Who was the worst boss you ever had? I suspect a name and a face come quickly to mind. In fact, bad leaders are easy to remember. While some of us might be good at remembering the good in others, it’s remembering the bad that comes all too easy. We remember how much it hurt when a boss slighted us, or mistreated us, or rejected us. When this happens, what are we supposed to? How does one work for a bad boss? Because let’s admit it, there are many bad bosses.
One option is to simply make fun of the boss. Movies do this all the time: they lampoon incompetent leaders, whether it’s Brave Sir Robin in Monty Python running away or crazy General Custer in Night at the Museum concocting terrible battle plans — we love to make fun of bad leaders in real life, too. Another enticing option is to make an example out of them. The media leads the way, every day, in this effort, outing leaders for bad behavior: whether it’s professional sports teams’ leadership or CEOs or political leaders, we are encouraged to feel superior to these bad leaders in our society.
And yet, neither of those options are ultimately fully satisfying. Making fun of leaders is good in the short-term but doesn’t resolve our long-term pain and frustration. Making an example of them may work on the national level, but what about when your bad leader is an unfair low-level manager or an inept supervisor, not someone worthy of national news?
Although this is in many ways a particularly modern problem, I genuinely believe an ancient text gives us what we need to work through this faithfully. 1 Peter 2:18-25 both challenges and helps us. In this passage, Peter doesn’t really allow for the option of making fun of bad leaders or making an example out of them. Instead, in prose that stings our ears, he commands us to “be subject” to our leaders with “all respect…not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.”
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:18–25, ESV)
If we’re honest, that sounds like a really bad idea. After all, what possible difference would this make?
One of the most encouraging aspects of the Bible is its willingness and ability to honestly describe the reality of the world around us. This passage is no different. 1 Peter 2:18–25 opens with an acknowledgement of a horrific reality in the ancient world, one that gives us insight into our reality today. It opens with the words, “Servants, be subject to your masters.” You can be forgiven if you have no desire to read further than these simple words. But before we dismiss Peter’s wisdom for us, it’s crucial to understand what he is saying about the reality of the sin of slavery.
This is not the only place in the New Testament where slaves are instructed to obey or submit to their masters. The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 6, directs ‘slaves’ or ‘bondservants’ to obey their masters with “fear and trembling and a sincere heart.” What are we to make of passages like the ones Peter and Paul wrote? As is the case in much of our ‘Twitter discourse’ today, it’s all too easy to isolate one sentence from the larger corpus in which it is found. We can go to the widest view and see Scripture as a whole. When we do, we realize that Christians who have used these passages as a justification for slavery, have ignored most of the Bible to get to such an understanding. Indeed, you cannot get through the end of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible without being confronted by the assertion that every human being is made in God’s image, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, or class.
But if this is true — that the wider testimony of Scripture makes clear the reality that slavery is sinful – then why does Peter seem to be tolerating slavery rather than condemning it on the spot? Why does Peter command these servants to obey when he could tell them to stand up for themselves? Or, better yet, why doesn’t Peter tell the masters to let their slaves go free? Wouldn’t that approach avoid all this confusion over the centuries? Those are fair questions. But they fail to appreciate just how radical Peter’s words actually were at the time.
The reality of the Greco-Roman world when Peter was writing his letter was a worldview that did not see slaves as people to be addressed; they were property. Aristotle called slaves “talking tools” and “a property with a soul.” It is into this reality that Peter is writing. In this context, the fact that Peter took time and space in his letter to address slaves directly sent a powerful message to all who heard it. For the slaves, consider the wonder of being spoken to by an apostle. For the masters, realize the consternation of having their “talking tools” addressed as if they had capacity to reason and inestimable spiritual value.
There is much more we could — and should — say about this topic, but those thoughts are for another article. But it’s important to start to bring this passage to bear on our current context; this passage addresses not only the sin of slavery, but the slavery of work.
Immediately and clearly, we must be very careful about casually using the language of slavery to talk about our professional lives. And yet, the fact is, all of us talk this way about our work in one way or another. We refer to our work hours as “inhumane.” We talk about being “chained to a desk” or having no “free time” because we are always at practice or always at school or always on-call. Or we are concerned that we feel “stuck” in our job, unable to retire or transfer or quit. And on top of all that, we feel like our boss or our teacher or our coach is overly harsh and way-too-demanding and seriously uncool.
As we consider this reality, the question is not so much “what is the reality of working for bad bosses,” but rather, “how might we respond to this reality?”
Peter gives us two commands. That word, commands, is helpful to remember as we wade into these waters — Peter’s words are not suggestions, or helpful hints. He gives commands for how Christians are called to respond to the leaders — bad bosses and good bosses — in their close circle.
Peter’s first word to those of us experiencing this reality is to stay with respect. The verb “to submit” in verse 18 literally means “to arrange yourself under.” So, Peter is telling us to arrange ourselves actively, intentionally, and willfully under the authority of another; not with gritted teeth and a grumbling heart and passive-aggression turned up to the max — but with all respect.
