by Jack Wald | February 19th, 2017

Ephesians 6:5-9

There was extensive slavery practiced within Africa before the Europeans arrived and certainly afterwards. There has also been extensive slavery practiced in the Arab world. Slaves were acquired as captives in wars and by kidnaping by pirates. In the 1600s and 1700s and even in the early 1800s North African pirates kidnaped an estimated 1,000,000 Europeans, sometimes making raids on small fishing villages in the pre-dawn hours, raiding up as far north as England and Ireland, and bringing their captives back to North Africa where they were sold as slaves. Meknes was built with slave labor from these Europeans.

Most cultures in history have had slaves, but there have been five genuine slave societies in history which stand out because of the dominance of slaves in the society. Ancient Greece and Rome are two. Brazil by the 18th and 19th centuries is three. The Caribbean with its Great West Indies sugar-producing empire of the French, British, Dutch, Spanish, and others is four. The American South is five. In these societies, one quarter to one half and sometimes more than one half of the population were slaves. The political and great economic institution that defined ways of life was slavery.

When Paul writes about masters and slaves in Ephesians, he is speaking out of the Greco-Roman culture, one of these slave societies, where slavery was a political and economic institution. In this culture slaves could own property and buy their freedom when they reached the age of 30 or 40. “Slaves served in households not only as cooks, cleaners, and personal attendants, but also as tutors of people of all ages, physicians, nurses, close companions, and managers of the household. In the business world, slaves were not only janitors and delivery boys; they were managers of estates, shops, and ships, as well as salesmen and contracting agents. In the civil service slaves were not only used in street-paving and sewer-cleaning gangs, but also as administrators of funds and personnel and as executives with decision-making powers.”

Often slaves received a better education, paid for by their employers. These slaves formed the broad class of intellectuals in the 1st century. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery so that they could be educated and trained. In the Greco-Roman world of Paul, it was difficult to tell who was a slave and who was a free man.

So when we read about slaves in the New Testament, we need to understand that slavery was much broader and much more diverse than slavery as we know it today. The slaves Paul refers to correspond to our modern day teachers, doctors, administrators, managers, bureaucrats, tradesmen,  as well as those who perform menial labor.

Yes, there were slaves as we understand slavery today. There was mistreatment and abuse of men and women who were slaves. But that was only one part of the much larger body of slaves in Roman society.

So, Paul’s words about slaves and masters is not a defense of slavery as we know it today. It is not a defense for the cruel and abusive treatment of men and women as slaves. It is a mistake to read the Bible and use it to justify cruel and abusive treatment of slaves as was done in the very religious south of the US in the 1700s and 1800s. In this culture preachers stood in their pulpits and defended slavery by saying that the curse of Ham, the son of Noah who looked at his father’s nakedness, applied to his black descendants. They used today’s text from Ephesians to tell the slaves to submit to their masters.

The Bible has often been used and abused to make it say what it does not say. The preaching in churches in the south of the US is a tragic example of this.

When we read the text for today, it is helpful for us, when we read “master/slave”, to translate that as “employer/employee”.  Whether you are a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, a diplomat, a social worker, or a teacher, you probably work for someone else. Someone else is your boss. You report to someone who writes a performance appraisal of you each year. Most of us are employees. Some of us are employers. And many of us are both employees and employers. We report to someone above us but we also have people who work for us.

What does Paul’s teaching about masters and slaves have to teach us about what we do?

Ephesians 5:18–21, 6:5-9
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
9 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.

Once again we begin with Paul’s instructions in chapter five.

He tells us not to get drunk on wine, not to live so we are controlled by our selfish human desires. In Galatians 5 Paul tells us in more detail what these are: Galatians 5:19–21
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

Then Paul goes on in verses 21-22 to talk about the fruit that comes from being filled with the Spirit.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.

Paul tells us that instead of being controlled by the acts of the flesh, we should be filled with the Spirit.
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit,

We are to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.
We are to sing and make music from our heart to the Lord
We are to always give thanks to the Lord
We are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This is the context in which we approach the three relationships that follow. The three relationships are illustrations of how we submit to one another. And that submission is made possible by the filling of the Spirit.

So when we look at the verses about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, we need to understand them as an application of what it means to be filled with the Spirit, allowing the life of the Spirit to affect all parts of our lives. The married relationship between husband and wife should be a relationship of mutual submission. I talked about that two Sundays ago. The relationship between parents and children should be a relationship of mutual submission. I talked about that last Sunday. Today we will look at the master/slave relationship and see what mutual submission looks like with employers and employees.

