No…George Liele Was Not America’s First Missionary

George Liele

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for quite some time. But, as time wore on, it seemed like this was a topic that people weren’t really interested in talking about anymore. That is…until I listened to a recent message by David Platt at Together for the Gospel 2018.[1] In his message, David Platt restated a historical claim that I think is completely historically untenable, namely, that George Liele, a former African-American slave, was America’s first missionary, predating Adoniram Judson by several decades.

The idea that Liele was America’s first missionary is an idea that has been repeated several times in various publications.[2] More recently, it’s an idea that has gained some currency in Southern Baptist circles, most likely out of a desire to promote racial reconciliation due to their legacy of racism and support of slavery.  This came out clearly in 2012 when a resolution was made at the Southern Baptist  Annual Convention that mentioned Liele as someone “who many acknowledge as the first overseas missionary from the United States in 1782.”[3]

The problem, though, is that the claim that Liele was America’s first overseas missionary is historically untrue – and this is something that is fairly easy to demonstrate.  The purpose of this post is twofold: (1) To introduce George Liele to those who might be unfamiliar with him and (2) to show that, although Liele had a remarkable ministry, it is historically inaccurate to say that he was America’s first missionary.

Sources for the Life and Thought of George Liele

There are three main groups of sources available for understanding the life and thought of George Liele. The first and most important group of sources are found in The Baptist Annual Register for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793 by John Rippon.[4] John Rippon, a leading Baptist minister in Great Britain, became interested in learning more about the life and ministry of George Liele when he read a letter written by the Rev. Mr. Joseph Cook of South Carolina, which described, in the barest of details, the success Liele had in planting the first Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, and in planting another Baptist Church in Jamaica.[5] Rippon, desiring to know more about his life and ministry, wrote letters to acquaintances of Liele in South Carolina, Georgia, and Jamaica to uncover more information. He also sent a list of fifty questions to Liele himself so that he could describe the work of his ministry in his own words. From these sources, Rippon was able to compile a brief biography that has served as the basis for virtually every account written about Liele since that time.

In addition to the biography contained in The Baptist Annual Register, Rippon also included a number of letters written by acquaintances of Liele and a number of letters written by Liele himself. The Baptist Annual Register also contains biographies of two of Liele’s colleagues in Georgia, Andrew Bryan and David George, both of whom were heavily influenced by Liele’s preaching. These biographies contain a great deal of first-hand information about the character of Liele’s ministry in Georgia. The secondary sources about Liele consist largely of a recapitulation of the material found in The Baptist Annual Register with little or no historical analysis.[6]

The second group of sources comes from the Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica for October to March, 1791-2,[7] and October to December, 1796.[8] These sources contain records of payments given to Liele by the Crown for transporting military equipment by carriage from one military outpost to another in Jamaica. Liele himself refers this work in his response to the fifty questions sent to him by John Rippon, citing this as the reason why his response to Rippon’s letter was delayed.[9] The amounts given in these records give some kind of idea of what Liele’s income was like during this part of his ministry in Jamaica.

The third group of sources consist of stories or anecdotes contained in secondary sources that do not provide information about where they got their information from. The most significant sources in this group include the History of the Baptist Missionary Society from 1792 to 1842 by F. A. Cox[10] and The Voice of Jubilee: A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica by John Clark, W. Dendy, and James M. Philippo.[11] Since the authors of these sources were associated with English Baptist missions to Jamaica in the early nineteenth century, it seems likely that they heard these stories from first-hand witnesses. That being said, although oral history should be given its due weight, the sources outlined above provide more direct and reliable information about the life and ministry of George Liele.[12]

Liele’s Life in Georgia

George Liele was born a slave in colonial Virginia sometime around 1751.[13]   At a very young age,[14] Liele moved with his master, Henry Sharp, to the Province of Georgia, where slavery had only recently been introduced.[15] According to his own account, Liele grew up living a moral life because he had a “natural fear of God” and his conscience was checked by the fear of death.[16]   However, as Liele would later realize, he was trusting in his own personal merit to save him, rather than in Christ. All of this changed in 1773,[17] while Liele was sitting under the ministry of the Rev. Matthew Moore, a Baptist minister in Burke county, Georgia. One Sunday afternoon, while listening to Moore’s preaching, Liele came under deep conviction of sin. He realized that his good works were insufficient to save him and that his sin, which he saw unfolded before his eyes in Moore’s preaching, condemned him to hell.

