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.
In Paul's churches there were two categories of slave. The first had come to Christ independent of their masters. From what we have seen of their mobility, this is not at all surprising. But normally the religion of the master determined the religion of the whole household. Any deviation in this pattern would probably not escape notice.
Apparently certain Christian slaves were taking home with them some rather radical ideas. Instead of finding contentment in the hope that God would reward their humble diligence (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-24; compare 1 Pet 2:18-20), they began to treat their masters with disrespect. The masters could not help but think that this insubordination had something to do with the new religion and the one called Christ. What possible good could come from a religion that encouraged such revolutionary behavior? The insubordinate behavior of slaves posed a definite threat to the church's reputation.
Consequently, Paul issues corrective instructions. Although the relationship between Christian slaves under the yoke and pagan masters is difficult, they are to continue to live by the rules of slavery. The fact that they have a higher Lord (Col 3:22-25) does not release them from this obligation. It obligates them all the more to be models of obedience, for this service to human masters is simultaneously service to the Lord.
Yet Paul's chief concern and chief rationale in issuing these instructions is mission. The purpose (so that) of the slaves' respectable conduct is protection of God's name and the Christian message (compare Tit 2:10). The danger of disrespectful attitudes toward social institutions is that the intention of the gospel will be totally misunderstood and the church's evangelistic mission incapacitated.
It was also common to find Christian slaves and their believing masters within the same house church (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1; Philem). To imagine the pressures this might have involved, think how in our day the conflicting secular interests of managers and union members or military officers and enlisted personnel might affect ministry and worship in one church. If even under ordinary circumstances slaves and masters in the church struggled with this relationship, it is not surprising that the situation in Ephesus reached critical mass with the added influence of triumphalistic false teaching.
The slaves based their claim to freedom on the common bond in Christ (because they are brothers). But while this common bond, and a common Lord, does indeed have implications for the masters' treatment of slaves (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1), it also has implications for the slaves' service to masters. Paul actually turns the slaves' slogan back upon them (though the NIV does not bring this out). Slaves ought to serve with excellence because those who benefit from their service (the masters) are believers and dear to them (the slaves). The relationship of believers in Christ demands mutual respect (Gal 5:13), which in this case slaves were to express in obedient service. Notably, the same reasoning would be applicable if the problem were reversed (compare Philem 16).
An additional part of the reason for the slaves' good conduct is the benefits to the church's ministry to be derived from the masters' service (the NIV turns this around). It is quite likely that some of the elders were householders who owned slaves (3:4-5, 12). While insubordinate slaves would be a liability to the ministry and witness of the church, respectful slaves would be an asset.
Respect for authority even in time- and culture-bound institutions continues to be a necessary part of Christian witness. The common bond in Christ certainly bears upon such institutions within the church, but it does not necessarily make the institution or its authority structure obsolete.