Authority in the Sphere of Labor
January 20, 2013 / No. 3655
Dear Radio Friends,
Life is multifaceted and varied. For a child at home it is so simple and uncomplicated. Not so for an adult. There are not only relationships in the home and in the church, but outside these spheres of life there are those of government and society as well. Every one of us who goes off to work according to God’s command to labor is confronted with this sphere of life too. So the apostle Paul, in the passage before us, addresses another important area of our lives. We read in Ephesians 6:5-9:
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. 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.
I realize that it may not seem as if this passage has much to do with our modern society, in which slavery has been abolished. It may seem as if Paul is addressing something that is time-dated and culturally-conditioned and, really, has nothing to do with us today. It is true, too, that instruction given to slaves and masters does not directly address itself to present circumstances in our society. But the instruction of this passage is the Word of God and is profitable for the instruction of God’s people in every age. We will find that the master-slave relationship has been replaced by the employer-employee relationship in our modern society. How this has become true we will consider in a moment when explaining these verses. But certainly, we receive some all-important instruction as to a whole area of our lives that consumes many a waking hour. And it is good sound instruction, too.
Believers in the church are taught in this passage how to perform their earthly, secular labors in a godly way. This is the calling of men in the church. Even though the sphere of labor is not a church-related matter, the life of Christ has renewed our whole lives—all the relationships of life are affected by our salvation. Obedience to God plays an important role in every area of the believer’s life.
We can be thankful that we live in a free society. We, too, in the beginnings of our country, saw our share of slavery and the horrible atrocities that it caused. That is what it was like in the Greek/Roman culture. Though there were also those servants that served in the capacity of hired help, Paul does not address them as such in these verses. He addresses servants who were slaves. These men and women were kept in bondage for life. They were owned by other people. The rule unbelieving masters exercised in that day was little different than in the early days of our own nation. They handled their slaves like brute beasts. They would abuse them, even kill them, with no fear that the law would hold them accountable for what they did. They beat them. They threw them in hold. They bred them as if they were not human beings at all but a piece of property right along with the rest of their livestock.
An additional problem was the number of slaves, especially that a rich man might have owned. He might have many of them to run his business or work in his fields. And for that reason he had to be careful. He often ruled his slaves with an iron hand, with a system of harsh punishments to hold his slaves in check and force them into submission.
The apostle Paul does not deal with the issue of slavery itself here. He only deals with a reality that was present in the culture in which the Ephesian believers found themselves. In my personal estimation, such slavery is sin. Yet God’s Word here simply deals with the reality of slavery in Grecian society. He did so because it pleased God to save in Christ both masters and also slaves. God is no respecter of persons. Many slaves, as well as masters, were brought to conversion and were members of the church.
The sins involved in this type of system of labor become glaring. Masters, in an attempt to maintain their authority, treated their slaves in cruel and sinful ways. We read of their “threatening,” in verse 9 of our text. We have already spoken of some of the ways that these threatening were administered. These were sin on the part of the master. But then, unbelief reveals itself in all manner of sin. Masters abused their authority. The authority God had given them in the realm of labor was used for their own sinful ends and to achieve their own greedy goals. So there was sin on the part of the masters.
But there was also sin on the part of the slaves or servants. Such conditions breed rebellion. And this happened, too, frequently. Unhappy slaves would abandon their work and flee like the slave Onesimus who fled from Philemon. Slaves would become lazy and unproductive. When the master or his paid overseer were not around, the slaves would sit down on the job and do very little in the way of work. Other slaves joined together in uprisings against their masters, killing those that the master had placed over them. And, if possible, even killing the master himself. In times of rebellion and hatred against their master they would rape and kill even the family of their master. In this whole realm of life, therefore, was to be found anger and hatred and rebellion.
