Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Authority, Part 4)
March 5, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Authority, Part 4)
So far in this series we’ve looked at parental and governmental authority. In this article, we will look at another aspect of authority in regard to the relationship between employers and employees. Looking to Scripture for guidance regarding the authority of employers isn’t as straightforward as parental or governmental authority, because in both Old and New Testament times, slavery existed, and during the New Testament period it was widespread throughout the Roman Empire. There are good books available today which present a modern Christian perspective on employer/employee relationships; the focus here is on drawing from the text of the New Testament, and in that limited context, there are references to slavery.
The New Testament assumes that the buying and selling of human beings is a sin. In one of the apostle Paul’s lists of sins he includes enslavers,1 translated from the Greek word for a slave dealer or man stealer. Paul also stated that in Christ, all people, including slaves, are equal in the eyes of God:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.2
In the book of Philemon, Paul wrote about a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had become a Christian and was a great help to him. He was sending Onesimus back to his owner, Philemon, requesting that he treat him as a brother rather than as a slave.
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. … I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. … Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.3
Paul was clearly pointing out to Philemon that, as a Christian, he was to practice slavery no longer.
Paul’s writings influenced many later Christians to free slaves. During the second and third centuries, many early Christians freed their slaves in ceremonies conducted in churches. St. Augustine saw slavery as the product of sin and contrary to God’s divine plan. St. Chrysostom, in the fourth century, preached that when Christ came, He annulled slavery. He wrote:
In Christ Jesus there is no slave …. Therefore it is not necessary to have a slave … Buy them, and after you have taught them some skill by which they can maintain themselves, set them free.4
The ESV Study Bible states:
Paul urges Christian slaves who can gain freedom to do so. Paul does not condone the system of slavery, but instead provides instructions to believing masters and slaves regarding their relationship to each other in the Lord, and how this should be lived out within the bounds of their social and legal culture. The result, as is often observed, is that slavery slowly died out in antiquity through the influence of Christianity.5
In the New Testament, the Greek word doulos is translated as either bondservant, servant, or slave, depending on the Bible one is using and the context of the Bible verse. The ESV Bible translate doulos as slave when it expresses ownership by a master.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?6
However, it translates the word as bondservant when it is referring to a more limited form of servitude.
Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.7
Often it is translated as servant, such as in Jesus’ parable of the talents:
It will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.8
Such bondservants had a higher status and greater economic security than a day laborer who had to seek work each day in the marketplace. They were “bound” by law to their employers for a specific amount of time, usually to repay a debt, and were freed when the debt was paid. Many tutors, physicians, nurses, and managers of households were bondservants, as were managers of estates, shops, ships, as well as administrators of funds and personnel, along with executives with decision-making powers.9 In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the parable of the servants (doulos) who were given stewardship of five, two, and one talents, with a talent being equivalent to $600,000 USD today, which indicates that at least in some instances, doulos were managers who were greatly trusted.
The apostle Paul wrote about being kind and loving toward others in general, and he specifically commanded those who owned slaves to treat them fairly. This doesn’t mean he agreed with or approved of the system of slavery; rather, he addressed the situation that existed at that time by giving godly instructions to both slave owners and those in bondage. While the master and slave/bondservant/servant system of ancient times and contemporary employer and employee relationships are very different for the most part, we can find some general principles in Paul’s writings that provide guidance to both employers and employees in today’s workplace.
Employers, supervisors, managers, and bosses are to treat their employees fairly. This is reflected in Paul’s teaching:
Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.10
From Paul’s command, we conclude that employers who don’t treat their workers fairly will be called to account by the ultimate boss, God Himself, if not in their lifetime, then in the hereafter. This also expresses the understanding that if employers treat their employees justly, God will be pleased with them and will reward them. We also find other counsel that Paul gave bosses:
Stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.11
Those with authority in the workplace should remember that they are accountable to God for how they treat their employees. They may have higher positions, they may be wealthier, they may be pillars of society, but that will mean nothing when they stand before God, as God is no respecter of persons.12 He doesn’t show favoritism, and we are all equal before Him.