Let me share what the text says and what it means, and then we will venture into how this applies to us.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

As an employee or as a student, followers of Jesus are called to obey their employer, their professor, their boss with respect and fear. The phrase “respect and fear” is sometimes translated as “fear and trembling.” This is not fear of being punished if we do not obey. This is not obeying because we are afraid of what will happen to us if we do not obey. This phrase speaks of the reverence and awe of being in the presence of God. It is a godly fear of the believer in view of the final day. This takes us back to verse 21:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Out of reverence for Christ, we obey those in authority over us.

Paul continues:
6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.

When the boss is watching we are on our best behavior. We want to impress our boss. Why? Because he or she will determine if we get a raise or a promotion. We want our professor or boss to think highly of us so they will give us what we want, what we think we deserve.

But Paul twists this and says we are to work as slaves of Christ. We get a paycheck from our employer. We get grades from our teacher or professor. But Paul tells us we are working for Jesus. Jesus is our boss. We work hard for Jesus. If we get a raise or a good grade, that is icing on the cake. But we work for Jesus.

Paul tells us we obey “as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Our obedience is not an outward, practical course of action. We don’t obey so we get what we want. Our obedience is not a calculated move on our part so we get approval. Our obedience comes from our heart.

Because of all that God has done for us, because of all that God is doing for us, because of all that God will do for us, we give him our lives. We belong to him and all we are and all we do is for him. So our obedience comes from a heart that is overflowing with gratitude for the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus poured into our lives.

We obey with a heart that is given to God.

7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

We work hard for the Lord. We will receive grades and pay for our performance at school and work, but we work for the reward that will be ours when we come into our eternal home.

What does Paul have to say to employers, professors, bosses?
9 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.

“Treat your slaves in the same way.” What does this mean? I think it means that as employers, professors, bosses, we are to serve those who work for us or study under us as Jesus served us. We lead by serving.

We don’t hold on to the privileges and perks that come to us because of our position. We don’t demand to be treated with respect. We don’t live on a throne being addressed with exalted titles. We have gifts and talents and use them as we are all supposed to use our gifts and talents to serve Jesus.

We treat those who work for us as we would like to be treated by those we work for.

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.

As employees, professors, and bosses, we are not to use our authority to terrorize and abuse those who work for us or study under us.

One day we will stand next to someone who was our boss and next to someone who worked for us and at that point we will not be masters or slaves, we will be brothers and sisters in Christ – with no favoritism.

It might help to imagine, when you are in the position of being a boss, of standing in front of Jesus as you interact with those who work for you. In each interaction, what would Jesus have to say to you about the way you treated the person who works for you?

This is what we are to keep in mind when we are given authority. We lead by serving, just as Jesus led by serving. We treat people with respect because these are people loved by God and one day they may be with us in heaven.

How does all this apply to us?

Most of us will be employees and employers. We will work for someone and we will have people who work for us. Let me start with working for someone else.

Work hard to support the person you work for. Paul says we work for the Lord. Don’t tear down your boss when you talk with other employees. You may disagree with your boss, but don’t tell others something you would not tell your boss. If you have a disagreement with your boss, tell him or her directly. Don’t weaken your boss’ leadership by undermining him or her with negative comments made to your coworkers.

Be honest. Don’t cheat. If you get paid by the hour, don’t add time that you did not work. If you get reimbursed for expenses, don’t inflate the expenses you submit. Don’t take work supplies and bring them home for your personal use.

Don’t take advantage of your boss. Work hard to make your boss effective in his or her work.

Be a person of your word. If you say you will do something, do it. Don’t make promises you cannot keep. Don’t lie.

There is a great story about a godly man nicknamed ‘Gibbo’ who, when he was young, worked as a clerk at Selfridges, the London department store. One day when the owner, Gordon Selfridge, was there, the telephone rang and Gibbo answered it. The caller asked to speak to Gordon Selfridge. Gibbo passed on the message and Selfridge replied, ‘Tell him I’m out.’ Gibbo held out the receiver to him and said, ‘You tell him you’re out.’ Gordon Selfridge took the call, but was furious with him. Gibbo said to him afterwards, ‘If I can lie for you, I can lie to you.’ From that moment onwards Gordon Selfridge had the highest regard for and trust in Gibbo.

