5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
Bible Gateway looking at all 59 versions of verse 5 here has 37 with the word slaves, 22 with the word servants, and 3 of them use both words. In verse 6 here 24 used the word servants and 34 used the word slaves while 1 used neither. Then we come to verse 8 here where 40 used the phrase slave or free, 8 used the phrase servant or free, 8 used the phrase bound or free, and in the final three one attempted to be very modern using the phrase employee or employer.
Now to be clear, Paul was writing of slaves, literal slaves in Ephesus which was part of the Roman Empire and had been since 129 BC. And slavery in the Roman Empire could be very ugly as one half of the population in the empire were slaves. At the time of this writing many of the slaves had become Christians as had a number of slave owners. Because Paul knew this he continued the verses above with
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him.
This was revolutionary in Roman times as a slave was often thought of as a thing to do with as one pleased. There are many known instances where slaves were put to death at the whim of an owner or a over a very small infraction. Yet here was a message from Paul stating owners have no favoritism from Christ whom they have accepted as Lord and Savior. Ray Stedman amplifies this point when he writes about when slaves and masters came together to worship
There were also among them some who were in the category of masters who were likewise Christians. As they came together in worship, as the Christian community, they were taught from the Scriptures that in Christ there is neither bond nor free. There is no slavery in Christ, there is no race, there are no sexual distinctions. The Christians all met together as brothers in Jesus Christ. They found that the ground is absolutely level at the foot of the cross. But, of course, when they went back to their homes, and to their work, the question arose: “Well, what about us now? Are we to continue this relationship as brothers in our work? Does this mean that we are to be free from any bondage, or responsibility, to another Christian?” This question soon came up and had to be settled, and this is what the apostle is doing here.
If you were a slave there was little that could be done about that, but the condition of your heart that was another matter. Then there was the matter of becoming a slave to Christ where one was (and is today) to as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Here the idea of slaves of Christ is not some form of enforced slavery but of voluntary servitude similar to how one might enlist in the military. As a slave in the Roman Empire there was little to look forward to unless one had a kind or self-controlled owner until he or she came to know Jesus. Then there was a glorious future to look forward to with Jesus in heaven.
Today, this lesson is often taught to employees and employers as Christians. While the lesson is valid and a good check on our hearts, it may help to remember we are not things owned by our employers. Instead we are blessed with great freedoms about who we work for and where we choose to work. Still we can be slaves to sin or circumstances in our lives that seem incredibly unfair, yet choose to break those chains or rid ourselves of bitterness by choosing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.