Of Slaves and Masters, Ancient and Contemporary (Colossians 3:18–4:1)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

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At this point, Colossians moves on to what is called a “household code,” a set of specific instructions to wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. These codes were common in the ancient world. In the New Testament, they occur in one form or another six times—in Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 5:15–6:9; Colossians 3:15–4:1; 1 Timothy 5:1–22; 6:1–2; Titus 2:1–15; and 1 Peter 2:11–3:9. For our purposes here, we will explore only the section in Colossians having to do with the workplace (slaves and masters in 3:18–4:1).

If we are to appreciate fully the value of Paul’s words here for con­temporary workers, we need to understand a bit about slavery in the ancient world. Western readers often equate slavery in the ancient world with the chattel system of the pre-Civil War South in the United States, a system notorious for its brutality and degradation. At the risk of over­simplification, we might say that the slave system of the ancient world was both similar to and different from the former U.S. system. On the one hand, in ancient times, foreign captives of war laboring in mines were arguably far worse off than slaves in the American South. At the other extreme, however, some slaves were well-educated, valued mem­bers of the household, serving as physicians, teachers, and estate manag­ers. But all were considered to be their master’s property, so that even a household slave could be subject to horrific treatment with no necessary legal recourse.[4]

What relevance does Colossians 3:18–4:1 have for workers today? Much as working for wages or a salary is the dominant form of labor in developed countries today, slavery was the dominant form of labor in the Roman Empire. Many slaves worked in jobs we would recognize today as occupations, receiving food, shelter, and often a modicum of comforts in return. Slaveholders’ power over their slaves was similar in some respects to, but much more extreme than, the power that employ­ers or managers have over workers today The general principles Paul puts forward concerning slaves and masters in this letter can be applied to modern managers and employers, provided we adjust for the signifi­cant differences between our situation now and theirs then.

What are these general principles? First, and perhaps most im­portant, Paul reminds slaves that their work is to be done in integrity in the presence of God, who is their real master. More than anything else, Paul wants to recalibrate the scales of both slaves and masters so that they weigh things with the recognition of God’s presence in their lives. Slaves are to work “fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22) because “you serve the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:24). In sum, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it [literally, “work from the soul”] as done for the Lord and not for your masters” (Col. 3:23). In the same way, masters [literally, “lords”] are to recognize that their authority is not absolute—they “have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). Christ’s authority is not bounded by church walls. He is Lord of the workplace for both workers and bosses.

This has several practical consequences. Because God is watching workers, there is no point in being a mere “people pleaser” who gives “eye service” (literal translations of the Greek terms in Col. 3:22). In today’s world, many people try to curry favor with their bosses when they are around, and then slack off the moment they are out the door. Apparently it was no different in the ancient world. Paul reminds us that the Ultimate Boss is always watching and that reality leads us to work in “sincerity of heart,” not putting on a show for management, but genuinely working at the tasks set before us. (Some earthly bosses tend to figure out over time who is playacting, though in a fallen world slackers can sometimes get away with their act.)

The danger of being caught for dishonesty or poor work is reinforced in Colossians 3:25. “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.” Because the previous verse refers to a reward from God for faithful service, we may presume that God is also in view as the punisher of the wicked. However, it is noteworthy here that the fear of punishment is not the prime motiva­tion. We do not do our jobs well simply to avoid a bad performance review. Paul wants good work to spring out of a good heart. He wants people to work well because it is the right thing to do. Implicit here is an affirmation of the value of labor in God’s sight. Because God created us to exercise dominion over his creation, he is pleased when we fulfill that by pursuing excellence in our jobs. In this sense, the words “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it!” (Col. 3:23) are as much a promise as a command. By the spiritual renewal offered us in Christ by God’s grace, we can do our jobs with zest.

Colossians 3:22–4:1 makes it clear that God takes all labor seri­ously, even if it is done under imperfect or degrading conditions. The cataracts removed by a well-paid ocular surgeon matter to God. So, too, does the cotton picked by a sharecropper or even by a plantation slave. This does not mean that exploitation of workers is ever accept­able before God. It does mean that even an abusive system cannot rob workers of the dignity of their work, because that dignity is conferred by God himself.

One of the noteworthy things about the New Testament household codes is the persistence of the theme of mutuality. Rather than simply telling subordinates to obey those over them, Paul teaches that we live in a web of interdependent relationships. Wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters all have obligations to one another in Christ’s body. Thus hard on the heels of the commands to slaves comes a directive to masters: “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). Whatever leeway the Roman legal system might have given to slaveholders, they must ultimately answer in God’s courtroom where justice for all is up­held. Of course, justice and fairness must be interpreted afresh in each new situation. Consider the concept of the “just wage,” for example. A just wage on a Chinese farm may have a different cash value from a just wage in a Chicago bank. But there is mutual obligation under God for employers and employees to treat each other justly and fairly.

For a fuller description of first-century slavery, see S. Scott Bartchy, MAL-LON CHRESAI: First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series No. 11 (Missoula: Scholars Press, University of Montana, 1973; reprinted by Wipf & Stock, 2003).