The Submission of Employees
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. (6:5–8)
Slaves translates the Greek douloi, and indicates subjection and usually bondage. In biblical times slavery was common and much abused. In both Greek and Roman cultures, most slaves had no legal rights and were treated as commercial commodities. Roman citizens came to look on work as beneath their dignity, and the entire empire gradually came to function largely by slave power. Slaves were bought, sold, traded, used, and discarded as heartlessly as if they were animals or tools. Considerate masters such as Pliny the Elder, who was deeply grieved over the death of some of his slaves, were exceptional.
One Roman writer divided agricultural instruments into three classes—the articulate, who were slaves; the inarticulate, which were animals; and the mute, which were tools and vehicles. A slave’s only distinction above animals or tools was that he could speak! The Roman statesman Cato said, “Old slaves should be thrown on a dump, and when a slave is ill do not feed him anything. It is not worth your money. Take sick slaves and throw them away because they are nothing but inefficient tools.” Augustus crucified a slave who accidentally killed his pet quail, and a man named Pollio threw a slave into a pond of deadly lamprey eels for breaking a crystal goblet. Juvenal wrote of a slave owner whose greatest pleasure was “listening to the sweet song of his slaves being flogged.” (The previous material is cited in William Barclay, The Daily Bible Study Series: The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958], pp. 212–14.)
Although Scripture does not speak against slavery as such, it clearly speaks against the kidnapping of anyone for the purpose of making him or her a slave (Ex. 21:16). The European and American slave trade that lasted past the middle of the nineteenth century was therefore in clear violation of Scripture, despite the rationalizations of many Christians who were involved in it.
Certain types of nonabusive and beneficial slavery were permitted, or even advocated, in the Old Testament. For example, a thief who could not make restitution could be indentured until repayment was worked out—a plan far superior to the modern prison sentence which provides for no restitution of property or money to the victim or restoration of dignity for the thief. Israelites were allowed to buy slaves from the pagan nations around them (Lev. 25:44), but fellow Israelites could not be bought or sold, although they could voluntarily indenture themselves until the year of jubilee (vv. 39–40). During their time of service they were to be treated as hired workers, not as slaves (v. 40–41, 46). Even pagan slaves were not to be abused and were given their freedom if seriously injured by their master (Ex. 21:26–27). A slave who fled from an oppressive master was to be given asylum and protection (Deut. 23:15–16). A fellow Israelite could not be used as a slave for more than six years, at the end of which he was to be given liberal provisions as a form of severance pay (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:13–14). Every fiftieth year, the year of jubilee, all slaves were to be freed and returned to their families (Lev. 25:10). A slave who loved his master and preferred to remain with him could voluntarily indenture himself for life by having his ear pierced by his master (Ex. 21:5–6). The kind of slavery controlled by scriptural teaching was a blessing to both employer and employee and was a rewarding and fulfilling relation between them.
Although slavery is not uniformly condemned in either the Old or New Testaments, the sincere application of New Testament truths has repeatedly led to the elimination of its abusive tendencies. Where Christ’s love is lived in the power of His Spirit, unjust barriers and relationships are inevitably broken down. As the Roman empire disintegrated and eventually collapsed, the brutal, abused system of slavery collapsed with it—due in great measure to the influence of Christianity. In more recent times the back of the black slave trade was broken in Europe and America due largely to the powerful, Spirit-led preaching of such men as John Wesley and George Whitefield and the godly statesmanship of such men as William Wilberforce and William Pitt.
New Testament teaching does not focus on reforming and restructuring human systems, which are never the root cause of human problems. The issue is always the heart of man—which when wicked will corrupt the best of systems and when righteous will improve the worst. If men’s sinful hearts are not changed, they will find ways to oppress others regardless of whether or not there is actual slavery. On the other hand, Spirit-filled believers will have just and harmonious relationships with each other, no matter what system they live under. Man’s basic problems and needs are not political, social, or economic but spiritual, and that is the area on which Paul here concentrates.
Throughout history, including in our own day, working people have been oppressed and abused by economic intimidation that amounts to virtual slavery—regardless of the particular economic, social, or political system. Paul’s teaching therefore applies to every business owner and every worker.
Because the command of mutual submission is possible only to the Spirit-filled believer, Paul is addressing Christian slaves, just as he later addresses Christian masters (v. 9). He calls them to have the right behavior, the right perspective, the right attitude, and the right commitment that reflect their right relationship to God through Jesus Christ.
the right behavior
Slaves are commanded to be obedient to those who are [their] masters. Be obedient is in the present tense in the Greek, indicating uninterrupted obedience. Believers are not to obey simply when they desire to or when their employers are fair and reasonable. They are to obey in everything and at all times, the only exception being when they are instructed to do something immoral, idolatrous, blasphemous, or the like. Speaking of household workers, Peter said, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Pet. 2:18–20).
In New Testament times many slaves became Christians and thereby became children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ, as Paul has already reminded his readers (1:5–14). Therefore the natural response of many Christian slaves was to look upon their bondage as completely incongruous with their new standing before God. They reasoned that God’s own children, who will reign with Him forever, should not be subservient to any human being, certainly not to a ruthless pagan. As spiritual nobility, they deserved more than common slavery.
