Of Slaves and Masters
Christian Principles in the Work Place
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.—Titus 2:9, 10 NIV
By David Rice
Secular employment constitutes the largest single mortgage of time and effort for many Christians. Therefore it will provide the background for much of the experience of life, and test many features of our Christian character.
In both Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1 Paul gives advice to servants and to masters. Employees today are not servants, and employers are not masters, in the same way that society was organized when Paul gave this advice. Nevertheless Paul’s advice is founded on principles which do apply.
The above two passages are very similar. We quote here from the Ephesians passage which is more complete, Paul’s counsel to servants:
“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eye service, as men pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.”—Ephesians 6:5-8
Could we imagine a more wonderful approach to our secular responsibilities? Faithfulness to our duties is counted as faithfulness to the Lord! This is a precious prospect. The discharge of this mortgage—a necessary burden in any case—if done as to the Lord, will bring favor and blessing from the Lord. Whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord.
Do we wish to please the Lord with our conduct? Then we shall wish to please our employer. Do we wish to show the Lord that we are diligent, dependable, and loyal? Then, while we are required to serve an employer, the Lord offers to accept the spirit of that service as indicating the spirit of our service to the Lord himself.
Imagine for a moment that you need to take leave of your job for a pressing family obligation, and you will be away for two or three months. Most employers would find that an imposition; nevertheless many would, if possible, agree, and even wish you well. But imagine the employer who offers to pay you for discharging your obligation, and even promote you on your return according to how well you served that responsibility during your absence. I think all would like to work for employers like that! In fact, all of the Lord’s consecrated do so. The Lord is our master, and even if not engaged directly in his business while serving our temporal obligations, he offers to reward us for the service, in accord with our diligence.
Perhaps we have a difficult, overbearing, selfish employer. These traits are frequent in the world, and it should not surprise us to find these problems in an employer. Paul’s counsel does not apply to pleasant employers more than to unpleasant ones. In either case, our service is directed to the Lord, but for the benefit of our employer. If our employer is a difficult one, or our job an unpleasant one, we will have more opportunity for overcoming, perhaps for suffering unjustly, perhaps for showing grace under provocation, and certainly for showing that our loyalty is based on principle rather than on favorable circumstances.
However nothing in Paul’s counsel tells us that we may not speak reasonably and kindly for our rights. Polite communications with our employers about problems, possible injustice, or excessive burdens is a wise policy, and will be to the overall benefit of all. Harboring resentments and bearing unjust burdens without recourse is likely to engender bitterness, which is always an evil fruit. But even here we should be swift to hear, slow to speak (James 1:19). We are human as well as our employers. We should not expect that our views will always prevail, even if we are actually correct.
Some Practical Considerations
Determine what your employer considers a “job well done.” Our view and his view may be different. But we are willing to serve the employer, and therefore must respect his view. He may not always be right, but he is always the boss. We are not here speaking of matters of conscience. We cannot, for example, lie on our employer’s behalf because he considers it part of our duty to him. Principle always comes first. If we sense an expectation which would violate our conscience we must be pleasantly, politely, firm in our position. We ought to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).
Use initiative. Common sense and employer feedback are useful gages here. Few things are more helpful and more remarkable in an employee than spontaneous, thoughtful, perceptive application to a task not specifically required. Are there procedures or methods which clearly would be helpful and not disruptive to others which you can implement? Is there a small service not normally obligatory, perhaps one which may be considered beneath your position, which time permits you to do? Would you do it if you were directly serving the Lord? Then do it while you are indirectly serving the Lord.
Remember that many things weigh upon an employer’s mind which are not openly apparent. Keep in mind that his relationship to each employee may be slightly different than to you. Every interpersonal relationship is unique. Never give place to jealousy. If a favor is extended to others be glad for them. If a kindness is extended to you, how would you wish your peers to react.
“And ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.”—Ephesians 6:9
“Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.”—Colossians 4:1
Every position of authority brings a risk of abuse. If we are an employer we have a responsibility for which to account. If it is exercised with justice and with fairness, even though with firmness, our characters will be enhanced, and a proper sense of self respect increased. If it is exercised as a means of personal gratification our characters will be weakened.
There is, of course, a motive for being an employer. In the present arrangement it is a means to an end. Those who are willing to work industriously and supervise the labors of others to further the enterprise undertake that responsibility for the hope of a financial return in order to provide for themselves and their dependents. Christian employers hopefully hope to also have some financial gain to use for their greater service to the Lord. Often there are monetary risks and great labor expended by the employer with the reasonable hope of gain in the future. But along the way one of the responsibilities gained in the process is toward those who labor in our employ. Any Christian person will surely have a great deal of concern for how they discharge that responsibility. It is not a responsibility taken from the motivation of charity even though a successful employer may take some pleasure in providing gainful employment for many workers. Therefore, while we wish to exercise a spirit of charity and goodwill in all affairs of life, the fundamental concern of an employer is that he treat his employees justly and fairly—the same qualities which Paul emphasizes in his advice.
Paul also reminds us that we are under a Master, perhaps implying two things: (1) We should follow the example of Christ as far as possible; and (2) We may be judged by our Master to some extent upon how we exercise our authority over others.
Some Practical Considerations
Always retain a genuine concern for your employees.
Remember the 3:1 rule—give at least three honest encouragements for every criticism.
Have a hearing ear. If a decision must be made which is disagreeable to others, explain your reasons kindly and respectfully.
An employer or supervisor will encounter stress. These stresses are different than when responsible solely for one’s own productivity. These may point to areas of our character which need special work.
Employer or business responsibilities can demand our mental attention and interest after normal working hours more than, for example, working for hourly remuneration. Be alert to this, and establish boundaries for yourself.
Finally, to paraphrase Luke 6:31, “Do unto your employees as you have them do unto you if they were your employer.”