New Relationships in Christ: Masters and Servants

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Colossians 3:22-25
Colossians 4:1

Do you have a job? If so, how do you feel about it? You may not realize it, but God takes an active interest in the way we approach our daily work.

The apostle Paul has just been writing the believers in Colossae about how Christians should live out their faith in their most important relationships: those within the family, between husbands and wives and parents and children. Now he turns to the workplace, with instructions for masters and servants, or as we might put it in our terms, employers and workers:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. . . . Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.


This passage, and others like it in the New Testament, causes some difficulties for modern readers. We wonder why the apostle can speak so matter-of-factly about an obviously wicked institution like slavery. Why does he give instructions which appear merely to increase the slaves’ subservience to their masters? Why doesn’t he advocate rebellion, and the overthrow of such a monstrous and unjust system? And when Paul addresses the masters, why doesn’t he tell them that if they are Christians they must immediately set their slaves free? How could a Christian possibly own another human being?

This is, then, something of an awkward passage, particularly when we recall that as recently as the last century some Christians were appealing to it (and to others like it) to justify the continued existence of slavery in their society. So what should we do with it now? Should we be embarrassed by it and try to ignore it? Should we edit it out of our Bibles? Not at all! We should listen to it and learn from it.

Do you recall the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? Even the devil will quote scripture to make a point. The fact that a passage has been misused does not invalidate it; past abuse does not negate present truth in a text. Furthermore, we should not dwell on what the Bible doesn’t say. We must make it our business rather to follow what it does. There were any number of moral and social evils in the world of the New Testament which the apostles failed to explicitly condemn. Slavery, discrimination against women, political repression, torture, infanticide, abortion, war, genocide – the gospel doesn’t challenge any of those by name directly. Why not?

Perhaps it will help to remember an image Jesus once used. He compared the kingdom of God to the leaven in a lump of dough. It works slowly, quietly, from within. The Christian faith introduced radical new principles into the world that eventually would challenge all sorts of social evils, but apparently God is very patient. He is willing to wait for us to wrestle with the implications of Christ’s teachings and to begin to put them into practice, which we do all too hesitantly and imperfectly. God could establish justice and righteousness in the world so much more quickly and effectively if he just did the whole job by himself, but he seems to want us to be involved.


Now, what about the positive teaching of our passage? I trust that none of us are slaves or slave-owners. Is what Paul says here relevant? What is he telling us of practical importance for our lives? The answer, of course, is that he’s talking about how we approach our jobs, our daily employment, especially our relationships in the workplace. It’s all about work. Slavery no longer applies; our work is now undertaken voluntarily and for compensation. But most of us still have people over us to whom we are accountable – “masters” of one kind or another, whether we call them bosses, supervisors, executives, principals, administrators, managers, or owners. And some of us have workers or employees who are accountable to us. So how do we relate to one another? More basically, what should be our approach to work in general?

There are some people who absolutely love their jobs. They literally live for their work; they find all their challenge, meaning, reward and excitement in what they do for a living. And then there’s the opposite extreme, those who hate their jobs and find them a loathsome burden. If they could they’d quit tomorrow. “Why am I doing this? How can I spend my life this way?” they ask.

I suspect most of us would fall somewhere between those two extremes. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we feel both ways but at different times. Depending on the day (or even the time of day!), we might love or dislike our work. The question is, though, how should we think about it if we are Christians? What is the proper attitude toward work? We can find that out by looking at the answers Paul gives to two basic questions concerning work.


The first is the question of why we work. Paul gives us insight into the motivation behind human labor, at least as Christians understand it. Why do you want to find and keep a job? Maybe that seems like a stupid question. “Because I have to,” you say. “If I had a choice, I’d quit working in a minute.” Now, of course, most of us do work because we have to in order to live. That’s true, but it’s not a very satisfying motive for working. Unless you can find a better reason than that, your life is going to be filled with drudgery. You’ll spend most of your time just trying to make it to the weekend or the next holiday or vacation, like so many others who feel that those are the only times they can really live. If the only reason you can think of to work is to make money, then I guarantee your job will be wearisome, no matter how high your salary might be.

