Ephesians 6:5-9, Submission & Relationships, pt3:

  • This is our third portion looking at submission and relationships. This five-verse section on the relationship between slaves and masters speaks mainly to slaves (four verses), and is driven by the command “obey.”
  • The next sentence in verse 9 addressing the masters, deals with the command: “treat.” Therefore our outline tonight is two-fold:
  • 1) Slaves obey your Masters, v5-8
  • 2) Masters treat your slaves as in Christ, v9

1. Slaves Obey Your Masters: (5-8)

  • As we get into this first point, let’s clarify what is meant by slaves. Slaves were the property of another person, not just a servant. They were “bodily and totally subjected to the practically unlimited power of an owner and the owner’s heirs.” The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that a slave is “a live article of property” and “a living tool.”
  • We cannot be sure what percentage of the original audience of Ephesians was composed of slaves, though Christianity counted many slaves among its early adherents. Scholars estimate the percentage of slaves in the Roman world to be around twenty or thirty percent of the population. Pretty interesting, now having knowledge of this, let’s head to the text.
  • Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling (6:5). This expression suggests humility and respect. For us, the command to slaves to obey their masters is troubling. In contrast, those who first encountered this imperative wouldn’t have been concerned by its acceptance of slavery.
  • Rather, they might have been intrigued by the fact that Paul addressed slaves directly. Other ancient moral teachers had plenty to say to masters about ruling their slaves, but nothing by way of instruction for slaves themselves. The reason for this was because they were considered property, or tools.
  • Paul, however, saw slaves as moral agents, human beings who could choose to act responsibly. Twenty-first-century readers can easily miss the fact that by addressing them directly, Paul was honoring slaves as real people.
  • Therefore Paul says, “With sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (6:5). Yet Ephesians does not merely call for obedience by slaves. It also addresses the issue of their motivation. It reads, obey “with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
  • Verse 6:6 adds that they should not obey their masters “only to win their favor when their eye is on you.” Rather according to 6:7, slaves should “serve wholeheartedly.” Though many slaves in the Roman world did honorable and rewarding work such as doctoring, managing, or teaching, countless others engaged in difficult and disdained labor.
  • Plus all slaves were working for masters who owned them as property. How would it be possible, therefore, for slaves to serve with pure motivation and genuine enthusiasm?
  • Paul says, “As slaves of Christ” (6:6). It reframes the slave-master relationship in light of Christ. Verse 5 introduces this change in perspective by referring to the slaves’ “earthly masters,” implying the existence of another, nonearthly Master. Moreover, slaves should obey their masters “as [they] would obey Christ” (6:5).
  • Verse 6 adds that slaves are to act “as slaves of Christ” rather than to be preoccupied with their human masters. What they do as slaves can, in fact, be “doing the will of God from [their] heart” (6:6). By serving as if [they] were serving the Lord, they can work “wholeheartedly” and enthusiastically (6:7).
  • Furthermore, according to 6:8, slaves should know that the Lord will reward them for their efforts. The language of this verse suggests an eschatological reward, though this does not exclude present-day blessings. Human masters can receive a similar reward since they share the same heavenly Master with their slaves. Ultimately, all human beings, no matter their earthly station, have one Master and our relationship with him reframes all other relationships.
  • Thus if slaves obey their human masters as they do their heavenly Master; if they see themselves primarily as slaves of Christ who can do God’s will through their work; if they focus on serving the Lord rather than people; if they keep in mind the eternal reward laid up for them; and if they recognize that both they and their human masters have the same heavenly Master, then slaves can do their work with a fresh perspective and a willing attitude.
  • They can have “sincerity of heart” and “serve wholeheartedly” because they are serving the Lord more than their masters. They can be assured that their efforts will be rewarded if not by their human masters then for sure by their heavenly Master in the age to come.

2. Masters Treat Your Slaves as in Christ: (9)

  • Now we’ve seen that slaves should serve their earthly masters wholeheartedly because the slaves “know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (6:8).
  • But master are to “treat your slaves in the same way” (6:9). This verse opens with an unexpected injunction to masters. What are these “same things”? How can masters treat their slaves “in the same way” as slaves have been told to treat their masters?
  • Though the main verb of the exhortation to slaves is “obey,” it seems unlikely that Paul is telling masters to obey their slaves. Yet even if they are the ones who give the orders, masters should nevertheless do so in a manner similar to the way slaves serve them. Masters can give directions “with respect and fear,” knowing that their slaves are really slaves of Christ who is Master of both slave and free (6:5, 8).
  • Masters can exercise their authority “as slaves of Christ” who seek to do “the will of God” both in the content of their directives and in the way these are delivered (6:6). Masters can “serve wholeheartedly” in their oversight of slaves because they know that they will be rewarded by their heavenly Master if they exercise justice and mercy (6:7–8).
  • However, in the Roman world “an important minority of slaves had considerable prestige, social power and influence.” Many slaves were able to “take responsibility,” serving as “doctors, teachers, writers, accountants, agents, evictors, overseers, secretaries, and sea-captains.”
  • So in this regard, it’s not hard to imagine a master submitting at times to the authority of a slave who happened to be his doctor, teacher, or sea captain. What’s more, it’s easy to picture masters submitting to slaves in the context of church gatherings where all members are gifted by the Spirit to minister to the body.
  • If a master and a slave shared a common church experience, there might be times when the slave would be gifted for teaching or prophesying. The master would in those occasions submit to a slave who served as a channel for the Spirit’s inspiration.
  • Finally, when we turn back to Ephesians 5:21, Christian submission entails more than simply submitting to the commands of another person. It involves choosing to act in the way of a servant. In Galatians 5:13 says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
  • Notice that all Christians, including those who are actual slaves, are called to be free in Christ. Notice too that all Christians, including both actual slaves and actual masters, are to “serve one another humbly in love.” Thus all followers of Jesus, including slaves and masters, are called to exercise their freedom by serving as slaves to each other in love.
  • But we also have this final word; “Do not threaten them” (6:9). Masters should not “threaten” their slaves to force them to obey. Such an exercise of power is inconsistent with the servanthood expected of all Christians.
  • Thus the instruction to masters to “treat [their] slaves in the same way,” suggests a different model, one centered in Christ who shows “no favoritism” (6:9), as He is the Master of both slave and free, and who rewards all for the good they do, no matter their earthly status.


  • Ephesians 6:5–9 also speaks by analogy to one of the most common relationships in daily life, that of employees and bosses. The instruction we can draw from this is that employees are to obey their earthly bosses with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as one would obey Christ.
  • Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as employees of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Work wholeheartedly, as if you were working for the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are employees or bosses.
  • Bosses, treat your employees in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Boss and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
  • This is the way it ought to be. And if you’re used to thinking of the workplace as part of the “real world” being disconnected from matters of faith, is unwise. God doesn’t divide the world into God’s domain (church, family, personal life, mission trips) and everything else (work, play, politics, etc.).
  • Rather, God is in the business of bringing to “unity all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:10). All things include work. And therefore we can consider how Ephesians 6:5–9 informs our work and especially our relationships at work. As we do, we’ll discover that the story of God focused in the work of Christ touches and transforms everything.