Sermon: Ephesians 6:5-9: Bondservants And Masters

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 22:21–28

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people (Exodus 22:21–28, ESV).

New Testament Reading: Ephesians 6:5-9

“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 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.” (Ephesians 6:5–9, ESV)


[Please excuse any and all typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church, but without the benefit of proofreading.] 


I probably don’t need to tell you that the subject that is before us today is a delicate one. It was a delicate subject in Paul’s day, and it is a delicate subject in ours, but for different reasons. 

In Paul’s day slavery was interwoven into the fabric of society. It was institutional. It was legal under Roman law.  To give you an idea of how pervasive slavery was in Roman society, historians estimate that as many as 1/3 of the residence of Ephesus were slaves. Most of them worked in agrarian contexts and were, therefore, crucial to the stability of that society. Economic stability depended upon them. The food supply depended upon them. Slaves would become slaves for a number of reason. Perhaps it was through military conquest. Perhaps a person fell into economic hardship and thus had no other option but to sell themselves into slavery for a time. In those days unwanted infants were sometimes left outside to die of exposure, and slave traders would pick them up to sell them as slaves. Others were simply born into slavery. It was not at all uncommon for slaves to be treated very harshly by their Roman masters. Neither was it uncommon for slaves to be rebellious (and even violent) towards their masters. So when Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus he knew that there would certainly be slaves and masters within the congregation. He knew that these “bondservants”, as they are called here in the ESV, were considered apart of the family in that culture. And so Paul addressed the relationship between master and slave as he gave instructions for the household — husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves are addressed by the Apostle. Please understand that what Paul says here to masters and slaves was in fact revolutionary, provocative and controversial in his day. I will say a little more about how Paul’s word’s would have been received by his first century Greco-Roman audience in a moment. But for now, please understand that this was a delicate issue even then. 

In our day the issue is delicate but for different reasons. For those of us living in the United Stated in the year 2020 it is difficult for us to read the words “masters” and “bondservants” and to not think about the slavery that existed in this country not long ago. And when we think about that form of slavery, we understand that it was unjust and are right to celebrate its eradication. In our countries history a large portion of the population considered a particular race of men to be an inferior race. Black men and women, boys and girls, were unjustly treated. They were deprived of their natural rights. They were oppressed. And so it is right for us to condemn slavery as it existed in the American context. And it is right for us to see to it that it is thoroughly and forever eradicated. As we live within this society and seek to promote justice in this land never should we tolerate laws that favor or oppress one race of men over another. This is a part of our civil responsibility. As Christian men and women it is right for us to engage in the political realm and to promote justice whenever possible.   

Thankfully, slavery is no longer legal in our nation. Slavery is no longer interwoven into the fabric of our society. It is not institutional, as it was in our nations histiory and in first century Rome. But slavery does exist in the world. There are even slaves in our land. I’m am here thinking of those slaves who have been trafficked illegally. And so I think it is important to say from the outset that Paul’s words do not in any way apply to this form of slavery, which is illegal, purely exploitative, sinful and unjust. Stated differently, in no way does Paul say to this kind of slave — a slave who has been trafficked illegally and exploited — “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ…” (Ephesians 6:5, ESV). Certainly not! And the one who is in bondage to this kind of slavery should seek to escape these bonds at the first opportunity, and to seek the assistance of others, particularly our criminal justice system. To the one who has been stolen away or enticed into this form of slavery I say, you are in no way obligated to submit to this oppression. Christians, we must be mindful of the fact that this kind of evil does exist within the world, and we should be eager to eradicate it from our society as we have opportunity as citizens of this land.  

As we consider Paul’s instructions to Christian masters and bondservants we should notice that he neither condemns slavery as inherently sinful, nor does he condone slavery as an institution to be desired. Instead, he simply addressed slavery as a matter of fact and gives instructions to Christian slaves and masters so that they might walk in a manner that is worthy of the calling to which they had been called, even within the context of this undesirable institution. 