As an employee you will make mistakes. If you make a mistake, own the mistake. Take responsibility for what you do. Making mistakes is inevitable. It is unavoidable. But you can be a person of your word.

Don’t be jealous or envious of your boss. It may be that you are more qualified than your boss. Life is not fair. Your boss may have personal friendships or connections that got him or her the job. It may not be fair but that is the way the world often works. It may not be just but your calling from God is to work for your boss as you work for the Lord.

You may be thinking that I am being too idealistic, that I am being unrealistic. You may be thinking, “Jack can say that in a sermon but I live in the real world.” In response I take you back to what Paul wrote. Obey earthly masters as you would obey Christ. Serve wholeheartedly as if you were serving the Lord. If you disagree with what I am saying, disagree with what Paul is saying.

I worked one summer when I was in seminary for a car company, General Motors. This plant built Cadillac Devilles, Buick Electras, and Oldsmobile 98s. This was an amazing assembly line that produced one car each minute. Each minute another car rolled off the end of the assembly line. (For the first week my job was to drive the cars off the assembly line and into the parking lot. That was my best week.) In order to produce one car a minute, each person on the assembly line needed to do his or her part and if any one person did not do his or her part, the whole line stopped. When the line stopped, the head of manufacturing in Detroit saw that it stopped. He called the head of the plant in New Jersey and yelled at him. The head of the plant called the foreman of the part of the line that was at fault and yelled at him. And then the foreman yelled at the person who had stopped working.

One night I was feeling sick and put on the red light to be relieved. No one came and finally I ran to the bathroom and vomited on the steps before I could get to the bathroom. When I came back the foreman yelled at me with very colorful language and told me never to leave my station again. I asked what I should do if I was sick and he told me to throw up in a box but to keep on working.

People went to the bathroom in their pants because they were not relieved. One man accidentally riveted his hand to a body part of the car and had to walk along with the body part until someone came to pull out the rivet and take him to the hospital.

I learned that I was the most easily replaceable tool in the plant. I was not valued as an individual. But I was earning twice as much as I would have earned at another job and I needed the money for seminary.

There were people at the plant who took home tools and car parts they wanted. They also wanted the money but they took advantage of the company in any way they could. They realized they were not valued as individuals and so gave as little as possible to their job and took as much as they could.

This is not an option for a follower of Jesus. We work for Jesus, not for the car company or for any other organization. We work for Jesus who sees what we do even when our boss is not looking.

Let me move on to masters.

Masters, as well as slaves, work for the Lord. They are accountable to God for how they work and for how they treat their employees.

Treat the people who work for you with respect and honor. Don’t devalue them. Don’t absorb the privileges and perks that come to you with your position and take them for granted. Don’t use people, value people.

Pay your employees what you own them. Pay them on time. We read in the law, (Leviticus 19:13)
Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

If you are responsible to distribute funds, don’t hold on to those funds for personal use. Respect those who depend on you to do your job honestly and fairly. (Deuteronomy 24:15)
Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Remember that as a boss, you are to lead as Jesus led and that is by serving, not lording it over others. When you want a cup of coffee, go get a cup of coffee and ask your secretary or someone else working for you if he or she wants a cup of coffee. (Or tea if you are a civilized person and not an addict.)

The people who work for you have a job to do and you have a job to do. You don’t have to do their job for them, but you can find opportunities to serve them, to let them know you value them.

Businesses exist to make a profit. Businesses are not social agencies. So performance is important and when someone is not performing well it may be necessary to replace them with someone else. When it is time for a performance review, the truth must be told. If not the business or organization will suffer by allowing someone with poor performance to keep holding the business or organization back.

As a business owner I had to fire people and no one was ever happy with my decision. They knew I was a Christian, that I had been a pastor, and they were sure that I was a terrible, hypocritical Christian because I told them they no longer had a job. Evaluating people and determining if they are helpful to the business or organization is part of being an employer. It is not easy to fire someone but it is a part of the job of being an employer.

But as an employer you can extend grace and mercy and give people a second chance. I did this often in my business. I learned that sometimes people make terrible decisions between the ages of 15 and 25 and then have to deal with the consequences of their actions. Bob had lost his driver’s license because of being caught several times for driving while drunk and had a number of court cases against him. He was in his early 30s and trying to put his life back together. He was a good worker so I hired a lawyer to help him. We dealt with the court cases. He was making progress and then one Monday I discovered he had left for Florida in the southeast of the US to get away from his remaining problems. He owed me money and had borrowed money from some of the other employees and then left in the middle of the night.

