Ephesians & Slavery
You may have noticed I did not preach on Ephesians 6:5-9 and slavery yesterday. There are two primary reasons. First, as I am getting back into the saddle, there is much to put in order and I did not feel I had adequate time to prepare a sermon for it. Second, I believe our church (myself included, remember I am a member of the body), needed a refresher on devotion to the person of Christ.
Because I believe this text is important and relevant for our time, in lieu of a sermon, I want to provide a blog post with notes and resources to help frame out this text. This text is profitable for us precisely because it is God’s word and He never leaves it alone. I hope these words serve your understanding of Ephesians!
5 Bondservants, 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 bondservants 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 bondservant or is free. 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.
Remember Ephesus (CONTEXT IS KEY!)
We must get a good picture of what is happening in Ephesus (here I am indebted to Ray Mayhew). Paul, a Jewish Rabbi turned Apostle, is preaching and his words are having a tremendous impact on the city. There is deliverance from demons, confessions of sin, burning of occultic scrolls, and a massive riot results. Ephesus is beginning to feel the effect of the Good News of Jesus Christ. You can read the stories in Acts 19. The Bible Project has two overviews of Acts (Acts Part 1; Acts Part II) as well as a narrative of Acts (Chapter 19’s story can be found here: Acts 13-20).
I have stated (along with many others) that Paul’s prison letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon) play a massive role in bringing down the Roman Empire and beginning the transformation of Western Europe. Paul did it by confronting an intimidating imperial power:Rome. Nero was in charge and his power (and the imperial power) which kept pax romana was peace with a great price: no dissent. He was bestial (he murdered his own mother and brother). He blamed Christians for the fire in Rome and had them crucified.
In this context, Paul comes to Ephesus, where Caesar was lord of the world (greek: kurious) and announces the Good News -- that Christ is kurious, the supreme authority and rightful Lord of the world (Matthew 28:18-20). Caesar has a rival…
So how did these letters transform the Roman Empire? Ephesians gives us some idea - apparently this new creation community of men and women, boys and girls, slaves and freemen were living out transformed lives in their homes and local communities. Living out this new life now (see Acts 5:20), not then and there, not when we’ve arrived on Heaven’s doorsteps, but here and now, is what changes the world. That is because Jesus didn’t die primarily to get you out of hell and into heaven, but Christ died to get God out of heaven and into YOU!
It is with this backdrop in mind we turn to the subject of slavery.
Slavery, Paul & The God of the Exodus
So a few questions the modern readers often wonder:
Why doesn’t Paul attack slavery like William Wilberforce?
Why doesn’t he condemn it? Is he condoning it?
If God is good, why would He allow such a horrid institution like slavery?
What about American slavery and its implications regarding this text?
How do we apply this text today? Do we simply read it as employer/employee?
I am no expert in slavery, or history, but here is what I know…
The Bible is one unified story of God’s plan to rescue the world through His Son Jesus and unite heaven and earth together forever. It is the greatest story ever told. It is God’s plan to rescue both men and women and bring them ultimately to their intended position with Him as viceroyals, co-creators, and mature covenant partners. God in Christ is constantly pushing our fallen world towards greater redemption and salvation.
From what I can tell, slavery is as old as the world. It has always been around. America was not the first nation to have slaves, nor to abuse them. That does not justify it, it is simply a statement of fact. Gordon Fee points out that slavery in Ephesus (and Rome) was not based on race, but on conquest in war and on economic need. My thought is that slavery is not God ordained, but sin and shadow induced. Remember what I’ve said about the “shadow,” it is that part of our humanity that, if we allow it, if we choose it, the shadow will build our own personal kingdom (Babylon) and build a literal hell on earth (Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, American slavery). God presents mankind with a choice: His way or ours. God is sovereign and our choices matter and have eternal implications (Genesis 2:15-17; Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Matthew 7:24-29).
William J. Webb states, “scripture sides heavily with the plight of the slave, the poor and the oppressed”. This life-breathing Spirit is the very thing Christ opened His ministry with in Luke 4:19-20, quoting Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
A cursory Old Testament reading of the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy can either leave one asleep, confused, or offended (let the reader understand). In Deuteronomy, God is pushing His people to increasing levels of justice for the slave and the foreigner (note the increase of freedom and justice between Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:1-18 and Exodus 23:14-17 and Deuteronomy 16:1-17).