Yet Paul tells them plainly and simply to be obedient. The first obligation of a Christian is to please his Lord and to be a faithful testimony to Him. One way to do this, the apostle says, is to give willing obedience to those under whom you work, regardless of who they are or what their character is like. Being a Christian should always make a person a better, more productive, and more agreeable worker. People will not be inclined to listen to the testimony of a Christian who does shoddy, careless work or who is constantly complaining. If a Christian finds an employment situation to be intolerable, he should quit and look for something else. But as long as he is employed he should do the work to the best of his ability.
Some Christians might reason that, if they work for a fellow believer, they need not be cautious and responsible in the manner of their spiritual life because their testimony before him does not matter since he already believes. Others might feel that their employers are obligated to give them preferential treatment since they are fellow Christians. But that sort of thinking is presumptuous, carnal, and unscriptural. Paul wrote, “Let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved” (1 Tim. 6:1–2). If we are to be respectful and obedient to unbelieving masters, how much more so should we be to our brothers in Christ?
An employer is an employer, no matter who he is, and he deserves the best effort in whatever work one does for him. Saints are to submit to the authority of anyone to whom they report. Pastors and other Christian workers are not exempt from that principle. They are responsible to submit to a church, a board, another staff member, or to whomever else has supervision over them.
When a believer sits beside his boss in a worship service or works beside him in Christian service, he does so as a completely equal brother in Christ. But on the job he is to submit to the authority of his boss, because that witnesses his submission to the higher authority of God’s Word.
So whether his boss is kind or cruel, believing or pagan, a Christian is obedient to him because that is God’s will. “Bondslaves,” Paul said to Titus, are “to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (Titus 2:9–10). How a believer works in his job reflects on His Lord, regardless of who his human master or employer may be.
the right perspective
A Christian worker’s submission to his employer is done under the employer’s authority according to the flesh. The intent of that prepositional phrase is to emphasize that, while the authority-submission relationship is important and is to be respected, it is only temporal. It lasts only in this life and does not apply to moral and spiritual concerns at any time or under any circumstances.
the right attitude
The believer’s attitude in obeying his employer is to be one of fear and trembling. The idea is not that of cowering fright but of the honor and respect that make a person anxious to please. If he cannot honor and respect his employer for the employer’s own sake, he respects him for the Lord’s sake as one under whom he is to submit. Although men terribly abuse it, the principle of authority and submission is God-given and is always to be honored. God has allowed bosses to be where they are and subordinates to be where they are, and the faithful believer willingly and graciously submits to those under whose authority God has placed him.
The place where a believer works is part of his field of service for the Lord, and it is often a mission field. When he does his work carefully and respectfully it is a testimony to unbelievers, an encouragement to believers, and an act of service to God.
the right commitment
The fourth qualification for proper submission to masters, or employers, is that of sincerity of heart. It is not hypocritical and superficial but genuine and thorough.
Paul told the Thessalonian believers to “excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need” (1 Thess. 4:10–12). The idea is to do well the work we are assigned to do, without complaining, bragging, criticizing the work of others, or in any other way being disruptive.
the right motive
A Christian’s primary concern about his job should be simply to do it well to the glory of God, as to Christ. Being filled with the Spirit brings practical results, including those of being a reliable, productive, and cooperative worker. And whenever a Christian is submissive to the Holy Spirit his accomplishments are as to Christ, because Christ is both the origin and the goal of his obedience. He does everything out of love for Christ, by the power of Christ, and to the glory of Christ. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do,” Paul says, “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
It is not God’s plan to call every believer into preaching, Christian education, missionary service, or other such church-related ministries. Those ministries are no more spiritual than any other into which God may call a believer. But because those ministries more directly and obviously represent the Lord’s work, He will not call a person into them who has not been faithful in whatever other work he has been doing. A person who has not been faithful to the Lord as a salesman, secretary, clerk, or carpenter cannot expect God to give a call to a more influential ministry. The Lord only appoints those over much who have been faithful over little (Matt. 25:21).
the right diligence
When Spirit-filled Christians are sincerely obedient to their employers as to Christ, they will not work by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.
The faithful believer does not simply do the minimum his job requires, much less work only when his supervisor or other workers are watching, that is, by way of eyeservice. He does not need to be checked up on, because he always does his work to the best of his ability, whether or not anyone else is around. And he works just as hard when he is passed over for a raise or promotion as when he is being considered for them. He does not do a good job to make a good impression on other people (as do men-pleasers) or to promote his own welfare. If he gains those things, they are incidental to his primary motive and intention. He works diligently because to do so is the will of God and is the sincere desire of his own heart.
With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men repeats and reinforces what Paul has just said. With good will expresses the attitude of the worker who does not need prompting or compelling. When a Christian is where God wants him to be and is obedient to render service, as to the Lord, that is the most challenging, productive, and rewarding place to be.
With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men repeats and reinforces what Paul has just said. With good will expresses the attitude of the worker who does not need prompting or compelling. When a Christian is where God wants him to be and is obedient to render service, as to the Lord, that is the most challenging, productive, and rewarding place to be.
