Being Respectful

Explore the Bible Series

November 21, 2010


Lesson Passage: Ephesians 6:1-9



In this passage, the apostle Paul addressed the conduct of two groups of readers: families (parent/child relations) and slaves (master/bondsmen relations).  The paragraph on the family proves very helpful to families of any generation; however, the section on slavery seems, at least to me, problematic, especially for a religious denomination that has the racial track record of the Southern Baptist Convention. 


Slavery played a critical role on the economic and social life of ancient Rome.  Paul Veyne estimates that slaves made up 30-40% of the Roman population, perhaps as many as twenty million people (Dr. Vaughan’s estimate of sixty million seems high to me).  Unlike America’s “peculiar institution”, ethnic slavery did not exist in Rome; rather, people became slaves by various means: military conquest, the poor selling themselves into bondage, and, of course, by birth.  All children born to slave women were regarded as bondsmen.  Roman slaves, in some cases, could enter professional life as scholars, teachers, tutors, tradesmen, or physicians; however, they could not hold political office.  Most, though, lived under terrible cruelty and hardship.  The law allowed them to marry, and, in some cases, married slaves could purchase their freedom and the manumission of their families. 


Southern slaveholders, in the United States, used New Testament references (and Old Testament) to justify the antebellum practice of slavery.  The first African slaves in America came to Virginia, from the Caribbean, in 1619, to work the tobacco plantations.  Apparently, some of these early bondsmen were regarded as indentured servants, but chattel slavery quickly evolved.  Economic and political currents fostered the concentration of slavery in the South, but, for a lengthy period, the institution was allowed in the North as well.  The invention of the cotton gin (1791) transformed the Southern economy, and, as a result, slavery flourished. 


Northern and British Baptists generally opposed slavery (Britain outlawed slavery in the 1830s), and, early on, some Baptists in the South raised a voice against the institution.  Nonetheless, many Southern Baptists either defended slavery or complied with the prevailing cultural mindset.  These were good men in a bad cause. 


In 1845, Southern Baptists dissolved fellowship with Northern Baptists, over the slavery issue.  The case of a potential home missionary, J.E. Reeve, provided the wedge that separated Baptist brothers. Reeve, a slave holder, sought appointment to serve as a missionary to Native Americans, and the Home Mission Society refused his application.  This unfortunate incident provoked southern Baptists, in a meeting in Augusta, Georgia, to break with Northern Baptists and form the Southern Baptist Convention.  Sadly, even after the Civil War, Southern Baptists continued to support Jim Crow and refused to embrace their African American brothers and sisters.  This trend continued until the Brown v Board of Education decision (1954) when race relations began the long process of healing and correction, a process that continues today.  In 1995, the delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Atlanta, passed a strongly worded apology for the role Baptists played in the continued oppression of Black citizens.


Why mention all of this unpleasant history, in connection with our present study?  I do so for the following reasons.


  1. It’s the truth!  Baptists need to heighten their awareness and sensitivity to the history of race relations in our beloved denomination.
  2. As a child, growing up in Texas Baptist churches, I heard some of the “pro-South” rhetoric that remained in the culture of my youth, largely based on impressions from passages like Ephesians 6:5-9.  I can remember singing, as a child, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”  Remember the words?

                               Red and Yellow, Black and White;

                               They are precious in his sight;

                               Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 However, I also recall Sunday School teachers recounting the story of Noah’s drunkenness and the cursing of Canaan, as a justification of the oppression of Black folk.  Furthermore, I remember clearly the enthusiastic support of the presidential candidacy of segregationist George Wallace in the 1968 and 1972 elections, among many of the Christians in my hometown.

  1. Southern Baptists must continue to seek healing and restoration from the damage done by decades of racial discrimination.  I have tried to read and interpret this passage with my African American brothers in mind.


For the sake of my conscience, I want to go on public record—slavery was wrong, as is the presence of racial prejudice in any form.  These things have no place among the people of God, and the justification of such attitudes, based on Bible passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, is a misuse of the Scriptures.  Frankly, I wish Paul had taken a vigorous stand against slavery in his cultural setting; however, Paul was not a social activist.  His evangelistic emphasis seemingly precluded cultural ideology, and, as a pragmatist, he dealt with slavery as a societal reality. In other contexts, however, the apostle did not hesitate to challenge ungodly social norms; however, in this case, he seems complicit with the prevailing practices.  At the end of the outline, I provide a summary statement, on the topic of Paul’s attitude toward slavery, by Dr. George Eldon Ladd.


