Text: Ephesians 6:1-9
When I was in my 20’s a buddy of mine said to me, “Y’know, when I was a teenager, my parents didn’t know anything. I’m amazed at how smart they’ve become over the last few years!” Of course, it wasn’t the parents who had changed, it was the perspective that changed. As we mature we find out that our parents are a lot wiser than we realized when we were young.
Today we begin the final chapter in our Trinitytide Ephesians series, and we’ll wrap it up next week. Two weeks ago, chapter 5 ended with St. Paul’s instructions for husbands and wives. Today we continue the theme of household theology talking about parents and children as well as the potentially shocking (in our time anyway), discussion about slaves and masters. Please turn in your bibles to Ephesians Chapter 6, beginning at the first verse:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Two weeks ago we discussed how God created the family relationship to both be one of mutual submission (as is the case with all Christian relationships), but it is also an ordered society with God-appointed roles that point us back to God himself. St. Paul had said that the relationship between husband and wife was ultimately to point us to the relationship between Christ and the Church. The parent-child relationship is similarly ordered by God and designed to point us back to God. Indeed, God calls himself our Father. In the Old Testament, we often see the metaphor of God as the husband and Israel as his bride, but we also often see the metaphor of God as a Father and Israel as his child. St. John Chrysostom observes that the sequence of chapters 5 and 6 is logical: the husband has godly authority over his wife, and the husband and wife together have authority over their children.
Notice in our Ephesians passage that St. Paul told the children to obey their parents “in the Lord.” Just like with the submission from Chapter 5 being “as to the Lord,” children are to obey their parents with the same obedience that they obey the Lord. Also, the obedience to parents is because the children wish to obey the Lord. And again, it is obedience in things that are in conformity with what is true, moral, and lawful according to the Scripture.
In verse 2 St. Paul notes that the 5th Commandment to honor thy father and thy mother comes with a promise: long life “in the land.” Both St. Jerome and John Calvin note that the original context was related to the Promised Land of Israel, but that for those of us who have left the spiritual Egypt of Sin, the promise carries spiritual implications for out ultimate Promised Land in the World to Come.
Again, the relationship is not to be one-sided. Parents, and especially Fathers, are not to provoke their children to anger. It can be easy to fall into two extremes as parents. On the one hand, we can be overly harsh with our children. Chrysostom goes as far as to say we can treat them no better than slaves! And John Calvin rightly points out that harsh treatment of our children merely breeds obstinate children who resent and reject their filial duty. On the other hand, we can spoil our children, which leads (as Calvin points out) to children who “run riot.”
What is the key for the proper balance? We see this in the end of verse 4: “but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Chrysostom observes:
[St. Paul] explains the all-important thing about parenting: how children are to be brought to obedience. He traces the motive of obedience back to its source and fountain…. Do you see how, when the spiritual motives are present, the physical effects will follow along? Do you want your son to be obedient? Rear him from the outset in the teaching and disciples of the Lord. Never regard it as a small matter that he should be a diligent learner of Scriptures.
It’s important to do this in a way that points to Christ and is Gospel-centered. As adult Christians we need both the conviction and instruction from the Law as well as the grace and comfort of the Gospel. It’s easy to forget that the same is true for our children.
Now, some of you may hear this and be thinking, “I tried that and my children left the faith.” You may wonder what Paul as a single man knows about raising children?” Heck, what does Father Isaac know about it? After all, I’ve only been a dad for less than five years! This is where faith comes in. Only God knows the full story. If God is the one who brought us to faith, we can trust him to take care of our children in the same way. You don’t know what fruit those early teachings in Christ will bear in your children’s lives. Remember that St. Monica had to pray for 30 years for her wayward son, who eventually becomes St. Augustine, the greatest doctor of the Western Church!
All that is to say, parents, treat your children the way God treats you. And children, treat your parents with the same respect and obedience you would give to the Lord. Indeed, just as husbands and wives are to be a picture of Christ and the Church, so are parents and children to be a picture of our Heavenly Father and we his children, adopted into the family by our union with Christ.
Let’s continue with verse 5:
Bondservants, 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 bondservants 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 bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.
If you’re reading this passage in another translation, instead of “bondservants” it may say “slaves.” The truth is, “servant” or “bondservant” is a bit of a sugarcoat on the word. The Greek word does indeed mean “slaves.” We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: while slavery in the ancient world was very different from slavery in Antebellum America, slaves in the ancient world also had limited if any rites. The major difference between ancient slavery and American slavery is that ancient slavery was not race-based, and slaves could earn or purchase their freedom. In the ancient world, slaves were usually prisoners of war, debtors, or those born to slaves. By the 1st Century, about 1/3 of the population of the Roman Empire was slaves. And those slaves did more than manual labor. Many physicians and educators, for example, were slaves. In the first few centuries of the Church, there were many Christians who were slaves as well as Christians who were masters. In fact, there were a few times where a man became a bishop while still a slave, and his master was one of his parishioners! You can see how passages like today’s would apply!
