Serving Two Masters: Does Ephesians 6:5 Contradict Matthew 6:24?


No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
— Matthew 6:24 —

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, . . .
— Ephesians 6:5–6 —

Ephesians 6:5–9 calls “slaves” to obey their earthly masters, which at first sounds like it contradicts Jesus words in Matthew 6:24, where our Lord states that men are not to be divided in their allegiance and service—you can either serve God or money.

A careful reader may ask, Does Paul’s instructions contradict Jesus’ words? Or does he help the worker go further in understanding how our primary allegiance to Christ leads to improved service to earthly masters?

I believe it is the latter.  And on that point, Wolfgang Musculus, a sixteenth-century pastor-theologian, answers well:

It seems that Christ’s saying that no one can serve two masters is being contradicted here. How can a Christian servant serve an earthly master when he has a Lord in heaven, namely, Christ, to whom he is totally dedicated? If he can serve them both, then it seems that what Christ said about the impossibility of serving two masters must be wrong.

My answer to this is that there are two different kinds of service that have to be considered here, one of which is primary and the other secondary. The primary kind is the one by which a Christian servant must serve Christ the Lord with everything he has and is, even to the point of being obliged to give everything up for his sake if he has to do so. The secondary kind of service, which he owes to his earthly lord, is in earthly things that are lawful and honest and that do not involve sinning against the primary obedience owed to Christ the Lord. This obedience is subordinate, and if it is lawfully carried out it is subservient to the primary kind, as we shall see in a moment.

The way to understand what Christ means when he says that no one can serve two masters is explained by what follows. He did not add, “You cannot serve God and earthly lords” but, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Mammon does not have a role subordinate to the rule of God in the way that earthly masters have, which would allow us to serve it lawfully, but arises from the unbelief and greed of our rebellious hearts and is completely opposed to the service of God. No Christian who is dedicated to Christ the Lord can serve lords of that kind. Therefore no Christian is forbidden to honor the parents of his flesh because he has a Father in heaven whom he worships and obeys. On the contrary, he is all the more obliged to honor them by the commandment of God. Similarly, Christian servants are not forbidden to obey their earthly lords on the ground that they have a Lord in heaven, but as they are reminded even by the apostles themselves, they are required to obey their earthly lords.

 Wolfgang Musculus, Commentary on Ephesians, cited in Reformation Commentary on Scripture, 395–96.

May the Lord help us serve our earthly authorities and employers, such that our hearts prove their primary allegiance is to the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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