This passage is not a defence of slavery. It’s worth stating that at the start; as we saw yesterday, Paul is acutely conscious of the perceived danger of Christ to the social order – putting the church itself at risk (more widespread persecution is beginning, indeed may have already begun, by this time).
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Christians numbered a tiny percentage of the population, and many were expecting the return of Jesus very soon – there was no sense in the first decades of the church that its role was to challenge established power structures, save in the implicit challenge each church provided by the way that it lived within its own community. So, slaves and their masters were expected to relate as peers within the church family, but the early Christian leaders were pragmatic that this was not going to be the norm in the culture around them.
So, what’s the best advice that Paul can give to these relationships, once the Sunday church meeting was over? The overarching principle is the same for everyone: we serve a higher Master. This Master not only sees the work we do, but gives value to all work – so all work can be a sacrament i.e. dedicated to God, and done for his glory.
Masters – or bosses, we could say in today’s world – should treat their workers well, because they too have a Divine Boss (4:1). And here we could add that Paul probably knew the saying of Jesus that ‘with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ He applied it elsewhere to generosity, but here it underpins his advice to bosses – you reap what you sow.
Similarly, slaves – and I think we can legitimately apply this to all workers now – should work obediently, not because their boss/master deserves it, necessarily, and definitely not to serve their own ambition, but because we serve a higher Master/Boss: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.’ (v23) And there’s a promise that goes with it – if we seek only recognition from God, then ‘you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a result.’ (v24)
This passage has long been precious to me, as I had a normal working career for twelve years before ordination, and Paul’s advice dignifies all work as being done for the glory of God. There is no hierarchy of value, where, say, bosses do more important work than workers, or church leaders more important work than the people in the congregation. It’s all for God, and God can bless all of it. In that sense, all work is ministry if it’s done for the Lord.
May God bless each of us in our work, doing whatever we do with all our heart, for the glory of God. Amen.