Every day should be a day of service to the Lord. “Whatever your hand finds to do,” Solomon tells us, “do it with all your might” (Eccles. 9:10). In his letter to Rome, Paul tells us not to lag behind in diligence but to be “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (12:11), and in Colossians, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (3:23). That is the work attitude of the Spirit-filled Christian.
A believer does his work diligently for the Lord’s sake in the assurance that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. God’s credits and rewards are always dependable and always appropriate. An employer may not appreciate or even be aware of the good work done, perhaps because he is indifferent or because someone else takes credit for what is done. But God knows and God rewards. No good thing done in His name and for His glory can pass His notice or fail to receive His blessing.
The story is told of an elderly missionary couple who were returning home on a ship after many years of sacrificial service in Africa. On the same ship was Theodore Roosevelt, who had just completed a highly successful big game hunt. As the ship docked in New York harbor, thousands of well-wishers and dozens of reporters lined the pier to welcome Roosevelt home. But not a single person was there to welcome the missionaries. As the couple rode to a hotel in a taxi, the man complained to his wife, “It just doesn’t seem right. We give forty years of our lives to Jesus Christ to win souls in Africa, and nobody knows or cares when we return. Yet the president goes over there for a few weeks to kill some animals and the whole world takes notice.” But as they prayed together that night before retiring, the Lord seemed to say to them, “Do you know why you haven’t received your reward yet, My children? It is because you are not home yet.”
Slaves and Masters
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 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. 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.
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.
Years ago, Dr. C. Everett Koop, later the surgeon general of the United States, gave an address to the Christian Medical Fellowship of England on the topic “Christian Medicine: A Compromise with Mediocrity?” The address asked whether Christian doctors are poorer doctors because of their Christianity or if their Christian commitment has made them even more strongly committed to high standards of medicine. The address encouraged doctors to be better doctors than they otherwise would be because they serve Christ.
Koop’s concern was the concern of the apostle as he wrote about the duty of slaves and masters in Ephesians. It is important to see this, because if we do not see it—if instead we are expecting Paul to be answering questions about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of slavery, for example—we will misunderstand his teaching and miss what he really has to say to us. Slavery was part of the social and economic fabric of the ancient world. It has been estimated that in the Roman Empire at this time there were about sixty million slaves. That means about half of the population was enslaved to the other half.
Sometimes a slave’s situation was quite good. Yet there was often terrible cruelty and abuse. A slave could be whipped, branded, mutilated, or killed. Barclay says, “The terror of the slave was that he was absolutely at the caprice of his master.” This terrible institution was eventually changed by Christianity, just as Christianity also bettered the status of women and children as time passed. But it is the nature of a Christian’s work, not slavery, that is Paul’s chief concern in this passage.
Christianity and Slavery
Yet that is not the whole story. I say this because the discussion of the duties of slaves and masters in Ephesians 6:5–9 is the last of three examples of the submission of one class of persons to another which Paul introduces by the topical sentence: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Since Paul is presenting these as parallel examples, we cannot help wondering if he is thereby suggesting that slavery has the same permanent validity as marriage relationships or home relationships. Or, since we would all say that slavery has been rightly abolished in our time, should we infer that each of these relationships is also just temporary? Although Paul is not dealing with the rightness or wrongness of slavery itself, as I said, the very way in which he speaks of slaves inevitably raises this question.
To put the matter even more stringently, what do we say to those who condemn Paul because, when he had the chance, as here, he did not denounce slavery outright?
The first thing we must say is that although Paul did not condemn slavery here, he did not condone it. That makes his treatment of slavery entirely different from his treatment of marriage and the home. In the first case Paul grounded the relationship between spouses in the relationship of Christ to the church. Marriage is an outgrowth of this eternally prior relationship. In the second case, he grounded the duty of children to parents in natural law (“for this is right”) and revelation (“the first commandment with a promise”). This is not the case with his discussion of slaves’ duties to masters or masters’ responsibilities to slaves. Nothing in the passage affirms slavery as a naturally valid or divinely mandated institution.
Second, Paul’s discussion of the duties of Christian slaves and the responsibilities of Christian masters transforms the institution, even if it falls short of calling for outright abolition. In the ancient world the slave was a thing. Aristotle, the most brilliant of the Greeks, wrote that there could never be friendship between master and slave, for master and slave have nothing in common: “a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.”
Paul’s words are entirely different. He calls the slave a “slave of Christ,” one who wants to do “the will of God” (v. 6), and who will receive a “reward” for “whatever good he does” (v. 8). Likewise, the master is responsible to God for how he treats the slave, who is ultimately God’s rather than his own property (v. 9). This is another way of saying that the slave, no less than the master, has been made in God’s image. As such, he possesses inestimable worth and great dignity. He is to be treated properly. In such a framework slavery, even though it remained slavery, could never be the same institution as for non-Christians.
Third, it was this transformation (which came from viewing all persons as made in God’s image) that ultimately destroyed slavery and continues to transform work relationships today.
R. C. Sproul was speaking to the executives of a large corporation, and they were uneasy about his linking religion and business. Eventually he caught the understanding and the enthusiasm of the board chairman. This man said, “Let me see if I can connect what you’re saying. What I hear is that our business life is affected by how we treat people. How we treat people is a matter of ethics. Ethics are determined by our philosophy. Our philosophy reflects our theology. So respecting people is really a theological matter.”