Liele remained in a state of despair for nearly six months. During these six months, he became more and more despondent until he found peace in Christ:

“The more I heard or read, the more [I saw that I] was condemned as a sinner before God; till at length I was brought to perceive that my life hung by a slender thread, and if it was the will of God to cut me off at that time, I was sure I should be found in hell, as sure as God was in heaven. I saw my condemnation in my own heart, and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell, only through the merits of my dying Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; which caused me to make intercession with Christ, for the salvation of my poor immortal soul….” [18]

As a result, Liele called upon Christ and found the peace with God that he was looking for. Liele spoke to his congregation about what had happened and he was soon baptized by Matthew Moore.

Immediately after his conversion, Liele prayed that God would somehow use him in the work of the ministry. He began to read hymns and explain the more significant parts to his fellow slaves on his plantation. As Liele wrote, “Desiring to prove [the sense I had of] my obligations to God, I endeavoured to instruct [the people of] my own colour in the word of God.”[19] Liele’s desire to share the gospel sprung from a sense of gratitude and obligation to God for the salvation he had received in Christ. This sense of gratitude and obligation to God would play a key role in the manner in which he carried out his ministry toward his fellow slaves.

Liele’s gifts for ministry were soon recognized by the white members of his congregation and he was invited to preach before the congregation at a quarterly meeting. After he had finished preaching, the church unanimously affirmed Liele’s gifting for ministry and licensed him as a probationer.[20]  Liele was given his freedom by his master, George Sharp, who happened to be a deacon in Liele’s church, sometime afterward. Several writers suggest that this was done to give Liele greater freedom to preach the gospel. While this is a reasonable inference, there is no hard evidence suggesting that this might be the case.

Liele preached the gospel from plantation to plantation until the British evacuated Savannah in 1782. Some of the character of Liele’s ministry can be seen through the testimony of Andrew Bryan and David George.[21] Andrew Bryan was converted when he heard Liele preach from John 3:7, which speaks of the necessity of being born again. Although Bryan and his fellow listeners were slaves, Liele clearly believed that what his audience needed to hear was not a message about how they could be freed from temporal slavery from human masters but about how they could be reconciled to God. Bryan would later become the minister of an African American church in Savannah and would suffer imprisonment and severe whipping under suspicion that his church had incited several slaves to escape from their masters. But, like Liele, his message was not a message about freedom from slavery but a message about freedom from condemnation and so Bryan viewed his sufferings as being suffering “for the cause of Jesus Christ”. This is an example of the kind of follower that Liele’s preaching produced.

David George likewise came under the influence of Liele during his ministry in Georgia. George was converted after a fellow African American told him that he would “never see the face of God in glory” if he continued to live as he did.[22] After experiencing a struggle similar to Liele’s about the insufficiency of good works to save him and the condemnation that his sin deserved, George came to trust in God’s mercy as it was displayed in Christ. Not long afterward, he heard George Liele preach on Matthew 11:28, which says, “Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy leaden, and I will give you rest.”[23] George felt that the entire message was directed toward him and the struggle over sin and condemnation he had just recently experienced. Although the details of Liele’s message have not been preserved, much can be learned about the character of Liele’s preaching by paying attention to George’s response. This passage would have been relevant to Liele’s hearers on a strictly literal level because most, if not all, of his hearers were slaves. However, it seems clear from George’s response that Liele’s focus was on spiritual labour and spiritual rest rather than temporal rest, a spiritual rest which both Liele and George saw as being far more important.[24]

Liele’s Move to Jamaica

After Liele’s former master, Henry Sharp, was killed fighting for the Crown in the American Revolution, Sharp’s heirs, who did not approve of Liele being set free, had the authorities arrest him and throw him into prison. Liele was released when an acquaintance named Colonel Kirkland helped him obtain the proper papers to prove that he was free.[25] When Savannah was evacuated by the British in 1792, Liele and his family sailed to Jamaica with Colonel Kirkland as indentured servants because of money that he owed to him back in Georgia. Liele worked for Colonel Kirkland for two years in Jamaica before being granted his freedom.

