Colossians and Work
In Colossians 1:6, by allusion Paul takes us back to Genesis 1:26–28.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Here is God the creator at work, and the apex of his activity is the creation of humanity in the divine image and likeness. To the newly minted man and woman, he gives two tasks (the tasks are given to both the male and the female): they are to be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth they are then to subdue or govern. Paul picks up the language of Genesis 1 in Colossians 1:6, giving thanks to God that the gospel is progressing in their midst, “bearing fruit and growing” as it goes out into the entire world. He then repeats this in 1:10—the Colossians are to bear fruit and grow in their understanding of God and in their work on his behalf. Whether the tasks are the work of parenting, the multifaceted work of subduing the earth and governing it, or the work of ministry, in our work they and we are image-bearers of God who works. We were created as workers in the beginning, and Christ redeems us as workers.
The first half of Paul’s letter to the Colossians can be summarized in nine words:
Jesus made it all.
Then Jesus paid it all.
Jesus Made It All
The Colossian letter assumes that the reader is familiar with the opening lines of the first book of the Bible, “In the beginning when God
created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The second chapter of Genesis then states that “on the seventh day God finished the work that
he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (Gen. 2:2). The creation of all that exists was work, even for God. Paul tells us that Christ was present at the creation and that God’s work in creation is Christ’s work:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:15–17)
In other words, Paul attributes all of creation to Jesus, a theme also developed in the Gospel of John (1:1–4).
Jesus Paid It All
Paul then goes on to make clear to his readers that Jesus was not only the agent who created all that exists, but he is also the agent of our salvation:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:19–20)
Paul puts Christ’s work in creation side by side with his work in redemption, with themes of creation dominating the first part of the passage (Col. 1:15–17) and themes of redemption dominating the second half (Col. 1:18–20). The parallelism is especially striking between 1:16, “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,” and 1:20, “to reconcile to himself all things.” The pattern is easy to see: God created all things through Christ, and he is reconciling those same things to himself through Christ. James Dunn writes,
What is being claimed is quite simply and profoundly that the divine purpose in the act of reconciliation and peacemaking was to restore the harmony of the original creation . . . resolving the disharmonies of nature and the inhumanities of humankind, that the character of God’s creation and God’s concern for the universe in its fullest expression could be so caught and encapsulated for them in the cross of Christ.
In sum, Jesus made it all and then Jesus paid it all so that we can have a relationship with the living God.
James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 104.
What difference does it make that we are bearers of the divine image in our work? One implication of this is that in our work we will reflect God’s work patterns and values. But how do we know God so that we know what those patterns and values are? In Colossians 1:15, Paul reminds us that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” Again, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). It is “in the face of Jesus Christ” that we can know God (2 Cor. 4:6). During Jesus’ earthly ministry, Philip asked him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus responded, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:8–9).
Jesus reveals God to us. He shows us how we as God’s image-bearers are to carry out our work. If we need help in grasping this, Paul spells it out: first, he describes Jesus’ infinite power in creation (Col. 1:15–17), and then he immediately ties that to Jesus’ willingness to set that power aside, to incarnate God on earth in word and deed, and then to die for our sins. (Paul says this directly in Philippians 2:5–9.) We look at Jesus. We listen to Jesus to understand how we are called to image God in our work.
How, then, can God’s patterns and values apply in our work? We start by looking specifically at Jesus’ work as our example.
Red Wine on a White Dress
Backstage before our annual banquet in my first job out of college, I knocked over a bottle, spilling wine on the white dress of our celebrity guest speaker, a host of one of the morning programs on network television. It was not a small stain, either; meaning even people at the back tables of this thousand-seat event would be able to see it clearly. Only a few of us knew how the stain got on the dress, but soon (I thought) the "whole world" would know.
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First, we see that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). Because Jesus has done that, Paul can appeal to us to “bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). It was on this basis that Paul could ask Philemon, the slave master, to forgive and receive Onesimus as a brother, no longer as a slave. We are doing our work in the name of the Lord Jesus when we bring that attitude to our relationships in the workplace: we make allowances for others’ faults and we forgive those who offend us.
Self-sacrifice for the Benefit of Others
Second, we see Jesus with infinite power creating all that is, “things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” (Col. 1:16). Yet we also see him setting aside that power for our sake, “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20), so that we might have a relationship with God. There are times when we may be called on to set aside the authority or power we have in the workplace to benefit someone who may be undeserving. If Philemon is willing to set aside his slave-owner authority over Onesimus (who does not deserve his mercy) and take him back in a new relationship, then in this way Philemon images the invisible God in his workplace.