Marriage was instituted by God at creation. So too was the family. Even in the garden, before sin entered the world,  Adam and Eve were to fill the earth. They were to raise their children in the Lord until they themselves were joined in marriage to another and established households of their own. Slavery was not instituted at creation, but came to be only through the effects of the fall of man into sin. As men and women grew destitute, or were conquered by others more powerful than themselves, they became slaves. And so, though slavery — that is to say, the practice of one man having authority over another’s time, energies and abilities — may not be inherently evil, its presence in the world can only be explained if one considers the fall of man into sin and it’s effects. And we know that slavery — though it may not be not inherently evil — is most often sinful, as men oppress others unjustly and treat them harshly, failing to honor them as made in the image of God. 

When I say that slavery is not inherently evil I mean that it is not impossible to imagine a situation where someone comes to be a slave — a bondservant or indentured servant — in a way that is just. Perhaps they become destitute. Perhaps they have become so indebted to another that they must sell themselves into slavery for a time inorder to free themselves from the debt. Perhaps the time of service is the penalty for a crime committed where recompense is required. I understand that our economic and judicial systems do not function in this way. And I am not here trying to make a case for it. But I think that we must acknowledge that economic and judicial systems have functioned this way throughout most of the history of the world, and I do not think that we can label them sinful or unjust automiatically. And in situations such as the ones I have described, it is not impossible to imagine a master treating his bondservant fairly, justly, and even with kindness. This is why I have said that we should be careful to not condemn all forms of slavery as inherently evil. It would be very easy for us to do this given the form of slavery that was only recently eradicated from our land, and given the tendency that men have had throughout the history of the world to abuse their authority, and to oppress those who are under them. Given these realities it would be easy to condemn all forms of servitude as inherently evil, but this would be careless, I think. It would miss the point and fail to identify with precession the true evil and injustice that has often plagued the institution of slavery throughout the history of the world. In fact, though we have eradicated all forms of legal and institutional slavery from our society, it is possible that we have introduced other forms of injustice in its place. Only by carefully defining justice will we be able to identify injustice. We must consider these matters carefully, friends, lest we trade one evil for another.    

So why have I said this? Why have I bothered to say that, though slavery is often sinful, it is not inherently so? Why I have bothered to point out that there are different forms of “slavery” — some may be just, while many others are unjust? Well, it should be obvious, I think. As I have said, Paul does not condemn slavery as inherently sinful, nor does he condone slavery as an institution to be desired. Instead, he simply addressed slavery as a matter of fact and gives instructions to Christian slaves and masters so that they might walk in a manner that is worthy of the calling to which they had been called, even within the context of this undesirable institution. The same could be said of Paul’s statement in Colossians 3, and of his letter to Philemon. In this epistles Paul takes the same approach. And I might also mention that this is the approach taken within the law of Moses. Were the practice inherently sinful, then Paul (and others) would have condemned it outright. Paul would have insisted that Christian masters have nothing at all too do with the institution. But instead, he takes a more measured approach, commanding bondservants and masters alike to walk worthily — that is, to act justly and in love — even within the context of this undesirable and often corrupt institution. 

To be clear, I am not proposing that slavery of any kind is to be desired. It is far better that a society finds a way for men and women to pay off their financial debts, for example, while maintaining their freedom. And to be clear, I am in full agreement that the form of slavery that existed in this country not long ago was sinful, given the circumstances. A key component of that form of slavery was the idea that one race of men was inferior to another. This is contrary to the scriptures, which teach that all men are created equal being made in God’s image. Furthermore, the slavery that existed in this country was forced. The treatment of slaves was often unjust and inhuman. Natural rights were consistently violated. It is good that that form of slaver has been thoroughly eradicated from this land.  

