Ephesians and Work
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. (Eph. 4:1)
In this daily reflection from The High Calling, Mark Roberts considers how the command to "no longer live as the Gentiles do" might be relevant to our work. If we set aside worldly ways of thinking about work and embrace God's vision, we will be able to live fruitfully, with our work as a primary means to serve God and our fellow human beings, as well as a way to enjoy the fullness of life God intends for us.
What is the place of our work in the grand scheme of things? Is work just an activity we need to get by in life? Or is it also a place where we find meaning, healing, and personal integration? Does our work have a place in the cosmos of God’s creation? Does it mean anything alongside Christ’s work of redeeming the world?
The letter to the Ephesians tells the story of God’s cosmic work, beginning before the creation of the world, continuing in Christ’s work of redemption, and leading up to the present moment and beyond. It draws us into this work both as awestruck observers of the drama and as active participants in God’s work.
Thus Ephesians gives a new perspective, not only about God but also about ourselves. Our lives, our actions, and indeed our work take on fresh meaning. We live differently, we worship differently, and we work differently because of what God has done and is doing in Christ. We do what we do with our lives, including our professional lives, in response to God’s saving activity and in fulfillment of the assignment he has given us to cooperate with him. Each one of us has been called by God to participate in God’s work in the world (Eph. 4:1).
The letter we know as “Ephesians” is both similar to and different from other New Testament letters attributed to the Apostle Paul. It is similar most of all to Colossians, with which it shares common themes, structures, and even sentences (Eph. 6:21–22; Col. 4:7–8). Ephesians is different from the other Pauline letters in its exalted style, distinctive vocabulary, and in some of its theological perspectives. Moreover, it is much less oriented to a particular situation in the life of a particular church than Paul’s other letters. In this commentary, authorship by Paul is assumed.
Rather than focusing on the needs of one particular congregation, the letter to the Ephesians presents an expansive theological perspective on the work of God in the universe and the central role of the church of Jesus Christ within that work. Each individual believer contributes to this ecclesial effort as one who has been “created in Jesus Christ for good works” (Eph. 2:10) and who is essential to the growth and ministry of the church (Eph. 4:15–16).
See, for example, Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Donald E. Polkinghorne, Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences (Albany: State University of New York, 1988).
For discussion of these issues and their implications, see Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42 of the Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), xlvii–lxxiv; “Ephesians, Letter to the” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
In this daily reflection from The High Calling, Mark Roberts considers how when our core identity is determined, not by what we do for a living, but by our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, everything in life shifts.
The first half of Ephesians unfolds the grand narrative of God’s salvation of the whole cosmos. Even before the “foundation of the world,” God graciously chose us in Christ for relationship with him and to live out his purpose in the world (Eph. 1:4–6). At the core of this purpose, God will “gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). To put it differently, God will restore the whole cosmos, once broken by sin, under the authority of Christ. The fact that God will renovate his creation reminds us that this world—including farms, schools, and corporations—matters to God and has not been abandoned by him.
God’s restoring work, centered in Christ, involves human beings, both as recipients of God’s grace and as participants in his ongoing work of gracious restoration. We are saved by grace because of faith, not because of our works (Eph. 2:8–9). But our works are vital to God, “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10). Thus we are not saved by works but for works. These works, which include all that we do, are a part of God’s renewal of creation. Therefore, our activity in the workplace is one crucial element of that which God has prepared for us to do in fulfillment of his purpose for us.
The church features prominently in God’s plan for putting the world back together in Christ. His death on the cross not only made possible our personal salvation (Eph. 2:4–7), but also mended the breach between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:13–18). This unity between former enemies epitomizes the unifying work of God. Thus the church serves as a demonstration to the whole universe of the nature and ultimate success of God’s cosmic plan (Eph. 3:9–10). But the church is not merely a unit of people who gather once a week to do religious activities together. Rather, the church is the community of all believers, doing everything they do in all the places of life, whether working together or separately. In every sphere of life, we have “the power at work within us [which] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). Notice that Paul uses the civic term “citizens” (Eph. 2:19) to describe Christians, rather than the religious term “worshippers.” In fact, Ephesians gives virtually no instructions about what the church should do when it gathers, but several instructions about how its members should work, as we will see momentarily.
The second half of Ephesians begins with an exhortation to live out the vision of the first half of the letter. “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). Every Christian shares in this calling. Thus our truest and deepest vocation (from the Latin word for “calling”) is to do our part to advance the multifaceted mission of God in the world. This calling shapes everything else we do in life, including our work—or what we sometimes refer to as our “vocation.” Of course, God may call us to specific jobs for expressing our fundamental calling to live for the praise of God’s glory (Eph. 1:12). Thus as doctors and lawyers, clerks and waiters, actors and musicians, and parents and grandparents, we lead a life worthy of our calling to Christ and his activity in the world.
