Saturday, July 14, 2018

God's Secret Plan: File #15

In Ephesians 6:5-9 Paul reaches the third pair of interlocking commands, his third comment on human relationships. And while this can be considered under the same general heading as the previous ones, it is markedly different. Here Paul does not appeal to spiritual imagery, per se, nor quote scripture. The relation between man and wife, between parent and child--that is to say, the family--had been established by God in the beginning. Though it is a human thing, it is also, in some sense, a divine thing--at least in regard to origin. But in this case, Paul is dealing with something that is purely of this world. This relationship is not one established by God, not one that, necessarily, has any value in and of itself--one that, in and of itself, might arguably be bad. But it did exist and Paul still had something to say about it. This relationship is that of master and servant.

The word translated servant here is the Greek word doulos which comes from a word meaning 'to bind' and has the idea of one who is bound to serve another, whether they are born or forced into that service like a slave or voluntarily bind themselves like an indentured servant. 

Slavery and servanthood were not things introduced by God either in the New Testament or the Old--it existed long before any of the Bible (except perhaps Genesis) were written--though in the Mosaic Code, God did give legal station to it, under certain restrictions. However, it was something that existed in the world. Slavery was a very major part of the Roman world. In the first century, about a third of the inhabitants of the city of Rome were slaves. Many early converts to Christianity were slaves. But there were also masters who were Christians, such as Philemon to whom the book of Philemon is addressed. It was a situation that was very real and very personal for many of the people to whom Paul wrote.

Paul did not think to be a slave was a good thing, did not think it was a desirable or even an indifferent station. 1 Corinthians 7:21, 23 gives Paul's advice to slaves: “Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather... Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.” Though in one sense, it did not matter whether a man was a slave or a freeman, yet Paul urged slaves to obtain their freedom if and when that was possible, saying that being a slave was not, objectively considered, a good thing--that, if possible, it would be better not to be a slave. One would assume that if he thought it would be better if there were no slaves, he also thought it would be better if there were no masters. However, the Holy Spirit did not see fit to instruct Paul to have all Christians masters immediately liberate all their slaves, though in some specific cases he did--as in the case of Philemon and Onesimus.

But in this specific passage, Paul is not talking about the how this relationship comes about or whether and when it should be dissolved. In many cases, such a relationship would have been in place for people when they became Christians and so long as they remained in it, on one side or the other, it was essential that they behave as Christians in that position.

Slavery was an essential part of the ancient world. Servanthood was an essential part of the free world until very recently. Slavery, such as Paul described, no longer exists legally in this country. And servanthood is generally nonexistent, at least among the middle class. However, this general relationship--that of the worker and the one for whom he works--does still exist in some sense and seemingly will continue to do so. In this world, there are still many people who perform labor in the service of and at the direction of another, though freely and with pay, unlike a slave. In this world, there are still people who command and direct the labor of others, though not through coercion like a master. This basic relationship of slave and master is still present, though in a greatly modified form, in the modern relationship of worker and boss, of employee and employer--and so Paul's advice is still relevant to us today.

I know it may sound comic to say that a modern boss and his worker are like a master and slave--and I certainly do not want to minimize the vast changes (for the better) which have come into economic relationships since the first century. However, I think there are enough similarities for there to be something of value for us in this passage--and perhaps all the more so because of the difference between Paul's world and ours. And I also think that to call the relationship described in this passage as 'slavery' is slightly misleading. There are several essential characteristics of slavery which set it apart from other economic relationships--and one of those is conspicuously absent from this passage. In so far as Ephesians 6 was active in a situation, that situation was no longer, strictly speaking, slavery. But that is a point which we will have to come back to later.

The main thing Paul tells servants is to “be obedient” (v. 5) and to do “service” (v. 7) The word for obedience in the same one used earlier when speaking of children and has the idea of listening to one who commands. The word for service in verse 7 is a verb form of the word slave and is translated by Montgomery's New Testament: “slaving.” In other words, what the slave was to do was to be a slave--to listen and obey and do work. He might have been put in that role against his will, by an act of injustice or violence. He might have been better off out of that role if he could get out. But in so far as he was in that role, he was to fulfill it. If he was going to be a slave, he needed to be the best slave he could be.

