One of my areas of interest is the abolition of the slave trade. I wrote a dissertation on the subject whilst studying at Oak Hill and you can read this here. In the light of this and particularly when I began to dig into Ephesians for my 4th year long dissertation on “Marriage at Work” I was struck by the fact that Paul in effect abolishes slavery.
The basis for saying this is that we see the instructions to husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters coming in the context of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21). In my studies on marriage I’d picked up on some people arguing that mutual submission was impossible, you could not, in their view submit to someone who was equal to you in status or had to report to you within an authority hierarchy. You could, they argued, only submit to people who were above you and had authority over you.
So, I was surprised to discover that John Calvin argues that in a sense, those considered to have greater authority and status, husbands, fathers, masters are asked by Paul to submit to those they have authority over.
Then I came to Ephesians 6 and noticed afresh the emphasis on two things. Firs that Paul insists that people who do work not only should be rewarded but also will be re-warded. God will step in to ensure that injustices and wrongs in thls life are corrected in eternity. Secondly, I saw that Paul specifically asked masters to treat slaves in the same way as he had just asked slaves to treat masters.
This is important because in effect, what Paul is doing is he is removing the category of slavery from what is permissible. AS a Christian, you can either be an employer who pays a worker their wage, or you can be the head of a household where each family member has the same value and worth. There can be no such thing as slave or free.
Now, as I explain in my dissertation, the evidence suggests that the early church got ths and so they worked for the abolition of slavery in their context. This means that people like Wilberforce and Wesley were able to argue that they were not the innovators, it was the slave owners that innovated against Scripture and hence against tradition, reason and experience.
The further implication is this, that the slave owners had started to do something unlawful because it went against God’s law. Those arguing for setting slaves free had law on their side. What they were looking for was to see human law, the law of the land align with God’s law.