     At this point we can consider the main issue that prompted this post in the first place, namely, was George Liele America’s first missionary? (We will answer this question without taking into consideration what counts as America at this point.) The answer is clearly no. The reason Liele moved to Jamaica was because of a debt that he owed to Colonel Kirkland. He, along with Colonel Kirkland, were evacuated from Savannah as refugees, not as missionaries. There was no church in Georgia that sent Liele to Jamaica for the specific purpose of carrying out missionary work. Liele himself clearly did not go to Jamaica for the purpose of carrying out missionary work. The reason why Liele went to Jamaica was because of the British evacuation of Savannah and a debt he owed to Colonel Kirkland.   The fact that Liele’s reason for moving to Jamaica has been so often overlooked can only be accounted for by a lack of familiarity with the primary sources or a very poor reading of the primary sources.

That being said, the fact that Liele did not move to Jamaica as a missionary does not mean that his work in Jamaica has any less value. In fact, the ministry he carried out as a refugee in Jamaica was quite remarkable.

Liele’s Work in Jamaica

In 1784, Liele began to preach in Kingston, Jamaica, and, along with four other refugees from America, formed a small church. Within a short period of time, Liele’s ministry began to see success, especially among the slaves and the poor. By the time he wrote to John Rippon in 1791, he had baptized nearly four hundred people. All in all, there were about fifteen hundred people on the island that were being ministered to by Liele. In addition to his regular ministry, Liele established a free school to teach slave children and free children how to read and write.

Liele carried out all of this ministry while supporting himself through farming and through transporting goods from one part of the island to another.[26] Liele would not accept money from the slaves who attended his church because they only received a very small amount of money from their masters to buy food with and he believed that it would bring “scandal to religion” if he were to accept money from them.[27] The free people in his congregation gave what they could but they had little money as well. The fact that Liele worked so hard to support himself and took no financial compensation for his ministry demonstrates once again how he valued the gospel above all things.

Liele would not accept slaves as members of his church unless they had letters from their masters stating that they behaved decently toward them and that they had shown evidence that they were truly converted.[28] In other words, before Liele would accept a slave as a member of his church, he wanted proof from the slave’s master that he was obeying the New Testament injunctions for slaves to obey their masters. One of the reasons why this was so important was because slave owners were fearful that Christian ministry among their slaves would lead to unrest or even rebellion among their slaves. Indeed, Liele’s meetings were interrupted on many occasions by whites who feared that Liele’s preaching would lead their slaves to revolt. This continued throughout the early part of Liele’s ministry until he received special permission from the Jamaican House of Assembly sanctioning their freedom to worship.

Although the problems lessened, there continued to be resistance to the idea of evangelizing slaves. Stephen Cooke, a member of the Jamaican House of Assembly,[29] noted that it was this fear of revolt that kept Liele’s work from having more success:

“The idea that too much prevails here amongst the masters of slaves is, that if their minds are considerably enlightened by religion or otherwise, that it would be attended with the most dangerous consequences; and this has been the only cause why the Methodist ministers and Mr. Liele have not made a greater progress in the ministry amongst the slaves. Alas! how much is it to be lamented, that a full QUARTER OF A MILLION of poor souls should so long remain in a state of nature; and that masters should be so blind to their own interest as not to know the difference between obedience inforced [sic] by the lash of the whip and that which flows from religious principles.”[30]

But, as Cooke noted further on, Liele gained the goodwill of many slave owners by not permitting any slave to become a member of his congregation without their master’s permission. In addition, Liele made sure that the church covenant was read to the members of his congregation once a month so that the illiterate slaves in his congregation would know what duties they were to perform in keeping the commandments of God. Liele showed this covenant to the Jamaican House of Assembly when he petitioned for freedom for his church to gather for worship and he showed it to the owners of slaves who had applied for membership at his church and both groups came away satisfied.[31] Although the text of this covenant is not available, it must have included an injunction for slaves to obey their masters, otherwise it would be difficult to explain why it met with such approval by the Jamaican House of Assembly and the owners of slaves who wanted to become members of Liele’s church.

