In the darker history of the United States, slaveholders took passages such as Ephesians 6:5 to rationalize slavery as a “God-ordained institution” and themselves as God’s chosen rulers. This is of course well after getting over their fear of slaves becoming Christians lest they demand their freedom in Christ!
That said, how are we to understand some of these “difficult” passages? For starters we should recognize what we bring to passages such as Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters…” To recognize where there is difference and where there might be overlap, not assuming the two are exactly the same and trying to understand the writer on his own terms. Not getting caught in the awkward position of assuming what we consider ideal is always an attainable reality either.
Perhaps the God of the Bible meets his people where they are in reality and not where they always ought to be. In the apostle Paul’s day slavery was already a reality. People sometimes sold themselves into slavery to gain a better name, status, to eat, or to get out of debt. Some people were sold into slavery by parents. Someone could be a high status slave better off than most free people or could be a prostitute. Some may have had a shop on the side, some could buy their freedom if they wanted and some were just stuck.
Paul speaks to those who are stuck and those who aren’t. In 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 he explains that everyone can be a good Christian no matter what condition they find themselves—but if they are slaves and can get their freedom to do it! Why? In v.23 slavery is said to be antithetical to freedom in Christ. So, if you can help it, don’t sell yourselves into slavery!
“You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.”
Not only do we live in a less than perfect world, we live in this world with all its horrors. Some people were slaves and there was nothing they could do about it. This was the reality of many of the people spoken to in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5. Let us consider Ephesians 6:5-9 with this in mind without demanding that God give sanitized directions only to happy free people. Note a few interesting things about the passage: In a context where slaves had no choice but to be obedient (this was not optional), obedience is shifted from a master who is only “according to the flesh” to Christ. Why? Because they are “slaves of Christ” a title Paul gives himself as an apostle (ex: Rom 1:1). In other words, even though one cannot choose whether or not to be obedient they can choose do what they do for God (their real master) who gave them Christ as an inheritance rather than for their master.
Then there are the masters. Could Paul make them give slaves who wanted to be free their freedom? No—though we know of one instance where he tried (Perhaps as is the case in the book of Philemon, it would be best to free “the child” and “heart” of an elderly apostle one is indebted to—especially when the entire church is going to hear about what is decided). Whether or not Paul was able to pull strings and get concrete freedom for those in slavery, he did feel free to tell the masters that they are actually also slaves and the same directions to the slaves apply to them! If they treat a fellow slave badly, the real Master does not see the same status difference they claim for themselves (ex: Eph 6:9 c.f. Col 3:25).
God’s ideal is not merely a “spiritual” or other worldly freedom, a dream to pacify the have-nots. Its inherent danger is that it threatens our present with a new ideology that diffuses power of various kinds. When relaying a very practical problem in the church of Jews not eating with gentiles Paul explains that this is hypocritical to the gospel of liberty and justification (Gal 2). Coming off of this larger discussion is the famous passage in Gal 3:28: “Here there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, freedom should be something practiced here and now not merely in the afterlife.
As Christians we live in tension between God’s future and our present. God’s freedom is for all of us and this freedom can begin to work itself out in concrete ways now while we struggle on this earth. And lets be people of freedom who do not hold onto power over others that is not ours in the first place.