Summary: Christians have responsibilities in the workplaces, both as employers and employees.
In the passage that was read a few moments ago from the book of Colossians, Paul’s teaching was accompanied by a great deal of tension. It’s hard for us to even imagine today the vast extent of slavery in the first century and just how cruel it was. Ancient historians estimate that there were about 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire, which was about one-third to one-half the population. Because of this, work was considered beneath the dignity of the slave-owning free man. Practically everything was done by slaves. They worked in the household, they worked in the factories, they worked in the fields. Some slaves were even doctors and teachers.
Though there was occasionally a good relationship between the master and slave, basically the life of a slave was a miserable one. In both Greek and Roman cultures, most slaves had no legal rights and were treated as pieces of property. A Roman by the name of Varro once wrote that a slave is no better than a beast of the field who just happens to talk. Ancient tradition classified slaves as things, living tools. One Roman writer said, "Old slaves should be thrown on a dump, and when a slave is ill do not feed him anything. It is not worth your money. Take sick slaves and throw them away because they are nothing but inefficient tools."
Gaius, a Roman lawyer, said, "We may note that it is universally accepted that the master possesses the power of life and death over a slave." If a slave ran away, he was branded on the forehead with the letter F for "fugitivus" and sometimes even put to death, with no trial. The situation of slaves in general wasn’t good, and for some of them it was terrible.
With that kind of attitude prevalent in the ancient world, it’s not hard to imagine how slaves felt about their masters. It doesn’t come as a surprise that slave revolts were common, sometimes involving tens of thousands of slaves at a time.
So right in the midst of this tension between masters and slaves, Paul has some very clear and practical instructions for Christians on both sides of the issue.
Thank God, slavery is no longer a part of our own culture. And there might be a tendency to think that Paul’s words really don’t mean much anymore. But I would suggest to you this morning that Paul’s teaching does have an application today as we consider our relationship not as masters and slaves, but as employers and employees.
That’s not to say that the relationships are exactly the same, not at all. But the application of Paul’s teaching does relate to the situations we find ourselves in. We live in an age where there’s still a lot of struggle that goes on between labor and management, between the employer and the employees.
Conflicts go on all the time, with each side accusing the other of selfishness and unreasonableness. Employees want smaller work loads, fewer hours, more vacation, and more pay and benefits. Employers want more productivity and more profits. What’s the solution, from God’s point of view? How should a Christian conduct himself on the job? How should he handle the problems that will inevitably come up?
I think it’s significant that we have a Christian responsibility in the workplace just as surely as we have a responsibility in our times of worship together. Following Christ is not a part-time job. You don’t leave your Christianity on the front doorstep of the church building when you leave. You take it with you into your home and into your workplace. So when problems come up at work, it’s just like when problems come up in the home -- the solution has to begin with God.
In every aspect of human life God’s plan is one of authority and submission, and those two pillars form the bedrock of relations, not only in the home, but at work as well. To avoid chaos, somebody has to lead, and others have to follow. In that regard, Paul’s instructions to masters and slaves are very similar to his instructions for husbands and wives, and parents and children.
It’s important from the outset to recognize that God’s plan for authority is not based on superiority. Just because husbands have authority over their wives doesn’t mean they’re superior. Just because parents have authority over their children doesn’t mean they’re superior. It just means that God has a plan of authority and submission.
The same was true of masters and slaves in the first century, and the same is true of employers and employees today. You may sit on the pew right next to your supervisor here on Sunday mornings and you stand before God as equals. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28). But when you go to work on Monday morning, your relationship with that man changes. It’s all a matter of authority and submission.