Liele also sought to gain the goodwill of slave owners by putting a bell in the church steeple so that the slave owners might know when their services started and know that their slaves had returned home at the right time. Liele did all of this because he knew that the progress of the gospel would be hindered if he did not gain the goodwill of slave owners by exhorting the slaves in his congregation to be obedient to their masters. The progress of the gospel was so important to him because he knew from experience that freedom from condemnation and sin was much more important and was of a much greater value than freedom from human slavery.  The result was thousands of slaves and free people who came to faith in Christ.


While it is clearly historically inaccurate to say that Liele was America’s first missionary, Liele lived an incredible life as a minister of the gospel and left behind an incredible legacy.  During his time in Georgia, Liele showed what it meant to put the gospel above all things despite his circumstances and the evil he saw all around him.  The influence he had in Georgia and beyond (including in Canada through David George) was profound.  During his time in Jamaica, he made the most of the circumstances he found himself in as a refugee and poured out his life and energy out of love and compassion for those he considered to be his fellow people.  Once again, the results were profound.

Liele’s legacy, at least as far as it concerned Jamaica, can be aptly summarized through the words found in a letter written by Thomas Swigle, one of Liele’s co-workers, to John Rippon:

“We have great reason in this island to praise and glorify the Lord, for his goodness and loving kindness in sending his blessed Gospel amongst us, by our well-beloved minister, Brother Liele. We were living in slavery to sin and Satan, and the Lord hath redeemed our souls to a state of happiness to praise his glorious and ever blessed name; and we hope to enjoy everlasting peace by the promise of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. The blessed Gospel is spreading wonderfully in this island; believers are daily coming into the church, and we hope, in a little time, to see Jamaica become a Christian country.”

I remain respectfully, Rev. and Dear Sir,

Your Brother in Christ,

Thomas Nicholas Swigle.[32]

Mark Steven Francois

[1] The message can be found at

[2] See, for example, David Killingray, “The Black Atlantic Missionary Movement and Africa, 1780s-1920s,” Journal of Religion in Africa 33 (2003), 6; E. A. Holmes, “George Liele: Negro Slavery’s Prophet of Deliverance,” Baptist Annual Quarterly 20 (1964), 350; Timothy C. Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2010), 258; and Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 266.


[4] The Baptist Annual Register, for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793. Including Sketches of the State of Religion Among Different Denominations of Good Men at Home and Abroad (London: Dilly, Button, and Thomas, 1793).

[5] Ibid., 332.

[6] See, for example, David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, and Other Parts of the World (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1813), which simply reproduces the material found in The Baptist Annual Register. For some examples from early twentieth century see John W. Davis, “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers,” The Journal of Negro History 3 (1918), 119-27, and George Liele, Stephen Cooke, Abraham Marshall, Johnathan Clarke, Thomas Nichols Swigle, “Letters Showing the Rise and Progress of the Early Negro Churches of Georgia and the West Indies,” The Journal of Negro History 1 (1916), 69-92.

[7] Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica, In a Session begun the 25th of October, and ended the 22d of November, 1791; A Session begun the 23d of November, 1791, and ended the 10th of March, 1792; and A Session begun the 13th, and ended the 15th of March, 1792. Being the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sessions of the Present Assembly. Saint Jago de la Vega: Alexander Aikman, 1792.

[8] Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica, In a Session begun October 28, and ended December 21, 1796. Being the Fifth Session of the present Assembly. Saint Jago de la Vega: Alexander Aikman, 1796.

[9] Rippon, The Baptist Annual Register, 337.

[10] F. A. Cox, History of the Baptist Missionary Society from 1792 to 1842, Vol. 2 (London: T. Ward & Co., and G. & J. Dyer, 1842). Cox suggests that Liele’s teaching was likely “very imperfect and intermingled with many false and superstitious notions” (12). This seems unjustified on the basis of the information given about Liele in The Baptist Annual Register. It seems as though this judgment was made on the basis of experience with other Christians in Jamaica.

[11] John Clark, W. Dendy, and James M. Phillippo, The Voice of Jubilee: A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica, From its Commencement; with Biographical Notices of its Fathers and Founders (London: John Snow, Paternoster Row, 1865).

[12] The situation might be somewhat different if these authors gave some indication of who passed on these stories and when.

[13] The Baptist Annual Register, 335. The date of Liele’s birth is not certain but in 1791 he estimated that he was about forty years old.

