Faith and the Workplace

May 20th, 2018 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor

 Ephesians 6:5-9

Today, In our Master Plan Series (Ephesians 4-6) discussing building healthy relationships, we look at Paul’s instructions for how our faith should affect our work in Eph. 6:5-9. However, to understand these teachings, we must look deeper into the meaning because Paul speaks of employment by using the currently provocative, even offensive, term of slavery:  

“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.”  Eph. 6:5-9

I. Concept of slavery in the New Testament

A. Slavery in Paul’s day was broader (not as abusive as we know it), in the number of slaves, in the range of slaves’ work, in the many causes of slavery (usually not racial), and even in regards to the length of time slaves served.

B. Paul in Eph. 6:5-9, is not talking about the big picture of whether or not slavery should exist in society. Slavery was contrary to Christian ideals/values, and later Christianity would be a major force in the undoing of slavery. Instead Paul here is telling believers how to cope in the midst of their current, broken situation…. with slavery (which God hates) as a cultural norm.

C. The New Testament clearly teaches that the rewards of eternity far outweigh this present world with its many injustices. Jesus said that believers who suffer for the kingdom of God rejoice and are blessed because “great is [their] reward in heaven” (Mtt.5:16).

II. Application of how faith should show up in our lives in our workplace

A. Serve well. (Eph. 6:5)  We should be the best workers (e.g.,respectfully following orders) and bosses (e.g.,paying fair wages & showing employee recognition) in the world.

B. Serve when no one is looking. (Eph. 6:6) Be a witness to Christ by working wholeheartedly and with integrity.

C. Serve for God’s reward. (Eph. 6:7-8) God levels the playing field in this world between those who are over and those who are under authority; both have God as the ultimate authority for reward and “there is no favoritism with Him” (Eph. 6:9), “whether he is slave or free” (Eph. 6:8)

Whether our work situation is just or unjust, may our faith find its way solidly into our workplace so that our work, and the way we pursue it, will be a living testimony to our faith in Jesus… with the gospel shining out both to people who know Jesus and to people who do not.

Discussion Questions

  1. At work, would you be accused, valued, or even known for being a Christian?
  2. How could you respect an unethical/unfair/bully boss or co-worker?
  3. What does it look like to “obey your earthly masters”? Is this a modern or antiquated idea?
  4. How do we remember eternity in the midst of this world’s injustices?
  5. As we serve God in the workplace, what makes believers different than other good people who try to serve well, wholeheartedly and with integrity?
  6. What is our motivation for serving….in the work world or anywhere?


How should our faith affect our work? How should what we believe about Jesus affect the way we go about our job? Should our faith affect our work? Should our work on Monday be different  because of the faith that we express on Sunday? Should your Christianity affect your relationship with your boss? Or your relationship with our subordinates? Or with your co-workers? How should our work be different because of our faith?

Today we are continuing in our series on relationships called “Master Plan.” We’ve looked at a lot of relational issues in this series. We’ve looked at general principles of family relationships. We took a specific look at the relationship and roles of wives and husbands. We looked at conflict in our relationships. Last week we looked at children and parents and their relationship to one another. Next week, we’re going to have one more sermon on relationships, when we close our series with a parable that Jesus told.

Today Paul is going to finish up his talk about relationships in Ephesians. He’s going to do that by talking about one last relationship that occurs in the lives of believers and that is the relationship of employment. The relationship of employee to employer and visa versa. Paul is going to discuss that today, and we’re going to talk about how your faith should impact the way you do your job.

But here’s the thing: There’s a wrinkle there’s an issue. The passage we are going to look at today is one of those difficult passages in the Bible because, although Paul is going to discuss the common issue of employment, he’s going to discuss it with terms that are not common to us today. In fact, Paul is going to use terms that are provocative even offensive to our modern ears. Paul is going to talk about employment by talking about slavery.