The center of this evolving ethos is the “shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). If the people of God (whose nation was formed (and thus their identity began) as liberated slaves!) are to hear and obey Him, they must remember that their God is the God of the Exodus (Deuteronomy 16:17). We see that the God of liberation can only accommodate slavery to a point. To identify as His people recognizes He sets slaves free and to image this God to the world means they too must liberate slaves.
Back to Ephesians 6:5-9
Martin Luther called Ephesians 5:24-6:9 the household codes. Slaves/bondservants were considered an integral part of the family. So it makes sense for Paul to deal with them in these household codes. As for Ephesus, it is estimated that slaves/peasant laborers composed about one-third of the population of a city like Ephesus. The bondservants did all the household work and often tutored the children. In both Greek and Roman Culture, slaves had limited rights and were subject to abuse and exploitation. As with women, Paul elevates slaves to responsible moral agents. The Roman institution of being a bondservant was different from the institution of slavery in North America during the 17th - 19th centuries. Slaves generally were permitted to work for pay and to save enough to buy their freedom (see Matthew 25:15 - “servants” (same Greek word, doulos) were entrusted with immense amounts of money and responsibility. Paul does not condone slavery, but gives instructions regarding relationships to each other in the Lord. The result, as is often observed, is that slavery slowly died out in antiquity through the influence of Christianity.
Stories > Context
Now all of that is helpful to shape our reading of the text, but more helpful is a story to unpack how this played out and actually transformed the culture. Paul’s prison letters were carried by Tychicus and a new convert, Onesimus is with him. His story is captured in Philemon (spoiler alert! My notes come from that video!).
Onesimus was a runaway slave. He’d run from Clossae to Rome and somehow connected providentially to Paul while he was in prison and became a follower of Christ. So Paul writes to appeal to Philemon, a leader in the early church, that Onesimus has now become his spiritual son, and as he sends him to Philemon, Paul is sending his very heart. Read 15-16:
15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
The Good News of the Kingdom has elevated Onesimus back to the Imago Dei. And Paul asks Philemon, which is so profound, to receive him as more than as a slave, but as a brother and one who shares in this New Life (Greek: koinonia). They are now more than owner/slave - they are partners. Philemon and Onesimus now have both received something together (The Good News) and have become partners in this new creation community.
So why doesn’t Paul simply command Him in Christ to free Him (Phliemon 8-9)? I think it is because the Kingdom operates on requests (Matthew 7:7-11). Paul is giving Philemon the opportunity to choose and seems to expect the new life in Philemon will lead him to liberate Onesimus (Philemon 21).
I do not think this part of Ephesians was written for our context (nor for American slavery in the 17th - 19th centuries). I do think this text is a challenge to us to actually prove God’s word to be true. We don’t know what happened with Onesimus and Philemon. We do know that when a family and church live out Ephesians 5:1-22 and become a new creation community, becoming imitators of God, walking in holiness and moral purity, loving one another as Christ loved us, our lives will be changed. And then, by God’s good grace, how we treat our families and those around us will change too. And eventually our communities will be changed. And those changed lives are the very thing that confront the forces of darkness all around us (Ephesians 6:10-20). That is how we play a small part of seeing God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
I asked some questions I didn’t answer and I’ll leave you with some I hope you will seek to answer on your own:
Do I believe God’s word to be true? Can it really transform my life?
Do I believe God’s word can impact my family and my community?
Am I living as a new creation?
Am I imaging God’s liberating love? (Ephesians 5:1-2)
Am I walking in holiness and thankfulness? (Ephesians 5:3-8)
Am I walking in the Light? (Ephesians 5:9-15)
Am I making the most of my opportunities? Am I being filled with the Spirit? (Ephesians 5:15-20)
Am I a submitted man or woman? (Ephesians 5:21)
Final Greetings from Ephesians 6:
23 Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 24 Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible
PS - Thanks to Anne Alley for editing this blog