I am simply trying to think carefully about the issue and with some precession so that we might understand why the scriptures say what they say about the issue, and refrain from saying things that we might wish that they say from our modern vantage point. It is crucial that we think carefully about this delicate and emotional issue. And I’m afraid that much of the present discourse on the subject of race and slavery is careless. One crucial error this is being made is that historical figures are often judged without consideration being given to the time in which they lived. Yes, I suppose that many living in modern times would wish that Paul had labored to emancipate all slaves and to abolish the institution as it is existed in the ancient world. But such an opinion is naive. It ignores the realities of life in the ancient world. We must be careful when judging the character of men and women living in times past. We should formulate our opinions concerning their thoughts and actions carefully, taking into consideration the times in which they lived. 

Now would probably be a good time for me to say something about the decision of the ESV translation committee to translate the Greek word, doulos as “bondservant” instead of “slave”, as it is in the NASB and NIV. I will let them speak for themselves. What they say in the the preface to the ESV translation is very helpful, I think. They remark that “a particular difficulty is presented [in translation work] when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered ‘slave.’ These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that requires a range of renderings—‘slave,’ ‘bondservant,’ or ‘servant’—depending on the context. Further, the word ‘slave’ currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery particularly in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law, including specific provisions for release from slavery. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a ‘bondservant’—that is, someone in the Roman Empire officially bound under contract to serve his master for seven years (except for those in Caesar’s household in Rome who were contracted for fourteen years). When the contract expired, the person was freed, given his wage that had been saved by the master, and officially declared a freedman. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the most fitting nuance of meaning in each context. Where absolute ownership by a master is envisaged (as in Romans 6), ‘slave’ is used; where a more limited form of servitude is in view, ‘bondservant’ is used (as in 1 Corinthians 7:21–24); where the context indicates a wide range of freedom (as in John 4:51), ‘servant’ is preferred” (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016).

As we now begin to turn our attention to Paul’s instructions to bondservants and masters I want for you to recognize that his teaching was in fact revolutionary and countercultural in his day. 

Furthermore, I want for you to see that what Paul taught concerning the relationship between masters and bondservants would in fact contribute to the eventual eradication of the ancient slave system, which was often marked by injustice, brutality and oppression. 

When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians he had very little influence amongst the Romans. And the Christian church to whom he wrote also lacked cultural influential — they were at that time nothing more than a persecuted minority. But over time the churches influence would grow, and the biblical teaching that all men are created equal, being made in the image of God, would have an impact upon the prevailing culture. And this should always be our hope, by the way. As we live as salt and light in the world we should hope to, not only further God’s kingdom on earth through gospel proclamation and by teaching Christ’s disciples to obey all that he has commanded, but even to impact the cultures of this world for good. We are to promote justice and peace. We are to seek the good of the city and nation in which God has placed us as we ourselves keep God’s law and urge others to do the same. As it pertains to slavery — slavery — especially the racially motivated, unjust and oppressive kind — cannot survive in a culture where the majority of men and women believe the truth that all men are created equal, being made in the image of God. And that is what Paul here teaches, as we will see. He will apply this principle to masters insisting that that they treat their bondservants with dignity, knowing that they both have the same Master in heaven, and there is no partiality with him. And over time  — though Paul would not live to see the day — the truths would contribute to the abolition of the ancient trade system as the church, and the churches teaching, grew in prominence. God’s ways are mysterious indeed.


Bondservants, Obey Your Earthly Masters

Before we consider Paul’s exhortation to masters, we must consider his exhortation to bondservants. If Paul’s exhortation to masters was countercultural in his day, his exhortation to bondservants is countercultural in ours. 

To the salves within the church Paul wrote, “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.” (Ephesians 6:5–8, ESV)

Notice that Paul does not encourage bondservants to cast off the yoke of their earthy masters (as we might wish), but to obey them with fear and trembling.

Notice that he doesn’t not qualify this command saying, so long as your masters are just and kind. 

And notice that what Paul says to bondservants correspond to what Paul says to others regarding submission to the authority that is over them. Children are to obey their parents in the Lord. Wives are to submit to their0 husbands as to the Lord. And it is Peter who says that they are to do this “so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives…” (1 Peter 3:1, ESV). And in another place Paul address the Christian’s submission to civil authority, and he makes no exception for rulers that are ungodly (which they certainly were in his day!). He only says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV).

