I remember a few years ago, there was a West African man who wanted to meet with me and had expressed a concern to me that the Bible taught that slavery was a fine and accepted practice. He had read some scriptures, some similar scriptures to what I read today, and thought that they meant that people should be kept in slavery.
In fact, I believe that it means the exact opposite, but you have to understand the context of the time and situation that Paul found himself to understand what he is saying.
For the captives
The story of how God set the Israelites free, who were slaves in the land of Egypt at the time, has been told, and will continue to be told, both by the Israelites and at least by everyone who follows them in the Abrahamic religions, namely the Jews, the Muslims, and the Christians. It is one of the most famous stories in the world.
The Israelites had been held as slaves for 400 years in Egypt, but God had heard their groaning, their desire to be set free. So God chose Moses, an Israelite who had been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and had grown up in the company of royalty in Egypt. God sent Moses to have Pharaoh let the Israelites go so that they could worship him in the desert. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened so he was unwilling, but through the plagues, and finally the killing of the first-born sons amongst the Egyptians, Pharaoh relents and more than a million Israelites escape across the Red Sea into the wilderness.
So here we see that God works to set his people free from slavery. In fact, there were festivals that were appointed as a result of what God had done amongst his people to remind them of how he had freed them. The Passover, for example, is a holiday that is still celebrated today as a reminder of how God set the Israelites free in Egypt. The night before God would send the Israelites out of Egypt, his Spirit would enter the houses that did not have lamb’s blood wiped along the door frame. For those that did, which were only the Israelite homes, the spirit would “pass over” those homes and not enter to kill the first-born son.
From slavery to sin
Poetically, it was the celebration of the Passover that Jesus chose as the “Last Supper”. It was at this celebration that Jesus gave his disciples the bread and the wine while they were eating dinner together saying that they represented his body and his blood, that they should take them, eat them, and remember his body that would be broken for them and his blood that would be shed for the forgiveness of sins.
We have been subjected as slaves to sin, but in a similar way to how God would send Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God would also send Jesus to lead the new Israel out of slavery to sin through the New Covenant that God was now establishing with his people. For those that would put their faith in the sacrifice of his blood, God would give freedom from their sin, making them clean and righteous as they stood before him, allowing his people to enter into his Kingdom, to come into communion with him again.
As stated purpose
Jesus, in fact, even stated his purpose at the synagogue in Nazareth as he read from Isaiah 61. Jesus said that he fulfilled these verses right there, in their hearing of him reading these verses:
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisonersLuke 4:18-19
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus states his purpose to proclaim freedom and to set the oppressed free. How is he to do this? His Kingdom was not a kingdom of this world. His Kingdom was a heavenly kingdom. His freedom was for prisoners to Satan, those that were oppressed by him, those that had been held captive in their sin.
So with this as the background, understanding God’s heart and desire to set slaves free, both physically and spiritually, I think that we can begin to see Paul’s discussion about slaves in a new light. Here is what he said:
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.Ephesians 6:5-8
We can see that Paul tells slaves to obey their masters, even going so far as to obey them as they would obey Christ.
But why? Shouldn’t they instead be resisting, declaring their rights before God and before their masters? Hasn’t God made each man and woman in His own image? Hasn’t God determined to make a people for himself from every tongue, tribe, and nation without favoritism.
Yes, of course he has. But Paul also knows that the best witness for Christ is to treat the other person well, not to demand rights, especially amongst people who do not believe the same as you believe. This will never be considered to be right before other people, neither as a master treating his slave badly nor as a slave working badly for his master.
Ambassador in chains
In fact, in an ironic twist, Paul is actually writing this letter to the Ephesians from Rome where he is in chains. In verse 20, Paul says that he is an “ambassador in chains”. He isn’t a slave, but he is a prisoner without true reason and yet he goes ahead to declare Christ amongst those that he is with and continues to encourage other believers and other churches even though he himself is unjustly kept from his freedom, similar to many slaves.
By living this way, the Gospel undermines the institution of slavery. Paul is, of course, teaching each person to live as God has called them to do, but he is approaching each person, and calling each person to approach others, in love and grace and mercy. Slavery generally assumes a power-based relationship, but the Gospel does not call us to power relationships between each person, but instead to undeserved love and grace, to freedom in Christ as he has given to each of us who believe.