Bobby Bonner was a professional baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles. When he was converted, he became a fervent evangelist, sharing Christ with whomever he came into contact with. His coach was a man by the name of Earl Weaver. One day, Weaver told Bonner that he needed to leave Jesus out of the locker room. Bonner replied, “I can’t do that. I’m a Christian and Jesus is with me wherever I go.” Weaver responded, “Well, he’s not coming to Baltimore.” Weaver was wrong. Bonner was right.
What about you? Do you take Jesus with you to work? Or is he left within the four walls of your church building at the conclusion of the Lord’s Day?
According to Paul, Jesus goes to work with us. The question, of course, is whether or not we are aware of this. Do we believe and therefore behave like it? Perhaps the ones to ask for the conclusive answer would be your employer or your fellow employees. And if you are the employer, do your employees believe that Jesus comes to work with you?
In the text before us, Paul continues the theme introduced in 5:18 and reinforced by the imperative of 5:21. Our reverence for Christ will reveal itself in our relationships—in marriage (5:22–33), to parents (6:1–3), with children (6:4), and in the workplace (6:5–9).
In fact, 6:5–9 would in those days have applied broadly to households. Because servants were usually a part of the household (cf. Acts 10:47–48; 16:15, 30–33; 1 Corinthians 1:16), Paul includes this injunction here. Likewise, under the old covenant, servants were included in the household—in a very intimate way. They were treated as family (see Genesis 17:23; Exodus 12:43–48). Paul assumes the same of these Ephesians believers.
As with the preceding sections, when the church gathered, Paul assumed that believing slaves and believing masters gathered together. That is a really important point that we will take up soon. But for now, we need to see that a fundamental point being made by Paul is that our relationship with the Lord—the evidence that we are in relationship with him, the evidence that we have put on the new man in Christ—is revealed in those relationships where we cannot hide.
The gospel forms, informs, transforms and reforms relationships, in every sphere—including in the workplace. The gospel influences how we behave in every sphere of life. In the matter before us, we learn that the gospel is able to transform our workplace into a worship place
In this study, we will examine these five verses with a view to knowing what being filled with the Spirit looks like in the workplace. May it help us as we are reminded that Jesus is in the work place. May it help us to take Jesus to work with us. He is going there, remember? Will others notice?
The Christian Employee
Paul begins with a word to the Christian employee:
Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.
“Bondservant” is a good translation of the Greek word used here. The word can also be translated “servant” or “slave.”
It is estimated that, at the time of the New Testament, there were some sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar even imported one million slaves into Rome. Those who were classified as slaves comprised some 25–30 percent of the Roman Empire. Some were chattel slaves with very little, if any, social status. Others were highly educated as teachers and doctors (e.g. Acts 22:28). A majority were treated as members of the family (see Exodus 21:1ff). The early church was comprised of a large number of slaves. In the early church, there would have been many situations where slaves and their owners were both believers and who gathered for worship together (see 1 Timothy 6:1ff).
This situation would have raised practical questions about what is appropriate expectations on the part of such slaves and masters—such as, when it came to family, does the gospel overturn the social order?
The Question of Slavery
We need to be careful of reading our concept of slavery into the biblical record.
A helpful question is, if slavery was a sin issue, do you not think that Paul would have said so? After all, when was Paul ever shy about proclaiming the whole counsel of God?
Many argue that the evil of slavery was engrained so deep into the heart of society that he would have been foolish to speak against it. However, the same could be said of homosexuality and adultery. Yet Paul did not hold back. Lying was characteristic of Cretian society, and Paul said so.
Exodus 21:1–11 speaks of A form of indentured servanthood.
Now these are the judgements which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,” then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.
And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.
This servanthood was an act of grace. It was a contractual arrangement. It was a free choice. One gave up his freedom (in a restricted sense) in exchange for employment. And God revealed laws to protect both master and “slave.”
Why is it necessary to bring this up? Because we want to be faithful with the text of Scripture. We want to avoid the danger of wrongheaded contextualisation. We need to be careful of drawing a direct line from these words to our world.
It is important to understand this because it helps us to see that these verses do speak directly to the employee/employer relationship of our day.
Slavery Versus Kidnapping
“Kidnapping” is the proper biblical term given to what we ordinarily think of as slavery. And Paul clearly speaks against this (1 Timothy 1:10). Kid napping was punishable by death. No wonder the Civil War in United States resulted in more bloodshed than in any other conflict America has been involved in. God was meting out the death penalty.
