You servants - you should obey your masters according to the kind [SARKOS] of relationship you have with them in an appropriate way with all respect and due deference in singleness of heart to Christ, not merely for the sake of outward appearances but as slaves of Christ doing God's will wholeheartedly with such a devotion to duty as to the Lord and not [merely subservient] to men in the knowledge that each man receives good things [to do and in and from what he does], whether he is slave or free, from the Lord.
     And you masters [must] act accordingly to them [your slaves whom you have from the Lord] avoiding a threatening disposition, knowing that the Lord in heaven is their master and yours, and He is no respecter of persons. - Ephesians 6:5-9/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

St Paul statue Connecticut

St Paul depicted in a statue in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Waterbury, Connecticut in the US. PICTURE: Wikipedia (licensed under CC BY SA 4.0); image cropped.

 

"The advice, as stated, appears in the form of a principle, guiding the servant or slave in the way they form their attitude to their masters. It is not a statement endorsing the institution of forced servitude, even if Paul could have appealed to the way God used Joseph in the courts of Pharaoh."

So where is Paul’s advice to mothers here? I think it is fair to say that mothers are not mentioned simply because their nurture of their children is presupposed. The nurture and admonition of the Lord is focused upon fathers to actually emphasise that they do have nurturing responsibilities, to open them up to their indispensable role in their children’s nurture. A mother’s life-long role in tender loving care is presupposed.

So let us itemise the “submission” that is called forth from those who believe, those who Paul affirms as those dwelling in the light. A wife’s willing submission to the husband is part of the distinctive kind of relationship she enjoys in marriage; that it is made out of a recognition that a husband’s “headship” is nothing less than a submission to Christ Himself, to the One who has laid down His life for His bride, the church.

The husband’s submission is an act of self-giving love, the complement of the wife’s due respect. Children’s submission is to their parents nurture, for this too is an implicit command with a forward looking promise. It is as if Paul says: “You want to be happy? Honour your parents! That’s what is in front of you!” 

And then Paul comes to the relationship of master to servant. No doubt this relationship took on many different forms of service. The advice, as stated, appears in the form of a principle, guiding the servant or slave in the way they form their attitude to their masters. It is not a statement endorsing the institution of forced servitude, even if Paul could have appealed to the way God used Joseph in the courts of Pharaoh.

This is carefully balanced advice and does not exactly say what should be done when a servant is faced with an unjust, arbitrary or cruel master. The advice to servants coincides with a complementary admonition to masters including a firm warning that they must examine themselves scrupulously before the Throne of Heaven.

The relationship between a master and servant is indeed one of submission, but since masters are themselves subject to the Lord as His servant, they are to avoid threats. The relationship is not to be one of fear. That is not how their relationship to the Lord is structured, so that is not how they should structure their relationship to those subject to their rule.

And since the letter is to the entire community of believers, servants can hear Paul’s firm admonition to their masters, just as masters can hear Paul’s considered advice to servants. He is intent upon addressing them before their Master, the Redeemer of all the relationships that pertain among and between His image-bearers.