As I mentioned earlier, we have much to be thankful for that such slavery is not a part of our society anymore. Slavery was abolished a long time ago. But there is a realm of life today that indeed relates to the problems and sins of this past culture. This is the sphere of labor. In our modern form of labor there are employers who hire people for a fee to perform various labors for them; and there are employees who are the people hired. Since the employer owns the company and does the hiring, he is in a position of authority in the workplace. This has not changed. God still ordains the powers that be. He has ordained them in the home, church, and government; and He has also ordained authority in the realm of labor, that is, the work-force. And many of the same abuses found in an unbelieving master-slave relationship can be found in the unbelieving sphere of employment today. The employer can abuse his position by paying his employees poor wages so that they are unable to support their own families. In the past, employers forced people to work in the poorest and most dangerous of work conditions. At one time in our country, small children were forced to work in order to earn enough for their families. These abuses were the reason for the rise of unions in our country. The employer can let his power go to his head and constantly rail upon his workers and treat them as if they are nothing more than animals or, at least, a lower class of citizenship.
So, all of these sins of the past can surface in the workplace of today, too. Or the same sins of the past can characterize the employees as well. In fact, employers today are often forced to give in to unjust demands of employees, much to the confusion of the order that God has established in the workplace. Employees become lazy. And when their employer or their supervisor is not around, they will sit around and do very little productive work. They will steal from the employer. They will refuse to put in a good day’s labor. And, especially, they will fail to do this cheerfully. They have rights, so they say! So much of the workforce has become like that in our modern society. The hands of the employer are tied by all kinds of labor laws that make profitable employment almost impossible. In many cases in our modern society, the wages and benefits demanded by employees are so out of line that companies are going bankrupt, unable to afford to pay their employees what they demand. And if employees do not get what they want, then, in rebellion, they walk off the job. They even stand in the way of those who still want to put in a good day’s work.
Rebellion fills the workforce of today. And it is as glaring as was the sin of the slaves in the past. So, the Word of God before us today is, indeed, very timely. It is not simply conditioned for the culture then, but has much to say to you and me as members of the church today.
Because sin enters into this relationship of life, the Word of God here admonishes and instructs both masters and servants. There is one beautiful truth that shines through these admonitions. These masters and their slaves belonged to Christ. The end of verse 5 says to servants: “as unto Christ.” Verse 6 instructs: “as the servants of Christ.” Verse 7: “as to the Lord.” Verse 9: “your Master also is in heaven.” These are all references to Christ. It ought to be clear, then, that Paul is talking to believers. These were new believers, from among the Gentiles. They knew the culture. They were a part of the culture of master-slave relationships. There were slaves and masters together in the very congregation of Ephesus. But the point is, these slaves and masters in the past were guilty of the same sins that characterized other masters and slaves. But now they had been delivered from these sins. They must understand that their lives in every sphere of life had become renewed by means of their own salvation.
Believers are different. And they act differently than unbelievers. This was true as husbands and wives and parents and children in the home. But this was likewise true of their place in society at large. These saints, all of them, had now become subject to their Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. He ruled in their hearts. He delivered them from the clutches of sin and unbelief and put a new heart in them—a heart that was subject to Christ. They had become His willing slaves. Now Christ, through His Spirit, ruled in their hearts, leading them in a different direction than they were used to in the past. Paul says to them in verse 6: “you are the servants or slaves of Christ.” In verse 7 he tells them again that they with good will did service as to the Lord and not to men. All this because, by means of salvation, their whole life had been changed. They were now to view their place in labor in an altogether different way.
Again, it is no different today. What is it that motivates us as believers now in the whole realm of labor? Selfishness and greed, self-seeking and self-satisfaction, thinking of me and my rights as an employer or an employee? Is that truly the spirit that governs believers in today’s society? Of course not. God’s people seek to do the will of Christ with obedience and cheerfulness. We view authority differently than does the unbeliever. All authority and power is given by God. He is the Master. He places some in authority and others under that authority. He creates employment and sets up in that sphere employers and employees. We understand that all of this is from God. Such knowledge definitely affects what we do as employers and those who are given a position of employment. Faith in Jesus Christ will make us good employers, who treat our help fairly and honestly, with gentle firmness. And Christians, believers, will be the hardest workers found in our society. Believers will work hard and give their all to their employer. Laziness? That is a sign of unbelief. But the point is, before we move along, everything we do, we do for Christ. We seek to please Him who is our Master.
By and large, these verses are addressed to slaves or servants. This is probably true because the ratio of servants to masters in the church was greater than the other way around. The same is true in the church today. The admonition to employees is very simple: obey. God has placed employers over you in the workforce, so obey. Submit yourselves to their will.
