Bondservants and Masters

“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters… do the same to them…” (Ephesians 6:5, 9)

Bible Reading: Ephesians 6:5-9

There is a third relationship basic to “households” in Paul’s day that he treats here, namely, that involving bondservants and masters – and mistresses, for that matter (Ephesians 6:5-9).

In the case of believing bondservants (those purchased by their masters, effectively their property), the instruction is “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (v. 5). Paul well knew the tendency to resentful sloth and “eye-service” (working only when watched) that characterised this class of people. This was not to be true of Christian bondservants. They were to treat their masters as they would Christ, knowing that they were first of all “bondservants of Christ” (v. 6).

This prior and fundamental relationship with Christ was to flow through the spirit of all of their service. They were to serve with “fear and trembling” (reverence), with “sincere hearts,” not as “people-pleasers,” but performing their duties “with good will, as to the Lord, not to man” (v. 7).

As difficult as this must have been for many an ill-treated bondservant, Christians were nevertheless to follow this rule. And they were to be strengthened in their resolve – and comforted in their sufferings –  in knowing that “whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is bondservant or free” (v. 8). The Lord sees and knows, and he will repay all men according to their works (Romans 14:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

That certainty forms a natural bridge for Paul to turn to “masters” (v. 9). “Masters, do the same to them,” he says, referring to how they were to treat their bondservants. By that, he means that they are to act towards them knowing that they too are under the eye of the Lord who will repay them for all they do or do not do regarding those under their control.

Specifically, this means that masters are to stop “threatening” their bondservants. Given the cruel treatment often meted out to slaves in the ancient world, the inhuman beatings, physical mutilations, family severances and so on, one can understand the terrible power of “threat.” It was constantly used as a tool to subdue bondservants and keep them in a condition of cringing fear.

But just as there was no place for bondservants to give superficial “eye-service”, neither was there any place for masters to create an environment of manipulative fear. To enforce this, Paul reminds masters that they too (along with their bondservants), have a Master “in heaven.” And the thing they are to realise is that there is “no partiality with him.” That is, he does not treat people based on their social standing – or their gender, skin colour, educational achievements and so on. He deals with people in terms of what is just, true and right.

Again, how different would our societies be if only those who were giving and those receiving the service of others sought to live by these principles?

Closing Thoughts:

  • Does the fear of the Lord influence the way you give and receive service involving others?
  • How could you change the way you currently do so?

– Andrew Young