The discussion, which its great emphasis upon the responsibility of the man, now turns to the relation between master (again, the male) and slave. The slave, like the child, is to be obedient to the one who is over him or her. But Paul is being very specific here. Where our modern translations have “earthly” masters, Paul has written “according-to-the-flesh lords.” That is, slaves are to obey bodily what the masters of their bodies demand. That leaves soul and spirit free!
The slave is to obey the master as part of what it means to fear God. This is spelled out in surprising detail and contains extremely important lessons for all of us. We all live “under” someone’s authority. The old American frontier is long gone and its rugged individualist is no longer a hero but merely a misfit.
In all their work as slaves, they are to have a sense of obeying and serving God, not just their masters. Is it not important that we all realize that same reality? No matter who is giving us orders, our inner sense is that we are obeying God. That inner sense will give a deep meaning to our work and, most importantly, will protect us from obeying evil orders. We cannot accept an order from a human which would not come from the Lord.
The slave is given a harsh warning. Not only is there a reward awaiting the good servants (cf. the hope that awaits us in heaven) but the wrongdoer will be paid back in kind for whatever wrong he has done “and here is no partiality.” That last line indicates that even the slave is held morally responsible for his deeds and cannot hide behind the master’s orders. Wow! That is radical stuff which ascribes to the slave not only a great dignity but a moral responsibility as great as anyone else’s.
But notice Paul’s subtlety here. Immediately after affirming that God shows no partiality in his judgements, Paul’s mind goes to the masters. They are to avoid the impartial judgement of God of treating their slaves justly and fairly, knowing that we all have a Master in heaven. That is, we are all slaves in a very real sense and are therefore equal with one another. Master and slave are on equal footing before the Lord!
I’m surprised Paul didn’t take the obvious next step and remind the masters to live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others – including your slaves – as you would have others – including slaves – do unto you. What a subtle way to begin freeing the slaves!