[Nov 07]—Slaves and Masters

            Wow, I just thought I was past all the controversial material in Ephesians, huh? Paul’s addressed wives and husbands, children and fathers, and now he’s tackling the thorny issue of slaves and their masters.
            And let’s have no illusions. Slaves in the 1st century Rome had absolutely no rights. A master was bound only by his own conscience and by economic considerations (you paid good money for a slave, so you'd be reluctant to permanently damage them). Slaves were not considered a person. They were a commodity, to be bought or sold or used or abused as the owner saw fit. Abuse, torture, and even murder were considered a slave-owner’s prerogative.
            It was a brutal institution. It was ubiquitous, existing in every culture, society, and nation. For thousands of years this degrading practice was practiced everywhere, and suddenly (relatively speaking), about two hundred years ago an abolitionist movement formed. The first anti-slavery society started in colonial America, and then this movement spread to Europe and beyond. Great Britain was the first to absolutely outlaw it, and it used its navy to end the transatlantic slave trade once and for all. Within less than a hundred years, slavery went from being practiced everywhere to nowhere (at least not legally).
            Why? What happened? Christians read their Bibles and came to the conclusion that slavery—even allowing slavery—was incompatible with following Christ. In this country, we finally ended the “Peculiar Institution” after the Civil War, the bloodiest war this nation has ever fought. For about a hundred years after, we practiced our own form of Apartheid, with legalized discrimination and segregation. But once again, Christians read their Bibles and came to the conclusion that this was unacceptable in a society that claimed to be founded upon Christian principles. The main figure of the Civil Rights Movement was the Reverend (people tend to forget that title) Martin Luther King, Jr., whose main (and successful) strategy was to shame a supposedly Christian society into actually living out what the Bible taught.
            I’ve discussed this all before (here) a couple of years ago when we studied the Torah. The reason we had to wrestle with this subject back then was because the Law of Moses regulated slavery and curbed its worst abuses, but it didn’t simply outlaw it. The main point I wanted to remind you of is that the Bible (which includes today's passage) is not designed primarily as a blueprint for politically revolutionizing society. 
            Granted, it’s led indirectly to all the great reform movements of the last couple of centuries: Abolition, child-labor law reform, suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement were started and led mostly by Christians who took their Bibles seriously. If you believe that every human being is made in God’s image, that theological point radically influences every one of our human relationships, including the issue of racial relations. How can someone claim that the Golden Rule is compatible with treating anyone as a second-class citizen, or even like property or an animal? For more on this, I can't recommend highly enough In Defense of Faith, which goes into wonderful detail on how two little verses in Genesis led to every positive reform movement we've ever seen. 
            Now let’s actually get to the passage. Paul told his readers who were slaves to obey their earthly masters, not because of the threat of punishment, but for a higher reason. They were to obey "as unto the Lord" (as older translations have rendered it), not just when the master’s eye was on them: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” Even when their earthly master wasn’t looking, Someone else was.
            The interesting thing is that as shocking and discomforting today’s passage might be towards us, it’d be even more shocking and harder to swallow for the original readers of the 1st century. Not because of his instructions for slaves, but because of what he said to masters. For Paul to tell slaves to submit to their masters--just like he told wives to submit to their husbands—wouldn’t be considered all that radical. But for Paul’s commands to husbands--to love their wives and put their wives needs ahead of their own--would be incredibly counterintuitive and countercultural. And for him to tell masters to have any type of consideration towards their slaves would be astonishing as well.
            But he does. Remember, first and foremost, that 5:21, which tells everyone to have a submissive attitude towards everyone else in the church, applied to the masters he’s addressing here. “In the same way” probably refers back to 5:21, where everyone is supposed to put other peoples’ needs before their own, imitating Christ.
            Their relationship was not to be based on force or the threat of force, but on mutually serving one another, imitating Christ towards one another. And here’s another really radical thought: Egalitarianism. Not the mushy stuff you see pushed today. No, a world-altering shift in viewpoint: Understanding that, as my favorite Christmas Hymn goes, “The slave is our brother.” In Christ, we have one Father, one “Master” (even though he doesn’t call us his servants, but his friends). He’s the Master of both earthly masters and earthly slaves. And there is no favoritism with him. All the surrounding society said that there was an intrinsic and nigh-impassible gulf between master and slave. One had all the rights, the other had none. One was considered to be human, the other wasn’t.
But in the Father’s eyes, none of that mattered one whit. And one day. . . each of them would be held accountable. Not held to account by man’s laws, but according to the Lord's. The same God who said to “love your neighbor,” and to treat each other according to how you’d like to be treated. And if one wasn’t covered by the blood of the Lamb, there’d be hell to pay. Literally. And if this master claimed to be a Christian and yet wasn’t showing proper love towards his brother in Christ, then the apostle John would have a rather jarring message for him: If you don’t show love towards a brother in Christ, you probably don’t belong to the Savior. In other words, you’re headed for judgment.
We don't have (legal) slavery nowadays, so what does this have to with us? Well, I’m running long here, and we'll come back to this in a few days when we wrap up a small series on work. In the meantime, let’s focus on this one overriding principle: Every person I meet is either a sibling in Christ, or a lost individual. Either way, they’re created in the image of my beloved Savior. I need to treat them as such. Any attitude of pride or tendency to cling to my “rights,” even legitimate, needs to be laid aside. I need to love them in the name of Jesus, and let his love flow through me. If this isn’t overflowing into every human relationship I have, it should. Why isn’t it?

Father God, please let this radical view affect every human interaction I’m going to see today and in the future. Every person is either a brother/sister in Christ, or they’re a person for whom your Son bled. I need to act accordingly. You’re watching.

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