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Children and Parents, Slaves and Masters (6:1-9)

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There are some who try to keep their religion separate from their everyday lives. They are quite willing to acknowledge God in their place of worship but wish to leave Him there. In contrast, no true follower of Christ will live like this. His relationship with Christ affects not only his worship but every aspect of his life. Christ is Lord of all or He is Lord of nothing. If we truly believe in Christ it will change not only our worship but also our business dealings and our family life.

After discussing the relationship between wives and husbands the Apostle Paul turns to children and parents. In chapter 6, verses 1 through 4 of his inspired letter to the Ephesians he writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with a promise: “that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth.” You fathers, don’t provoke your children to wrath, but nurture them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

In this passage Paul presupposes that both the children and the parents to whom he is writing are followers of Christ. In the society in which these people lived it was assumed that children would be totally obedient to their parents. By law, in both Jewish and non-Jewish households, the penalties for disobedience or disrespect could be severe – up to and including death. But Paul raises the standard of Christian behavior above and beyond the dictates of law or of the expectations of society. He writes that children are to obey “in the Lord.” In other words, children are to regard obedience to their parents as service to Christ. There is an important principle here. We should not behave in a certain way merely because that is what other people expect but because we have chosen to do what is right in the eyes of Christ.

It is also important to note that Paul is writing to children who are old enough to choose to obey for the sake of Christ. In most societies children are considered to be of the same religion as their parents. But this is not true for the followers of Christ. No one is ever born a Christian. Even if a person’s parents were Christians for a hundred generations in the past it would not make him or her a Christian. One becomes a follower of Christ only by a personal and deliberate choice. Have you made that choice, or are you merely wearing the name because your parents were called Christians?

Christian children should not only obey their parents, but honor them. In support of this Paul quotes from Deuteronomy chapter 5, verse 16. This is the fifth of what are known as the ‘Ten Commandments.’ It is interesting that of the ten commandments this is the only one which carries a promise with it. The promise is two-fold: That it may go well with you, and that you may enjoy long life. On the surface it may not seem that this promise is fulfilled. The followers of Christ are often persecuted and even killed for their faith. But the followers of Christ know differently. As Paul writes in another place, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35, 37)

At the time in which Paul wrote, fathers had unlimited authority over their children. They could appropriate their children’s property or income. They could sell them as slaves or into prostitution. They could could even kill them with the full sanction of the law. In non-Jewish households it was common for unwanted children to be killed at birth or left on the roadside to die. In Roman society children had fewer rights than slaves (See Andrew T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 42, p. 399 ff.). But things are vastly different in Christ. Though a father may have unlimited power, that power is restrained and curbed by Christian principles. Paul gives two general guidelines. The first is a prohibition. A Christian father is not to exasperate or anger his children. What this means is that he is not to act unjustly or arbitrarily. In Colossians 3:21 this is expanded to include anything which would embitter or discourage the children. Secondly, a Christian father is to nurture his children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Not only will he teach his children about Christ, but he is to model Christ-likeness to them. A Christlike father will always act in his children’s best interests.

Slavery was a fact of life at the time when this letter was written. As the gospel message spread through the Roman Empire many slaves and slave holders became followers of Christ. As may be expected, the principles of Christianity affected their relationship as well. In verses 5 through 9 Paul writes, “Servants, be obedient to those who according to the flesh are your masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as to Christ; not in the way of service only when eyes are on you, as men pleasers; but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men; knowing that whatever good thing each one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is bound or free. You masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.”

Though slavery is not expressly forbidden anywhere in the New Testament, it is worth noting that slavery, and slave trading in particular, is contrary to the spirit of Christianity (See 1 Timothy 1:8-11). Throughout history Christians have been in the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery.

But even where slavery is not abolished outright, Christianity both elevates the slave and places important restraints on the master. In this passage Paul instructs slaves to consider the work they do as service to Christ. It may be very difficult to maintain a good attitude when we are being coerced. But when we choose to do it for the Lord, our service becomes a holy thing which we can sincerely perform from the heart. Our attitude towards masters will also change when we realize that we are actually serving Christ and it is He who will give us our reward.

Slave owners are urged to remember that they too have a Master in heaven. He is the same as the slave’s true Master. When a slave owner realizes that he must answer to the same Master as his slave, he will treat his slave justly and will look out for his welfare.

Not many of us today experience actual slavery. But shouldn’t we apply the same principles to our employment? If we are employed shouldn’t we regard our labor as service to Christ? If we are an employer shouldn’t we remember that we also have One who has authority over us?