Christ and Culture – Implications of our Text
Turning now to economic and social relations involving masters and slaves, the apostle follows the same order, beginning with the duties of those under submission and then turning to the duties of those in authority. The “servants” in question were not domestic servants that were paid for their service and might voluntarily leave. A slave in the Roman world knew nothing of what we think of “rights.” He was completely at the mercy of his master. There was no court of appeal to remedy abuses. His master was free to treat him in any way he saw fit. Disobedience on the part of one slave might often result in death for every slave in the household. The old adage that a man had as many enemies as he had slaves was due to the absolute authority that a master possessed over his “property” and the debasement of master and slave under domestic tyranny. Master and slave lived in fear. There was no social movement in those days to abolish this dreadful form of slavery, no thought that all men are equal before the law, whatever their circumstances. A slave was to do his duty without question or complaint, and his life hung daily in the hands of his owner. To this barbarous institution the gospel is now brought to bear.
In such a setting, it surprises many and greatly offends others that the Holy Spirit did not condemn slavery as it then existed but actually prescribes guidelines for its wise, sanctified, and more bearable practice. We learn from this that our Lord does not abolish our connections or responsibilities in existing legal, social, political, and economic arrangements and institutions. Rather, he transforms men so that they are able to bear injuries with meekness, live without the fear of man, and serve him in every circumstance, however difficult or dangerous. Against those who loudly and divisively proclaim that the only relevant Christian faith must seek to change society, we see here that it neither condemns nor condones slavery in any of its historical forms. It teaches men the way to practice love and justice in their individual circumstances. Our faith is not directly concerned with transforming society, therefore, but it most surely transforms men, thereby indirectly transforming society over time. Societal change, even toward a more Christian form that recognizes the claims of Christ and seeks to be governed by his law, requires that the men in that society be changed. This is true of slave and master alike, low and high.
Thus, the responsibility of the church and its ministers is not to become instigators of social change but to “know nothing except Christ, and him crucified,” proclaimed and applied in all his saving fullness. Christian citizens may certainly labor for the correction of various societal sins and abuses, but those so called and inclined must remember that true and lasting change in society requires a divine change in men’s hearts. The dead must hear the living voice of Jesus Christ calling them out of their tombs of sin and rebellion. Only then will men and nations be improved. Thus, the utopian vision and drive of social gospel advocates, busy-bodies that love to tell men how they should live, and fanatics of social change by government dictate, will always be frustrated in their attempts to effect change from the top down, for it is not the order our Lord follows. His kingdom is not of this world, and this means in practice that its methods and goals cannot be pursued effectively with a primary focus upon making this life better, even if by “better” a man means in line with the Bible. His gospel will do this, and he will establish justice and judgment in the earth, but not through the arm of man but through his gospel power.
This is foolishness in the eyes of men, who cannot imagine social change except through the power of the ballot box or the upheaval of the barricades and riots. Yet, this is the Lord’s way – to change men by his Spirit and to make them meek before his word and righteous in their dealings with one another. Short of this, you can be sure that social agitation and egalitarianism in every form are revolution against God and not his regenerating work. He sometimes raises up great men who push this along more quickly by their courage and wisdom, but they are rare. History is not the story of the great men, moreover, but of the great Savior of lost men. His kingdom is very different from the marble halls and abounding prosperity for all envisioned by the social planners and utopian dreamers. His is a kingdom primarily of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Let this kingdom take root in our hearts and in the hearts of many, and we shall see improvement in other areas over time, never perfect and always in such a way that we do not crave earthly good but God’s eternal city.
Although this this particular form of slavery does not exist in our land, the Spirit’s directives have a direct bearing upon related economic relationships, and especially upon our view of the way we go about our daily work. Relationships of authority in the workplace must be observed. Those in positions of authority must practice justice and avoid a threatening attitude toward those under them. They will stand before the Judge of the world to give an account of their use of the authority he gave them. Workers must not agitate and unite to overturn existing authority structures but see themselves as servants of Christ where he has called them (1 Cor. 7:21-22). Each one of us must remember that our earthly labors are the way we serve Jesus Christ, and therefore our work must be done heartily unto him, even if our earthly masters (bosses) are evil men. The Lord Jesus calls us to be transformed by his power into his faithful servants. He does not call us to revolt against the existing order but to see him standing behind our masters so that the good service we give them is really given to him. This is the same directive he has given previously to wives and children. The inferiors in every social and economic relationship, those under authority, will be able to endure and be faithful as they look unto Jesus and seek to please him. And if we suffer for righteousness’ sake, the Lord will deliver us as if we cry to him day and night.
