Most of us have had the experience of working for employers, and we would have to admit that it has not always been a pleasant experience. Most business executives today are focused on the corporate bottom line, and that often means that they work their employees as hard as they can and pay them as little as they can. And in some cases our immediate boss may be either difficult to work with or just plain incompetent. What is a Christian employee to do in such a situation?
Writing to the church at Ephesus the apostle Paul addresses the master / servant relationship. The immediate reference is to the institution of slavery, and significantly Paul does not condemn it outright. Every society has a social and economic structure that places some individuals in positions of authority over others, and that is unavoidable. The question is, however, how are the individuals in these relationships supposed to treat each other?
Paul says, “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling. . .” (Eph. 6:5; NKJV). And the masters are exhorted to do good to their servants, “giving up threatening” (v. 9). And if outright slaves are morally obligated to obey their masters, and masters are required to treat their slaves humanely, how much more employees and employers, who have voluntarily agreed to work with each other?
Paul tells the bondservants to “be obedient to those who are you masters according to the flesh” (v. 5). But he goes one step further and says that this is to be done “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart . . . not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers . . . with goodwill doing service” (vv. 5-7). In other words, it is not enough merely to “go through the motions” on the job, and to “goof off” when the boss is not looking. If we are getting paid to work, we should work, and we should try honestly and faithfully to follow our boss’s instructions.
But we have all had the experience of working for bosses who are difficult and unreasonable, and the temptation is to respond in kind. Yet God tells us in His word that we are to obey “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart.” Why? How is that even possible when the boss is clearly being unreasonable? Paul explains: we are to render obedience “as to Christ . . . as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart . . . as to the Lord, and not to men” (vv 5-7). Yes, the boss is being difficult. But ultimately we perform our work to please Christ, not the boss. And Paul goes on to add: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is slave or free” (v. 8). God sees what good we have done, and God Himself will reward us accordingly.
Paul concludes this section with a word o exhortation to masters: “And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master in heaven also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (v. 9). The parallel passage in Colossians reads: “Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). Disciplinary action, of course, is sometimes necessary. Some employees malinger, some disobey orders, some may even be guilty of outright theft. Some may have to be warned of the potential consequences of their unsatisfactory work performance. And yet it is a rule of human relations that nothing will demoralize a workforce faster than constant harsh criticism from management. When you make impossible demands and hurl insults at your employees, and never reward them for good work, morale sinks and the quality of the work suffers as a result. If you treat your employees well you will have a more highly motivated workforce.
Businessmen all too easily forget that their customers, employees and vendors are all human beings, and if you want to be successful in business you have to treat the other people well. Paul reminds the masters that “your own Master is also in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” Owning a business does not give someone the right to be a petty tyrant. We are all accountable to our Master in heaven. It behooves us, then, to do unto others as we would have God do unto us!