As we seek what the Bible says about work in Ephesians the first shock as we come to Ephesians 6 is who Paul addresses (5)“Slaves…” We need to be clear who Paul is writing to. The first image we have in our heads might be the transatlantic slavery that left such a scar on British and American society in the 19th Century in its horrific prejudice and bitter oppression. Or it maybe ideas of modern slavery, and the tens of thousands of people illegally forced to work for next to nothing and abused and mistreated in the UK right now.
Slavery in the Roman Empire was both alike and unlike those two images. There were an estimated 60 million slaves across the empire. Some were domestic servants, some were manual labourers and field hands, and some were educated serving as doctors, teachers, administrators and estate managers. And the reasons for their slavery were also diverse; some were prisoners of war sold into slavery, some were in slavery to pay off a debt, some were sold into slavery or inherited as slaves.
But the question remains; how could Paul write to slaves? How could he write to a church and not simply say stop keeping slaves? Isn’t this tacitly signalling approval of slavery?
No. Paul is applying the gospel to one slave and slave owner at a time, because the way slavery will be overturned is one heart changed by the gospel at a time. The gospel alone has the power to free both slave and master from sin and it’s dehumanising ways of thinking of one another. The gospel alone has the power to transform slave and master into brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what Paul is doing here.
Slavery is wrong because it is dehumanising and the gospel is the answer, the only thing that can change the heart. We ought to be opposed to slavery. We mustn’t hide our heads in the sand this is a very real part of the fabric of our society. And we ought to do all we can to oppose it, being careful what we buy, supporting those fighting slavery, and praying for the work of IJM, Manumit and others working in this area. But we also need to recognise that only the gospel can change the heart behind slavery.
(5)is revolutionary as Paul writes to slaves and masters to show them how following Jesus transforms everything, even this relationship. The gospel changes every sphere of work, it makes everywhere a place where we can serve God, and as it does so it transforms how we think and of relate to one another.
About 1/3 of the population of Ephesus were slaves. As the gospel is taught both masters and slaves came to faith in Jesus in Ephesus. Both slaves and masters join the church and become brothers and sisters in Christ. The barriers between them are broken down, and together they become the body of Christ, seeking to live together like Jesus, to give the world a glimpse of Jesus kingdom. Equal partners redeemed to serve Christ.
The fact that Paul writes these words to slaves gives great value to their work. They’re not second class to God, nor should they be to their masters. God’s word gives their labour great value, it gives them and their masters a new way of thinking and valuing one another. Their status doesn’t stop them serving God, they can serve whether slave or free. God cares about their work in the home, in the fields, on the estate.
The call is to serve Christ wherever you are whatever your work, and if that’s true for slave and free in Ephesus that’s true for us. The gospel revolutionizes our view of work and people. Be it the unpaid work of the stay at home mum, the labour in the allotment, or the well paid or poorly paid work in an office or in the operating theatre, or cleaning the shop floor. Disciples value work differently.
Its value isn’t just weighed in terms of salary or status. But all work is redeemed in service of Christ. We serve God equally in changing the midnight nappy as in preaching a sermon, in cleaning a workplace as managing the workplace, in serving tea in a nursing home as in studying for a degree.
That’s been one of the most helpful things of the pandemic hasn’t it? It’s helped us see the key workers; yes that’s doctors and nurses and teachers, but also the care assistants in our care homes, famers, shop workers and cleaners. Their work has been highlighted as vital and maybe given a significance we sometimes don’t see.
As disciples we need to see and value all work differently. Not by pay packet or qualification and social status but with every work, every chore a way to serve Christ and build his kingdom and therefore as valuable. Disciples value every work as an arena in which to bring God glory and so we value every worker, every effort made to cultivate the world as visible and valuable. That’s a radically different way to think. It is all equally a means of serving Jesus, there is no hierarchy, no more valuable or less valuable either of work or worker.But the gospel doesn’t make life easier for the slaves and masters in Ephesus, if anything things just got messier. All the hierarchy of society goes out of the window all the norms are changed. As slaves and master worship together, encourage each other, submit to one another in church, what happens when they get back home, back to the estate?