Freedom from Cultural Accommodation
Third, we see Jesus living a new reality that he offers to us: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1–3). We are no longer bound by cultural mores that stand in contrast to the life of God within us. We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We can march to a different drumbeat. The culture of the workplace can work against our life in Christ, but Jesus calls us to set our hearts and our minds on what God desires for us and in us. This calls for a major reorientation of our attitudes and values.
Paul called Philemon to this reorientation. First-century Roman culture gave slaveholders complete power over the bodies and lives of their slaves. Everything in the culture gave Philemon full permission to treat Onesimus harshly, even to have him killed. But Paul was clear: As a follower of Jesus Christ, Philemon had died and his new life was now in Christ (Col. 3:3). That meant rethinking his responsibility not only to Onesimus but also to Paul, to the Colossian church, and to God his judge.
Paul warns the Colossians against falling back into the old orientation toward self-help. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor ironically put those words—“I’m doing alright by myself”—in the mouth of a serial killer proclaiming that he doesn’t need Jesus. This is an apt summary of the ethos of the false teachers plaguing the saints at Colossae. In their “self-imposed piety” (Col. 2:23), spiritual progress could be attained by rough treatment of the body, mystical visions (Col. 2:18), and observing special days and food laws (Col. 2:16, likely derived from the Old Testament). These teachers believed that by marshaling the resources at their disposal, they could overcome sin on their own.
This important point forms the foundation for Paul’s exhortations to workers later in the letter. Genuine progress in the faith—including progress in the way we glorify God in our workplace—can spring only out of our trust in God’s work in us through Christ.
Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988).
This call to reorientation means that we reshape our lives to think and do according to Jesus’ ethics in situations he never encountered. We cannot relive Jesus’ life. We must live our own lives for Jesus. We have to respond to questions in life for which Jesus does not give specific answers. For example, when Paul writes, “Set your minds on things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2), does this mean that prayer is preferable to painting a house? Does Christian progress consist of thinking less and less about our work and more and more about harps and angels and clouds?
Paul does not abandon us to raw speculation about these things. In Colossians 3:1–17, he makes it clear that “to set your minds on things that are above” (Col. 3:2) means expressing the priorities of God’s kingdom precisely in the midst of everyday earthly activities. In contrast, to set your mind on earthly things is to live by the values of the world system that sets itself up in opposition to God and his ways.
What does this putting to death “whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (Col. 3:5) look like in concrete daily life? It does not mean wearing a hair shirt or taking ice-cold baths for spiritual discipline. Paul has just said that “severe treatment of the body” does no good in stopping sin (Col. 2:23).
First, it does mean putting to death “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (Col. 3:5). We are called to turn aside from sexual immorality (as if degraded sex could bring you an upgraded life) and greed (as if more stuff could bring more life). The assumption, of course, is that there is in fact a proper place for gratification of sexual desire (marriage between a man and a woman) and a proper degree for the gratification of material desire (that which results from trust in God, diligent labor, generosity toward neighbors, and thankfulness for God’s provision).
Second, Paul states, “You must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Col. 3:8–10). The words “to one another” indicate that Paul is speaking to the church, that is, to those who are believers in Christ. Does this mean it is permissible to continue to lie to others outside the church? No, for Paul is not talking about a change in behavior alone but a change in heart and mind. It is difficult to imagine that having taken on a “new self,” you could somehow put back on the old self when dealing with nonbelievers. Once you “get rid of all such things,” they are not meant to be brought back.
Of these vices, three are particularly relevant to the workplace: greed, anger, and lying. These three vices can appear within what would otherwise be legitimate business pursuits.
- Greed is the unbridled pursuit of wealth. It is proper and necessary for a business to make a profit or for a nonprofit organization to create added value. But if the desire for profit becomes boundless, compulsive, excessive, and narrowed to the quest for personal gain, then sin has taken hold.
- Anger can appear in conflict. It is necessary for conflict to be expressed, explored, and resolved in any workplace. But if conflict is not dealt with openly and fairly, it degenerates into unresolved anger, rage, and malicious intent, and sin has taken hold.
- Lying can result from promoting the company’s prospects or the product's benefits inaccurately. It is proper for every enterprise to have a vision for its products, services, and its organization that goes beyond what is presently in place. A sales brochure ought to describe the product in its highest, best use, along with warnings about the product’s limitations. A stock prospectus ought to describe what the company hopes to accomplish if it is successful, and also the risks the company may encounter along the way. If the desire to portray a product, service, company, or person in a visionary light crosses the line into deception (an unbalanced portrayal of risks vs. rewards, misdirection, or plain fabrication and lies), then sin once again reigns.
