In Paul’s final words to slaves, “whether he is a slave or free” (Ephesians 6:8), the word “free” refers to slave masters, allowing Paul to transition to his counsel to them while imagining slaves and slave masters standing on an equal footing before Christ in the judgment (compare 2 Corinthians 5:10; Colossians 3:24-25).
Assuming that you are a Christian slave master who is listening to Ephesians being read out in your house church, how might you react to this counsel, offered in the presence of your slaves? Ephesians 6:9.
Paul addresses masters, slave masters, in a pointed exhortation, which turns on the sharp contrast between “the lords” (Greek, hoi kurioi, translated as “masters”), who had a habit of “threatening” their slaves, and “the Lord” (ho kurios), Christ, with whom there is “no partiality” (ESV).
Paul asks masters to “do the same to them” (ESV), the slaves, which would have been shocking to a first-century slave owner. Masters should respond to their slaves with deeds of goodwill governed by their allegiance to Christ, corresponding to what Paul has just asked of slaves (Ephesians 6:5-8). He tells them to stop threatening their slaves, a common practice of a time in which masters administered a wide variety of punishments, including beating (1 Peter 2:20), sexual abuse, being sold (and parted from loved ones), extreme labor, starvation, shackles, branding, and even death. For this, they will be judged—by God.
Paul supports his commands with two motivations that call slave masters to look beyond the social structures of the Greco-Roman world: (1) they and their presumed slaves are co-slaves of a single Master (“knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven,” ESV; compare Colossians 4:1); and (2) the heavenly Master judges all without partiality. Since their own Master treats those regarded as slaves on an equal footing with others, so should they (compare Philemon 1:15-16).
Much of Paul’s language in Ephesians would be especially heartening for Christian slaves: adoption as sons (Ephesians 1:5); redemption (Ephesians 1:7); inheritance (Ephesians 1:11,14; Ephesians 3:6); being enthroned with Jesus (Ephesians 2:6); becoming “fellow citizens,” “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19; compare Ephesians 3:14-15), and integral parts of the body of Christ (see Ephesians 3:6; Ephesians 4:1-16; Ephesians 6:5-9 activates all the teaching in the letter as operative in the relationships between slaves and slave masters, including the counsel about speech (Ephesians 4:25-32) and sexual ethics (Ephesians 5:1-14).