That was absolutely on target, and it is an outline of the way Christianity has transformed the world, including the abolition of slavery. Christianity is a new theology. Theology changes philosophy. Philosophy effects ethics. And these transformed ethics determine how we treat people at home, school, church, and in the marketplace. Because Christianity brought a new, true theology, it inevitably uplifted man—and continues to do so.
This is a continuing transformation, and we must all be involved in it. That is our ultimate answer to the critic who asks, “Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery? And why did the Christian church take so many centuries to abolish it?” The answer is really a counter-question: “Why are you not treating other people as God has treated you?”
You see, the problem is not why somebody else did not do what he or she should have done quicker, but rather why you and I are not doing what we know we should be doing now. In the ancient world slaves were often very unjustly treated. But workers are often treated unjustly today. It is true that in most lands workers cannot be killed for poor performance. This is due in part to a pervasive Christian ethic. But workers can be scorned just as thoroughly, wounded just as deeply, threatened just as harshly, and despised just as cruelly. We are often part of those injustices. That is why these verses continue to speak just as insistently to us as they did to those who lived in the first century.
The Duty of Employees
When I turn to Paul’s specific teaching about slaves, I speak of the duty of employees—not because being a working person is the same thing as being a slave or to make light of slavery, but because it is in the arena of employee-employer relationships that these principles need to be applied today. What does an employee owe an employer? The text lists a number of items.
- Obedience. This is the word Paul used to describe the responsibility children have to parents (v. 1), and I do not doubt that he chose it here deliberately. In terms of the work to be done, employees stand in the same relationship to employers as children to parents. It is the employer’s job to determine what must be done and (in many cases) how it should be done. It is the employee’s job to obey his employer in these areas.
Now this does not mean that the employee is free to disobey God, even if his employer tells him to, or that he is forbidden to make suggestions. But it does mean that he should willingly do all honest work assigned without assuming he knows better than his boss or bosses.
Recently my wife and I had carpet installed in our new home. The foreman of the crew sent to install it had been given a plan by the man who had sold the carpet, and two days had been apportioned for this work. The foreman was outraged. How could the salesman be so foolish! Anyone could see that this was a three-day job! Besides, the salesman had planned the job wrong. He had not said that there were stairs to climb, a piano to be moved, and so on. Several hours were lost in this way as the foreman tried (I thought) to show his crew how important he was. But when they all finally did get down to work, the carpet fit as planned and the work was completed in two days—in spite of the time lost in such complaining.
- Respect. Paul’s second thought is that slaves owe their masters “respect and fear.” This is not a begrudging respect or a craven, scraping fear, of course, for these same words are used of the Christian’s relationship to God. They denote a proper respect and reverence. This may be difficult at times, particularly if the employer is unwise or arbitrary. But it is made easier by the thought that the employee ultimately serves Christ, even in a difficult situation. This Godward relationship is the key to the entire paragraph. For slaves are to obey their earthly masters as they “would obey Christ,” strive to win their favor “like slaves of Christ,” and serve them as “serving the Lord.”
- Sincerity. “Sincerity” is an interesting word. It comes from two Latin words: sine (“without”) and cera (“wax”). Its meaning comes from the fact that in the ancient world, where the making of pottery was an important industry, dishonest potters would sometimes cover up cracks or flaws in their pottery by filling them with wax. In normal usage this might not be detected. But it could be seen if the pottery was held up to the light before it was purchased. Then the wax would show up as a lighter hue. Good pottery was sometimes stamped with the words sine cera (“without wax”) as proof of its good quality. In the Greek language there was a corresponding word that means “sun tested.”
I should say, however, that the word Paul actually uses in this sentence is aplotēti, which has the idea of generosity or liberality as well as sincerity. It suggests that the employee should not hold back from his best but should actually pour himself out liberally in honest service.
- Loyalty. It is not easy to say in one English word what Paul conveys by the sentence “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,” but it is easy to visualize what he has in mind. He is thinking of a slave who will work hard only when the master is looking, like a secretary who types fast when the office manager is around but who talks most of the rest of the time, or a manager who is “out to lunch” except when the boss is pressing him for something. By contrast, Paul recommends a steady, faithful service that comes from having the heart in the right place, which is why I speak of loyalty. It involves loyalty to the employer and to the company and a desire to see the work done.
- Good will. The New International Version uses the word “wholehearted” at this point. The New English Bible says “cheerful.” But I prefer the words “good will,” which occur in the Authorized and Revised Standard versions. As John Stott says, employees should work as if their “heart and soul” are in it. This term comes last because it aptly summarizes the preceding.
There is one more thing we need to notice before we move on to Paul’s commands for masters, and that is the matter of rewards. As motivation for faithful and exemplary behavior Paul says, “Serve wholeheartedly …, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (vv. 7–8).
