Bondservants, 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. 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. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.
Masters, treat your bondservants1justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.
– Colossians 3:22-4:1
The nature of principles is sometimes a tricky proposition when trying to figure out what is relevant to our own context. Take for example Paul’s admonition to slaves and masters in Colossians 3:22-4:1. This is hard because in the sphere of normal life for many of us we have no context to think in connection with the idea of masters and slaves. But here are the characteristics that help us understand how it applies to us.
Masters & slaves N/A – we don’t use that language
Masters own slaves’ (Lev. 25:46) people do not own people in our culture
Masters have authority over slaves people can have authority over others today
Masters pay slaves to work companies pay people to work for them.
Masters provide for slaves – e.g. shelter, food companies provide benefits employees
Masters are to care for slaves companies are to care for their employees
So when we look at this list above we begin to see how principles surface as we find characteristics of one cultural situation and seek to find out how it connects in the same or similar way in our culture. While certain aspects of the master / slave relationship is not applicable like the ownership component with our culture, there are similar elements of that master / slave relationship that do parallel our cultural context. The idea that a master has authority, pays his slaves and provides certain benefits are important to note. In our context of an employer / employee share enough common ground or characteristics to draw principles from that world to apply to our world.
These commonalities or characteristics need to be sufficient in quantity and quality to establish relevant connection. How many characteristics does it need to have enough common ground to be relevant? Good question. It usually has to be more than one and the more substantive commonalities one can find the better.
Masters had the responsibility to protect slaves companies must protect employees from exploitation.
Masters have the right to discipline slaves companies can discipline inappropriate behavior
The more characteristics found in relationships or responsibilities of the master / slave paradigm in the Old and New Testament the greater the weight of relevance for our own context. In both contexts we find people who live under the authority of another, they are paid, protected and provided for their time and effort. This bestmatches an employer / employee relationship in our context. If the characteristics that by nature, define the biblical context do notmatch our context outweigh those that do connect with our situation, then we have to be more careful about forcing the relevance to our own context. Much of this has to do about what kind of principle you are trying to discover… I do mean discover. Too many people try and force common ground between cultural contexts and this weakens the principle.
There are other possible contexts that the master / slave relationship could apply to. For example, our education systemhas very similar characteristics to the master / slave biblical context. Some of you will say, “Far more than you know – we actually feellike slaves because many of us don’t want to be there, doing work that is not important to us and these teachers are dictators who make us do a bunch of stuff I don’t want to do… sounds like High School not necessarily college.
Now there are some characteristics that drop off here. The idea of being paid for time is not relevant in our context so the question here is the absence of this characteristic make this null and void? It could depending on how much weight or influence of being paid and provided for defines the nature of this relationship. Certainly, being paid and provided for seems to be a significant component of a master / slave relationship. But there are other characteristics that do not change: young people are to respect and listen to teachers because they are the authority in that context; they are training you with life skills to operate in the world and thus making some kind of provision for you. Teachers are to protect and care for their students and have the authority to discipline individuals (well sort of) when they are inappropriate towards others.
One can argue that there is sufficient number of characteristics to warrant establishing a principle that would apply to students in our education system. But this is where the text helps us immensely. Notice how Paul charges and challenges the slaves:
- Slaves are to be obedient to those who have authority over them (v. 22)
- Slaves are to obey, not just to please (or appease) earthly masters but out of fear of the Lord (v. 22)
- Slaves are to put their whole heart into their work as if they are serving the Lord not just the master (v. 22)
- Slaves are to do their work with the conviction that regardless of their master, their ultimate master is the Lord Jesus (v. 23).
- Slaves who sincerely serve the Lord in whatever circumstance they find themselves under human authority will receive a reward from the Lord (v. 24).
We see that the nature of Paul’s challenges is about having a more eternal perspective about any authority they are living under presently. Consequently, these truths would fit very well under any situation that we are doing work or working under any authority who asks us to do something. We can serve the Lord in it or we can simply appease our human authority. I believe this is very applicable to any situation where we live under any kind of human authority – work, school, government, home, club, team or whatever.
These truths can help us rise above our human work context or school situation regardless if we have good employer or they are really irritating. This is how God calls us to live whether we like our work or hate it; as long as we choose to work under that authority we are called by God to serve Him in that context.
Have fun discovering principles from His Word
In His grace,