But note that, if Christians were involved in such slavery, passages like the one before us, as well as the letter to Philemon, acted like a time-bomb to blow that evil practice away. Historically, particularly in the UK, it was the gospel that empowered the abolition of slavery. Wilberforce was driven by gospel convictions to campaign for the abolition of slavery.
So, having addressed this, let us turn our attention to the text and learn how Christian employees and employers are to behave as they take Jesus with them into the workplace.
The Employee’s Mandate
Jesus expects us to obey him, and therefore to obey our employer, in the workplace: “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh” (v. 5).
This mandate governs the Christian employee without reference to justice or human rights (though this is important).
Simply, the Christian slave is told to be obedient to those who are their masters according to the flesh.
“Obedient” means “to hear under” or to answer a knock (cf. Acts 12:13).
In other words, the gospel makes us new creatures and therefore gives a new outlook on obligations. We should be even better “servants” (employees) than we were before conversion.
When he uses the words “according to the flesh,” Paul is dropping a hint. He is introducing the extremely important point that the Christian has a Master who transcends a merely human one. Yes, “according to the flesh,” we serve human beings, but that is not the supreme object of our service.
There is no debate here: Obey your employers. As the Sunday school song puts it, “Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.”
Of course, as in the previous periscopes, the obedience (as we will see) is limited by God’s will and Word. We do not obey those commands that contradict God’s commands. But for most people, these situations (though not uncommon) are, for most of us, few and far between.
Be careful here. If you expect your children to be obedient to you, then set a good example by being obedient to your authorities. Beware the sins of gossip and griping, lest you produce gossipers and gripers.
The Employee’s Motivation
In vv. 5–8, Paul gives the employee’s motivation. Essentially, he argues that obeisance drives our obedience. Obedience must be exercised
with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.
The obedience enjoined here is not some cold, moralistic, merely pragmatic command. On the contrary, Paul tells those who are slaves or employees that their obedience is to be motivated by worship. They are to bow (“obeisance”) in obedience to their masters/employers because they have bowed to their Saviour, to their Master who is in heaven.obedience must be exercised “as to Christ” and “as bondservants of Christ.” Such obedience is “doing the will of God” and is exercised “as to the Lord.” Those who obey in this way “will receive the same from the Lord.” All of this is thoroughly Christ-centred.
The point is that the Christian must realise that Jesus is in the workplace. After all, “the eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). Barclay notes, “The conviction of the Christian workman is that every single piece of work he produces must be good enough to show to God”. Or listen to Wood: “He is determined to obey his human master as an expression of his commitment to the divine Lord.”
This is the same pattern as found in the mandates of 5:22–6:4. It is even more pronounced here. Perhaps it is especially pronounced here precisely because the workplace is often the most difficult sphere in which we see the presence of the Lord. It is perhaps the most challenging sphere for us to remember the sovereign and loving presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But there may be another reason as well: Is it not true that the workplace is the place where we spend most of our time? And therefore, it provides us with the greatest opportunities for Christian maturity and for Christian witness.
If we do not keep this knowledge before us, if we do not keep such a worshipful motivation before us, then we will waste our opportunities to bring the sense of the presence of Christ into the workplace.
There was a woman in the church in which I was raised, who prior to conversion worked as a stripper. When she was saved, she left that wicked lifestyle and took a house cleaning job with a wealthy family nearby. Though it was difficult work, often under great pressure, she always maintained a spirit of joyful gratitude at all times. One day, the woman who employed her asked her how she managed to maintain her joy in the face of her difficult circumstances. It gave her great opportunities for witness.
As in the previous matters Paul has addressed, our focus on Christ empowers us to do what is right even when those we are serving are painful! We look beyond the immediate oppression to the ultimate object of our service.
But, how do we do this? Practically, start your day by looking to Christ. Throughout the day, keep looking to Christ. Pursue and practice the presence of God.
The Employees Manner
Paul uses several verbs to describe the manner of the Christ-motivated employee.
First, we must obey respectfully—” “with fear and trembling.” Similar injunctions are found in 1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 7:15 and Philippians 2:12.
We must obey with reverence, showing respect to our employers. Ferguson notes that this “describes a loyalty whose nervousness lies in the thought that a loved one might be let down.” Foulkes adds, “An element of ‘fear’ enters into all relationships when their essential sacredness is realized.”
Second, we must obey sincerely—“in sincerity of heart”—without self-seeking. We must display a single-minded devotion.