When Paul wrote these words he was thinking of a heavenly reward only, since slaves were not normally rewarded in earthly terms. But the interesting thing is that rewards, whether earthly or heavenly, do matter and that he is not afraid to introduce this as a motivation. Put in economic terms, this means that a system that guarantees workers a due reward for labor is closer to God’s own way of operating than a system that does not. And it will work better! For this reason (and others), I believe that capitalism is a better system than communism—though this does not mean that Christianity necessarily puts a stamp of approval (or disapproval) on either. For this same reason I also approve of profit-sharing and other plans that draw employees into the economic well-being of their company.
The Duty of Employers
Having described the duty of slaves to masters (or, in our terms, employees to employers) at length, Paul now treats the corresponding duty of those who are in charge. This is dealt with more briefly because, as I have pointed out, he is interested in examples of submission, chiefly: wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. However, everything Paul said to employees also applies to employers since, as he argues, masters are to treat their slaves “in the same way” (v. 9).
“In the same way” does not mean that masters are to obey slaves just as slaves obey masters, because that would reduce the idea of obedience to chaos. But it does mean that masters are to treat slaves as they themselves might want to be treated. All are God’s children. So in the final analysis both are to be serving God and are to be rewarded or judged by that Master.
In R. C. Sproul’s book The Search for Dignity, there is discussion of a phrase that the author heard when researching the life of Wayne Alderson, a pioneer in management-labor relations. The term was “dropping his head.” It occurred in a sentence like: “The supervisor comes in and drops his head.” At first Sproul did not know what this meant. But one day he was in a hospital observing nonverbal communication between doctors, nurses, and other members of the staff that in a subtle way indicated the individual’s status. He noticed how the nurses perked up when the doctor entered, for example. Obviously the doctors were on top of the pyramid.
While Sproul was watching this and thinking about it he saw a man coming up the corridor pushing a cart of soiled laundry. He was a member of the lowest caste of the hospital, a housekeeper. Yet he was cheerful. He was obviously happily relating to the others. As he came up, a nurse who had been very alert in the doctor’s presence just moments before walked down the hall toward him. When he saw her he raised his head in acknowledgment, and his face brightened in anticipation of a greeting. At almost the same moment the nurse tilted her head forward and stared at the floor as she walked by briskly. The man’s face lost its cheer, and his pace became noticeably slower as he continued on his way with the laundry. Sproul realized that this is what “dropping the head” meant. It was a refusal to acknowledge the other person. It was like saying that the human being was invisible, that he or she did not count.
In the final analysis this is what matters to most people. It is not the position we hold, whether it is high or low, management or labor, or even (in a certain sense) slave or master. What matters is whether we are treated with dignity, whether we are regarded as having real worth. Christianity declares, “You do have real worth! You are made in God’s image! What you do does matter!” If so, we should do our own work well and value others.
5. Servants, be obedient. His exhortation to servants is so much the more earnest, on account of the hardship and bitterness of their condition, which renders it more difficult to be endured. And he does not speak merely of outward obedience, but says more about fear willingly rendered; for it is a very rare occurrence to find one who willingly yields himself to the control of another. The servants (δοῦλοι) whom he immediately addresses were not hired servants, like those of the present day, but slaves, such as were in ancient times, whose slavery was perpetual, unless, through the favour of their masters, they obtained freedom,—whom their masters bought with money, that they might impose upon them the most degrading employments, and might, with the full protection of the law, exercise over them the power of life and death. To such he says, obey your masters, lest they should vainly imagine that carnal freedom had been procured for them by the gospel.
But as some of the worst men were compelled by the dread of punishment, he distinguishes between Christian and ungodly servants, by the feelings which they cherished. With fear and trembling; that is, with the careful respect which springs from an honest purpose. It can hardly be expected, however, that so much deference will be paid to a mere man, unless a higher authority shall enforce the obligation; and therefore he adds, as doing the will of God. (Ver. 6.) Hence it follows, that it is not enough if their obedience satisfy the eyes of men; for God requires truth and sincerity of heart. When they serve their masters faithfully, they obey God. As if he had said, “Do not suppose that by the judgment of men you were thrown into slavery. It is God who has laid upon you this burden, who has placed you in the power of your masters. He who conscientiously endeavours to render what he owes to his master, performs his duty not to man only, but to God.”
With good will doing service. (Ver. 7.) This is contrasted with the suppressed indignation which swells the bosom of slaves. Though they dare not openly break out or give signs of obstinacy, their dislike of the authority exercised over them is so strong, that it is with the greatest unwillingness and reluctance that they obey their masters.
Whoever reads the accounts of the dispositions and conduct of slaves, which are scattered through the writings of the ancients, will be at no loss to perceive that the number of injunctions here given does not exceed that of the diseases which prevailed among this class, and which it was of importance to cure. But the same instruction applies to male and female servants of our own times. It is God who appoints and regulates all the arrangements of society. As the condition of servants is much more agreeable than that of slaves in ancient times, they ought to consider themselves far less excusable, if they do not endeavour, in every way, to comply with Paul’s injunctions.
Masters according to the flesh. (Ver. 5.) This expression is used to soften the harsh aspect of slavery. He reminds them that their spiritual freedom, which was by far the most desirable, remained untouched.