The exception to rule is that when Christians are pressed to choose between obeying earthly authorities and God, they are to obey God and not man. And such would be true for bondservants as well. If pressed to obey God or their earthly masters, they must choose to obey God, no mater how severe the consequences (Lord, help those who are being pressed to make such a choice in the world today!).

But in general, Christian bondservants were commanded by the apostle to “obey [their] earthly masters with fear and trembling…” 

Again, I will remind you that slavery was legal under Roman law. Bondservants played an important role in the economic system. Their work was crucial to the stability of the food chain. You may wish that Paul had encouraged disobedience and revolt, but the time was not right, nor was it Paul’s view that it was his place as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, nor did he teach that individuals should bring about change within the culture through rebellion. Furthermore, the reality is that if Paul had encouraged a slave revolt on the basis of unjust treatment he would have been sending these Christian slaves to certain death at the hands of the Romans. Instead, he urged submission to the authority that was over them, despite the imperfections.

This concept of submission to authority is sometimes difficult for modern day Americans to receive. But I will ask you to consider this: perhaps we are the ones who’s view is flawed. Perhaps the problem is with us. Perhaps we are too individualistic, too in love with our rights and freedoms. Just maybe, we need to learn how to honor the authorities that are over us, flawed as they may be, as we pray and wait patiently upon the Lord to right the wrongs that trouble us so deeply in our society. This does not mean that we must be passive. In fact, we must seek to influence the world around us for good through our patient and persistent presence as salt and light. But we must also honor the authorities that God, according to his sovereign will and infinite wisdom, has determined to set over us at this time.

As I have said, this principle of submission is constantly applied in Ephesians to wives, to children, and to bondservants. And what Paul says to bondservants is particularly instructive. Though no one here is a bondservant, all of us are under some earthly authority. And what Paul says to bondservants concerning submission to their masters may be picked up and applied by us. 

First of all, Paul commands Christian bondservants to obey their earthly masters. This is simple enough. Just as a child is to obey their perents, so bondservants are to obey their masters. Though all are equal in Christ, as we will see — and though all humans are of equal worth, given that they have all been made in the image of God — the world has been designed in such a way that some have authority over others within society. Obedience is to be offered up to those who have authority. 

Secondly, Paul commands Christian bondservants to obey their masters from the heart. This principle is peppered throughout verses 5-8. Bondservants are to obey with fear and trembling. They are to have a true and sincere respect for their masters. They are to not to obey “bt the way of eye-service, as people pleasers…” I think you understand what this means. They are to obey, not superficially, but sincerely from the heart. They are to serve their masters faithfully in a way that is  becoming of a Christian, truly wishing to do them good and not evil. I think of the way that Joseph served in Potiphar’s house and also in the prison. He was faithful to his  master (even though the circumstances that brought him to Egypt were unjust). He served his master not only when he was looking, but even when he was away. This is the way that Christian bondservant should serve — sincerely and from the heart, “reinserting service with a good will”, the text says. And this is also how children, wives, and citizens should honor the authority that is over them — with sincerity in the heart. 

Thirdly, Paul commands bondservants to sincerely obey their masters as to Christ. This principle is also peppered throughout this text. And this principle is key if bondservants are to consistently serve their earthly masters, especially those who are unjust. They are to serve their earthly masters “as [they] would Christ”. They are to obey them “as bondservants of Christ”. They are to do their masters’ will because it is “the will of God”. They are to render “service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free” (Ephesians 6:7–8, ESV). 

This principle that we are to honor those who have authority over us as unto the Lord is what makes it possible to honor earthly and often sinful authority figures sincerely and from the heart. Friends, just as bondservants were to honor their earthly masters, so you are to honor those who have authority over you. This you are to do for Christ’s sake. This obedience is to be offered up, not to man ultimately, but to God. It may be that you are treated poorly in return, but God see both your faithful service and your unjust treatment. He will repay both. 

