The church in Ephesus, like many other churches in the Roman Empire, had a significant number of slaves. This reflected the societies in which the churches were found. There were free men and slaves. Slaves were bonded to their masters and could be given various duties, which included educating the young and administering the master’s household in addition to menial tasks. For many slaves, it was a difficult life, and they could easily be abused by wicked masters. Paul refers to them in his instructions. They were “under the yoke of slavery” (v.1). Slaves would very much want to be freed from this bondage.
What happens when a slave becomes a Christian? Paul’s instructions are clear enough. Christian slaves must show Christlikeness by giving their masters “full respect” (v.1). They must not rebel or take shortcuts in their work. If their masters are wicked men, perhaps they may be converted through the testimony and life of their Christian slaves one day. If their masters are not believers, Christian slaves must behave and serve in such a way that “God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered” (v.1).
Should the church not fight against slavery and free slaves? Thankfully, this was done later in history, through the efforts of people like William Wilberforce. But why was Paul not radical enough in acting against slavery? Perhaps it was because of how deeply slavery was entrenched in society. Sudden and forced changes would not be possible or advisable, as they could provoke violence.
At the same time, Paul does condemn those who were involved in slave trading (1 Timothy 1:10), such as slave dealers and kidnappers, who would steal the slaves of others and sell them. He also advises Christian slave owners to treat their slaves differently, perhaps even freeing them (Philemon).
Individual slaves are to serve in an exemplary way and not bring disrepute to the gospel through disruptive or disobedient behaviour. Some Christian slaves who had Christian masters might have been presumptuous and might have treated them with “less respect” (v.2), meaning they took advantage of their masters by compromising their quality of service. Paul argues that, in this case, though they may not have the fear that other slaves have under wicked masters, they should be motivated by love to serve their Christian masters just as well, if not better.
What modern forms of slavery are there today? What should be the church’s response to them?
Think of the principles behind Paul’s instructions to Christian slaves. How can these be missed, misunderstood or wrongly applied?