December 16, 2019 • Life for Leaders
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 continue examining Ephesians 6:5-9, a passage that addresses the relationships between slaves and masters. This is a challenging text, as I explained in last Thursday’s Life for Leaders devotion. If you missed this devotion, you may want to check it out because it introduces the issues we’ll be working on today and for the rest of this week.
The initial instruction to slaves to obey their masters would have been both surprising and unsurprising to its first readers. As I mentioned before, readers in the first century would have been surprised by the fact that this passage speaks to slaves directly, rather than addressing masters only. Ephesians assumes that slaves are moral agents, people fully capable of making right choices for their lives.
The first readers would not have been surprised, however, by the thought that slaves should obey their masters. Everyone in the Roman empire, including both slaves and free people, would have understood that this was required of slaves. It was common wisdom. No surprise here.
But the phrase “earthly masters” (literally, “masters according to the flesh”) would have given pause. It suggests that slaves have another master, one yet to be named. The first readers would have wondered: “Who is the non-earthly master?”
The answer appears in the next verse. Christian slaves with human masters are also “slaves of Christ.” Thus, even in their ordinary work, slaves are to act “as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” Yes, from an earthly perspective they are serving their earthly masters. But from a heavenly perspective, they are actually serving their heavenly Master. They belong to Jesus Christ because he has “bought” them through his death and resurrection. This is true of all people who belong to Christ, both slave and free (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).
This reframing of slavery would have given Christian slaves a whole new way of thinking about their work. It can do the same for us, no matter our job or situation. If you work for a company, school, or non-profit, you are also serving the Lord through your daily work. If you own your own business, you are also serving the One who “owns” you through his death and resurrection. If you work without compensation, caring for your family or volunteering, you are also serving the Lord. As long as your work is not evil—like stealing, for example—what you do each day is for the Lord, for his purposes, honor, and glory. This can make all the difference in the world when it comes to how we think about and function in our daily work.
Something to Think About:
Do you think of your daily work as being “for the Lord”? If so, why? If not, why not?
How might you think differently about your work if you saw yourself as a “slave of Christ”? How might you work differently?
Something to Do:
Each morning, I repeat a short prayer of St. Ignatius: “Grant, Lord, that all my actions, intentions, and operations may be directed purely to your praise and your service.” You might use this prayer in a similar way as you seek to offer to your Master all of your work.
Grant, Lord, that all my actions, intentions, and operations be directed purely to your praise and your service.
May this be true today in all of work, all of my conversations, all of my decisions, all of my thoughts. May you be truly and fully my Lord today. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Christian Masters (Ephesians 6:5–11)
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, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.