The story of Joseph again looms large. He was faithful to God in Potiphar’s house and in the prison. He honored Potiphar and the prison guard despite the injustices. And God, in due time, did lift him up out of the pit to reward his faithfulness. Jospeh is a model for us. And in his life we see that God is sovereign even over our sufferings. He is faithful. He is able to deliver us and to reward our devotion. He rewarded Jospeh in this life. Certainly he will reward all of his servants in the life to come.  

As I have said, no one here is a bondservant. And it is difficult to find a relationship that is similar to that of a bondservant to a master in our modern day, so care should be taken when seeking to apply this text to other relationships that are not the same. But there are some principles here that can be applied by wives in relation to their husbands, children in relation to their parents, members in relations to their elders, students in relation to their teachers, employees in relation to their employer, officers in relation to sergeants, and citizens in relation to police, governors and presidents. In Christ we are to “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:7, ESV)

Lord help us to honor those who have authority over us. Help us to do it sincerely and from the heart. Help us to submit to authority, as to Christ and for his name’s sake.   


Masters, Do The Same To Them

Finally, we come to Paul’s instructions to Christian masters. As I have said, these words would have seemed radicle in the first century Roman world. Verse 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” (Ephesians 6:9, ESV).

No one here is a master in the sense that Paul uses the term. But anyone who has any kind of authority can learn from what Paul says to masters. 

He commands masters “to do the same to them”. This is an astonishing statement — at least it would have been to his Roman audience. When Paul says, “Masters, do the same to [your servants]” clearly he does not mean that they are to offer up obedience to their servants. Instead, he means that masters are to do the will of God as it pertains to their servants. They are to serve them with the love of Christ as they honor them as fellow human beings made in the image of God. Bondservants are not to be viewed as property, but as people, and they were to respected as such. 

Remember how Paul, after commandingbondservants to obey their masters also addressed their heart? Well, in the same way Paul addresses the heart of the masters when he says, “and stop your threatening”. Masters should not even have an oppressive, harsh or condescending attitude towards their servants, but should love them with the love of Christ. 

And remember how Paul urged the bondservants to obey their masters as to the Lord? Well, Paul also urges masters to treat their servants as equals being mindful of God who is in heaven. They were to “do the same to them, and stop [their] threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”

Every human authority must wield their power with the heart of a servant, in love, being ever mindful that they themselves are under authority — the authority of God. He sees injustice, he hears the cry of the oppressed, and he will surely pour out his wrath upon the oppressor.   



As we come now to a conclusion, I want for you to mindful of the fact that when Paul wrote these words to masters and bondservants, he wrote them to the church in Ephesus. In that church there were both masters and bondservants united in Christ. Of course his words apply to the non-believing master and bondservant also, but they must be applied within the church. For in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus. And if [we] are Christ’s, then [we] are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28–29, ESV).

The world is divided according to race, class and gender. In the world the strong oppress the weak. But in Christ we are united together as one. We are all made in God’s image, sinners saved by grace, washed in the blood of the lamb. Black and white, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, stand equal in him. 

In the church we get a foretaste of the glory of the new heavens and earth, where people will stand in perfect unity  “from every tribe and language and people and nation…” In that day they will be “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth”, having been ransomed by the blood of the lamb (Revelation 5:9–10, ESV). And I am saying that in the church we get a foretaste of the unity that will exists in the new heavens and earth, for our union is rooted not in the color of our skin, nor in gender, nor in class, but ion Christ. The things that divide the world will melt away on that last day. And they must melt away even now in Christ church, which is the manifestation of the kingdom of God in this present evil age. 

The world is so very divided, but in Christ there is unity and peace. Peace among men can only be accomplished through peace with God. We must first be at peace with him, through faith in the Savior he has provided. And as we come to God as the Maker of us all, and to Christ as the Savior of us all, and submit to their authority, the things that divide us within the world will melt away and seem inconsequential.

Lord, help  your church. Have mercy on us Lord. May we be found as servants of Christ who love with the love of Christ no matter our station in life, all to the glory of our Savior King. Amen. 


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