Summary: 1) The Submission of Slaves, or Employees (Ephesians 6:5-8), and about 2) The Submission of Masters, or Employers (Ephesians 6:9).
As Children in Ontario headed back to school this week, it was surrounded by labor issues between school boards and the province of Ontario. Last minute negotiations meant that students were spared a delay in their school year, but ongoing disputes with support workers and unresolved contract issues with various boards remain. In many ways, expectations from students, parents, teachers, school boards and governments always seem to be at odds.
But God did not design humanity’s freedom to work against others. He designed it to allow us to earn a living, provide for our families, and be of service to others. Yet, as in every other area of life, people's depraved nature turns God’s provisions to selfish ends. As with problems in relations between husbands and wives and parents and children (Eph. 5:22–6:4), the solution to labor relations problems must begin with God’s solution—salvation through Jesus Christ and the empowerment of His Holy Spirit.
In every aspect of human life God’s plan is one of authority and submission, and those two pillars are the bedrock of biblical labor relations. To avoid chaos and anarchy, someone must lead, and others must follow. The mutual submission Paul teaches in relation to masters and servants, just as that between husbands and wives and parents and children, is in the context of the God–designated roles of authority—of husbands over wives, parents over children, and masters over servants. But that authority is not based on any inherent superiority of husbands, parents, or masters. They possess their authority as a stewardship from God, to be used for His purposes and according to His principles. Their authority is not total or unrestricted and is to be used only to serve God and to serve those over whom they have been given the authority. Submission, therefore, is not one–way but mutual. Being under Christ’s authority does not mean believers are free of all civil or social authority; rather, it means that believers should display His gentleness and humility to all authority (Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Eph 6:5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.).
In the book of Ephesians, Paul gives his final illustration of the principle of Spirit–produced mutual submission, “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph. 5:21), applying it to relations between slaves and masters—and, by extension, to all employer–employee relationships. In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul continues to deal with the practical effects of the Spirit–filled life (5:18), without which none of God’s righteous standards can be met, including those which regulate working relationships. Paul explains: 1) The Submission of Slaves, or Employees (Ephesians 6:5-8), and about 2) The Submission of Masters, or Employers (Ephesians 6:9).
1) The Submission of Employees (Ephesians 6:5-8)
Ephesians 6:5-8 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (ESV)
Paul’s instructions to masters and slaves continues in the setting of the household. The vast majority of businesses in New Testament times were family operated, and therefore most servants were part of an extended household. In agrarian situations the servants, or slaves, worked in the fields or tended the flocks. If the master had a shop the servants worked as craftsmen or helpers. If he was a merchant they would do whatever chores were required to help in the business. In any case, the head of the household was also head of the business. He was usually the employer and the servants were his employees.
Slaves translates the Greek douloi, and indicates subjection and usually bondage. In biblical times slavery was common and much abused. In both Greek and Roman cultures, most slaves had no legal rights and were treated as commercial commodities. Roman citizens came to look on work as beneath their dignity, and the entire empire gradually came to function largely by slave power. Slaves were bought, sold, traded, used, and discarded as heartlessly as if they were animals or tools. Considerate masters such as Pliny the Elder, who was deeply grieved over the death of some of his slaves, were exceptional. Contrary to the supposition that everyone was trying to avoid slavery at all costs, it is clear that some people actually sold themselves into slavery in order to climb socially, to obtain particular employment open only to slaves, and to enjoy a better standard of living than they had experienced as free persons. Being a slave had the benefit of providing a certain personal and social security (Lincoln, A. T. (1990). Ephesians (Vol. 42, p. 418). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.).