Perhaps you will permit one more introductory statement.  Some modern commentators seem to believe this passage relates to contemporary employer/ employee relations, but this approach seems awkward.  The apostle uses the word “slave” (douloi), a term indicating chattel slavery, not mutually agreed and beneficial employment.  Make no mistake about the passage—it deals with the evil Roman system of slavery.




Lesson Outline:


I.                   Directions for Parent/ Child Relationships in Christian Homes (vv. 1-4)

A.    The duties of children (vv. 1-3)

1.      “obey your parents” (v. 1): Paul continued the theme of mutual submission by instructing children to obey their parents.  The children must submit to their parents for the sake of Christ and because it is simply right to do so.

2.      “honor your father and mother” (v. 2): “Obey” defines the external duty of children, but “honor” reflects the disposition that must characterize this obedience.  Kathy and I taught our children to do the right thing, for the right reasons, with the right spirit.  This seems to summarize Paul’s directives.  This admonition, of course comes from the Decalogue (See Exodus 20:12), and, as an extension of the Old Testament teaching, Paul assured his readers of the attendant benefits of orderly homes and obedient children.  Neither passage (Exodus and Ephesians) guarantee personal longevity to those who comply with the commandment; rather, it indicates the stability and stamina of a culture that is characterized by strong families.

B.     The duties of fathers (v. 4): In a sense, fathers must also submit to their children (in accordance with Paul’s observation in Ephesians 5:21), “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.”  Dr. Vaughan observes, “To make unreasonable demands of a child, to surround him with needless restrictions, or to punish him too severely will deaden his affections toward his parents and check his desire after holiness.  Many a child has reached the point where he feels he cannot possibly please his parents and therefore decides that he need not try.”   Rather than frustrate their children, fathers must raise them in the nurture (gracious training and discipline) and admonition (appropriate corrective discipline) of the Lord.


II.                Directions for Slave/ Master Relationships (vv. 5-9)

A.    the duty of slaves (vv. 5-8): Basically, Paul enjoined one duty on bondsmen, “Be obedient to those who are your earthly masters.”  This submission must bear the following characteristics, according to Paul’s ethical system (See also Colossians 3:22-4:1; I Peter 2:18-25, and the Epistle to Philemon).

1.      “with fear and trembling”:  These words probably denote a spirit of sober responsibility to carry out one’s duties.

2.      “in singleness of heart”: That is, the slave should, according to Paul, perform his duties with sincerity and devoid of pretense or duplicity.

3.      “as to Christ”: It seems that Paul regarded servitude as evidence of the sovereign purpose of God, and, as such, servants were to execute their responsibilities as unto Christ.  “Doing the will of God” seems to re-enforce this point.  Verse Eight promised the slaves that the Lord took notice of the slaves’ plight, and, in God’s time, the oppressed people would receive recompense from the Lord.

B.     The duty of masters (v. 9): This admonition was directed at slave owners, an admonition that called on these men to forebear threatening behavior toward their “property”, and acknowledging their servitude to God.


I include these closing comments from George Eldon Ladd (See A Theology of the New Testament, pp, 529-539).


One of the most evil institutions in the Graeco-Roman world was that of slavery. Slavery was universal and inseparable from the texture of society… While they (slaves) were often treated with kindness and consideration, legally they were the property of their owners—things and not human beings.  Their fate rested altogether on the whim and fancy of their masters.


Paul has no word of criticism for the institution as such.  In this sense, he was unconcerned about “social ethics”—the impact of the gospel on social structures.  In fact, he admonished slaves to be indifferent to their social status (I Corinthians 7:21), because a human slave is really a freeman of the Lord. The Christian faith is to be lived out within the context of existing social structures, for they belong to the form of this world, which is passing away (I Corinthians 7:31).  Therefore, slaves as Christians are to be obedient and loyal to their masters, giving a full measure of service (Colossians 3:22-25; Ephesians 6:5-8), while masters are to treat their slaves with justice and consideration (Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9).



A pharisaic lawyer once approached Jesus with an important theological question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and all your mind, This is the great and first commandment.  And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”


Dear readers, as the old Black preachers used to say (drawing from Amos 5:24):


“But let justice run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”