As Christians, we know we are called to submit to those in authority above us. Romans 13:2 is just one of many verses in the Bible that points to this: “Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” In showing honor to those who have authority over us, we show honor to God – the one who, by His perfect will, has ordained those in authority over us in the first place.
But what do we do with verses in the Bible that tell us to obey earthly authorities who do not seem worthy to be in positions of authority? Ephesians 6:5-7 tells us, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”
These verses might seem to directly contrast with the notion that our God is one of justice. How could he tell slaves, through His word, that the rule they are under is one that they should submit to?
Here, a closer look at the passage’s wording has helped bring me clarity. It is not that Paul is condoning the practice of slavery. Instead, he is taking slavery, a common institution at that time (and one that looked nothing like the Trans-Atlantic slave trade we are familiar with today), and showing that, even for the least of these, he cares about the heart behind our work.
In telling slaves to do their work with sincerity of heart, he is not saying that the practice of slavery is a good one, or that it is pleasing to the Lord in any way. But he is saying that even in this kind of toil, the way that slaves approach their work matters to God. Paul does not give details about the type of work the slaves are doing, or the skill-level of the slaves. Instead, the particular aspects of this work that he points out are those of the heart.
In this a beautiful message can be seen: slaves are not mere victims. In their very humanity, they have a God-given dignity that comes with being made in His image. This dignity means that their heart-attitude towards their everyday toil matters – no matter what that toil entails, or to whom it is submitted. In describing how slaves should do their work, Paul describes not the work itself, but the attitude one brings to the work – “respect and fear,” “sincerity of heart,” and “doing the will of God from your heart” are some of the key phrases used.
What does this mean for Christians today? Slavery might be abolished, but this passage still has much meaning for us, if we look carefully. From the very beginning of the Bible, work is talked about extensively. After Creation, the very first thing God does is give humanity a task: to cultivate the garden He has created. This is no accident. God did work in creating the world, and we carry on this work in His image because it is part of what He created us to do. He created us to be creators!
However, the world of work is not perfect. Some people love their jobs, and some people hate their jobs. Some people find great purpose in the work they do, and others are stuck in dead-end careers where they can see no light at the end of the tunnel. Some people see their bosses as mentors to look up to, and some people would be quite fine if their bosses were fired tomorrow.
Yet Ephesians 6:5-9 remains true every day. We have dignity in whatever work we do. Whether or not those in authority over us are shining examples of Christian leadership, we can recognize that Jesus’ kingdom is not one of this world. In this, we should respectfully submit to the authorities he has placed over us with hearts that embrace not the will of our bosses, but the will of the Lord – seeking to help His kingdom flourish through our work.
Over the next two weeks, five guest authors consider our modern world in light of Ephesians 6:5-9 in Missio on Work:
- On Wednesday, Andy Pitts looks at contentment in the workplace in The Impactful Intern
- On Friday, Ryan Burns takes an honest look at what drives us in Motivated by Praise
- Next Monday, Stanton Coman wrestles with feeling enslaved to work in The Freedom to be Free
- Next Wednesday, Lauren Harrington reflects on her past and future, as it pertains to enduring in good works in Stamina to Serve
- Next Friday, Baylee Molloy discusses human-trafficking and modern day slavery in An Economy of Grace
Kate Moody is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program