That really got my attention this week, because this week not only did our family drive to Arkansas for the funeral of Kelley’s Grandmother but while we were on the way there we stopped in Greensboro, North Carolina at the International Museum of Civil Rights. On the way back, we stopped in Birmingham at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. While we were there, we encountered the story of American slavery. Our family felt just a tiny bit of the weight of that word “slavery.” So as we come to this passage this morning, I’m aware that that is a very weighty, very difficult word. To be honest, it has troubled me all week.

So what we are going to do today is two things (almost two sermons):

First, we are going to look in detail at that concept of slavery and what the New Testament teaches about it. Because we can’t just gloss over that word but at the same time, we need to understand that when Paul talks about slavery he may not be talking about the same thing we think of when we hear that word. So we need to understand what Paul is saying here.

Second, we are going to apply this instruction to our employment today. Paul gives us three descriptions, three pieces of information, in this passage that relate not just to slavery but to anyone who has a job, whether you are a worker, who’s under authority, or a boss who’s in authority. Paul gives three pieces of instruction that describe how faith should show up in your life  in the workplace. So we’re going to look at that in our passage today.

It’s my prayer that each and every one of us who are in the workforce would live out the description that Paul gives and that our faith would find its way solidly into our work, so that our work and the way we pursue it would be very different, so that our work would be a living testimony to our faith, so that the gospel shines out to people who know Jesus and to people who don’t. That’s my desire, that whether we are in an easy work environment or a challenging one, that Christ would shine through us.

So let’s read this passage. Paul has spoken to wives and husbands to children and parents and now as he closes this section on relationships, he says this:

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 like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

– Ephesians 6:5-9

Let’s Pray (for those in difficult work environments those looking for a job)

As we look at this passage today, we are eventually going to apply it to our workplace. But before we do that, there is an issue that we have to discuss. We have to understand the context to which Paul is speaking. We have to understand it, because Paul is using terms that are provocative and maybe even offensive to our American ears today. Not only does Paul use terms like “slave and master” in this passage, but he also talks about “obeying with respect and fear.” Paul gives instructions not just to slaves, which we might expect, but he gives instructions to slave owners. His instruction to slave owners is not what we would think. He doesn’t say “Get out of the slave business!” Isn’t that what we want Paul to say here? But that’s not what he says. He does put slaves and masters on equal footing by saying they both serve the same Master in heaven. He does,  imply that Masters aren’t the real Masters by calling them “earthly masters.” He does tell masters that they are going to be judged. But he doesn’t say what we might want him to say. He doesn’t say “What are you doing calling yourself a Christian and owning slaves?” So as we begin to look at this passage, we need to wrestle with a question, and the question is this:

Why Doesn’t Paul Just Forbid Slavery?

That question may or may not trouble you, but for some people it’s a major issue. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, someone loaned me this: American Atheist Magazine. This magazine has an article in it entitled “God is a slave-owner’s best friend.” That article makes reference to this passage. They are saying Christianity is bad, because of its stance on slavery. So as we look at this passage, we need to ask ourselves “What is going on here? Is Paul endorsing slavery?”

Human slavery has been a source of untold abuse and misery throughout human history. It seems so contrary to Christian values. Slavery is a shameful piece of America’s past. When we stopped at the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, we had a tour guide walk us through the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement in America. It was heartbreaking. As I walked through that history, I felt shame – shame that one human being could treat another that way because of the color of their skin. To be honest, I felt the shame of wondering whether I would have had the courage to stand up for what was right in the situations we heard about or if I would have just have been one of those who stayed quiet. Slavery seems so contrary to Christian values. In fact, Christianity was a major force in the undoing of slavery. So here in Ephesians, why isn’t Paul just telling his readers to do away with it? I don’t know if I have the complete answer to that,  but let me give you some factors that help us understand where Paul is coming from here.

  1. Slavery in Paul’s day was broader than slavery as we know it

Most of us, when we hear that terms “slavery,” we think of 19th century, racially based, southern American slavery with plantations, and whips, and all the horrible things that went along with it. Isn’t that where your mind goes? I’m not saying that human abuses didn’t occur in Paul’s day. They did. But we need to understand that in New Testament times slavery was a broader concept.

