Rev. David Holwick
First Baptist Church
West Lafayette, Ohio
January 16, 1983
Slaves and Masters
Ephesians 6:5-9, KJV
Our passage today deals with the problem of slavery. We don't think of it as a problem today because it is outlawed almost everywhere but in Paul's day it was universal. Society depended on it for survival. It has been computed that in the Roman Empire there were 60,000,000 slaves. In Paul's day a kind of terrible idleness had fallen on the citizens of Rome. Rome was the ruler of the world therefore it was beneath the dignity of a Roman citizen to work. Practically all the work was done by slaves. Even doctors and teachers; even the closet friends of the Emperors, their assistants who dealt with letters and laws and finance, were slaves.
Often there were bonds of deepest loyalty and affection between master and slave. But basically the life of a slave was grim and terrible. In law he was not a person but a thing. One Roman writer said a slave was no better than a beast who happens to be able to talk. Another Roman gave this advice to a friend who was taking over a farm. He told him to go over it and throw out everything that was past its usefulness. This was to include old slaves who were to be thrown out on the trash heap to starve to death. It was universally accepted that the master possessed the power of life and death over his slaves.
As Christianity expanded across the Roman Empire many of its converts were slaves and Paul is addressing them in this passage. The King James Version is a little misleading at this point because it has the word "servants." There were house servants in those days that were hired and given wages. But Paul is not dealing with them here. He uses the word that is always used for slaves, not for hired servants and verse 8 supports this when it contrasts those who are bound - that is, slaves - and those who are free. We cannot understand this passage without coming face to face with the problem of slavery and in particular the Biblical teaching regarding slavery.
I don't need to say that this is a very difficult and controversial subject. There are many people who say that their main reason for not being a Christian is the attitude of the Bible and the New Testament in particular, to slavery. Since the Bible seems to allow evils like slavery, they will have nothing to do with the Bible. Even for many Christians this has often been a cause of great perplexity. Think back to the 1860's in America, when the Civil War was fought over this very subject. Even Baptists split into a Northern and a Southern group and have never been reunited.
Slavery is a very subtle and difficult problem and it is related to many modern issues. To really look at slavery you have to look at the whole problem of the attitude of the Christian to social conditions, to politics, reform and even possible revolution and rebellion. All of these issues are related, even though the Bible doesn't necessarily have verses dealing with each one.
The New Testament deals with great principles. If you want to be able to apply the Bible to your daily life, you have to learn how to understand each passage, discover the underlying principle and then apply the principle to the particular problems which confront you. My belief is that most people don't do this. Instead of trying to understand the Bible and apply its principles, I think most people make up their minds on what they believe and then try to fit the Bible into it. In my opinion this is the great failing of Liberalism. Liberals tend to find their principles in humanism and then try to find support from the Bible. As a result of its foundation in humanism, Liberalism stresses man's relationship to man. The duty of the church is to combat racism, stop nuclear war and give advice on economics, they say. Literature from groups like the World Council of Churches always stresses those points. Though the actual subjects may change, the principle behind the questions always remains the same. Little is ever said about man's relationship to God. The theme is always man's relationship to man - man's rights, the treatment of man by his fellows and so on.
The Bible itself gives a different emphasis. Once Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind and strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second [note that it is second] is like it. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Human relationships do not come first - they never come first in the Bible, it is always man's relationship to God that comes first. With this thought in mind, let's read our passage in Ephesians 6 again:
"Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ: not with eye-service, as men-pleasers but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart."
Paul lifts the question into the sphere of God and our relationship to him. And he is careful to say the same thing to the masters:
"Knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons that is, favoritism - with him."
What I have to say next is despised and rejected by many people today. In the Bible, life in this world is always regarded as being of secondary importance - it is just a pilgrimage, a journey. Heaven should be dearer to us than earth. This teaching is found everywhere in the New Testament, from the gospels to the letters to the book of Revelation. As it says in Colossians 3:2:
"Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth."
It is very important to remember this because it is the principle that controls the Bible's teaching about slavery and all these other matters. The guiding principle is man's relationship to God and this present life is only temporary. This does not mean, of course, that this life and this world are to be ignored and we should all be monks. But we shouldn't think of this life alone. Because of this, the primary business of the church is not to deal with the conditions in this world but rather with the Christian's relationship to them. The Church teaches the Bible and presents the way of salvation. That is why there is no protest against slavery in the New Testament. Let me repeat that the business of the church is not with conditions as such but instead with the way in which the Christian is to work in existing conditions. If you'll study Jesus' ministry, you'll find that he did not try to change Jewish society. He tried to change people. Changes in society will follow.
According to the Bible, a person's first priority is to be saved. As Jesus says:
"What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?"
Salvation comes from realizing you have utterly failed God. All people have. Once you realize this, the Bible says you should repent of your sins and ask Jesus to cleanse you and be the Lord of your life. Once a person becomes a Christian, some changes should come into their life. The Bible calls it fruit. The biggest changes come in relationships. Our relationship with God changes first. Instead of being alienated from him, we become close to him and we can experience his love. After this, our relationship to others changes. In God's eyes we become equal to all other Christians. Social distinctions like slavery mean nothing to God. As it says in Galatians 3:28:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Since this is true, a Christian should not look down on any other Christian because of their social position. The size of your salary, the beauty of your house and your status in the community mean nothing to God. Since he accepts all Christians equally, we should be able to accept each other.
But this last principle can be taken too far. Some argue that since we are all equal in God's eyes, all differences should be abolished. Women should do everything a man does and slaves can ignore their masters. Christianity, they say, destroys all the old relationships. This is a complete misunderstanding of Christianity. To be equal in Christ means there is no difference from the standpoint of the possibility of salvation but the relationships in society are not abolished. The fact that we become Christians does not dissolve or abolish our relationship to the government or to social, political or economic conditions.
Paul even says that our becoming Christians does not automatically bring slavery to an end. He does not tell slaves they are free of their masters - he says the exact opposite. The slaves are to go on as they were before but with the new standpoint and attitude which he teaches in Ephesians 6. Paul's letter to Philemon, which focuses on the situation of a runaway slave named Onesimus, teaches the same thing. But perhaps the clearest statement of all is found in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24. Turn with me there. Paul writes:
"Let every man abide in the same calling - that is; situation wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? (Slave) Care not for it; but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God."
Christianity did not condemn slavery because it rises above it. But another point needs to be made. If Christianity did not condemn slavery, neither did it condone it. Christianity is not a justification for the status quo. You'll notice that in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul encourages slaves to gain their freedom if they can do so. But if they can't they should make the most of their present situation. The power of Christianity has always been that God can use us where we are. It also teaches that no matter where we are we have responsibilities to live like a Christian. Those who are masters are commanded not to abuse their slaves but instead to treat them like brothers in Christ.
It is this teaching which eventually abolished slavery. It can also heal the wounds between men and women, fathers and sons and any other human relationship that is affected by sin. You may not like the lot you have in life, you may have a lousy job, bad marriage or some other modern form of slavery - God can save you where you are.
Your situation won't change overnight but God will work through you so that in time it will change, just like slavery has vanished.
Typed on January 25, 2006, by Sharon Lesko of Ledgewood Baptist Church, New Jersey
Copyright © 2017 by Rev. David Holwick
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