Now, this challenges a common assumption we have about life (yes, even those of us who are Christians). We often assume that if the place we are in isn’t our happy place, it’s not the place God wants us. False! For one thing, the difficult place you are in may be doing a lot of people a lot of good. For example, some of you, as a middle manager, are taking the heat from upper management on behalf of your subordinates. You are like the heat shield on the bottom of the Apollo 13 Command Module. If you were to leave, the people who work under you would suffer! So, you stay! Or maybe others of you are paying your dues right now. You’re overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated. But better days are coming, when you will be able to steward your God-given skills and experiences much more effectively. So, you stay!
Those are some of the good reasons to stay in a difficult station. But, in case you’re wondering, that doesn’t mean you should always stay. In his book Work, Dr. Dan Doriani points out that the Apostle Paul gave this advice to slaves who convert to Christianity in 1 Corinthians 7. First, he says, “stay where you are”; but then he adds, “unless if you can gain your freedom, in which case, do it!” Because you are free in Christ, even if you are a slave. From this passage, and others like it, Doriani encourages us to think through our present work situations through this lens of Stay-Unless-Because. Stay where you are, Unless there is a reason to change, Because of any overriding goal.
All that to say, we shouldn’t hear Peter prohibiting ever leaving or transferring or quitting. Rather, he is challenging us to consider how staying where we are, with respect, brings honor to God and help to others.
We are to stay with respect; but we should also endure with grace. Just when we escaped from verse 18 (finally!), we have to contend with verse 19, which tells us that it is a “gracious thing” in the sight of God when we suffer unjustly. It’s important that we read that verse correctly: there is some suffering we completely deserve. If you embezzle funds from your clients, you deserve to go to jail. If you talk back to your teacher, you deserve to go to the principal’s office. God is not impressed with that. Because there’s nothing noble or commendable about enduring suffering you deserve.
However, Peter says there is something commendable about enduring suffering you don’t deserve. To unpack this thought, Peter lifts his readers eyes from their current situation and connects it with something bigger.
Peter states his reason in verse 21: “For to this you have been called [that is, to this difficult situation], because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” This is not complicated for Peter. And it shouldn’t be complicated for those of us who call ourselves “Christians”: we submit to bad leaders…because Jesus submitted to bad leaders. Particularly in the last hours of his life. When he was beaten, and mocked, and eventually killed. And he endured it all without sinning against his enemies or reviling them or threatening them.
Notice how much Peter slows down at this point in the passage. Yes, it’s important to know how to follow bad leaders. But it’s just as important (if not more important) to know why. And this, he says, is why: because the Savior we follow walked this path himself. He is not asking us to do something he hasn’t already done. Jesus went first. And now Peter’s clear expectation is that we go next. A natural question follows from this. What do I need to learn from Jesus’ example of suffering? And maybe another question: Where do I need to apply those lessons right now?
We began with the observation that it’s shockingly easy for all of us to remember our bad bosses. I’m sure you can think of at least a few off the top of your head. I know that’s true for me. Do you know who didn’t make my list? Myself. I didn’t even consider myself until I remembered a story from my days as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
I was walking by an office one afternoon and, behind closed doors, one of my soldiers was in the middle of an angry rant about one of the officers in our company. He was going on and on about how this officer never followed through and never looked out for his soldiers and never thought about anyone but himself. As I’m listening, I’m thinking, “Yikes! I’d hate to be that guy…” And then I realized, I was that guy. This soldier was talking about me. Now, I don’t recall if everything he said was fair or even true; but he made some good points. I may not have been a bad boss, but I was far from perfect.
As we interact with our own bad bosses and then look to Peter’s letter for some guidance, we must remember that this man calling us to follow our leaders, whether good or bad or somewhere in-between, knew that he himself was far from perfect. He is not commanding people to follow leaders from a place of moral superiority or sheltered arrogance. Peter is commanding us from a realization that he was a failure too. Peter can only say this as someone who has heard his own name as who Jesus died for. And he is inviting us into that realization.
Peter is saying, “I know that what Jesus did was not just an example. Jesus did this for me!” He was there when Jesus was being reviled and insulted and mocked. And Peter witnessed these things not as someone who stood up for Jesus, but as someone who abandoned Jesus. When Jesus needed Peter the most, Peter bailed on him. Peter is speaking of Jesus’ greatest victory, but also of his own greatest failure. Peter didn’t work for a bad boss. Peter was a bad boss. And so are we.
Peter is not calling us to follow bad leaders so that we can feel better than they are. We follow bad leaders because we know, down deep, we are sinners and failures like they are. When this feels impossible, we remember the good news. This is the good news for us: Jesus died for bad leaders and bad followers alike. He went to the cross to save revilers and bailers and failures — like you and me. We can remember with Peter: When we follow bad leaders with respect, we show them more than grace. We show them Jesus.