Christians, though, have a better motivation. We work because we know we were intended to. We should do our jobs, as Paul advised the Colossian Christians, “willingly, as though you were serving the Lord himself . . . In fact, the Lord Christ is the one you are really serving, and you know that he will reward you” (vv. 23-24, cev). Christians work for the most important of reasons: because our daily labor, no matter how humble it might be, is part of our service to our Lord. Work is one of the purposes for which we were created. Do you remember how Adam and Eve were charged in the Garden of Eden with the care of the world and its creatures? Human work did not begin with the fall into sin. What happened then was that a curse came upon work, so that it sometimes became burdensome, difficult, and frustrating. Sin brought weeds and thistles into the fields; it didn’t bring Adam and Eve there. They were already assigned to the workplace. Our capacity for work is one of the things that shows we are made in God’s image.

All good and honest work, at its best, is an imitation of God’s work. We imitate his work of creation. Our creating is obviously on a different scale. It’s small and limited, but it’s still a form of creation. Whenever you work, you are helping to make something: a book, a house, a song, a product, a crop, a family. So make it supremely well, as befits one doing a God-like thing. And in our work we also imitate God’s work of providence, his maintaining and sustaining of the world and its inhabitants. It really doesn’t matter what you do. Whether you’re a prime minister or a professor, a farmer or a factory worker, if you are doing a useful job then in some way you’re sharing in God’s work of protecting, replenishing, directing, maintaining, and caring for the earth and its human family. That makes your work important, and gives it meaning.


The second question Paul addresses is how we should work. I’ve already noted that we should view our daily work as part of our service for Christ. Work does not belong to the Christian’s “secular life”; strictly speaking, biblical Christians shouldn’t divide their lives into compartments like that. We should view our whole life as sacred; it is to be lived entirely before and unto the Lord. When we live that way, our work becomes a vocation, a calling, not a job – a calling from God to serve him in a given sphere. Note for whom we ultimately work. Not for ourselves or our families, not for our boss, or our company, not even for the greater good of humankind or human society; ultimately we work for God. We serve as stewards in his creation.

And that, in itself, provides the answer to how we should work. How should you approach your job in the factory or the office or the classroom or wherever it may be? As diligently and as carefully as if you were doing it for the Lord himself – because you really are. How will you get through your day tomorrow on the floor or at the desk or behind the wheel? By remembering that you were created to help others and to care for the earth. No work that is constructive and helpful can be meaningless with an attitude like that. And that means we should work just plain hard at whatever we do, always giving it our best whether anyone is watching us or not. “Try to please [your masters] at all times, and not just when you think they are watching. You are slaves of Christ, so with your whole heart you must do what God wants you to” (Eph. 6:6, cev). We must fulfill our responsibilities honestly, rather than seeing how little we can do and still get by. That’s the Christian way to work.


Paul closes this section with a word to masters, which is really a command to all bosses everywhere. “Be fair and honest . . . Don’t forget that you have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1, cev). Every Christian occupying a position of authority must strive above all for justice and honesty. Any harsh, abusive, manipulative, or exploitative treatment is strictly forbidden by God. Most of all, “masters” are told to always remember that they too have a Master. No one has the supreme rule over anyone else. All human power is curbed, all human authority is conditional, because of the absolute authority of Christ over everyone, masters and servants alike. Even a king is servant to him.

Remembering our heavenly Master is going to help in two ways. First, it will remind us that we are accountable for our actions, especially how we treat those over whom we have been given power. Beware, employers everywhere – God will punish those who abuse their authority (see James 5:1-6). Beyond that, remembering that we are all subject to Christ will drive home the point that everyone is really equal before him. All our stations in life are temporary; all our rank is provisional. It means nothing before the Lord. In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. At the foot of the cross, or the table of the Lord, there are no masters and servants. There are only followers of Jesus.

Have you asked Christ to help you in your work? When the Lord saves us, he does more than forgive our sins and start us on the road to heaven. He begins to change the way we behave, our attitudes about the most basic things, our approach to everyday situations. He starts us living positively and productively. Do you need Christ’s help for that? It’s available.