This may sound impossible, even unreasonable, when it comes to the character of some bosses. But Paul provides the empowering, enabling motivation: “as to Christ.” Christians can obey as they recognise his presence, providence, power and purpose.
Third, we must obey conscientiously—“not with eyeservice, as menpleasers, but as bondservants of Christ.” This qualifies and explains further what Paul means by “in sincerity of heart.” Stott observes, “He has been liberated from the slavery of ‘men-pleasing’ into the freedom of serving Christ.”
Paul evidently coined two words to drive home his point. He is saying that the Christian slave/employee does his job in the presence of Christ rather than motivated by the camera in the workshop.
Whether the boss is present or not, the Spirit-filled Christian does what he has been employed to do. Why? Because he loves Jesus and wants to please him. Because she is serving Jesus Christ.
When I was in school, there were times when a teacher was called out if the classroom. She would generally leave with an instruction: “While I am out of the classroom, no one is to leave their chair.” When she returned, she would ask, Did anyone leave their chair?” Everyone would deny that they did so—even though (nearly) everyone was lying! As soon as she left, students would stand up and scramble across the room to talk to their friends. Someone was always appointed to watch for the teacher. When the watcher alerted the class that the teacher was coming down the hall, everyone would scramble to their chairs. Obedience was dependent on the presence of the teacher. Things ought not to be this way for the Christian in the workplace.
Heartily and Happily
The Christian should so labour in his providentially assigned workplace that he will be a pleasant and profitable employee. This is the gist of v. 7: “doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service as the Lord and not to men.”
The word translated “goodwill” carries the idea of kindness or benevolence in the sense of contributing something good to the relationship. It describes “the disposition that wishes one well,” says Salmond. Paul uses it of a husband’s “affection” toward his wife (1 Corinthians 7:3).
The point Paul is making is that Christian employees strive to be profitable for those they serve. They seek to be productive. They have the best interest of others at heart (see 1 Timothy 6:1–2). Interestingly, the principle is that the Christian bondservant serves to give, not primarily to gain. That indeed is radical if not revolutionary economic theory!
But notice again that the motive is to be beneficial to and for “the Lord.” What does this look like? Before answering this more fully by looking at v. 8, we should first apply it in the following way.
If the Christian sees the workplace as a place of ministry, as locus for gospel witness, then zealously working with a right attitude towards one’s employer (and fellow employees) creates credibility.
A right spirit can help to produce a pleasant environment. We need to be cautioned. Paul is clearly commanding Christian employees to do their work, not to preach on the clock.
Before I entered pastoral ministry, I worked as a painter. A friend and I worked together, painting houses in the neighbourhood. We would often discuss theology while painting. Unfortunately, my friend was not able to discuss theology and at the same time focus on painting well. One day, one of the men who employed us addressed the matter. He did not object to us discussing theology, but asked that we not do so while on the job if it affected the quality of his work. It was a reasonable request. We were not employed to discuss theology but to paint houses.
The Employee’s Mission
The Christian employee obeys his employer “knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free” (v. 8).
The word translated “knowing” means to know for sure. It is related to the word meaning to see or to observe. It refers to factual knowledge rather than to experiential knowledge.
“Receive” means to receive back, but in the sense of reward. It refers to the consequence of being taken care of, of being provided for in return for faithfulness (see Matthew 25:27; Colossians 3:25; Hebrews 11:39). “There may be no thanks on earth,” writes Foulkes. “A person may reap only criticism and misunderstanding. But there is an unfailing reward for faithful service.”
The point is that the Spirit-filled employee who behaves as mandated will have the assurance that his greater Master in heaven will provide for him. The Christian therefore obeys this mandate confidently and consistently. The worshipping worker will receive “wages” (see 2 Peter 2:13) from God.
Let us remember that we will give account of our earthly job performance in our assigned workplace. This thought ought to transform the way we use (or abuse!) the Internet. It should affect our use of office supplies. It should impact our understanding of office hours and what we do during those hours. There are potential eternal rewards for utilising our workplace as a witnessing place (see Proverbs 11:30). This is true of every Christian (“whether he is a slave or free”). In other words, regardless of your “status” in society, the workplace is to be a worship place for which God will pay our wages.
The Christian Employer
In v. 9, Paul turns his attention to the Christian employer: “And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.” As in the earlier passages, the apostle moves from addressing the ones who are to be in subjection to addressing those in the position of authority. They too have responsibilities. In this case, he addresses those who are the “masters according to the flesh.” His words are very important. As with slaves/employees, he prescribes both a mandate and a motivation.