[14] While no date is given, Liele must have moved at a very young age because he knew nothing about his parents except that their names were Liele and Nancy (The Baptist Annual Register, 335). Liele knew that his father was known as one of the few genuine African Christians in that part of Virginia but he received this information second-hand.

[15] Slavery was introduced into Georgia in 1750. For the historical background of the introduction of slavery into the Province of Georgia see Darold D. Wax, “Georgia and the Negro Before the American Revolution,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 51 (1967), 63-77. For the role played by George Whitefield, the great revivalist, in the introduction of slavery into Georgia see Stephen J. Stein, “George Whitefield on Slavery: Some New Evidence,” Church History 42 (1973), 243-56.

[16] The Baptist Annual Register, 332.

[17] The Baptist Annual Register, 332. Liele says that his conversion experience began “two years before the late war”, i.e. the American Revolution.

[18] Ibid., 333. The words in square brackets were added by John Rippon. In The Baptist Annual Register itself, Liele’s words are in quotation marks and the words that were added are found outside of those quotation marks. It is interesting to note from this quotation that Liele was able to read. For the significance of Liele’s ability to read in the context of African-American literacy during the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, “‘I Saw the Book Talk’: Slave Readings of the First Great Awakening,” The Journal of Negro History 77 (1992), 194-95.

[19] The Baptist Annual Register, 333.

[20] Ibid., 334. Probationers were ministers who were in preparation for being ordained.

[21] Andrew Bryan’s story is found on pages 339 to 343 of The Baptist Annual Register and David George’s on pages 473 to 484.

[22] The Baptist Annual Register, 475.

[23] Ibid., 475.

[24] This was not the only encounter that George had with Liele. One day he heard Liele preach in a cornfield and he wanted to join with the people who were gathered there in prayer. However, he felt ashamed and went to a swamp to pray by himself. He eventually went to Liele and Liele’s advice proved a great help to him and helped him on his path toward Christian ministry. George ministered together with Liele for a short time in Savannah before moving to Charleston where he was eventually evacuated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the British. George would go on to have a profound ministry in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Sierra Leone.

[25] Ibid., 334.

[26] See Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica (1791-2), 250, and Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica (1796), 132, 160.

[27] The Baptist Annual Register, 336. Stephen Cooke, a member of the Jamaican house of assembly and an acquaintance of Liele, wrote the following about Liele’s refusal to take money from slaves: “I am led to believe that it has been of essential service to the cause of GOD, for his industry has set a good example to his flock, and has put it out of the power of enemies to religion to say, that he has been eating the bread of idleness, or lived upon the poor slaves” (Ibid., 338).

[28] Ibid., 335.

[29] John H. Davis, “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers,” 122.

[30] The Baptist Annual Register, 338.

[31] Ibid. 343-44.

[32] The Baptist Annual Register, 542.



“Masters Obey Your Slaves?” Craig Keener’s Bizarre Interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9

1. Craig Keener - Masters Obey Your Slaves

I recently came across an article written by Craig Keener that has to do with the implications that Ephesians 5:21 has for Paul’s instructions to slaves and slave owners in Ephesians 6:5-9 ( In Ephesians 6:5, the Apostle Paul tells slaves to obey their masters according to the flesh (i.e. their earthly masters) with fear and trembling and with sincerity of heart. As one could imagine, this would have been a passage that slave owners in the New World would have used quite frequently on their own slaves, invoking the authority of God’s Word to produce obedience in their slaves.

In the introduction to his article, Keener notes that this is precisely the kind of scenario that one reads about quite frequently in slave narratives.  In response to this particular use of this text, Keener says: “What the slaveholders didn’t bother to quote was the context, which goes on to say, ‘masters, do the same things to them’ (6:9). That is, if slaves have to obey their masters, masters also must obey their slaves!”[1] Keener is aware that this would have sounded strange on the ears of many of Paul’s hearers, but notes that this is precisely the point: “Did anyone in the first century take Paul literally on that point? Probably not. But that doesn’t change that what he actually said expressed one of the most radically antislavery sentiments of his day.”[2]

After reading Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:9, I have to admit that it sounds very strange on my ears as well. And there is a very simple reason for that – it’s because Keener’s interpretation goes against the entire thrust of this passage and against the overall context in which this passage is found. It is an example of allowing modern-day values and modern-day concerns to skew the plain sense meaning of the passage when read both in its historical and literary contexts. But, of course, this isn’t something that I can simply assume or assert – the case needs to be argued from the passage itself.