Christ and Slaves – Serving Our Master by Serving Our Masters (vv. 5-8)
Obeying from the Heart (v. 5)
The Lord Jesus tells slaves to submit to him by obeying their masters with a sincere and willing heart. This would have been shocking advice then, even as it is now. How much more shocking it is when we recall that Paul commanded Onesimus, a slave whom he had led to the Lord while in prison for the gospel, to return to Philemon, his master, and that he is to receive his renegade slave as a brother! He did not justify his flight, encourage a social movement to end slavery, or give any support to the evil notion that our freedom in Christ requires our freedom from men. This is the attitude that some super-spiritualists in Corinth took – leave their spouses and run away from their masters. Giddy souls were encouraging this kind of upheaval, and they are among us no less today. Everything must be overturned. Being a Christian means being a social revolutionary. It means nothing of the kind. It requires our careful obedience. Our “masters according to the flesh” must be obeyed. We are free in the Lord. Yet, we must serve our earthly masters with fear and trembling, not fearing man but fearing the Lord of heaven and earth who stands behind them. Only by fearing him can we serve our masters or employers with “simplicity of heart,” without hypocrisy and scheming, but with mental honesty or integrity. If slaves refuse obedience to their masters, then God’s name and doctrine will be blasphemed (1 Tim. 6:1). This consideration is more important than personal liberty. Is it for us?
Seeing Ourselves as Slaves of Christ (v. 6)
But how can we avoid the common plague of our hearts – to serve, or give honor if we are children or submission if we are wives, only when the master’s eye is upon us? In relationships of superiors and inferiors, nothing is more common than to turn “man pleaser.” Slaves are fearful that they will be struck or worse and thus are careful to be obedient and respectful when their masters are watching them. Is this not the same temptation for children respecting their parents or employees of sophisticated corporations? When the boss is watching, all is diligence and industry, but when his back is turned, carelessness and complaining reign. The only remedy for this is to consider ourselves to be Christ’s faithful slaves. Wherever we are, whether men are watching us or not, he is watching us. His pleasure in our work, service, and submission must be our consuming consideration. This is God’s will, and we must do it from the heart, sincerely, desiring to please him even if our superiors treat us badly. Such an attitude requires saving faith in Jesus Christ. Unbelieving men have no love for Christ and think only in terms of making it through the day without a scolding or for more mercenary motives. We think first of our Savior and serving him in every legitimate calling and place.
Giving Service to the Lord (v. 7)
Christians ought to be the most diligent workers, not because they are slaves to their employers or fear losing their jobs but because we serve such a loving and merciful Master. Here is a compelling description of the Christian slave – “with good will doing service.” A good will is a mind free from servile fear that is conscious of its duty to Christ and that the service given to men is given to him, if it is done with sincerity and love. Does the Lord expect miracles from us? We are only men. “Superiors” at every level can be dictatorial and harsh. We are constantly fed the lie of “rights,” and many professing believers succumb to the discontented spirit of the age. The Lord Jesus performs a wondrous miracle in us. He changes our entire perspective toward men and our work, so that instead of it being drudgery, it becomes a joy because it is done unto him. This is truly revolutionary. When embraced, it has given rise to improved economic relations between masters and servants, encouraged a God-honoring work ethic, and leavened society, far more than the man-made revolutions that focus upon changing social conditions rather than changing the men living in them. Let love for Christ flourish in your soul, child of God, and you can serve with cheerfulness even the surly and conniving men that rule over you (1 Pet. 2:18).
Remembering our Reward (v. 8)
This attitude is possible only if we keep our promised reward constantly before the eyes of faith. Some speak of a reward as beneath the Christian. They say that “duty for duty’s sake” is the preferred approach, or that for them the love of Christ is enough. Most of us are not this angelic, and the Lord knows it! The Lord regularly tells us to look to our heavenly reward as a strong motivation to serve him in the midst of difficulty (Matt. 5:12; 6:4; 16:27; Mark 10:30; Luke 6:23; 1 Cor. 3:8; Col. 3:24; Heb. 10:35; Rev. 11:18). Any good a man does to another, even if only a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus, will be rewarded (Mark 9:41). Rewards do not make Christ’s disciples mercenary. Love for Christ looks to the reward because it looks to Christ and trusts his word and longs for his approval. Its most fervent desire is to please him and to obtain the crown of life from his hand (Rev. 2:10). There is no thought here of meriting salvation but of being so struck by his love and grace that we aspire to the crown he offers us, so that we may then cast it back at his feet and worship him as our life! Never does a believer wish to “offer unto the Lord that which cost him nothing.” A believer’s earthly life may be nothing but thankless toil. He may never have much more than his daily bread. But a great vindication is coming, an hour of glory and honor before the judgment seat of Christ. The alternative is the horror of his judgment and condemnation to everlasting hell. So, yes, we must consider carefully and meditate longingly upon our appearing before our Savior and the reward he has promised. This pertains as much to freemen as to slaves. We must all appear before his judgment seat, to receive the things done in the body. We would be able to endure more on earth if our Savior’s promised reward endured more in our thoughts.