This does not forbid seeking freedom. I do not see that it would forbid running away. It does not forbid disobedience in certain specific circumstances (as Paul and Peter disobeyed governmental authority to preach the gospel). What it does forbid is an attitude of bitterness and ill-temper, of sullen laziness, of a defiant attempt to push boarders. This attitude, this mode of life, was what Paul was trying to combat in this passage. Paul wanted slaves to fulfill their roles fully and completely, “with fear and trembling” (which most commentators take in the sense of carefulness and eagerness), “in singleness of your heart” (complete sincerity), “not with eyeservice,” (an original word of Paul's; not just working when the master is watching you), performing their duties with “good will” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown quotes the Greek philosopher/historian Xenophon as saying that 'good will' is “to be the principal virtue of a slave towards his master: a real regard to his master's interest as if his own.”)

And I think this is still worthy advice for any worker, slave or free. Especially free. The advice here is essentially that of Solomon in Ecclesasties: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” (Ecclesasties 9:10a) Take a given Christian working at a specific job. It may not be, in the grand scheme of things, a good job. His employer may be unreasonable and the pay underwhelming. It may be quite reasonable for him to seek out a better job. But in so long as he remains in that position, he will have to fulfill his position some way. And which seems more honest, more right, and more honoring to the God he serves--to be disrespectful and cantankerous, doing intentionally careless and sloppy work and as little of that as possible... or to work “with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart... not with eyeservice... [but] with good will doing service.” For some people, in some jobs, that may seem like a lot to ask, but if it was the best advice for slaves, forced into their role without their will, it would certainly be good advice for those of us who, more-or-less freely, enter into our positions.

It seems strange to us for Paul to give this kind of advice to slaves. You would a think a slave, if anyone, would have the right to be discontent and rebellious, would be entitled to be disobedient and disrespectful. And I think the case can be made that they were entitled to that--but that there are times and circumstances when a Christian should not insist on that to which they are rightfully entitled. This may briefly be described as meekness, one of the Christian virtues which has been fairly marginalized by the modern world. But that is a subject for another day.

Why did Paul command slaves to act in this way? And does that reason still apply to us today? There is one reason why may be implied here and is explicitly stated in other passages. In 1 Timothy 6:1, Paul exhorted slaves to honor their masters “that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.” In Titus 2:10, he gave similar advice, saying that if slaves acted well they would “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.” If Christianity would stand out and be apparent in any context, it would be in the conduct of a slave. If it could not be found there, mankind would be justified in doubting its power. People will judge Christianity by Christians--and if they see Christians in the world around them who seem exactly like everyone else, one can hardly blame them for questioning the power or even relevancy of Christianity. That was why Paul was insistent especially that slaves be obedient, honest (see Titus 2:10), respectful, and hard-working--because their actions and attitude would be a reflection of Christianity to their fellow-slaves and their masters. “Whatever might be true about the propriety of slavery, and whatever might be the duty of the master about setting the slave free, it would be more to the honour of religion for the servant to perform his task with a willing mind, than to be contumacious and rebellious.” (Barnes, Commentary, Ephesians 6:5)

There is a second and more primary reason which Paul gives in this passage, which answers the 'why' question as well as the 'how.' Before we get to that, we should notice one thing. Paul told the slaves to be obedient to their masters and to honor them. One would assume that being obeyed and honored would please the master. But that was not why the slaves were to do it. Verse six says they were not to act “as menpleasers”--as people who do whatever they can to make their superior like them. This is linked to the concept of “eyeservice” and so may have the idea of the person who does well when his superior is around, in order to impress him, but slacks off the rest of the time. But the main point to notice is that being menpleasers was not their goal. Even if their masters were not pleased by their obedience and respect, that was not to alter to their behavior--because pleasing men was not the reason why they were to do what they did.