Eye-service (ὀφθαλμοδουλεία) is mentioned; because almost all servants are addicted to flattery, but, as soon as their master’s back is turned, indulge freely in contempt, or perhaps in ridicule. Paul therefore enjoins godly persons to keep at the greatest distance from such deceitful pretences.
8. Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth. What a powerful consolation! However unworthy, however ungrateful or cruel, their masters may be, God will accept their services as rendered to himself. When servants take into account the pride and arrogance of their masters, they often become more indolent from the thought that their labour is thrown away. But Paul informs them that their reward is laid up with God for services which appear to be ill bestowed on unfeeling men; and that there is no reason, therefore, why they should be led aside from the path of duty. He adds, whether bond or free. No distinction is made between a slave and a free man. The world is wont to set little value on the labours of slaves; but God esteems them as highly as the duties of kings. In his estimate, the outward station is thrown aside, and each is judged according to the uprightness of his heart.
9. And ye masters. In the treatment of their slaves, the laws granted to masters a vast amount of power. Whatever had thus been sanctioned by the civil code was regarded by many as in itself lawful. To such an extent did their cruelty in some instances proceed, that the Roman emperors were forced to restrain their tyranny. But though no royal edicts had ever been issued for the protection of slaves, God allows to masters no power over them beyond what is consistent with the law of love. When philosophers attempt to give to the principles of equity their full effect in restraining the excess of severity to slaves, they inculcate that masters ought to treat them in the same manner as hired servants. But they never look beyond utility; and, in judging even of that, they inquire only what is advantageous to the head of the family, or conducive to good order. The Apostle proceeds on a very different principle. He lays down what is lawful according to the Divine appointment, and how far they, too, are debtors to their servants.
Do the same things to them. “Perform the duty which on your part you owe to them.” What he calls in another Epistle, (τὸ δίκαιον καὶ τὴν ἰσότητα,) that which is just and equal, is precisely what, in this passage, he calls the same things, (τὰ αὐτὰ.) And what is this but the law of analogy? Masters and servants are not indeed on the same level; but there is a mutual law which binds them. By this law, servants are placed under the authority of their masters; and, by the same law, due regard being had to the difference of their station, masters lie under certain obligations to their servants. This analogy is greatly misunderstood; because men do not try it by the law of love, which is the only true standard. Such is the import of Paul’s phrase, the same things; for we are all ready enough to demand what is due to ourselves; but, when our own duty comes to be performed, every one attempts to plead exemption. It is chiefly, however, among persons of authority and rank that injustice of this sort prevails.
Forbearing threatenings. Every expression of disdain, arising from the pride of masters, is included in the single word, threatenings. They are charged not to assume a lordly air or a terrific attitude, as if they were constantly threatening some evil against their servants, when they have occasion to address them. Threatenings, and every kind of barbarity, originate in this, that masters look upon their servants as if they had been born for their sake alone, and treat them as if they were of no more value than cattle. Under this one description, Paul forbids every kind of disdainful and barbarous treatment.
Their Master and yours. A very necessary warning. What is there which we will not dare to attempt against our inferiors, if they have no ability to resist, and no means of obtaining redress,—if no avenger, no protector appears, none who will be moved by compassion to listen to their complaints? It happens here, in short, according to the common proverb, that Impunity is the mother of Licentiousness. But Paul here reminds them, that, while masters possess authority over their servants, they have themselves the same Master in heaven, to whom they must render an account.
And there is no respect of persons with him. A regard to persons blinds our eyes, so as to leave no room for law or justice; but Paul affirms that it is of no value in the sight of God. By person is meant anything about a man which does not belong to the real question, and which we take into account in forming a judgment. Relationship, beauty, rank, wealth, friendship, and everything of this sort, gain our favour; while the opposite qualities produce contempt and sometimes hatred. As those absurd feelings arising from the sight of a person have the greatest possible influence on human judgments, those who are invested with power are apt to flatter themselves, as if God would countenance such corruptions. “Who is he that God should regard him, or defend his interest against mine?” Paul, on the contrary, informs masters that they are mistaken if they suppose that their servants will be of little or no account before God, because they are so before men. “God is no respecter of persons,” (Acts 10:34,) and the cause of the meanest man will not be a whit less regarded by him than that of the loftiest monarch.
7 Paul repeats his instruction. Slaves need to work as though the Lord is their boss, apparently implying “up to the standard he would expect,” not merely to a human standard, all the while maintaining a positive attitude of goodwill in what they do. They ought to be willing and sincere workers, the point communicated by the hapax eunoias (an idea the NIV seeks to capture with “wholeheartedly”).
7 Eye-service may pass muster for a time when one is working for an earthly master, but the Lord judges by the heart and not by outward appearance. Even if the work to be done for an earthly master were tedious and burdensome, if the Christian slave looked on it as a service rendered “to the Lord and not to human beings” that would transform his attitude to it and enable him to do it with “the ready good will, which does not wait to be compelled” (J. A. Robinson).
The duty of slaves (verses 5–8)
Slavery seems to have been universal in the ancient world. A high percentage of the population were slaves. ‘It has been computed that in the Roman Empire there were 60,000,000 slaves.’ They constituted the work force, and included not only domestic servants and manual labourers 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 labour 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. For all his intellect and culture Aristotle could not contemplate any friendship between slave and slave-owner, for, he said ‘A slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave’, although he could at least concede that ‘a slave is a kind of possession with a soul’.