Helping someone does not always work out.

In another case, there was a man in the shipping department whose performance began to suffer. He began to be absent on Mondays. These are signs of alcoholism so I investigated, talked with his wife, and we agreed to have an alcoholic intervention. We hired a woman to come in and lead us in this. When we met the man agreed to go to a rehabilitation center and as I drove him to the center I discovered this would be his third time at a rehab center. He spent three months at the rehabilitation center. I told him his job would be waiting for him when he returned. We paid for the treatment and we paid him his full wage while he was there.

When he came back he started work and two days later was pulled over by the police for driving while drunk. I met him for lunch to talk about this and he said, “I guess this means I lost my job,” and I said, “Yes.” He was furious and left.

But sometimes a second chance does lead to success. Carl was divorced with two kids living with his ex-wife. He was dealing with past mistakes and now wanted to help his kids. His wife was a drug addict and his daughter and son were suffering. They were doing poorly in school. So I helped him with a lawyer, gave him a loan so he could have a better place to live, and then he got approval from the court to have his kids live with him. The daughter refused. She was caught up in her mother’s lifestyle. But the son came to live with him. One morning, several months later, Carl called me over in the parking lot and with great pride showed me his son’s report card with all As and Bs. He thanked me for helping him. That success made all the other failed attempts to help worth it.

There is one more story Tim Keller told in a sermon. An executive for a televison station in New York had a woman who worked for him. She was good at what she did but made a costly mistake that at her level would cause her to lose her job. The executive was at a position that he could absorb the mistake and not lose his job so he took the blame for her mistake. She came to see him and asked him why he had done this for her. He told her, “I follow Jesus who gives me second chances and so I am doing for you what he does for me.” Because of this she became curious about his faith and came to Redeemer Church where she eventually gave her life to Christ and became a member.

When we work, we work for Jesus. The actions we take reflect our Lord and master, Jesus. And Jesus, in his work to rescue this generation, will use your service to him.

What do you do when your employer is abusive? By this I don’t mean that your boss is unfair or takes all the credit for what you do or treats you unfairly. I mean situations where you are physically and emotionally abused.

Once again I want to read what Richard Foster says about this in his book, Celebration of Discipline. “The limits of the Discipline of submission are the points at which it becomes destructive. It then becomes a denial of the law of love as taught by Jesus and is an affront to genuine biblical submission.”

Once again I want to tell you that you do not have to remain in abusive relationships. If you are being abused, get out of that relationship. Look for another job. Even if you have to take less pay, get out of an abusive relationship. God does not want us to be abused.

What happens when you are not abused but you have a difficult boss who takes advantage of you, who uses you for his or her own selfish interests? You can always leave but sometimes you might be economically trapped and need the money to survive. Maybe your boss is truly incompetent but for the sake of your career you need to continue in your job. What do you do then? The hard, difficult message from the Bible is that you are to submit. Even when our boss is unfair, our responsibility as followers of Jesus is not to work against our boss but to do our work well as though we are doing it for the Lord. This is your witness.

We have a desire to make a mark in this world. We want to have made a difference in our lives. We have all been given gifts and if we have the opportunity to use our gifts to be employers, that is good. But any mark we make in the world in business, government, academia, or anywhere else will be erased with time. So it really is not eternally significant if you go through life as a boss or an employee. The mark that will last is the way God was able to use our words and actions to bring people he loves into his kingdom.

Here is the image I want you to keep in mind. As you deal with your boss, your professor, those who work for you, those you teach, all those you work with – in each interaction remember that Jesus is standing there observing. Remember that Jesus loves the person you are interacting with. You may be telling the person they have done a good job and will get a raise. You may be telling the person they have not performed well and will lose their job. You may be in strong disagreement with a decision that is to be made and expressing your opinion forcefully. But in any of these situations Jesus is there watching you.

How are you treating the other person in the relationship? Are you treating them with dignity and respect? Are you serving them as Jesus serves us?

This is terribly difficult and there is no hope of us doing this well except that the Spirit is at work in us, transforming us, making us whole and holy.

We step out into all our relationships with humility, knowing we will make mistakes, knowing we are loved by God even when we make mistakes, praying that God will work in the lives of those we relate to, hoping that healing will take place in the people we have hurt along the way.