But, then, what was there motivation to be? The answer is something so revolutionary and counterintuitive that Paul made a point to say it not once but five different times within these four verses. Slaves were, ultimately, to work, not for their masters, but for God. In verse 5, Paul says they were to be obedient “as unto Christ,” in verse 6, he repeats this, placing being “servants of Christ” in contrast with “menpleasers” and then adds that they were to do “the will of God from the heart.” In verse 7, he says they were to perform the part of a slave with enthusiasm “as to the Lord, and not to men” and in verse 8 he adds that they looked for a reward, not from their master, but “of the Lord.” Their work belonged, not to their masters, but to God. And the same would assumably apply to free workers today--that their labor is not their employers', but God's.

How can this be? We could easily see how, say, a preacher or a missionary could be said to work for God. There are other professions in which the case could be made that men are working for God, even if the work is not explicitly religious. We often say that anybody can do work for God--by making money and then putting it in the offering at church. But obviously, a slave would not likely be in any of those positions. He might be working at the most menial and meaningless of tasks and doing so without pay so as to have little-to-nothing to give to God, financially speaking. So how could he be said to be working for God?

The answer is one of the central truths of the New Testament. We tend to think of our lives as belonging to ourselves. A slave was very conscious of the fact that his life belonged to his master. But the New Testament makes it clear, over and over, that as Christians are life does not belong to ourselves or to other people but God. We have consciously and knowingly surrendered our life to God, dying with Christ in His death and living with Him in His resurrection. Our life, in many different senses, belongs to God and not to us. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, c.p. 1 Corinthians 7:22, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:3, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

God could simply translate someone to Heaven the instant they were converted. But God does not do that. God could call a person to leave the world and live in solitary devotion, but God usually does not do that. Our life may, from a human standpoint, remain largely the same when we become a Christian. But the difference is that it is no longer our life. We are still living in this world, doing many of the same things that the people of this world do, but we do not belong to this world. Even a slave, slaving at his task, is not merely a slave nor his work merely his master's work. Because his life belonged to Christ, he was working for Christ and not for man and therefore ought to work in accordance with that reality.

When we speak of serving God, we should never think that God needs our service in the same sense that we need one another's service. We say that we work for God's kingdom, we should never think that God's kingdom depends on our efforts in the same sense that our nation may depend on them. If God needs us, it is only because He has chosen to need us. If we are His hands, it is only because He has put His own hands behind His back, so to speak. And if we are His hands, we do His work only because, as hands, we are filled with His life. If we accomplish anything for God, it will be because we let God accomplish it through us. A stick in the hand of a master swordsman will be a more effective weapon than the finest crafted sword in the hand of a novice. The lowest slave, digging a ditch, may be rewarded if he works “as to the Lord, and not to men” while the greatest preacher of the gospel, if he does not have love--that is, the life of God--will be nothing more than a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. It does not matter, so much, what we do, so long as we do it for and through the life of God living in us. God does not need us to do great things. If God wants great things done, He can do them Himself. What God needs from us is our lives, our hearts, our obedience and service. If we give Him that, He can take care of the rest. For a slave scrubbing floors in the first century, it may not have been clear how his work was serving or glorifying God. For a man in the twenty-first century working a nine-to-five office job, it may not be clear how his work is serving or glorifying God. But for both, it may be if done as to the Lord and not to men. That is the revolutionary message of the New Testament--that man may serve and glorify God in ordinary life if he is working for God and looking for his reward from God.