The Employer’s Mandate
Les the employers in the congregation think that they are exempt from exhortation, Paul shows that they, too, have God-given, Christ-centred responsibilities.
Paul tells employers to “do the same things.” Certainly, he is not saying that masters need to serve their slaves in the same way that they are to serve them, is he? No. But since 5:21 is the overarching thought, clearly he has in mind that, in some way, masters/employers are to serve their slaves/employers. That is, they are to consider their welfare. They are to responsibly fulfil their obligations in this providential relationship. Namely, employers are to apply the golden rule. “The masters were to act to their servants in the same Christian way as the servants were called to act to them—in the same spirit of consideration and goodwill.” (Salmond)
Christian employers must treat their employees respectfully, sincerely, conscientiously, happily and heartily. Hughes captures it well: “Show the same interest in them and in their affairs as you hope they will show in you and your affairs.” They are to so treat their employees with a view to Christ. In other words, if the employee is called to serve their employer as they would serve Christ, the employer is to care for and respond to the needs of his employee as unto Christ. The employer is also to go to the workplace with a view to worship. And the workers will notice! There is a sense here of an equality that is not at the same time egalitarian. It is, in a sense, complementarianism in the workplace.
Employers must further “giving up threatening.” The challenge is for the employer to let go of the culturally conditioned and accepted norm of being harsh towards slaves. In the Greek, there is a definite article before “threatening,” so that it literally reads “the threatening.” This suggests that it was common practice for employers to threaten their employees. But Christian employers needed to be willing to give us this threatening.
This cultural norm of the abuse of the powerful over the powerless remains the same in our day. But the Christian is a new man, and so he gives up the culturally acceptable though sinful mentality. He turns away from the fleshly response to conflict and repents of mistreating those who are vulnerable.
What about us? Even if we are not business owners, how do we treat those who work for us—in our own homes? Do they see Christ in us? Would they testify that there is an aroma of Jesus in our homes? In our workplaces? Do they look forward to being in our presence? Are they surprised by how we handle conflict with them? Do they sense that we see them as equals? Do they even know that we are Christian? Do we know whether they are?
The Employee’s Motivation
The employee’s motivation is stated in v. 9b: “knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.” The employer’s motivation is the same as the employee’s. He lives as if in the very presence of God. “You also are under authority. You too will give an account—specifically concerning how your exercised your authority over another.”
There is “no partiality” with our Master. Though society may promote a caste system, God doesn’t. He does not determine justice based, literally, on one’s “face.” He looks at people as they measure up to his law, not to how they measure up economically or positionally to one another. Since everyone is made in the image of God, it stands to judicial reason that each person will be measured by the same God established standard.
Paul promises a reward here. “The reward in view is that of the Great Day,” says Salmond, “the Parousia, which will have regard not to social distinctions or external circumstances, but only to spiritual conditions.” The point is clear: Those who employ others are to treat them as a fellow servant. Yes, they exercise authority but they do so knowing they are under authority. The result is that they will be considerate, they will be kind.
The Employer’s Mission
The Christian employer knows that he is on mission for and with Jesus Christ. This will guide his relationships with his employees. He will want to be a means of discipleship for believing employees (helping them to develop Christ-likeness) and a means of evangelism for non-Christian employees. In other words, we can conclude that the Great Commission includes—in a huge way—the workplace. You are always on mission.
Christian leaders are to serve those who serve them—like Jesus (see Philippians 2:1–5). The gospel is to loom large in the life and in the leadership of Christian employers
As both employees and employers obey these mandates, adopting these motives, their manner will be such that in many cases, greater harmony will be experienced in the workplace. But even where this is not the outcome, what we can be sure of is that such behaviour adorns the gospel—whether people recognise it or not.
It is wonderful when such behaviour results in a credible and impacting gospel witness. But even if such outcomes do not occur, nevertheless what does result is the transformation of the workplace into a place of worship.
Such an approach to the workplace empowers us for contentment and for witness and for purpose in what otherwise can be difficult or discouraging or even mind-numbing activity. As we embrace our slave or master roles filled with the Spirit, we face our responsibilities under the lordship of Christ and a worshipful mindset prevails in an otherwise mundane, if not profane, environment.
Christian, the gospel changes everything—including how we work. Remember, Jesus desires to be with you in the workplace. Gladly take him along.