But before we can get into why Keener’s interpretation of this passage isn’t really plausible, we need to ask what arguments led Keener to come to this conclusion. Based on what we can see in this article, there are two main reasons why Keener came to this conclusion:

(a) The first reason has to do with Keener’s understanding of Ephesians 5:21, which says, “[Watch carefully how you live your life]…submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.”[3] According to Keener, this means that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 (i.e. husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and slave owners) are being told that they need to submit to each other in each of these relationships. In other words, wives are supposed to submit to their husbands but husbands, by the same token, are also supposed to submit to their wives. In the same way, slaves are supposed to submit to their masters but masters are also supposed to submit to their slaves.

(b) The second reason has to do with the wording of the instructions that are given to Christian slave owners in Ephesians 6:9, which says, “And masters, do the same things to them” (Καὶ οἱ κύριοι, τὰ αὐτὰ ποιεῖτε πρὸς αὐτούς). Accodring to Keener’s understanding of this passage, “the same things” refers to the command in 6:5 for slaves to obey their earthly masters: just as slaves are supposed to obey and submit to their earthly masters, earthly masters are supposed to obey and submit to their slaves.”

So what should we say about Keener’s interpretation of this passage?

There are at least two main problems with Keener’s interpretation of this passage:

(a) First, Keener’s interpretation of this passage is based, at least in part, on a very poor interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Like we saw earlier, on Keener’s reading of this passage, Paul is telling the various groups listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 to submit to each other in their respective relationships, with each party submitting to the other party. While this certainly would be a plausible interpretation if we only had verse 21, everything that Paul has to say in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 argues against this understanding of this passage.

A much better understanding of Ephesians 5:21 is that Paul wanted believers to submit to other members of the church who had rightful authority over them.[4] “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,” doesn’t mean that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 should submit to the corresponding party listed in the passage; it means that believers should submit to the corresponding party that is in authority over them.

How do we know that this is the case? Let’s start off with the least controversial reason. In Ephesians 6:1-4, which Keener only mentions at the very end of his article, it says that children are supposed to obey their parents. Paul even quotes one of the Ten Commandments to prove this point. But Paul never says that parents are supposed to obey or even submit to their children. This would be absurd! Even Keener, at the end of his article, says, “Also, there is much less mutual submission in the instruction to fathers: children do need guidance.”[5] This is an incredible understatement, which shows the weakness of his interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Parents are not supposed to submit to their children. Parents are not supposed to obey their children. What does it say instead? It says that fathers shouldn’t make their kids angry or resentful but should raise them in the teaching and instruction of the Lord. Children are supposed to obey their parents; but fathers need to make sure that they don’t abuse the authority that God has given them over their children. What is Paul doing in this passage?  He is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instruction to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused and that it is exercised in a Christ-like way.  This is the pattern that we will see in each of the other pairs of relationships as well.

The second least controversial reason (believe it or not!) for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken is because in Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul tells slaves to obey their earthly masters, as one would expect in that historical context, but he never tells Christian slave owners to obey their slaves. He never tells Christian slave owners to submit to their slaves. What does he tell slave owners to do? He tells them to stop threatening their slaves because their Master in heaven, both the slave’s and theirs, doesn’t play favourites, which is likely a veiled threat of God’s judgment if they treat their slaves too harshly. What is Paul doing in this passage? Just like in the instructions he gave to children and parents, he is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused.

But what about Paul’s words at the beginning of verse 9 (“And masters, do the same things to them”)? As we saw earlier, Keener understands this as a command for masters to submit to their slaves. But this is hardly plausible given the pattern that we saw in Ephesians 6:1-4, the inherent nature of the master-slave relationship, and the instructions that actually come after these words in the second part of verse 9. In the second part of verse 9, Paul simply tells Christian slave owners to stop threatening their slaves. He doesn’t tell them to submit to them or to obey them, which would make no sense in this context. So what does “the same things” refer to? Based on the clear connections between the second part of verse 9 and the instructions given to the slaves earlier, “the same things” clearly refers to seeing Christ as your master (vv. 6-7, 9), doing the will of God from your heart (v. 6), and serving with the knowledge that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good they have done, whether slave or free (v. 8). It clearly does not refer to masters obeying their slaves.  (This point actually answers the main issue being dealt with in this post but, for now, it is simply evidence that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is mistaken.)