We may understand it better if we think of an analogy Paul uses (for a different purpose) in Galatians 4:1-2: “Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a [slave], though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.” To external appearances, a son and a slave might look the same--both are under authority, under discipline, both have restrictions in their life, both may be forced to do work for their family--but those external differences do not alter the fact that the son of the family and the slave are entirely different and even if that difference is not apparent at the moment, it will be someday. And because the son knows that he is the son, that does or should alter the way he looks at his own life, at his limitations and duties--it should all be different for him than it would be for a slave because he knows the reality of what he is and what he will someday be. And the truth was that, for a Christian slave, he was truly a son, a son of God, and not a slave. He was not, ultimately, working for his master who was only like a tutor or governor, but for God. To someone looking on, a Christian slave might not look any different from the heathen slave working beside him. But there was a difference and someday it would be revealed. From a worldly point of view, a Christian worker today may have no better life than the atheist worker in the same shop. But there is a difference, and that reality will someday be revealed.

And that leads directly to the third and final reason why slaves were to obey their masters--because a time was coming when man would be judged and rewarded by God. I referenced before the similarity between Paul's advice and that of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” Solomon's reason for this exhortation is the shortness and uncertainty of life. We must make the most of every opportunity, because we may not have another. God has promised us many things--tomorrow is not one of them. And while that is true, it is very different from Paul's argument. Verse 8: “Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.” There is a great day coming, by and by, when God will reward those who are faithful to him. At that time, it will make no difference what a man's rank or position was in this life, and therefore it makes no difference now. If a slave, at the judgment, will be honored by God because he did was right, then he should not be despised now by man.

And what is interesting about this is that it cuts both ways. The slave, the worker, the underling was to realize that he was working for God and work accordingly, looking to God for his reward, knowing he would be judged by God irrespective of his low position. And the master is told, in verse 9, to “do the same things”--in other words, the master, the employer, the boss is also working for God and should fulfill his role according, looking to God and knowing that he will be judged by God irrespective of his high position. Both the master and slave were under God and would be judged by God--and in that judgment, the fact that one was a master and one was a slave would count for nothing: “neither is there respect of persons with him.” (v. 9)

And that is what makes this whole passage so interesting. In slavery, one man works for another. But there are many other relationships in which one man works for another. There many different kinds of economic relationships in which the labor of one man primarily benefits another--others which may mean great toil for the worker, others in which the worker may even receive cruel treatment. What sets slavery apart from all of these--one of its essential characteristics--is that a slave is considered property, not different in principle from an animal or a table. So far as the law was concerned in ancient Rome, a slave was simple a thing, a kind of chattel, an object that somebody owned. A Roman master had the right to kill a slave without reason just as he had a right to throw out an old piece of furniture. With a few exceptions, a slave had no rights, no standing before the law. He was just a property. And this is largely true about slavery in every civilization and every time. A slave is a thing which is owned by his master.

But for Paul, both slaves and masters were human beings who could serve the Lord and who would be judged by the Lord. He tells the masters to forbear threatening because both the master and the slave was under the authority of God. In other words, before God, a slave was not an object but a person and needed to be treated as such, not bullied and threatened but treated with respect. The whole thrust of this passage is that, though servants were to obey masters and masters to command servants, yet both were equal before God, both with responsibilities to live for God, both with the threat and promise of judgment by God. That is why I said at the beginning of this article that this relationship is not truly slavery. If both masters and slaves had accepted, understood, and lived by the words of Ephesians 6, their relationship would not have been slavery. (And the same can be said of slavery under the Mosaic Law, which also emphasized the human status and rights of slaves.)

And that is why everything we said applies to the modern relationship of employer and employee. One may be rich and the other poor, one commands labor and the other gives--but both are made by God, both may serve and be used by God, and both will be judged by God. Because of this, they should treat each other honestly and with respect. Neither master nor slave will look at his own position or the position of the other in the same way--because both are looking at God. A song from the previous century said that when we look at God, “The things of this world will grow strangely dim/In the light of his glory and grace.” I don't think that is true. But it is true that the things of this world look very different if we look at them in the light of God's face. Master and slave did not vanish when becoming a Christian. In some ways, they are both still alive today. But they did look very different to themselves after they became Christians. The slave saw his own position and his own work very differently in the light of God's secret plan. Paul did not tell the master or the slave to forget about their work and spend their days meditating and trying to empty their minds--what he told them to do was to keep doing their work, “but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men.