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Labor Relations – Ephesians 6:5-9

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.  7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men,  8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.

9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him. – Ephesians 6:5-9

In our culture, these instructions and teaching can apply to labor relations in general. More people today work for someone else than for themselves. Working for someone or employing others creates a special relationship. The Scripture has quite a bit to say about that relationship, from both sides.

Why Disparity?

Simply looking at the length of what is said to slaves (workers) as opposed to what is said to masters (bosses) makes us wonder: Why is so much more said to the worker than to the boss? Is Paul prejudiced against labor?

This is heightened when we consider similar passages in other places. Colossians 3:22 – 4:1 has the same ratio of four verses to the slave compared to but a single verse addressed to masters. Titus 2:9-10 instructs Titus to teach the slaves to be subject to their masters, but is silent as to any instruction to the masters themselves. A similar message is in 1 Timothy 6:1-2, again with nothing specifically said to masters. Likewise, 1 Peter 2:18-21 speaks to slaves, but Peter has nothing comparable to say to masters.

When we stop to remember that many members of the early congregations were slaves, with only a few from the “master” class, we might understand better. Few members of the churches receiving these letters were “masters,” whereas many were slaves.

The total teaching of the New Testament on masters and slaves is balanced somewhat by an entire epistle addressed to a master regarding his fugitive slave. This is the book of Philemon.

Philemon was a Christian slave-owner whose slave, Onesimus, had run away. Somehow, he came in contact with Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome. Through this, he became Paul’s son in the faith. Paul then sent him back to Philemon, who lived in Colosse and was in the church there. In fact, at least a portion of the church met in Philemon’s home.

Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, accompanied by Tychicus. The epistle to Philemon is a carefully crafted letter imploring him to accept his former slave back as a dear brother in the Lord, indeed he asked that Onesimus be welcomed just as Philemon would welcome Paul himself. The is some indication Onesimus, when he ran away, stole money or property from his master. Paul said that if Onesimus had done Philemon any wrong to put it on his own account. “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back,” but went on to remind Philemon that he owed Paul his very life.

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. – Philemon 21-22

What more could Philemon do than Paul asked? He could grant Onesimus his freedom.

Paul’s whole point in that one-chapter epistle was that Christian love would overcome the slave-master relationship and replace it with the family relationship of brothers in God’s household.

This also has implications for a capitalist “boss” for how he is to relate to people he employs. He is to give them what is “right and fair.” He is to treat them with respect. He is not to “exploit” them, but rather he is to love them as he loves himself.

Instructions to the Workers

The workers are to work with integrity. Titus 2:9-10 says:

9 Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, 10 and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every  they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. – Titus 2:9-10

One objective of Paul’s instructions for slaves is that they behave in such a way that the gospel will be attractive. One can imagine the master of such slaves saying, “I don’t know much about this strange teaching my slaves have adopted – but I know that it makes them better workers.” The last thing Paul wanted was to start a cultural revolution that would have brought “The Way” into disrepute – as it would have if he had openly preached full equality.

Here is a summary of what the employee owes his boss:

  • Obedience as to Christ
  • Respect and fear (honor)
  • Sincerity of heart (loyalty)
  • Consistency – whether being watched or not
  • Whole hearted service
  • Do this even when the Master (Boss) is harsh.

In all of this, Paul says you know that the Lord will reward you. Peter adds that if you are beaten unjustly, God will be aware of it – and if you do it without retaliating, you will have followed the example of Jesus when he suffered for us, “leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:18).

The principles the gospel introduced were such that an evolution, rather than a revolution, took place. This new relationship introduced by the gospel brought another danger: that Christian slaves would take advantage of Christian owners because of their relationship in Christ. Paul warned against this:

1 All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them. These are the things you are to teach and urge on them. – 1 Timothy 6:1-2

Certainly, that should be true for a Christian man or woman who works for a Christian today as well. Do not try to “take advantage of” the relationship to have less respect and consideration for your employer.

I once heard or read a story about a wealthy man in the early days of the church who wanted to learn more about Jesus, so he came to a meeting of the Church. When he explained to the congregation why he was there, the president of the meeting pointed to one of the members and said, “Sit there by that man.”

The wealthy man looked and saw that the man indicated was one of his slaves. He replied, “I can’t sit there. That man is my slave.”

The president said again, “Sir, sit by that man.” The wealthy man again demurred, to which the president said firmly, but kindly, “Sir, if you want to learn about Jesus, sit by that man.” At that, the visitor finally “got it.”

Jesus brings such a change in society that slaves and masters can sit together in peace.

If that would work in the ancient world, do you think you can get “the suits” and the “workers” to live together in harmony? I knew a congregation in the Detroit area where one elder was a union official and another was high up in management – for the same major auto company! They were brothers, though, in Christ where there is neither slave nor free.

NEXT: Armed for Battle – Ephesians 6:10-18

PREVIOUS: Parents and Children – Ephesians 6:1-4


One Response

  1. Dear Brother,
    And what does the boss, the modern day Seducee, owe the worker – he who makes the bricks? I pray Grace may find you the desert, lead you through the eye of the needle and reveal the Truth of the Lord so clearly put in His Sermon on the Mount.
    Thank you for your cogent question and loving prayer. The boss owes it to his employee to love him as a neighbor, nay even as he loves himself. This would mean loyalty to the employee, even when times are hard. It would mean honest, fair pay. It would mean opportunity for the employee to advance on his merits. It would mean not working a man to death and throwing him aside like a piece of garbage. In the case of Philemon, the slave-owner, it meant forgiving his run-away slave without marking him as a fugitive (or worse) – and even giving him his freedom. I have been a “maker of bricks” – concrete blocks, actually, as I worked mixing concrete a couple of summers while I was in college. My father worked at that strenuous job for more years than either he or I care to remember. He told people then that he got me a job at the block plant so I would not even think of dropping out of college. He needn’t have feared. I had no intention of dropping out of college – and working at the block plant helped me to be able to pay my way as I went with little help from parents or loans. I have much more experience as an employee than I have as an employer of others. I dealt with the text as it is, not as the UAW might prefer it to be. I do remember the teaching by Moses that the courts are not to defer to the wealthy or to the poor – but to render fair judgment. I also remember Paul’s teaching in Timothy (cited in my post) that the Christian slave is not to take advantage of the Christian owner – but to be even more diligent in his work. I presume the same would apply in reverse. Again, thank you for your question. – Jerry S.

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