Ephesians 6:5-9. 5 Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.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.
Today we look at the third and final section of Paul’s household code. Household codes were a common way of upholding how a good Roman house should be run. Husband and wives, parents and children and masters and slaves would all commonly be addressed.
But Paul turns the household code on its head by submitting our most basic of relationships to our union with Christ. Why does he do this? Because Paul knows that one day all things in heaven and on earth will be placed under the authority of Christ (1:9-10). And he knows that the Christian response to this eternal reality is that we place our entire lives under his authority right now. This includes all of our relationships, both in the church (4:1-5:20), and in the home (5:21-6:9).
Ephesians 6:5-9 proves a bit tricky for us today. Slaves and masters is not one of our favorite things to talk about. Likely none of us reading this is a slave or a master. We do not have slaves living in our homes. Nor are we likely living in the home of a master as their slave.
You can only imagine how awkward church must have been in first century Ephesus. Half of Rome’s population was slaves. Slaves were becoming Christians and so were masters. And now they had to go to church together.
Think about how the letter of Ephesians would sound being read to slaves and their master sitting in the same church service. Think about how this kind of radical equality would be heard in a society deeply rooted in social status, honor and shame, power and humiliation:
We all have every spiritual blessing.
All have obtained an inheritance.
All have resurrection power.
All have access to the Father.
All are rooted and grounded in Christ’s love.
All can experience the fullness of God.
So maintain the unity of the Spirit in peace.
Speak the truth in love to one another.
Be kind to one another, forgiving each other.
Walk in love toward one another.
And then this…submit to one another.
Wait what? Everyone submits to everyone? Yes. This is the way of Christ and his cross. This is what the gospel has accomplished in us. This is our only response to the indwelling Christ in us. The Jesus in us came to serve. Not to “Lord it over” others. But to give his life for all.
We might think that following all of these amazing statements of our union in Christ Paul might then outline a plan to abolish slavery and change the entire societal structure of the Empire. But he doesn’t. He never tells slaves to stop being slaves or masters to stop being masters.
But what Paul IS doing is showing us that our life in Christ transcends our earthly status. He is equalizing the slave and the master in Christ. He addresses both (it would be unheard of to address slaves in that day). He calls both of them the slaves of God. He reminds them that God shows no partiality. He calls on both of them to serve each other. He points to a day when God will reward both of them for the good that they have done. What Paul does is far greater than calling for a physical or cultural abolition of slavery. Rather he is reminding them of their true freedom in Christ and of their true slavery to Christ. A dual reality which will transform their lives into Christ’s own life.
What if we lived with this kind of understanding of the implications of union with Christ? What if we lived without partiality? Without status? Without shaming others? What if we all embraced the truth that every single one of us is both free in Christ and at the same time a slave to Christ?
And of course, what if we all lived the crucified life of Christ himself?
Should slaves rebel against their masters and start an uprising or run away? No, they should serve their master as if he or she is Christ. Should masters abuse their slaves, beating them into submission and keeping them in their place? No, they should serve their slaves as if they are Christ. This is how union with Christ would radically alter the Roman society and it is how it can radically alter your society, your workplace, your home, your community.
“To live is Christ” is to be Christ to all, while seeing Christ in all. Including your “slave master” boss, or your bondservant subordinates. It is to abandon all earthly status and rank, and to live a life of sacrifice for all around you no matter their earthly status or rank. It is to embrace our dual reality of both free and slave. And to find in that slavery to Christ the power to live and love as Christ no matter what your earthly status.