The Church at work

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Good evening everyone. So how has your week been? I expect most of us will have been occupied with that thing we call “work” whether paid or unpaid and which looks very different for us all. Some of us will have been busy in the home. Some busy with our studies. Some of us employed. Here’s my question: What is it about how you have done what you’ve done, this past week, that shows you love Jesus? As you have gone about your business in the hospital; As you have done your work at school or university – student, teacher or lecturer; As you have sat, socially distanced in the office or interacted via zoom or teams: As you’ve been working hard in the home; As you’ve done your shopping or communicated with friends; What is it about how you have done what you’ve done that shows you love Jesus?

Our passage tonight speaks directly to this question. Yes, the primary focus is the relationship between slaves and masters, or in our context employees and employers, but nevertheless the passage is applicable to everyone – as we are all people either ‘in authority’ or ‘under authority’ or like both – a bit like the Roman centurion that Jesus encountered! If you haven’t done so already, now would be a good time to grab your Bible and turn back to Ephesians 6. That’s where we’re going to spend some time tonight. And as you do that, let me pray:

Father, we thank you for your word. Help us to hear what you are saying to each one of us tonight. And show us how we need to change to live more faithfully for you. In Jesus’ Amen.

What I want you to imagine first though is being one of the original hearers of Paul’s letter. You’ve not long been a Christian and there you are gathered together with other believers in hot and dusty Ephesus – someone is reading a letter from Paul and you hear him address women and men, children and adults, and now you hear, Ephesians 6.5:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters

And Ephesians 6.7:

Masters…stop your threatening.

And you pause/zone out for a moment and look around at the gathered church. And you begin realise just how powerful a statement the visible church is. In a first-century society that devalues and, to some extent dehumanises, certain groups – you realise afresh just how revolutionary and counter-cultural the church of Jesus Christ is. “You are all one in Him!” This is unprecedented, not only are those with a lower social status included, but you realise that Paul actually addresses them first – women before men, children before adults and slaves before masters. Welcome to the all-inclusive church of Jesus Christ! A community where identity is not determined by your position in society, but by the fact that we have been forgiven and rescued by Jesus! It is truly wonderful!

Nevertheless, reading these verses almost 20 centuries later presents us with some difficulties. Not least because for us the word ‘slavery’ evokes different horrific images; maybe we think of brutal race-based oppression out of Africa, or the exploitation of children and women in sweatshops, of the desperate plight of the victims of human trafficking. So, before we go any further it may be helpful to say one or two words to help us understand the context of slavery in the first century and the context in focus for Paul here.

1. Understanding 1st century slavery

Most historians agree that first century slaves were more a socio-economic class than they were victims of racial injustice or exploitation. Perhaps making up as much as 40% of the population. Yes, people were owned (and we struggle to get our modern-day heads round that) but ownership didn’t automatically come with oppression, mistreatment, brutality and a stripping away of dignity. Many slaves worked domestically as servants – they were teachers, nannies, cooks, gardeners, doctors, administrators and so on. And many were seen as actual members of the household they served. This is why it makes perfect sense for Paul to include these comments at this point in his letter without addressing the rights and wrongs of slavery itself.

Now some have a problem with that and think Paul should have said something here, but I love how one commentator helpfully reflects on this issue:

New Testament teaching does not focus on reforming and restructuring human systems, which are never the root cause of human problems. The issue is always the heart of man – which when wicked will corrupt the best of systems and when righteous will improve the worst. If men’s sinful hearts are not changed, they will find ways to oppress others regardless of whether or not there is actual slavery. [John MacArthur Ephesians p.324]

That said, Paul does elsewhere explicitly condemn slave trading. For example, in his first letter to Timothy he calls out slave-traders as being ungodly and anti-gospel. But here in the Ephesians the focus is on the relationships within families and there is a legitimate link therefore, between the first century role of slaves and our modern working relationships where both the employee (slave) and the employer (master) have responsibilities to behave in mutually supportive ways if they belong to Jesus. So, for the time we have left, let’s take a closer look at the nature of these relationships:

2. Christian workers: obey your boss - as you would Jesus (Epheisans 6.5-8)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters

Now, as we read on, notice the emphasis that Paul places on Jesus in these verses:

Slaves, 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 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, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.

Folks the first thing to notice is that our ultimate focus in obedience is not our human boss but Jesus! That means that even if we don’t like our boss we can still obey knowing ultimately we are obeying Jesus.