Within the workplace and within the duties and responsibilities of workers, employees are called to submit to the authority of their employers by obeying legitimate instructions in regard to their work. This is reflected in the writings of the apostle Paul:
Obey your earthly masters … with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.13
Obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.14
Of course, employees are not expected to obey their employers “in everything,” but when it comes to the job they are hired to do, they should faithfully follow their employers’ instructions regarding the work they are being paid to do, and do the work well. The apostle Peter wrote something similar:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.15
Even if your employer isn’t the type of person you like, you are ethically responsible to perform the duties of the job you were hired for.
Employers rightly have authority over employees regarding their work during work hours. They are authorized by the owners of the business (or are the owners), and they bear responsibility for the success of the business. Unlike slaves, employees have chosen to work for an employer, and they can leave their jobs if they see fit to do so. While employees are ethically bound to follow the instructions of their employers, they are not under obligation to obey if the employer directs them to do something that is morally wrong, breaks the law, or goes beyond the contract or agreement of what the job entails. If the boss tells the employee to lie to a customer, or to alter the financial records, or in some other way do something which is unethical and causes them to break God’s moral laws or the laws of the land, the employee should refuse to do so.
The apostle Paul told bondservants to avoid being argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith.16 The Greek word nosphizō, which is translated as pilfering, means to embezzle, to withdraw covertly, or appropriate for one’s own use. As such, employees should not steal from their employers. Employee theft comes in many varieties, including outright stealing of products or money, wasting time while at work, giving friends unauthorized discounts, billing for time that was not used for work, taking office supplies from the workplace, etc.
One article states:
A long held belief in fraud prevention companies is something called the 10-10-80 rule. This shows that 10% of employees will never steal, 10% will always steal, and 80% will go either way depending on the opportunity.17
As Christians, we should belong to the 10% who never steal, for we are called to be honest, trustworthy, and faithful.
Paul also put forth the concept that bondservants should consider themselves as working not just to please their earthly masters, but rather as working for Christ Himself, knowing that they will be rewarded by Him.
Obey ... 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.18
He makes a similar point in the book of Colossians, and also includes:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.19
The idea that the job one holds, the work one does, is considered service to the Lord is an important concept to understand. It gives dignity to honest work, and encourages individuals to diligently work hard, to be faithful in their duties. Work is not a curse from God, as He ordained work before sin entered the world. Prior to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we are told:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.20
Jesus Himself worked, as a carpenter.
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?21
The Greek word tekton, translated as carpenter, can also be translated artisan or builder. Jesus had a marketable skill and He used it for most of His adult life. Clearly it was His Father’s will for Him to work, and He undoubtedly did it with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.
Being a good employee doesn’t mean that one doesn’t stand up for their rights or the rights of others. If a worker feels they have been treated wrongly or unfairly, if the employer has made promises which are unfulfilled, if the working conditions are unsafe, the employee has the right to point such things out with the expectation that the problem will be remedied.
According to the fifth commandment, we are to Honor your father and your mother.22 This commandment lays out the concept of human authority which we are obliged to submit to. It includes fully obeying one’s parents as a younger child and showing them love and respect as one grows into adulthood. It means obeying the laws of the civil government where we live, as Jesus instructed His disciples to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.23 And, though it doesn’t specifically state it in Scripture, we can infer that we are responsible to comply with our employer’s legitimate instructions in the workplace.
There is a wide variety of legitimate authority within the world God created. As much as possible we, as Christians, should do our best to honor it and thank God for it.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 1 Timothy 1:10.
2 Galatians 3:28.
3 Philemon 1:10, 12, 15–17 NIV.
4 Points taken from Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 274.
5 ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 2201, 2273, 2353.
6 Romans 6:16.
7 1 Corinthians 7:21–22.
8 Matthew 25:14.
9 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 489.
10 Colossians 4:1.
11 Ephesians 6:9.
12 Acts 10:34 KJV.
13 Ephesians 6:5.
14 Colossians 3:22.
15 1 Peter 2:18.
16 Titus 2:9–10.
18 Ephesians 6:5–8.
19 Colossians 3:22–24.
20 Genesis 2:15.
21 Mark 6:3.
22 Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16.
23 For more about a Christian’s relationship with civil government, see Living Christianity, The Ten Commandments: Authority Parts Two and Three, Governmental Authority.