A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 6. 5), The abolition of slavery (continued).
The second quality of their relationship was to be justice. What is implicit here in the general instruction to masters to *do the same to them* (verse 9) is made explicit in Colossians 4:1: ‘Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.’ This injunction will have sounded extremely strange in the ears of those who first heard it. For although, as we have seen, Roman law was becoming gradually more humane, slaves were still popularly regarded as the property of their masters, who had absolute power over them. And of course where there are thought to be no rights, there can be no justice. So justice for slaves was a revolutionary new concept. Essentially it was the gospel which insisted that slaves had rights. This is made plain by the reciprocal nature of the slave-master relationship. For if slaves had duties to their masters, masters had duties to their slaves. Then the master’s duties became the slave’s rights, just as the slave’s duties were the master’s rights.
In labour relations today the same basic principle holds good of justice based on reciprocal rights. Employers and employees alike have duties – the employee to give good work and the employer to pay a just wage. Then each person’s duty becomes the others person’s right. If it is the employee’s duty to give good work, it is the employer’s right to expect it. If it is the employer’s duty to pay a fair wage, it is the employee’s right to expect it. The major human problem in management-labour disputes is that each side concentrates on securing its own rights, and on inducing the other side to do its duty. Paul, however, reverses the emphasis. He urges each side to concentrate on its responsibilities, not on its rights. Certainly if in modern industrial disputes the concern were for each side to fulfil its own duty and secure the other side’s rights, labour relations would immediately be sweetened.
The third and highest aspect of the transformed slave-master relationship is brotherhood. It appears with conspicuous clarity that Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which he urges him to receive back his fugitive but now converted slave Onesimus, and to welcome him ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother’ (Phlm.16). The words would have sounded incredible to all but Christian ears. Seneca taught the universal brotherhood of mankind but I cannot find that he applied his doctrine to slaves. ‘Comrades’, he called them, and even ‘friends’, but not ‘brothers’. The concept of the brotherhood was Paul’s innovation and is one of the major themes of Ephesians. For God’s new society is the Father’s household or family, all of whose members are related to one another in Christ as brothers and sisters. Even in the first letter he wrote he could confirm with confidence that all who are in Christ are the sons and daughters of God and that ‘there is neither…slave nor free,…for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal.3:26,28). He then repeated this sentiment in the letter which parallels Ephesians: ‘Here there cannot be…slave, free man, but Christ is all and in all.’ (Col.3:11). A message which thus united master and slave as brothers *ipso facto* issued its radical challenge to an institution which separated them as proprietor and property. Therefore it is only a matter of time. ‘Slavery would be abolished *from within*’.