In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul gives a series of instructions to δοῦλοι (slaves or servants―people in a position of subservience or subjection), and then to κυρίοις (masters or lords―people in a position of power).
Here is the passage in the NRSV translation:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.
I hope it’s obvious that this passage is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable one.
It has a hideous history of being used to try to justify chattel slavery in the US. It was spoken often by white enslavers to black enslaved people to try to keep them from rising up, running away, or expressing any other kinds of resistance to the brutal, inhumane system these white enslavers perpetuated.
I notice that (white) Christians now―likely either feeling guilty at some level about how the Bible was used to justify slavery, and/or in denial that this was the case―tend to read this passage with various sorts of disclaimers. Most pastors would likely say, “of course these verses don’t mean that slavery was or is okay! Let’s find another way to think about this.”
(This, by the way, is another reason I find it so galling when Christians read the immediately preceding passage, Ephesians 5:21-33, as a literal prescription for the way wives and husbands should relate to each other today, but then are unwilling to do the same for the verses about masters and slaves. It’s as if we somehow all just “know” now that slavery is wrong…but we’re not so sure about patriarchal marriage.)
I want to acknowledge the pain and awfulness these words about masters and slaves have caused.
And, as I mentioned in my post last week about wives and husbands, I don’t want to excuse Paul for failing to push back against the hierarchical power structures of his time and place―for women, or for slaves/servants.
What I do want to do is offer some thoughts about these verses that might help push the church today in a better direction. To do this, I want to focus on verses 8 and 9. I want to focus on the “masters”―the people with power.
In verse 8, Paul writes that whatever good thing each person might do, this he/she will receive from the Lord (literal translation). This, according to Paul, includes both enslaved people and “free” people―people without power and people with power.
Then, in verse 9, Paul addresses masters. And he tells them to treat servants in the same way as, in Paul’s worldview, servants should treat them (literally, “do the same things toward the servants/slaves”). He then goes on to say, literally translated, that “their and y’all’s lord/master is in the heavens,” and that there is no partiality in this heavenly lord’s presence.
I’m not a huge fan of how Paul instructs everyone equally in these verses. He kind of tramples over and ignores the differences in power and social location between the slaves/servants and the masters/lords.
But I do like how Paul addresses people with power. I think it’s worth paying attention to. What happens when we go back and read verses 5-7 with the “masters, do the same things toward the servants/slaves” part in mind?
I’m thinking here of people in all sorts of positions of power. Employers, bosses, supervisors. Leaders and influencers of all sorts. City councils, judges, congresspeople, governors, presidents, and other elected officials. Police and military. Counselors and consultants. And, of course, pastors, elders, and other church leaders.
What “same things,” exactly, are these kinds of people instructed to do? How are they to think and act toward the people they lead and influence?
Paul wants people with power to treat others with respect and fear, and to live with sincerity and singleness of heart (v. 5). To live their private lives in a way that matches their public persona. (Which, by the way, probably does not involve taking weird pants-unzipped pictures with your wife’s female assistant, and then giving an even weirder drunk-sounding non-apology for it.)
Paul wants people with power not to try to win others’ favor, but to do the will of God from the heart (v. 6). (I enjoy the literal translation: “not according to eye-service like people-pleasers”―two fun compound words in Greek.) Not just to be seen and make a good impression and move up the food chain―and not to be so concerned with self-protection and image management once on top―but to seek God humbly. To try to do what is right and good and just.
Paul wants people with power to serve wholeheartedly, as if serving the Lord, not people (v. 7). To see their leadership not as self-aggrandizement, self-fulfillment, or an ego boost, but as service. And to be willing, whatever the cost, to choose to please God rather than people―one’s superiors, public opinion, etc.―when these two things conflict.
In the world of churches and Christian organizations, I think all this would involve leaders doing more (and deeper) soul-searching to figure out what it looks like to serve God in their context. Listening, broadly and intentionally and carefully, to the wisdom and experiences of people in the congregation. Digging beyond what was taught in seminary, what worked well for other churches, what people demand, and what wealthy donors want to fund.
I think it would involve leaders caring less about what things look like and more about how things actually are. When it comes to race, for example, it would involve moving from questions like “do our website photos show lots of happy people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds?” to questions like “are the people of color in our congregation represented in leadership? Are they respected as important voices in decision-making? Do they feel free to exist and worship as they are, without conforming to white norms? Are they acknowledged and honored as thinkers, leaders, and co-creators of theology?”
I think it would involve, as one more example, leaders being more upfront about their churches’ stances toward LGBTQ+ people and relationships―e.g. whether the church prohibits openly gay people from serving and leading in various ministries, whether the church performs gay weddings, etc.. (And if a leader finds herself hesitant to own up to a particular stance, for fear that it would make the church look bad―for example, that a non-affirming stance might make the church seem unkind, unwelcoming, or judgmental―perhaps it’s worth considering whether this stance may actually be some of these things.)
I don’t want to excuse Paul from the ugliness of the way he takes master/slave relationships for granted.
But I do want to see what would happen if more people with power started taking Paul’s instructions more seriously.
I want to see the kinds of churches and communities we can build together when leaders live and lead sincerely, from their hearts―not to make things look good, like people-pleasers, but doing God’s will, as well as they can understand it, guided by love and justice, from the bottom of their souls.
I want to see people with power using this power for good and not evil.
And maybe, in this way, Paul’s words here―which have been used for such evil―can be turned around and used for good.