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.
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