The third, and most controversial reason, for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is implausible is because in Ephesians 5:22-33, wives are told to submit to their husbands but husbands are never told to submit to their wives. Keener acknowledges this point but dismisses it: “Some object, ‘But submission is explicit only for the wife!’ Ah, but the command to love is explicit only for the husband (5:25). Yet we understand that all Christians should love another (5:2), and that all Christians should submit to one another (5:21).”[6] But Keener’s objection, however, fails to take into account the context of Ephesians 5:22-33. While it is true that all Christians are supposed to love each other (Eph. 5:2), Keener completely misses the function of 5:25 in this context. As we saw in the other two examples, Paul starts off by listing the party that needs to submit to the other party. Next, he gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority isn’t abused and that they exercise it in a Christ-like manner. The instructions in this section aren’t simply interchangeable: they follow a very specific pattern and the differences in the instructions can’t be simply swept aside.  The reason why husbands are not told to submit to their wives is because, according to what Paul has to say in this passage (whether we agree with it or not), God has given husbands a position of authority over their wives.  They are told to love their wives to makes sure that they don’t abuse that authority and to makes sure that they exercise it in a Christ-like way.  (Keep in mind that we are not dealing with how to apply this passage today – we are simply dealing with what Paul is saying in this particular historical context.)

So it is clear that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken, which means that his understanding of Ephesians 6:9 is also mistaken: Ephesians 5:21 does not mean that slave owners should submit to their slaves.

(b) The second major problem with Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9 is that it seems to have been influenced by the need to harmonize Ephesians 6:5-9 (and 5:22-33!) with modern-day values and concerns. What are those modern-day values and concerns? There are two of them: our modern-day disapproval and outrage against slavery and our modern-day dislike for hierarchy in marriage. Again, it is interesting that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 stops short of applying it in any meaningful way to Ephesians 6:1-4. This likely has to do with the fact that there is little modern-day disapproval of parents having authority over their children. But there is a need among many interpreters to make Paul match up with our values and with our concerns when it comes to gender roles and the issue of slavery. There is a need among many interpreters to see Paul as a progressive. Keener even says in this article that Paul was a progressive thinker for his day.

However, from a strictly historical perspective, it is a priori unlikely that Paul was progressive when it came to most social issues.  In other words, our default position should be that Paul was “a man of his times” unless there are very strong reasons to think otherwise.  Ephesians 5:22-33 and 6:5-9 count as evidence to prove this point. Seeing Paul as a progressive when there is every reason to think that he wasn’t seems to me to be the result of an overly theological/normative interpretation of Paul rather than the result of a historical/descriptive interpretation of Paul. Before we deal with what implications these passages might have for our view of husband-wife relationships today or even of master-slave relationships in New World slavery, we need to figure out what Paul meant in his own historical context and then move on from there.

So was Paul telling masters that they should obey or submit to their slaves? Certainly not! This interpretation of Ephesians 6:9 makes no sense in the context of Ephesians 6:5-9 or in the context of Ephesians 5:22-6:9. It also makes no sense Paul’s particular historical/cultural context.  How do we deal with the issue of Paul and slavery? Well…that’s something that we might have to deal with in another post. But, regardless of how strong our opinions might be on slavery or hierarchy in marriage, we can’t deal with these issues by making Paul say something other than what he is actually saying.

Mark Steven Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College


[2] Ibid.

[3] The verb “to submit” in 5:21 is a participle that modifies the verb “to live your life” (περιπατεῖτε) in 5:15. Ephesians 5:21 is giving one specific example of what it means to watch carefully how you live your life. Given the relationship of the verb “to submit” in this passage to the verb “to live your life” in 5:15, translations like the NIV are completely justified in translating it as a command in English.

[4] Note that in this passage, Paul’s wording assumes that the slave owners are also Christians.