An Unsettling Passage About Work

By Mark D. Roberts

December 12, 2019

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 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. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Ephesians 6:5-9 (NIV)


Today we begin our devotional engagement with a most unsettling passage. Though it has much to say to us about our work, Ephesians 6:5-9 is a troubling passage because it addresses a particular work context: slavery. Something in us rightly recoils when facing such a passage, especially one that begins with instructions for slaves to obey their masters. We wish Paul in Ephesians had argued for the abolition of slavery, rather than accepting it. Our understandable feelings about Ephesians 6:5-9 can make it hard for us to attend to its teaching on work and to see how this passage profoundly undermines the institution of slavery, though not by attacking it directly.

A man researching on his computer, his screen reads "authority."Those of us in the United States can find this passage especially disconcerting because of our nation’s abhorrent history when it comes to slavery. As a nation, we continue to grapple with the profound racism that fueled slavery in our country. Christians, in particular, are chagrined that passages from the Bible, including Ephesians 6:5-9, were used by Christian slaveholders and others to defend slavery.

Though I acknowledge the pain and injustice this passage has caused, I believe that, nevertheless, it can speak to us about things that matter profoundly, including our daily work. It challenges us to see all of our work in light of Christ and the difference he makes. I am convinced this passage of Scripture also empowers us to fight workplace injustice and slavery as they exist in our world today. I’ll say more about this later.

If you’re wondering why Paul addresses slaves in a section of Ephesians about family relationships, let me note that many slaves in the Roman world were considered to be members of the household. Thus, the moral philosophers who crafted the so-called “household codes” often spoke to masters about their relationship with their slaves. In this, Paul follows suit.

But, once again, Paul’s choice to address slaves as moral agents is extraordinary. He did not view slaves as did the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught that a slave is “a live article of property” and “a living tool” (Aristotle, Politics I.II. 5, 17; Nicomachean Ethics 8.11.7). Rather, Paul viewed slaves as human beings, created in the image of God, saved from death to life by Jesus Christ, and having the ability to choose to live in a way that honored the Lord.

We should also remember that slaves were included as full members of the church. They were gifted by the Spirit for ministry in the assembly, just as those who were not slaves. They were, according to the theology of Ephesians, essential to the health and growth of the body of Christ (4:15-16). Thus, by addressing slaves in his household code, Paul implicitly affirms their dignity, moral agency, and participation in the church.

Next week, we’ll dig more deeply into Ephesians 6:5-9, looking for what God wants to say to us through this passage. For now, let me encourage you to consider the following questions.

Something to Think About:

As you read Ephesians 6:5-9, how do you respond? What do you feel? What stands out to you?

Why do you think that, for some, the Bible provided a defense of slavery, while, for others, the Bible was essential to its abolition? What will enable us to hear what God really wants to say to us through the Bible, rather than simply projecting our own bias into the text?

Something to Do:

Set aside some time to reflect on Ephesians 6:5-9, asking the Lord what he wants to say to you personally through this passage. Be open to the still, small voice of the Spirit.


Gracious God, some passages in Scripture are hard to read. For me, this is one of them. Nonetheless, I want to understand this text truly and fairly. And, even more, I want to know what you are saying to me through it. Help me to be open in mind and spirit, to seek you as I read and reflect, to be formed by your gospel-filled truth.

[The next part of this prayer reflects my own personal response to the text. You may want to adapt it to fit the circumstances of your own life.]

Moreover, Lord, as a white Christian in America, I’m grieved by how this text has been used by many to defend, not just slavery, but slavery imbued by the evil of racism. I feel ashamed about how people like me have thought and acted. And I’m concerned that some of this history has shaped my own heart, perhaps in ways I don’t even see. So, dear Lord, I ask for your forgiveness. And I pray that you will help me to see clearly what you want me to see, so that I might be in all ways an agent of your truth, justice, and love. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Slaves of Christ (Ephesians 6:6–8)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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