Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
5 Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. 9 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.
A recent post in Concordia Theology went just a bit too far for my tastes. One could conclude (wrongly) that only highly trained theologians are capable of reading the Bible and understanding and interpreting it properly. On the other hand, in taking to task the incendiary billboard put up by an atheist group the author got it right. If we are to understand these words properly (v. 5-8), we will best be aware of our own hearing context. We hear the word slave and think of the worst expressions of this practice and the horrific abuses visited upon African people during the pre-Civil War times.
While we can fairly easily understand and apply to our lives today the call for children to obey their parents, it’s more difficult to do so with the paragraph about bondservants or slaves. One helpful way would be to understand bondservant as the ancient near-eastern equivalent of employee. So it becomes, “Employees, obey your earthly bosses…” That’s a start. What’s more, there is the call for masters (read “bosses”) to treat their workers with respect.
Better yet, consider this: We are called to obey and respect those in authority over us. But this is not a mere how-to of proper social behavior. This is a matter of doing the will of God from the heart. And there is the rub. What if you have an unreasonable boss? While you are free to seek other employment, as long as you work for that (unreasonable) boss, you are called to render service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.
What if our every day way of life was a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness. It’s not just a matter of testifying to our faith – though that’s what it would be. It’s a testimony to who God is and that he is above all, looking upon us all with no impartiality.
There is good news here – and it’s not just about there being good slave owners or employers. The good news is that there is a God in heaven who looks upon us all – high and low – with compassion, kindness, love, and mercy. We can know that whether we work in the mail room or the executive suite we have equal access to God, his love, and salvation. If we order our lives from that truth, and let that truth touch every facet of our existence we will do well. We would project a powerful witness to a world that is more concerned about outward titles and appearances than the source of life itself.