Our heavenly reward, the crown of life, is so often held out to us that it is a wonder that we think of it so little. It is past time for us to recover a sense of wonder and holy fear that we shall soon stand before our Savior. The hour is soon coming when the books will be opened. Yet, we have grown too distracted by earthly things, too concerned whether we shall have sufficient savings to live upon when our working days are over. We forget that our reward is largely determined by the spirit with which we went about our work. Did we serve Christ with our hands, or with technical skills, or with literary ability? Did we stand where he called us and attempt to be faithful and in some cases to do great things according to the talents he gives? Or, did we stand pat, determine simply to survive until we could escape the toils of life and then do as we please? You must, child of God, especially in this consumerist age, turn from the lies and distractedness of an earth-bound vision to regular, fervent consideration of your meeting with Jesus Christ. You will receive from his hand either “Well done” or be saved as it were by fire, with your works being burned up, because you built upon another foundation (1 Cor. 3:15). All those who believe in the Lord Jesus will obtain heaven, but not all will be equally rewarded. Give your most diligent service to the Lord Jesus, and he will crown you. He will not judge you according to what you do not have but by the talents and opportunities he has given you. Do not waste them. Do not neglect to stir up the gift that is in you, the graces of his Spirit, or the hope of your heavenly reward. Think of it often, passionately, and expectantly. Our Savior’s approval and rewards are set before us so that we shall aspire to the life to come and its blessedness, not live on earth as if our soul is ensconced in concrete and unable to move toward heaven because we are so bound to the earth. Faith can overcome the world only if its affections are set on what is beyond the world.
Christ and Masters – Serving Our Master by Serving Our Servants (v. 9)
It is almost unparalleled that the Holy Spirit would direct Christian masters to “do the same things to their slaves.” Following this would turn economics and industries upside down. Does not the master’s position afford him with greater rights and liberty to do as he pleases? No; it gives him a greater authority and responsibility to practice the same love and justice as his servants. In the related Colossians passage, this phrase “do the same things” is more fully explained as “that which is just and equal” (4:1). The master of slaves or the manager of men is directed to practice the strictest justice in the treatment of those under him. He is not free to treat them as he pleases, to treat them as dogs, or to use threats to coerce or motivate them. Interestingly, if Christian masters are not to threaten their slaves, how much less are parents to threaten their children or husbands their wives.
We are of a very different spirit than the children of this world (Luke 9:55). Instead of a demeaning, threatening, or abusive attitude and treatment of those under us, masters at whatever level are to remember one thing – they have a Master in heaven. Earthly authority must thus submit to the heavenly authority, Jesus Christ, and consider pleasing him according to his word as its guide. In effect, this means that Masters serve Christ by serving their servants, by treating them with the justice and care that they would treat Jesus Christ himself. All who are given authority will give an accounting when the Son of Man returns from his journey. He will call his servants, bond and free, before him, and a careful reckoning will be made. Those who knew their Master’s will and did not do it will be beaten with many stripes. It is not a question of “losing one’s salvation,” as if it were a coin in the pocket. It is a question of knowing and serving Christ in every station of life and remembering that whatever men may think, we shall make an accounting to him of what he has given to us.
This is part of the true revolution of the Christian faith, and it is carried forward to this moment in the lives and circumstances of those in whom the living Christ is loved and obeyed. We often want the “great change” to occur, a sudden event that will right all wrongs and institute an earthly paradise. It will never happen. The true revolution occurs in the man who is mistreated by his employer but who continues to do his work for Christ with a joyful heart. It occurs when we take seriously that we are the slaves of Christ and endeavor to please him especially in the most trying of circumstances. His living presence is manifested by the spirit in which we perform our daily work and the way we treat those under or above us. If we want the world to change, let us pray that the breath of our Savior’s mouth will quicken our hearts to render him joyful service. Let us labor, pray, speak, and give for the gospel to transform men. The fullness of the Gentiles will be brought into the church; the nations will flow in it, as we have seen occurring for two millennia now. Let us compel men to take the claims of Christ seriously by being transformed by him in every circumstance. Let the cry of our heart and the spirit of our work be, “Thy will be done,” and the Lord will reward our faithfulness and hasten the fuller coming of his kingdom.