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Somewhere inside most of us is the desire to be free. We feel it most when we are constrained to do someone else's bidding. And if the demands of those in authority are onerous enough, the longing for freedom will eventually become a mobilizing force. Whole peoples have fought for it. Individuals, like my father, have left the relative security of large companies for the freedom to be found in running one's own business. Yet many discover that the road to freedom is a hard one, and that freedom carries with it new constraints and responsibilities that are often more frustrating than any previously endured.
Slaves were one group in the early church that had been especially drawn by the freedom that Paul's gospel promised. The apostle announced: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1). And he said that in Christ the distinction between slave and free had (in some sense) ceased to exist (Gal 3:28).
In the first century, slaves formed a distinct group within the society of the Roman Empire. Although they were the property of their masters, in practice this did not prevent many of them from experiencing a good deal of freedom and social mobility. Many earned a living or worked in partnership with their owners. Some actually held positions of authority within businesses or administrative posts in lower levels of the government. It was also not unusual for a slave to receive a good education. On the whole, the slaves in the churches of Asia Minor who heard Paul's message lived in a time when conditions were improving. Nevertheless, the desire to be free of slavery was always present. It might be won by outstanding service. But some saw in the gospel a more direct route.
What they failed to see was that freedom in Christ does not release the Christian from obligations to those in rightful authority. This is a lesson I began to learn shortly after becoming a Christian, while serving in the military in England. There were several of us who had just set out on the Christian adventure. In our enthusiasm to serve Christ we somehow concluded that we didn't need to concern ourselves with mundane rules about shined boots and clean, pressed uniforms. Our superiors quickly made the connection between our new faith and our sloppy appearance. And in that small corner of the world, Christianity was in danger of being linked with insubordination.
Some Christian slaves in Ephesus suffered from a similar kind of confusion. The promise of freedom and equality in Paul's gospel had set them expectantly on the edge. Here they met with a new frustration, for they discovered that salvation, and with it freedom and equality, is a progressive thing, often more principle than practice. Its consummation remained a promise to be fulfilled completely only when Christ appeared (6:14). Neither their masters nor their masters' expectations disappeared. Life on that edge must have been frustrating indeed. Very likely, the false teaching of a completed salvation (see introduction) pushed them right over that edge into insubordination. Both the misunderstanding and its consequences in the church were serious enough to call forth Paul's corrective teaching: Christians must respect the authority of their masters, whether they be superior officers, employers, managers or supervisors, whether they happen to be fellow believers or not. The reputation of the church is unavoidably at stake.