It seems appropriate that during a season when so many of us—myself included—are enjoying times of vacation, we should pause to consider matters of work and vocation. I was recently brushing up on some of these things myself, especially as they are laid out in the book of Ephesians. There we find Paul addressing the relationships of slave to master and master to slave and from that point we are but a short step away from drawing applications for all of us who work.
Slavery was simply a fact of life in that day and time. Today we look back with horror when we imagine all of these people who were masters and slaves—even Christian masters and slaves in the same church. Better theologians than I have told how the Bible views slavery, what it meant in that context, and how the gospel undermines slavery and destroys it from within. But for our purposes we are going to bypass that discussion and move straight to applications for why and how we work.
Here’s what the text says:
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)
One unavoidable conclusion we can draw from these verses is that you make a statement about the gospel by what you do and how you behave in your workplace. If this was true for slaves, it is every bit as true for you who have the liberty to choose what you do. If you have a good attitude and do good work you make a completely different statement than if you have a bad attitude and do bad work. When you claim to be a Christian but deliver poor quality work laced with grumbling and complaining, you make the gospel look bad as if it isn’t transformative, as if it hasn’t really changed you from the inside out.
Whether you are an employee or an employer, a manager or a line-worker, a tradesman or a Wall Street executive (that’s Bay Street here in Canada), you will benefit by hearing three instructions from God as given by Paul.
Do your work!
His first instruction is this: Do your work! “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.” Your boss expects you to work and to work hard, so obey him and do what he tells you to. Work hard! That seems like an obvious command, but I don’t want you to miss this: The fact that the Lord tells you to work gives your work dignity. It doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t matter whether you’re ruling a whole nation or managing a team of two. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making millions in the financial district or if you’re fixing plumbing or flipping burgers. Your work is inherently good and valuable because the Lord tells you to do it. He wouldn’t tell you to do something useless or meaningless.
You need to work. You also need to obey the people who are over you in that work. Whenever Paul talks about authority he connects it to the authority of Christ; whenever he talks about obedience he makes it a lesser form of the greater obedience to Christ. He does that here. Employees, you need to obey your manager or your employer in the same way you would obey Christ. These are not two different things. The way you understand the employee/employer relationship flows right out of the way you understand your relationship with Jesus Christ. If you want to obey Christ, you need to obey your boss. In fact, you need to obey your boss in the way you obey Christ.
There is the first thing you need to understand and apply in the workplace—you need to work hard and obey those who are over you.
Do your work to please God!
Here’s the second instruction: Do your work to please God. How are you to relate to the person who oversees you? Ultimately, the way you relate to Christ himself. “With fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” That’s quite a mouthful, but the heart of it is this: Be a God-pleaser rather than a man-pleaser. Do your work to please God. This instruction assumes that you will always be tempted to work for lesser motives, to do your work for the wrong reasons and under the eye of the wrong people.
I can think of at least two different ways that you may be tempted to be a man-pleaser rather than a God-pleaser in your work. The first temptation is to do your work in such a way that you make people happy, but not in such a way that you think first and foremost about pleasing the Lord. It’s often easy enough to please your boss even when you don’t work as hard as you can or deliver your best results. You can spend all day staring at Facebook and as soon as your boss walks into the office you shut down your browser and look like you’re working hard. Your boss might be fooled for a while, but God is not. This shows you are more concerned about the way other people see you than the way God sees you. You may do your work just enough to get away with it in the eyes of the boss. That’s one way that you can be a man-pleaser—when you do your work just well enough to keep the boss happy.
The second way you can be a man-pleaser instead of God-pleasers is when you work to be noticed by men instead of doing your work as a means of worship to the Lord. In this case you work to be noticed. You work long, long hours and drive yourself to the point of burn-out and exhaustion to get ahead and to be noticed. Or you do your work well not because you long to do excellent work as a reflection of an excellent God, but because you want to be the employee of the month or to get your face on the front cover of the newsletter, or you want to receive praise from men.
Remember that in this context Paul is talking to slaves, people who were not just employed but were actually owned. Paul reminds them that even as slaves of earthly masters, they are already slaves of Christ. You, too, are a slave of Christ. Your ultimate allegiance, then, is not to your employer or manager but to Him. Ultimately, you are not working to please your boss but to please Jesus. He cannot be fooled. His standards are higher. Not only that, but he is ultimately deserving of your best work at all times. Work in a way that you please him first.
And because I have a fair bit left to say, I am going to break right here and make this a two-part article. I will continue tomorrow.