It might seem strange to some readers that this article draws on New Testament teaching relating to masters and slaves. However, it is submitted that the behavioural principles set out for healthy relationships between masters and slaves in the first century are equally applicable to employers and employees today. Almost every household in the Roman Empire was affected by such relationships; indeed, it has been estimated that there were in the region of 60 million slaves in the Empire. Roman slavery in the first century was different from the ideas we often have of it. True, the picture was not always a rosy one, but reforms had come in that brought about immense improvements in the treatment of slaves. Approximately 50 per cent of them were freed before they reached the age of thirty.
Similarly, most Christian households today are affected by employer/employee relationships. Official data shows that UK employees spend, on average, almost 1700 hours annually in the workplace; therefore, it is important for Christian employers and employees to consider how they behave during this significant proportion of their lives. They are expected to display a high standard in their relationships at work that is honouring to God and points fellow workers to Christ.
Peter writes, ‘Servants [house servants], be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward’, 1 Pet. 2. 18. No mention is made here of the servants’ rights. Naturally speaking, workers are more likely to stand up for their rights if their employers are harsh and difficult to deal with. However, if this is the case, their response must be one of subjection, rather than retaliation, insubordination and standing on their rights. True subjection is motivated by fear, i.e., a respect for the employer’s position and authority. A submissive spirit brings great pleasure to God: ‘For this is thankworthy [commendable, NKJV], if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully … if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God’, vv. 19-20. It should be of prime importance for the employee to please God, rather than men.
Paul writes, ‘Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour’, 1 Tim. 6. 1. The word ‘count’ has the thought of an estimate based on external considerations, as opposed to internal sentiments or feelings. The servant was under an obligation to give ‘all honour’, i.e., in every area, to his master, whatever he thought of him. Sadly, this attitude is seldom seen in the workplace today. Paul made it clear why such an approach was so important: ‘that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed’. There is, therefore, much more at stake than employees’ prejudices towards their employer. The testimony is in danger of being brought into disrepute if they act in a disrespectful manner.
Paul also recognized that there was a very real danger awaiting Christians who had believing masters: ‘And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit [because those who are benefited are believers and beloved NKJV]’. The fact that they are brothers in the Lord should enhance their relationship and motivate them to respect each other on the basis of a mutual love.
In many workplaces today disobedience and dishonesty are rife. As far as obedience is concerned, Paul’s words to Titus are unequivocal: ‘Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again’, Titus 2. 9. Christians should not seek to overthrow the plans of their employers, however just the actions of their fellow-workers might appear to be. Within this context, some might raise the question as to whether a Christian should belong to a Trades Union. Their strong political connexions, their commitment to the right for employees to withdraw their labour, the biblical teaching relating to the unequal yoke and their ultimate demise, Rev. 18, ought to give us the answer! If a Christian employee has any choice in the matter, he/she should avoid such associations. Nevertheless, if this is not possible, there will be times when the believer will have to stand against the instructions of such a body, often at great personal cost.
As for honesty, Paul’s words are equally clear: ‘Not purloining [pilfering NKJV] but shewing [providing proof of] all good fidelity’, Titus 2. 10. Believers must provide constant proof that they are trustworthy employees. It is possible that some employers might actively encourage or require their employees to commit dishonest acts. Paul’s use of the term, ‘good fidelity’ means that the guiding principle for believers faced with such situations is that they must obey God, rather than men. Pleasing God is of paramount importance in believers’ lives: ‘not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men’, Eph. 6. 6-7. The judgement of men pales into insignificance compared to the fact that ‘we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ’, 2. Cor. 5. 10. Paul reminds his readers that service for earthly masters must be ‘in singleness [sincerity, purity, without hypocrisy] of your heart, as unto Christ’, Eph. 6. 5. Christ, not men, is the focal point of their service; therefore, they should regard Him as their employer and this will regulate their actions.
On a daily basis, therefore, Christian employees have the responsibility to ‘adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things’, Titus 2. 10, i.e., they have the opportunity to clothe the doctrine of the gospel by proclaiming its message, through their actions, to unsaved employers and fellow employees. Living in the light of this will make them the best workers in the workplace.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a desire to make progress in employment and to be the very best. However, any advancement that comes must be accepted and held in deep humility, recognizing that any success comes from the Lord. Joseph provides an excellent example in this respect: ‘And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord had made all that he did to prosper in his hand’, Gen. 39. 3. After he had risen to a position of great power and authority in the land of Egypt, he said to his brethren, ‘God … hath made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt … God hath made me lord of all Egypt’, Gen. 45. 8-9.
It is so easy for them to think that they are above their employees. Paul writes, ‘And ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing [giving up NKJV] threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him’, Eph. 6. 9. The same things that apply to the employees, apply to them. They must treat them in the manner in which they would wish to be treated. If they desire their employees to be respectful, honest, considerate, conscientious and co-operative, they must be the same. They should never abuse their position by issuing threats to their workers or by being vindictive. Their behaviour must be motivated by the fact that they have an impartial Master in heaven. As Christ treats them, so the employer must treat his workforce. They will ultimately be answerable to Him for how they have conducted themselves. They will besmirch their testimony and ‘the doctrine of God our Saviour’, if they are known by others to be aggressive and unreasonable employers.
Paul warns masters, ‘Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven’, Col. 4. 1. He had already spoken about putting off ‘the old man with his deeds’ and putting on ‘the new man’, 3. 9-10. It is ‘the old man’ that will exploit the workers. Christian employers must be seen to pay their workers what is fair and equal. The little word ‘also’ is important: both employers and employees serve the same Master. Both will be answerable to Him at the Judgement Seat in heaven as to how they have treated each other. Employers should, therefore, treat their employees as He treats His servants. He never exploits them and He will reward them in a coming day according to their faithfulness in service now, Luke 19. 12-19. Their reward will be exactly commensurate with what they have gained (ten pounds = ten cities, five pounds = five cities – just and equal).
There is nothing wrong in wanting to run a successful business. However, it is how success is handled that is vital. A key passage in the scriptures that gives clear instruction as to how a believer should respond to wealth, 1 Timothy chapter 6, begins by addressing masters and slaves! This chapter contains the important statement, ‘For the love of money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows’, v. 10. Many Christian employers have found out the truth of this to their cost.
Business life can be time consuming and, all too easily, destroy the spiritual life. Time is a precious commodity and once it has gone it cannot be retrieved. It must be used wisely; therefore, assembly matters ought to have priority of place in our plans.
The principles outlined in this article relating to godly living transcend the changing economic and political climate of any country. Christian employers and employees, who seek to be true to them, will often have to face the ridicule and hostility of those with whom they work. Compromising them in any way will lead to the loss of an effective personal witness to the power of the gospel to change lives. Scriptural doctrine is not something simply to give mental ascent to, but is to be lived out in our lives. Our actions must match what we say; indeed, if this is so, unbelievers will be challenged by our godly living, and ‘whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation [conduct – NKJV] in Christ’, 1 Pet. 3. 16. Are we prepared for the cost?