The short Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon in your bible was written on the occasion of Paul sending an escaped slave named Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. If you read the Epistle, you’ll notice that while Paul doesn’t explicitly tell Philemon to free Onesimus, the implication of Paul telling him to treat Onesimus like a brother and like he would treat Paul himself strongly implies freedom. Eastern tradition tells us that the slave Onesimus eventually became the bishop of Ephesus after St. Timothy.
Indeed, while the New Testament does not explicitly ban slavery, passages such as book of Philemon and our Ephesians passage from today steered Christianity toward strong abolitionist ends. Even though such movements were opposed by other Christians, the biblical ethic is clearly against Christians enslaving their fellow man. Chrysostom says of slavery, “This horrid thing was begotten by sin…. We have insulted nature by this system.” Don’t let people tell you that the Bible excuses or condones slavery. That’s not the point of passages like Ephesians 6.
When we look at our passage, St. Paul is telling the slaves to obey their masters similar to how they would obey the Lord. It is only natural that slaves would only do the bare minimum and would not be well-disposed toward their masters. Yet, Paul tells them to remember that they ultimately serve Christ, and should act accordingly. Rather than insisting on their rights, he tells them to go above-and-beyond, “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.”
The Reformers lived in a time when slavery was relatively rare, at least in Europe. They applied this passage to hired workers and servants, rightly pointing out that if their situation was much better than that of slaves, St. Paul’s admonitions apply even more. The thing is, everyone has a superior in one way or another. Everyone serves somebody. Perhaps it’s your clients. Perhaps it’s your customers. Perhaps you have an actual boss. Perhaps it’s your teachers. Even I must serve the Bishop. The same command Paul gives to slaves he gives to us: serve “with a sincere heart, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” Christians should be known as the best employees, the best workers, the best servants. We should be known as those whose service points to Christ.
On the other hand, verse 9 tells us that Christians should also be the best masters, the best employers. We should be known as those who treat our employees like our brethren rather than like slaves. We should be fair, just, kind, and gracious to our employees. People should want to work for Christian companies because of how good Christians treat their workers. People should look for Christian employees because Christians should have reputations as hard and honest workers.
The fact that this often isn’t the case shows how we have often dropped the ball in our vocations. Part of the way that Christianity made the world a better place was by being better citizens, statesmen, workers, and masters. In short, part of our Christian duty is to make the world a better place. Not because we imagine we are ushering in some sort of utopia or theocracy, but because we should do these things as unto the Lord. When we pray in the Our Father, “thy will be done, thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” this is not only talking about the World to Come. No, Christianity has always seen that we have a duty to live as if God’s kingdom was already established on earth, even if it is not yet fulfilled. We have a heavenly King, so we should be good citizens, subjects, and employees. We are also co-heirs with our King, so we should be good masters, bosses, and employers. All of this is a working out of the summary of the Law, loving God and loving our neighbor.
With that, we conclude two weeks on highly practical application for human relationships in Ephesians. We have seen the heights of theology as well as the most practical of instruction in this book. Our Collect for today is the prayer traditionally used in lieu of absolution when the Offices are led by a deacon or layperson:
Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When we are at peace with God, it is a lot easier to be at peace with our spouses, our children, our employers, and our employees. And it is a lot easier to serve our neighbor when we are serving God with a quiet mind. Again, we have been forgiven, so we should forgive. We have been shown God’s mercy, so we should show mercy to our neighbors. As God relates to us, may we relate to our fellow man, in our various vocations, enabled by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Part 1: Ephesians 1:1-14 – “The Family Secret”
Part 2: Ephesians 1:15-23 – “Remembering you in my Prayers”
Part 3: Ephesians 2:1-10 – “From Death Valley to the Highest Peak”
Part 4: Ephesians 2:11-21 – “One New Man”
Part 6: Ephesians 3:14-22 – “A Glimpse Behind the Curtain”
Part 7: Ephesians 4:1-16 – “Gifts for the Body”
Part 8: Ephesians 4:17-32 – “Not According to the Gentiles”
Part 9: Ephesians 5:1-21 – “Beloved Children, Imitating our Father”
Part 10: Ephesians 5:22-33 – “As Unto the Lord”