Among the practical exhortations in Ephesians 4–6, two passages deal specifically with work-related concerns. The first has to do with the purpose of work. “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” (Eph. 4:28). Though pointed immediately at those who steal, Paul’s advice is relevant to all Christians. The Greek translated in the NRSV as “honestly” (to agathon) literally means “to the good.” God is always leading Christians to the good. The workplace is a crucial setting for us to do many of the good works that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10).
Through our work, we also earn sufficient resources to share with the needy, whether directly through the church or by other means. Although a theology of work is not quite the same as a theology of charity, this verse explicitly links the two. The overall message is that the purpose of work is to do good both by what our work accomplishes directly and by what our work enables us to give to others outside of work.
The second practical consideration is relationships. Our calling as Christians impacts our basic relationships, especially those in the family and the workplace. (Prior to the industrial age, households were equally places of family life and places of work.) Ephesians 5:21–6:9 underscores this point by including specific instructions for relationships within the household (wives/husbands, children/fathers, slaves/masters). Lists of this sort were common in the moral discourse of the Greco-Roman world and are represented in the New Testament (see, for example, Col. 3:18–4:1 and 1 Pet. 2:13–3:12).
We are particularly interested in Ephesians 6:5–9, a passage that addresses the relationship between slaves and masters. Paul addresses Christians who are masters, Christians who are slaves under Christian masters, and Christians who are slaves under nonbelieving masters. This text is similar to a parallel passage in Colossians (Col. 3:22–4:1). (See “Colossians” in “Colossians & Philemon and Work” for the historical background on slavery in the first-century Roman Empire, which is helpful for understanding this section of Ephesians.) To summarize briefly, Roman slavery has both similarities to and differences from paid work in the twenty-first century. The chief similarity is that both ancient slaves and contemporary workers serve under the authority of masters or supervisors. With regard to the work itself, both groups have a duty to meet the expectations of those in authority over their work. The chief difference is that ancient slaves (and those in modern times as well) owe not only their work but also their lives to their masters. Slaves cannot quit, they have limited legal rights and remedies for mistreatment, they do not receive pay or compensation for their work, and they do not negotiate working conditions. In short, the scope for abuse of power by masters over slaves is far greater than that for supervisors over workers.
We will begin by exploring this section of Ephesians as it applies to actual slaves. Then we will consider applications to the form of paid labor that dominates developed economies today.
See David Noel Freedman, “Haustafeln” and “Household Codes” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
The letter to the Ephesians encourages slaves to see themselves as “slaves of Christ” who “render service with enthusiasm” for the Lord rather than their human masters (Eph. 6:6–7). The fact that their work is for Christ will encourage them to work hard and well. Paul’s words are therefore a comfort when masters order slaves to do good work. In that case, God will reward the slave (Eph. 6:8) even if the master doesn’t, as is typically the case with slaves (Luke 17:8).
But why would slaving away for an earthly master necessarily be “doing the will of God” (Eph. 6:6)? Surely a master could order a slave to do work that is far from the will of God—abusing another slave, cheating a customer, or encroaching on someone else’s fields. Paul clarifies, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Eph. 6:5). Slaves can only do for their masters what could be done for Christ. If a master orders slaves to do evil work, then Paul’s words are dreadfully challenging, for the slave would have to refuse the master’s orders. This could lead to unpleasant consequences, to say the least. Nonetheless, Paul’s command is inescapable. “Render service . . . as to the Lord, and not to men and women” (Eph. 6:7). The Lord’s commands supersede the commands of any master. Indeed, what else could “singleness of heart” mean, if not to set aside every order that conflicts with duty to Christ? “No one can serve two masters,” said Jesus (Matt. 6:24). The punishment for disobeying an earthly master may be fearsome, but it may be necessary to suffer it in order to work “as to the Lord.”
It is cruel for a master to force a slave to choose between obedience to the master and obedience to Christ. Therefore, Paul tells masters to “stop threatening” their slaves (Eph. 6:9). If masters order slaves to do good work, then threats should not be necessary. If masters order slaves to do evil work, then their threats are like threats against Christ. As in the letter to the Colossians, Ephesians agrees that masters should remember that they have a Master in heaven. But Ephesians underscores the fact that both slaves and masters “have the same Master” (Eph. 6:9). For this reason, Ephesians says that masters are to “do the same for your slaves” (Eph. 6:9)—that is, to give orders to slaves as though they were giving the orders to (or for) Christ. With this in mind, no Christian master could order a slave to do evil work, or even excessive work. Though the earthly distinction of master and slave remains intact, their relationship has been altered with an unprecedented call to mutuality. Both parties are subject to Christ alone “in singleness of heart” (Eph. 6:5). Neither can lord it over the other, since only Christ is Lord (Eph. 6:7). Neither can shirk the duty of love to the other. This passage accepts the economic and cultural reality of slavery, but it contains fertile seeds of abolitionism. In Christ’s kingdom, “there is no longer slave or free” (Gal. 3:28).
