Of all the teaching of Scripture, those passages about the institution of slavery are among the most difficult to navigate. The challenge is heightened by the tendency we all have to read the Bible through the lens of contemporary historical currents and movements. Nevertheless, the relationship between slaves and masters is carefully defined in both the Old and New Testaments. So what are we to make of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 6:5–9?
First, we need to recognize that God forbids the owning or selling of a kidnapped individual. In Exodus 21:16, we read, “Whoever kidnaps a person must be put to death, whether he sells him or the person is found in his possession.” Any form of slavery that involves the unlawful servitude of another image-bearer is an egregious sin. This must be clearly taken into account when we are considering the teaching of the New Testament on the institution of slavery.
Second, we must give consideration to the redemptive historical nature of the slavery that God permitted in the law in the Old Testament. An indentured servant, together with his family, was to be set free in the seventh year (Exodus 21:2–4). This was meant to remind Israel of what God had done in setting them free from their bondage in Egypt. That, in turn, serves as an Old Testament picture of the redemption that sinners experience through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In fact, we might go so far as to say that the institution of voluntary indentured servitude enables us to understand better what Jesus Christ has undertaken for our redemption. As minister and writer Phil Ryken explains, “We serve a Master who has made himself our slave, taking on the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:7). This is the story of our salvation, that the Son of God ‘did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45)…. The greatest service of all was his death on the cross.”
So, when we come to this passage in Ephesians 5, we are then to understand that the relationship between an indentured servant and his master was one in which the relationship between Christ and those He had spiritually redeemed was in view. This is why the apostle could say, “Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as you would Christ…. do God’s will from your heart…. And masters, treat your slaves the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him” (Ephesians 6:5–6,9).
Though we do not have an institution of indentured servitude in our day and age, we do have other working relationships with a hierarchy. The same principles that apply to the relationship between servants and their masters apply to us in our vocations. When we come to realize these principles, we come to understand that our work, regardless of position, must be motivated by a desire to honor Christ.
Written by Nick Batzig