“(5) Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; (6) not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. (7) With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, (8) knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:5–8, NASB95)
Slavery may be against the law in this country, and for that reason one might be tempted to skip over these verses and move on to the next which deal with spiritual warfare as Paul closes out this letter. But were it the case that people were gainfully employed during Paul’s time as they are largely today, we might see these verses worded a bit differently.
It doesn’t take much of a search of history or even a look outside our own country to see that the slave-master relationship is a tenuous one in which one party has no power and the other has all of the power. We see this even in the dark areas of our culture were women and even men are enslaved in the sex trade, constantly being held by various deceptive and threatening means. Paul does not endorse or condone slavery here, but in the next verse he does speak to how the master with servants is to treat them, and much of what we see today is far outside this standard.
So, moving back to a standard where there was a more cooperative relationship between the slave and the master we do indeed see a number of parallels with our current structures of employee and employer. I imagine that there were many slaves who would not have chosen to do what they were conscripted to do. Today I think it is also safe to say that there are many people working at jobs that they otherwise might not have chosen, but because of circumstance or work availability have accepted the work offered to them. Of course, there is the big difference in today’s system because the employee is mostly free to pack up and leave, resign, or quit if he or she so desires. Laws have been in place to set minimum standards and to give employees rights. Unions have emerged to provide a voice in some areas. And, employees can even be retrained to rise to new levels of responsibility and increased heights in management. With education people are given many freedoms to shape their futures. But ultimately as long as we work for someone else this relationship of employer-employee is going to exist.
As I was looking at the progression of the verses which came before these I noticed that we began with the first human arrangement—the marriage, where (after Adam and Eve and excluding times or arranged marriages) the husband and the wife chose each other and mutually submit to each other in the Lord with the husband being given a unique role by God. The next verse dealt with the second of the relationships—parents and children, where in a sense neither chose the other. The parents may have been quite purposeful in deciding to do everything within their power to have children, but the child was not designed by them. And, then there is the child who is born to his or her parents and has no say so the matter. The child is given to the parents to raise hopefully in the Lord. But even in this lack of choice, as it is, there is an intense bond that comes with being family with a deep and abiding love being shared (ideally) with each other.
But in the times to which Paul was writing there was a third level of relationship. It is with those given to serve, but who have no blood or family ties. The slave is brought into this relationship at a lower level, with little to no voice, and expected to do as the master expects. It is in this context that Paul instructs them, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ;” Making it a bit more relevant to today, I don’t think it a stretch to apply the same instruction which is consistent with the broader instruction of Scripture pertaining to submission to those in authority roles. So, rewording it a bit, “Employees, be obedient to your employers according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ.” Realistically, our work consumes a major portion of our time and employers, humanly speaking, hold the jobs of their employees and in that sense their ability to provide for our families in their hands. If the employer is not pleased there will be consequences, whether that be not getting a raise or promotion, or it be something more permanent such as in termination. We (employees) are called to do what they (employers) expect us to do just as if we were doing it for Christ.
When we think of the words “fear and trembling” it does not mean that we go to work quaking in our boots every day, though some may have harsh bosses that would give rise to such a thought or even dread. What it means that we give them the great respect due them as the one given responsibility over this portion of our lives which deals with how we work and support our families. Our provider is and always has been God, but God calls us to work in the tasks given to us as unto Him and to look to Him as our provider. And, we are to do this with sincerity of heart. We are not to be half-hearted or half-way in our work. The attention we give to it should not increase when the boss is looking and corners should not be cut when he is not. Christ is our head, and it is Him we are serving in every aspect of our lives—including our jobs or professions. For those who are self-employed, remember that you have clients and you owe them the same diligence that you do a boss who writes your check.
I have been working part-time in a retail store during my search for another pastoral position. It is a good company. They treat me very well, and they make us treating our customers and co-workers well a priority. The job is not terribly complicated, but it is physically tiring and the schedule is erratic. Having said this, there are days that I just don’t want to go in, and there are definitely days that I wish the search for God’s leading to a new church would be finalized. But, I realize even on those days and with those thoughts that this is not yet the case and that I have a responsibility to fulfill. So, I get dressed and go to work and while I am there I endeavor to serve my employer and my customers with all of my heart.
At this job we wear name badges, and on our name badges we are encouraged to put something personal with the hope that it might give rise to questions such that we enter into a personal contact with our customers. I chose to put “E67” on my name badge, and when I am asked what this means I respond with, “It is a reminder that I am to serve you with a smile.” Oftentimes I will then ask, “How am I doing?” This will generally generate a puzzled look on peoples’ faces, leading them to asking how E67 would remind me to do that. My response then is to tell them that it is a Bible verse, and sometimes I am able to go further when they ask which one.
Sometimes I add to my studies looking at a paraphrase of the Bible because of the personal insights that the author might add. In The Message we find a loose rewording of today’s passage that I really enjoyed as a personal encouragement. “Servants, respectfully obey your earthly masters but always with an eye to obeying the real master, Christ. Don’t just do what you have to do to get by, but work heartily, as Christ’s servants doing what God wants you to do. And work with a smile on your face, always keeping in mind that no matter who happens to be giving the orders, you’re really serving God. Good work will get you good pay from the Master, regardless of whether you are slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:5–8, The Message)
I can experience joy in my work because my work is given to me by God, and it is Him that I am seeking to please. In doing my job I can then find opportunities in it to share this joy with others. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to a king. He had heard some troubling news about his homeland which was heavy on his heart. But even in that heaviness he continued to faithfully serve. Then one day the king asked him what was troubling him. With this request, Nehemiah was able to quickly pray and then respond. As a result, some pretty amazing things happened when the king responded by offering to help and grant the desire of his faithful servant.
“O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.” Now I was the cupbearer to the king.” (Nehemiah 1:11, NASB95)
When I go to work I am the image bearer of my King.