It was broader in numbers. Estimates are that one-third of the population of the Roman empire up to half the population of some cities were slaves. So there were broad numbers of slaves. Many, maybe most of the early Christians, were slaves. It was broader in numbers.

It was broader in responsibilities. It’s important to understand that in Paul’s day slaves didn’t just do the physical or menial labor. They did almost all the labor. Many slaves were what we would consider professional class. Some were accountants, some were teachers, some were doctors.  Luke, the guy who wrote the book of Luke, was a physician, and he was probably also a slave. It was broader in its numbers and responsibilities.

Slavery in New Testament times was also broader in its causes. It was not racially based at all. Rather, slavery had multiple causes. Some of those causes were forced on people. You could be taken as a slave in a war or born into it. But some causes were less demeaning. Some people became slaves for a time to pay off a debt. Some became slaves to learn a skill, like accounting or medicine, to better their station in life.

New Testament slavery was also broader with regard to time. Some slaves were slaves for life, but many were released when they turned 30. Hebrew slaves were to serve no more than six years and when their time was done, their master was to send them away with enough stuff to start a new life.

So my point is not that there were not abuses or that everything was fair or fun. My point is just that when Paul talks about slavery he’s talking about something way broader and in many ways not as abusive as 19th century American slavery. So that’s the first factor. The second factor is this:

  1. Paul is not talking about the ideal

In this passage, we need to understand that Paul is not talking about the ideal of whether or not slavery should exist in society. He’s not looking at it big-picture. Rather, he’s telling Christians how to deal with their current situation.

So this isn’t the big-picture. This isn’t all that the Bible, or even Paul, has to say about slavery. Elsewhere, Paul is going to tell Christians not to become slaves to men. Elsewhere, he tells Christians not to remain in slavery, but to gain their freedom if they possibly can. Later, Christianity would become a huge influence on both the whites and the blacks that would stand against slavery and end it in much of the world.

But for now, Paul isn’t addressing that larger issue. He’s simply telling people how to cope with their current situation. Sometimes the Bible does that. Sometimes it just tells people how to cope in the midst of a broken situation.

When the Bible talks to Christians that were experiencing persecution from the Roman Government for their faith, it doesn’t say “overthrow the government.” It says “be model citizens when you can obey God in all things and, if that brings you into conflict with the Roman government, be ready to suffer and expect that God will use that suffering for his glory and that he will reward you for your suffering.”

Eventually, that attitude led not only to the conversion of the Roman Emperor, but also to the change of the entire Roman government! But the New Testament met people where they were at. It’s the same in the Bible with the issue of divorce. In the Old Testament, God gives instructions for how a man and his wife were to properly divorce. It says they have to do it in writing. It gives the causes. It gives the consequences of divorce. It tells God’s people how to divorce. But in the New Testament, Jesus comes along, and says “Just to be clear, divorce is not God’s ‘Plan A’ for your marriage.” God hates divorce, but God gave you instructions for divorce because he knows that people are broken and that sometimes you have to meet people in their brokenness.

I think that’s what’s going on with the Bible’s instructions about slavery. I don’t think that slavery is God’s “Plan A” for anyone. I don’t think God made people to be owned by other people. (I think God hates slavery) It’s unjust. But here Paul explains to Christians how to live in the midst of that brokenness. So this isn’t the ideal. It’s how to cope. So Paul isn’t forbidding slavery altogether, because New Testament  slavery was much broader than American slavery. it wasn’t as universally abusive, and because he’s not addressing the ideal in this passage.