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 Roman state left the problem of the discipline of slaves to their owners … The pater familias had complete control over all slaves owned in his familia, the power of punishment by whipping and by confinement in the ergastulum, and the right of execution of the death penalty.’ Consequently, accounts of terrible atrocities have survived, especially from the pre-Christian era. Slaves were sometimes whipped, mutilated and imprisoned in chains, their teeth were knocked out, their eyes gouged out, they were even thrown to the wild beasts or crucified, and all this sometimes for the most trivial offences. 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 illtreated 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.
It is immediately remarkable that in his Haustafeln Paul should address himself to slaves at all. The simple fact that he does so indicates that they were accepted members of the Christian community and that he regards them as responsible people to whom, as much as to their masters, he sends a moral appeal. If children are to obey their parents, slaves are to obey their earthly masters (verse 5), and for the very same reason, namely that behind them they must learn to discern the figure of their master … in heaven (verse 9), namely the Lord Christ. In each of the four verses addressed to slaves Jesus Christ is mentioned. They are to be obedient as to Christ (verse 5), to behave as servants (literally, ‘slaves’) of Christ (verse 6), to render service as to the Lord rather than men (verse 7), knowing that they will receive good from the Lord (verse 8). The Christ-centredness of this instruction is very striking. The slave’s perspective has changed. His horizons have broadened. He has been liberated from the slavery of ‘men-pleasing’ into the freedom of serving Christ. His mundane tasks have been absorbed into a higher preoccupation, namely the will of God (verse 6) and the good pleasure of Christ.
Exactly the same principle can be applied by contemporary Christians to their work and employment. Our great need is the clear-sightedness to see Jesus Christ and to set him before us. It is possible for the housewife to cook a meal as if Jesus Christ were going to eat it, or to spring-clean the house as if Jesus Christ were to be the honoured guest. It is possible for teachers to educate children, for doctors to treat patients and nurses to care for them, for solicitors to help clients, shop assistants to serve customers, accountants to audit books and secretaries to type letters as if in each case they were serving Jesus Christ. Can the same be said in relation to the masses of industrial workers with tedious routine machine-minding to do, and to miners who have to work underground? Surely yes. The presence of Christ in the mine or factory is certainly no excuse for bad conditions. On the contrary, it should be a spur to improving them. At the same time, their situation is not nearly as bad as slavery in the Roman Empire, so that if the work of Christian slaves could be transformed by doing it as to the Lord, the same must be true of Christian miners, factory workers, dustmen, road sweepers and public lavatory attendants.
Once Christian slaves were clear in their minds that their primary responsibility was to serve the Lord Christ, their service to their earthly masters would become exemplary. First, they would be respectful, obeying them with fear and trembling (verse 5), which implies not a cringing servility before a human master but rather a reverent acknowledgement of the Lord Jesus whose authority the master represents. This is plain not only from the usual contexts of the expression ‘fear and trembling’ but also from the fact that in the equivalent Colossians passage it is replaced by ‘fearing the Lord’. Next, they would obey in singleness of heart (5), with integrity or wholeheartedness, without hypocrisy or ulterior motives. Thirdly, they would be conscientious, not offering eye-service as men-pleasers, working only when the boss is watching in order to curry favour with him, but as servants of Christ, who is in any case watching all the time and is never deceived by shoddy work. Fourthly, their service would become willing and ‘cheerful’ (neb) instead of reluctant or grudging. Because they would consciously be doing the will of God, they would do it from the heart (verse 6) and with a good will (verse 7). As we might say, their heart and soul would be in it. And all this because they know that their Lord is also their judge, and that no good work, whoever does it (slave or free), is ever left unrewarded by him (verse 8).