This was brought home to me during my time in the RAF. Whenever in uniform, if you encountered a senior officer, you saluted. We were taught – you salute the rank not the person. Which ultimately helped you fix your gaze above the immediate ranking officer to the one we had all sworn allegiance to – namely HM the Queen. The same is true here. Paul wants Christian workers to look beyond their human boss and understand how they work is an expression of how much they obey the one they have sworn ultimate allegiance to. But notice too how practical this is. Paul shows us 4 ways to obey:

a. we are to obey respectfully (Ephesians 6.5)

That’s what the fear and trembling is all about. If we think about it we may remember that ‘fear and trembling’ is a Old Testament expression used when someone is in the presence of God. So, Paul isn’t saying that our obedience needs to be accompanied by a fear of our boss – but a reverent respect that acknowledges our boss has been given a God-given authority over us. Next:

b. we are to obey wholeheartedly (Ephesians 6.5)

This is what Paul means when he says 'with a sincere heart' – our obedience needs to be wholehearted and genuine. No ulterior motives. Just full-on 100% commitment to the cause. Next:

c. we are to obey conscientiously (Ephesians 6.6)

not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers’, Such as when you hear the boss coming down the corridor and you switch applications on your computer from that game or Facebook and return to you spreadsheet or word document in a bid to make it look like you are doing some work! Or what about when the boss can’t see you? You’re on the phone to him and you’re rolling your eyes or shaking your head and muttering away inside. Or what about that temptation to cut corners when your work isn’t going to be checked or acknowledged – I remember one of my university holiday jobs was as an out of hours hospital cleaner. Easy to cut corners when no one is watching you ‘no one will really know, the same job will need to be done all over again tomorrow. Someone else can do it.’ There’s no place for this kind of attitude in followers of Jesus. Finally:

d. we are to obey willingly (Ephesians 6.7)

rendering service with a good will’ No moaning, no reluctance, no hesitation – just a good, willing attitude.

Do all these apply though if, to put it lightly, your boss is a right muppet? I mean what about when the task seems pointless, ill-conceived and unnecessary? What about when your boss doesn’t deserve your respect because of the way they’ve behaved? What about when you just absolutely know that if you were running the show you’d do a much better job? The answer remains the same…we obey. Respectfully. Wholeheartedly. Conscientiously. Willingly.

There is one caveat of course which we get a hint of in Ephesians 6.8:

‘knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord’.

The implication is that our obedience is in doing good and not evil. If we are instructed by our earthly bosses to do something illegal, immoral or contrary to Jesus’ explicit instructions – this we must politely but firmly refuse to do. That’s not easy – there is a cost. I know from conversations with some of you, that you have had to pay those costs, some of you are in the midst of very difficult situations right now as a result of taking such stands, and living with the unfair consequences of them - but be encouraged where Paul goes next because Ephesians 6.8 is really more about the motivation to obey.

In this life, most of our motivation comes through our payslip at the end of the week or month – but that ‘reward’ is temporary and is soon spent! Here, Paul wants to motivate us with our eternal reward – reminding us that obedience to our earthly bosses, so often unnoticed by human eyes, will always be rewarded by the Lord. So if you are in a situation where you are being treated unfairly right now; If you are feeling completely unappreciated in your work right now, if your boss doesn’t have the faintest idea how you are feeling or how costly your obedience is, if someone else is taking the credit for your hard work and effort, doesn’t even know you name and wouldn’t recognise you if you bumped into him on the street, take heart – God knows you better than you know yourself and he sees everything and one day, in the end, he will reward your faithfulness. Christian workers: obey your boss - as you would Jesus Well, it isn’t all one-sided and in our final verse Paul switches his attention to those in charge. And he says:

3. Christian bosses: serve your workers - as you would Jesus (Ephesians 6.9)

Although bosses only get one verse – they are expected to behave in the same way. This is Ephesians 6.9, ‘Masters, do the same to them…’ In other words, you want respectful, wholehearted, conscientious and willing workers? Then treat them the same way. Paul continues: ‘…and stop your threatening’. In other words, there must be something about the way you behave that sets you apart from all the other non-Christian bosses out there who disrespectfully mistreat their employees.

So, here’s a question for all those who supervise, lead and direct others: If I were to ask your employees, or those under your command, if there’s anything different about you, something they haven’t seen in other bosses perhaps, how would they answer? Is it obvious that your leadership is servant-hearted? Is it obvious that you care for your employees or those you have authority over? Is it obvious that you pay them well and reward them well?

In first-century Ephesus, such an instruction from Paul would have been shocking. But in many ways it still is today and it flies in the face of some typical leadership and management techniques – time and time again bosses fail to realise that well-looked after, well-cared for, well-managed, well-rested, well-rewarded workers make the best workers! Julian Richer, the Christian boss of Hi-Fi shop Richer Sounds, is a notable exception – just google him and find out how generously he treats his staff as well as his recently launched Good Business Charter. One article reported that 95% of his workforce say they love working for him.

Why is it important to treat employees this way? It’s not just for better productivity! Paul says ‘he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him’. Here’s your motivation bosses – your position and authority is only temporary! But under God all are equal – there is no partiality with him. Ultimately, worker or boss, we obey and we serve because one day we’ll all have to stand before him and give account of what we have done, not just this past week, but with our whole lives. Let’s pray:

Father, we acknowledge that in many ways we have not worked nor led as you call us to. Please would you forgive us. Please empower us to live and work respectfully, wholeheartedly, conscientiously and willingly.
In Jesus name, Amen.

For more on work

  • The Gospel At Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs by Greg Gilbert & Sebastian Traeger)
  • Gospel Centred Work by Tim Chester
  • Every Good Endeavour by Tim Keller
  • Thank God Its Monday by Mark Greene
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