What if this employer is unfair and even wicked? Peter tells us in I Peter 2:18 and 19 (and maybe we should all read that chapter sometime), submit even to the froward, that is, to the wicked. Employees are commanded to obey their employer, not so much for his sake, but for Christ’s sake. Paul adds these qualifiers to such obedience: 1) with fear and trembling; 2) in singleness of your heart; 3) not with eye-service as men-pleasers; 4) with good will.
With fear and trembling is the first qualifier. This does not mean that employees must cower in fright beneath their bosses. But rather, they must, with lowliness and reverence, bow before the authority of those whom God has placed over them. They may not rise up in pride and haughtiness and disrespect against their employer or those placed in supervision over them.
On the other hand, they must obey with singleness of heart, that is to say, they must obey in simplicity, not connive and plot and wiggle out of things, not try through deceit to get away with as much as possible. When working for another we must exert all that is within us to do what we are told to do and do it to the best of our ability. That ought to be our one single motive.
Not with eye-service as men-pleasers. The workplace is filled with this type of people. We live in a dog-eat-dog world. Everyone is willing to trample on another in order to gain more power or prestige in the company’s eye. Men will try to make others look bad in order to be more pleasing to their employer, or do things extra, not because they are simply doing an honest day’s labor, but because they want to look good in order to get promoted. They are men-pleasers. No, Paul says, you work because you wish to please Christ, your Lord and Master.
Then, finally, we labor with good will. Of course. We seek to do our master or employer good. We do not seek to do him evil. A believing employee must always seek the good of his employer. When we work for someone, we always seek what is best for the company and what will help the whole succeed. That is letting our light shine in the midst of a world of the darkness of sin. That is how we witness to others—by our actions.
There is one here in Ephesians 6 dedicated to masters or employers. This injunction comes to employers who are in Christ, remember. What must a godly master do with those who work for him? On the one hand he must forbear threatening. He must not be a harsh, cruel man, who is always placing unjust demands on his employees and then threatens to fire them if they do not meet his expectations. He must not constantly be railing on his employees and treating them as if they were a lower class of people. Masters or employers, beware. Your Master in heaven is watching over you! And you must give an account to Him. Your Master in heaven sees how you deal with those who work for you. An employer must be kind and gentle toward his help—not soft, mind you, so that the help runs all over the top of him. He is the authority in his business. No doubt about that! But he must deal with his employees in a fair way and in a friendly way, being honest with them in his demands and paying them according to their needs. This is the calling of a believing employer or master.
And this, too, is a witness to those who work for him. Actions in the workplace speak louder than words.
The reward is also spoken of in connection with slaves. We read in verse 8: “Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.” When we do good in the work to which we are called, we receive good of the Lord. Oh, it may be that employees will not get rich because of such obedience. But the good we receive is in the life to come, and that from our Master who is in heaven.
Neither does God give us the reward of heaven because we have done these good things. The reward we receive of our Master is for the work He has performed in us by His grace. Nevertheless, this does not make the reward less rewarding. When an employee serves his employer well, then his reward is great. When an employer treats his employee well, then great is his reward, too. Whether a person is bond or free, it does not make any difference. Great will be our reward in heaven.
We see what wonderful encouragement these verses give to us in a major area of our lives. It serves to bring the employer down from his lofty place and it serves to bring the employee up in his position. They are on a par in the church and in faith. They recognize that in the church, too. And they live at peace with each other there, honoring each other in the place that God has given them in the workforce. In every area of life we are directed by this life of Christ, inside the church, inside our homes and families, but outside of it, too. We thank Him for His grace shown us in our lives, transforming them that we might live for Him.
Let us come before God in prayer.
Our Father who art in heaven, we are thankful that Thou hast redeemed us from sin and that Thou art a God who has worked within us by Thy Spirit that we might walk in holiness before Thee. May we be holy in our homes and families. May we be holy in the church as we live together with our fellow saints. But may this holiness extend outside of these spheres, too, so that it might reveal itself in the way that we work. Whether we are an employer or an employee, may we work unto Thee and may we give a good account of ourselves before our Master who is in heaven. Bless us, therefore, in Thy grace. We pray this for Christ’s sake, Amen.