Slavery is not just an injustice of the past, though it is officially illegal in every nation. One report estimates that nearly 46 million people live in some form of slavery today, typically involving forced labor or sexual exploitation. Sixty percent of these modern-day slaves live in just five countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan.
In the Roman Empire, the institution of slavery sometimes differed from what we know from American history. While it did involve ownership of human beings and many cruelties, abuse, and injustices, it was often more like indentured servitude. Slaves may have comprised as much as one third of the population of Ephesus. Most could expect emancipation by age 30. Nonetheless, owning another human being is clearly unjust. Paul didn’t endorse it, and his teaching here should be seen as a temporary measure within a fallen world (see 1 Cor. 7:21–24).
Within the context of that social institution, God again outlines a proper order, which was for slaves to obey their masters (vv. 5–8; see Titus 2:9–10). As a matter of Christian integrity, this obedience was not to be grudging, reluctant, or only when under observation, but at all times “as you would obey Christ.” The service should be given willingly and wholeheartedly. Ultimately, slaves were accountable to God and would be rewarded by Him.
Throughout this passage, Paul gave the masters the countercultural command of a reciprocal responsibility. They were to treat their slaves fairly, as if Christ’s eyes were on them at all times (v. 9). Specifically, they were not to “threaten” or verbally abuse them, nor to show favoritism nor use their authority capriciously. They would ultimately be held accountable by God.
For many of us, this passage applies to our work experience. Our work should be done honestly and well, “as if you were serving the Lord.” Putting on a show for a performance review doesn’t honor the Lord, nor does snitching office supplies because “they’ll never miss them.” Doing our jobs with integrity is part of our Christian witness!