“Slaves, obey your masters. Masters, stop threatening”
A rather detailed account of Scripture on Slavery will be found in N.T.C. on Colossians and Philemon, pp. 233–237. 5. Slaves, be obedient to those who according to the flesh are your masters. Paul does not advocate the immediate, outright emancipation of the slaves. He took the social structure as he found it and endeavored by peaceful means to change it into its opposite. His rule amounted to this: Let the slave wholeheartedly obey his master, and let the master be kind to his slave. Thus the ill-will, dishonesty, and laziness of the slave would be replaced by willing service, integrity, and industry; the cruelty and brutality of the master, by considerateness and love. Slavery would be abolished from within, and a gloriously transformed society would replace the old. “Be obedient” is the same command used with reference to children in verse 1. There is comfort in the words “masters according to the flesh,” for it implies: “You have another Master, who watches over you, is just and merciful to you in all his dealings, and to whom both you and your earthly masters are responsible.” Continued: with fear and trembling. Cf. 2 Cor. 7:15. Must they be filled with this spirit because they are slaves? No, “fear and trembling” befits anyone to whom the Lord has assigned a task (Phil. 2:12), Paul himself not excluded (1 Cor. 2:3). It does not mean that slaves must approve of tyrannical methods or that they must melt with fear before their masters. It does mean, however, that they should be filled with conscientious solicitude when they recognize the real nature of their assignment, namely, so to conduct themselves toward their masters that the latter whether they be believers or not, will be able to see what the Christian faith accomplishes within the hearts of all who practice it, not excluding slaves. This implies, of course, that slaves will recognize their own inadequacy and ask the Lord to help them to realize this high purpose. Continued: in the sincerity of your heart; or “with singleness of heart.” That is, with an undivided mind, with integrity and uprightness (cf. 1 Chron. 29:17). This obedience should be rendered as to Christ, that is, fully realizing that they are actually rendering it to their heavenly Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, 6. not in the way of eye-service as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. They must not obey simply to catch the eye of their masters for selfish purposes. They should not seek to please men with the ulterior motive of seeking profit for themselves. The apostle means, therefore: “Fill your service with the energy and the enthusiasm with which you would fill it were it done for Christ, for it really is being done for Christ. It is to him that you belong. Take then that service of yours and lift it to a higher plain. Do the will of God from the heart, with all enthusiasm. And remember that you have nothing to be ashamed of. Your Lord himself was also a servant, even the Servant of Jehovah. It was he who girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1–20). It was also he who said,’ For the Son of man also came not to be ministered to (or: to be served) but to minister (or: to serve), and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). And it was he who emptied himself, as he took on the form of a servant … humbled himself and became obedient even to the extent of death, yes, death by a cross’ (Phil. 2:7, 8).” Continued: 7. with ready mind rendering service as to the Lord and not to men. In spirit people really cease to be slaves as soon as they begin to work for the Lord and are no longer working primarily for men. Beyond their master they see their Master. Illustration: when the man who was conveying a load of bricks on his wheel-barrow was asked what he was doing, his answer was, “I am building a cathedral for the Lord.” With that thought in mind he was putting his whole soul into his job. Paul ends his admonition to slaves by writing: 8. knowing that whatever good each one does this he will receive back from the Lord, whether (he be) slave or free. With God there is no partiality (Lev. 19:15; Mal. 2:9; Acts 10:34; Col. 3:25; James 2:1). This is brought out very forcefully, for literally the apostle says, “knowing that each one [note forward position of “each one” for emphasis] whatever he does (that is) good, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave, whether free.” It is the intrinsic good that was done that will matter in the day of judgment. And that intrinsic good is not determined by the social position of the doer, whether he was a master or a slave. Matt. 25:31–46 brings this out beautifully. It is the nature of the deed that determines the reward. And in that “nature” the motivation is, of course, included. Not only what one has said or has done is important but also, and especially, why he said or did it. Did his deeds prove that he really meant what he said? (Matt. 7:21–23)
Only the good is mentioned here. Both good and bad are spoken of in Eccles. 12:14; Col. 3:25; and 2 Cor. 5:10. Reason for the difference? We simply do not know. There may be truth in the answer of those who say that only good was mentioned here for the greater encouragement of the Ephesians. It is certain, at any rate, that no good deed is ever done in vain. “There’s but one life [on this earth];’ tWill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” That God Triune, or that the Lord Jesus Christ in his capacity as Judge, will reward the services that were rendered in love and obedience to him, is clear from many a Scripture passage: Gen. 15:1; Ruth 2:12; Ps. 19:11; 58:11; Isa. 40:10, 11; 62:11; Jer. 31:16; Matt. 5:12; 6:4; 25 (the entire chapter); Luke 6:35; 12:37, 38; 1 Peter 1:17; 2 John 8; and Rev. 2:7, 10, 11, 17, 23, 26–28; 3:4, 5, 9–12, 20, 21; 22:12. This reward is entirely of grace, not of merit. Just as by reason of sin all men stand condemned before God (Rom. 3:22, 23), so also by reason of grace all believers, whether slave or free, receive a reward for the good they have done.
Among those to whom this letter was addressed there were probably not many “slave-owners.” Cf. 1 Cor. 1:26–28. Yet, there were some. In fact, the same messenger who delivered this letter to its destination also delivered another letter, one addressed to a “slaveowner,” namely, Philemon. This was on the same trip when the Colossians, too, received their epistle. To the masters, therefore, a word must also be addressed, but as these were relatively few in number, and as even that part of the admonition that had been addressed to the slaves was full of implied significance also for their masters, the exhortation directed specifically to the latter could be brief: 9. And masters, do the same things for them. Co-operation must be a two-way street. It must be shown by both groups: masters and slaves. So, in effect Paul is saying to the masters: “Promote the welfare of your slaves as you expect them to promote yours. Show the same interest in them and in their affairs as you hope they will show in you and your affairs.” Continued: and stop threatening. In other words, “Let your approach be positive, not negative.” Hence, not, “Unless you do this, I will do that to you,” but rather, “Because you are a good and faithful servant, I will give you a generous reward.” Before threatening, the slave stood helpless. He had no means of defending himself, not even, generally speaking, before the law. But as a believer he did have a real Defender. Hence, the apostle directs the attention of the masters to this fact, saying: knowing that (he who is) both their master and yours is in the heavens, and there is no partiality with him. See James 5. Because of all that has already been said on this subject of impartiality (see on verse 8), no further comment is necessary.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (pp. 329–333). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (p. 401). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.