Slavery continues to flourish in our world today, much to our shame, though it’s often called human trafficking or forced labor. The inner logic of Ephesians 6:5–9, as well as the broader story of Ephesians, motivates us to work for the end of slavery. Most of us, however, will not experience slavery in a personal way, either as slaves or as masters. Yet we do find ourselves in workplace relationships where someone has authority over another person. By analogy, Ephesians 6:5–9 teaches both employers and employees to order, perform, and reward only work that could be done by or for Christ. When we are ordered to do good work, the issue is simple, though not always easy. We do it to the best of our ability, regardless of the compensation or appreciation we receive from our bosses, customers, regulators, or anyone else in authority over us.
When we are ordered to do evil work, the situation is more complicated. On the one hand, Paul tells us to “obey your earthly masters . . . as you obey Christ.” We cannot lightly disobey those in earthly authority over us, any more than we can lightly disobey Christ. This has even caused some to question whether whistleblowing, work stoppages, and complaints to regulatory authorities are legitimate for Christian employees. At the very least, a difference of opinion or judgment is not by itself good enough cause to disobey a valid order at work. It is important not to confuse “I don’t want to do this work, and I don’t think it’s fair for my boss to tell me to do it” with “It is against God’s will for me to do this work.” Paul’s instruction to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” suggests that we obey the orders of those in authority over us unless we have strong reason to believe doing so would be wrong.
Yet Paul adds that we obey earthly masters as a way of “doing the will of God from the heart.” Surely, if we are ordered to do something clearly against God’s will—for example, a violation of biblical commands or values—then our duty to our higher master (Christ) is to resist the ungodly order from a human boss. The crucial distinction often requires finding out whose interests would be served by disobeying the order. If disobeying would protect the interests of another person or the larger community then there is a strong case for disobeying the order. If disobeying the order would protect only our personal interests, the case is weaker. In some cases, protecting others could even jeopardize our careers or cost us our livelihoods. No wonder Paul says, “Be strong in the Lord” and “Put on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:10, 11).
Yet surely we express compassion for those—including maybe ourselves at times—who face the choice of obeying a genuinely ungodly order or suffering personal loss such as getting fired. This is especially true in the case of workers near the bottom of the economic ladder, who may have few alternatives and no financial cushion. Workers are routinely ordered to perform a variety of petty evils, such as lying (“Tell her I’m not in the office”), cheating (“Put an extra bottle of wine on table 16’s tab—they’re too drunk to even notice”), and idolatry (“I expect you to act like this job is the most important thing in the world to you”). Do we have to resign over every one of them? Other times, workers may be ordered to do serious evils. “Threaten to drag her name through the mud if she won’t agree to our terms.” “Find an excuse to fire him before he uncovers any more falsified quality control records.” “Dump it in the river tonight when no one is around.” Yet the alternative of losing a job and seeing our family slide into poverty may be—or seem—even worse than following the ungodly order. Often it’s not clear which alternatives are more in accord with biblical values and which are less. We must acknowledge that the decisions can be complex. When we are pressured to do something wrong, we need to depend on God’s power to stand firmer against evil than we ever believed we could. Yet we also need to bear Christ’s word of compassion and forgiveness when we find that Christians cannot overcome all the evils of the world’s workplaces.
When we are the ones in authority, then, we should order only work that Christ would order. We do not order subordinates to harm themselves or others in order to benefit ourselves. We do not order others to do what in good conscience we will not do. We do not threaten those who refuse our orders out of conscience or justice. Though we are bosses, we have bosses of our own, and Christians in authority still have a heightened duty to serve God by the way we command others. We are Christ’s slaves, and we have no authority to order or obey anyone else in opposition to Christ. For each of us, no matter our position in the workplace, our work is a way of serving—or failing to serve—God.
Only a few verses of Ephesians deal precisely with the workplace and even these are directed at thieves, slaves, and masters. But when we glimpse how God is restoring all of creation through Christ, and when we discover that our work plays an essential role in that plan, then our workplace becomes a primary context for us to do the good works that God has prepared for us. Ephesians does not tell us specifically what good works God has prepared for each of us in our work. We must look to other sources to discern that. But it does tell us that God calls us to do all of our work for the good. Relationships and attitudes in the workplace are transformed as we see ourselves and our co-workers mainly in terms of our relationship with Jesus Christ, the one true Lord.
Ephesians encourages us to take a new perspective on our lives, one in which our work is an outgrowth of God’s own work of creating the world and redeeming it from sin. We work in response to God’s call to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives (Eph. 4:1). At work, we discover the opportunity to do many of the good works that God intends for us to do. Thus in our offices, factories, schools, households, stores, and every other place of work, we have the opportunity to “render service with enthusiasm” to the Lord (Eph. 6:7).