Paul does not attempt to give universal criteria to diagnose when the proper virtues have degenerated into vices, but he makes it clear that Christians must learn to do so in their particular situations.
When Christians “put to death” (Col. 3:5) the person they used to be, they are then to put on the person God wants them to be, the person God is recreating in the image of Christ (Col. 3:10). This does not consist in hiding one’s self away for constant prayer and worship (though we are all called to pray and worship, and some may be called to do that as a full-time vocation). Rather, it means reflecting God’s own virtues of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col. 3:12) in whatever we do.
An encouraging word comes from Paul’s exhortation to “put up with one another” (Col. 3:13, as it may be translated). Most translations read “bear with one another,” but this does not fully capture Paul’s point. He seems to be saying that there are all kinds of people in the church (and we can readily apply this to the workplace as well) with whom we won’t naturally get along. Our interests and personalities are so different there can be no instinctive bonding. But we put up with them anyway. We seek their good, we forgive their sins, and we endure their irritating idiosyncrasies. Many of the character traits Paul extols in his letters can be summarized in the phrase “He/she works well with others.” Paul himself mentions co-workers Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, Nympha, and Archippus (Col. 4: 7–17). Being a “team player” is not simply a résumé-enhancing cliché. It is a foundational Christian virtue. Both putting to death the old and putting on the new are immensely relevant to daily work. Christians are meant to show the new life of Christ in the midst of a dying world, and the workplace is perhaps the main forum where that type of display can take place.
- Christians may be tempted, for example, to fit in at work by participating in the gossip and the complaining that permeates many workplaces. It is likely that every workplace has people whose on- and off-hours actions make for juicy stories. It is not lying, is it, to repeat the stories?
- It is likely that every workplace has unfair policies, bad bosses, nonfunctional processes, and poor channels of communication. It is not slander, is it, to complain about those grievances?
Paul’s exhortation is to live differently even in fallen workplaces. Putting to death the earthly nature and putting on Christ means directly confronting people who have wronged us, instead of gossiping about them behind their backs (Matt. 18:15–17). It means working to correct inequities in the workplace and forgiving those that do occur.
Someone may ask, “Don’t Christians run the risk of being rejected as cheerless, ‘holier-than-thou’ types if they don’t speak the way others do?” This could be the case if such Christians disengage from others in an effort to show that they are better than other people. Co-workers will sniff that out in a second. But if, instead, Christians are genuinely clothing themselves with Christ, the vast majority of people will be happy to have them around. Some may even secretly or openly appreciate the fact that someone they know is at least trying to live a life of “compassion, kindness, humility and patience” (Col. 3:12). In the same way, Christian workers who refuse to employ deception (whether by rejecting misleading advertising copy or balking at glorified Ponzi schemes) may find themselves making some enemies as the price of their honesty. But it also is possible that some co-workers will develop a new openness to Jesus’ way when the Securities and Exchange Commission knocks on the office door.
So what does it mean to do our work “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17)? How do we do our work wholeheartedly, “as done for the Lord and not for your masters” (Col. 3:23)? To do our work in the name of the Lord Jesus carries at least two ideas:
- We recognize that we represent Jesus in the workplace. If we are Christ-followers, how we treat others and how diligently and faithfully we do our work reflects on our Lord. How well do our actions fit with who he is?
- Working in “Jesus’ name” also implies that we live recognizing that he is our master, our boss, the one to whom we are ultimately accountable. This leads into Paul’s reminder that we work for the Lord and not for human masters. Yes, we most likely have horizontal accountability on the job, but the diligence we bring to our work comes from our recognition that, in the end, God is our judge.
When Paul writes, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17), we can understand this verse in two ways: a shallow way and a deeper way. The shallow way is to incorporate some Christian signs and gestures into our workplace, like a Bible verse posted on our cubicle or a Christian bumper sticker on our truck. Gestures like this can be meaningful, but in and of themselves they do not constitute a Christ-centered work-life. A deeper way to understand Paul’s challenge is to pray specifically for the work we are in the midst of doing: “God, please show me how to respect both the plaintiff and the defendant in the language I use in this brief.”
An even deeper way would be to begin the day by imagining what our daily goals would be if God were the owner of our workplace. With this understanding of Paul’s injunction, we would do all the day’s work in pursuit of goals that honor God. The apostle’s point is that in God’s kingdom, our work and prayer are integrated activities. We tend to see them as two separate activities that need to be balanced. But they are two aspects of the same activity—namely, working to accomplish what God wants accomplished in fellowship with other people and with God.
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.
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).