7.23 Ephesians -- Slaves, Be Obedient
Now, at last, Paul put's his foot in it!
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ (Eph 6:5).
The only reason this passage has any racial implications is due to later 18th and 19th Century American mis-application of Paul’s words to justify the enslavement of Africans. In their original setting, the intent of these verses is merely to continue Paul’s over-riding purpose to ensure peace in the home. He realized that many of the people he was writing to either owned slaves or were slaves themselves. What were the consequences of their new Christian faith to their status in the home?
Paul at this point is a "social conservative." Slaves who hoped that belief in Christ would lead to automatic manumission were no doubt disappointed. They wanted to translate the equality of all believers before God into legal brotherhood. Instead, Paul’s position was that the influence of Christianity is to pacify the relations of master and slave, without altering them. In fact, he adds to the burdens of the slaves: they are not merely serving their human masters, but in serving them are also serving Christ himself. Being a "manpleaser" (RSV) is no longer good enough, one must serve with "sincerity of heart."
Yet this is just one side of the coin: masters are to cease threatening (or worse?), and remember that they have a Master in Heaven. We see again the insistence on mutual obligation and submission put forth in Eph 5:21:
"submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
Paul's practical view of slavery is repeated in several letters: 1 Cor 7:21-24, Col 3:22-25, Col 4:1, Titus 2:9-10. This is all fairly pallid stuff from the point of view of human progress and social justice. Although his teaching cannot be construed as an endorsement of slavery as a social institution in accordance with the divine will, neither is it an advance in the current state of human rights. The reason is that social change was not his priority. He was busy building up local churches in preparation for the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Remember, this is the man who counseled singles not to marry because the remaining time was short. If marriage was a non-issue with him, it is not surprising that slavery was as well. He didn’t want any temporal conditions to interfere with the health and growth of the local fellowship.
His more radical theological teaching on the equality of slave and free is in 1 Cor 12:13, Gal 3:28, Col 3:11. Before God (and in the congregation) there was no distinction, "for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). Nevertheless, in practice, it is hard to see how the local church could place in authority a man or woman who was a slave to another church member. Paul's pastoral side is revealed in the book of Philemon, in which he intercedes with Christian owners on behalf of his friend and their slave Onesimus:
"If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me" (Phile 1:18).
So Paul leaves the great imperatives of human freedom unresolved. It is important, however, not to read into his conservatism any racial bias. Again, as with citizenship, so with slavery -- membership was multi-ethnic. Rome enslaved the nations she defeated in war -- this included Germanic tribes, Greeks, Semites, as well as north Africans. And indeed, in many cases, slavery was not a life-sentence, as was the American race-based slavery system.
It is easy to pooh-pooh the practical effects of his assertions of human equality before God. But that may not be fair. If the local churches he established were a "safe zone" for slaves, a place where they could shed the stigma of their economic subjection, and be treated by free men as brothers and sisters, even just for the duration of the meeting, that is not an insignificant first step in the achievement of greater personal social freedom. In time, there would have to be a "carryover effect" into the surrounding community. There is a great power for social transformation in a unified church community. If this were not so, why did the American white churches in the slavery and post-slavery periods prohibit blacks from attending? Why did they teach about two heavens, one for whites and one for blacks? It was because they were aware of the power of the Gospel to let loose in the lives of oppressed men and women unstoppable forces of spiritual and personal advancement. And they were determined not to let that happen, not to lose control, not to let the lion of spiritual equality loose in their congregations, because they knew it would lead to the thing they feared most -- social equality.