Now there’s one more factor we need to understand here. This one is very, very important, because without this factor what Paul says here particularly to slaves and what he says elsewhere about other things and really much of the New Testament just won’t make sense. We have to get this factor and the factor is this:

  1. Eternity outweighs this present world.

This is so important. You will never understand the New Testament’s instruction on dealing with injustice until you understand this basic principle. Because whether that injustice is from a government or in a marriage or from the rich or from your employer, there is always a principle that underlies what the New Testament says about it. That principle is that “Eternity is more just and more important than this present world.” It’s more just. In fact, it’s absolutely just, and it’s more important. It’s weightier. It’s more real. Eternity outweighs this present world. Jesus taught this principle. In fact, it was the very first thing Jesus taught. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first sermon, he started with the beatitudes. In the beatitudes, he said this:

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad.”

– Matthew 5:11-12

Now why on earth would Jesus say that? Why should anyone rejoice and be glad when they are being mistreated? Does anyone know what he says? “Because great is your reward in heaven.” Jesus is saying that eternity outweighs the present world. It’s more just and more important.

So Jesus taught this. But his Disciples did NOT understand it! During Jesus’ earthly ministry, they didn’t think eternity outweighed this world. They thought he should be all about justice and self-protection in the here and now. They wanted to call down fire on people who disagreed with Jesus! They tried to stop Jesus from going to the cross because it was unfair! They didn’t believe that eternity outweighed this present world because, despite what Jesus taught, they just couldn’t understand how it could, until they saw the resurrection. That changed everything. Once they saw the resurrected Jesus and understood what awaits us in eternity, their focus shifted completely. They stopped praying for justice and started praying for boldness when they faced persecution. They didn’t rejoice, because they were treated fairly. They rejoiced in being counted worthy to suffer for Jesus’ sake. Their perspective totally shifted to the eternal!

It’s the same with Paul. Do you realize that by the time Paul wrote this he had seen eternity? He tells us in 2 Corinthians that there was a time when God caught him up to heaven and allowed him to see things that he was not permitted to reveal. But he did reveal one thing: Eternity outweighs the present world. By far, Paul who had been persecuted and shipwrecked and beaten and stoned  and left for dead said this: “The sufferings of this present world are not even worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.”

What I’m telling you today is this: The only thing that makes sense of what the apostles suffered, the only thing that makes sense of all that they tell other Christians to suffer, the only thing that makes sense of wives that submit to selfish husbands or of Christians who pray for rulers that mistreat them, the only thing that makes sense of workers who graciously serve abusive bosses and co-workers, the only thing that makes sense of missionaries who suffered hardship and gave their lives in a foreign land, the only thing that makes sense of the life God calls us to live, the only thing is that eternity outweighs this present world.

Some of you are in unjust situations right now – unjust marriages, unjust jobs, unjust families,  unjust relationships. There may be a time when God calls you out of those relationships. But until he does, one of the things that should comfort you, one of the things that should motivate you and guide your behavior, is that eternity is more just and more important than the here and now. Eternity outweighs this present world.

So let me try to net this out for you with regards to slavery. Why doesn’t Paul just forbid slavery altogether? Because Paul is not talking about the same kind of slavery we think of. It was less abusive. We need to understand that Paul is also NOT saying that slavery is just. He’s not saying it’s God’s plan A for anyone. Rather, he’s telling them how to cope with their present cultural situation. What he’s telling them revolves around the idea that eternity outweighs the here and now. So that’s a little bit about the New Testament’s instructions to slaves.

Now let’s just try to turn the corner in our minds, if we can, and see how this relates to us and our employment. Slavery was the main means of employment in New Testament times. So what Paul says in this passage does strongly relate to the way we work. In fact, that’s the main way I’ve always thought of this passage. It has something to say to every Christian who is part of the workforce, whether you are in authority or under authority. So let’s just look at a second question:

How Should Christians Work?

The short answer according to this passage is this: We should be the best! We should be the best workers, the best bosses in the world. We should be the most honest, the most reliable, the most diligent employees that our employers have ever seen. If we are in charge, we should care for our employees. We should be generous with wages and with giving our subordinates credit. We should make every effort to help those under our authority succeed! If we are not in charge, if we’re under authority, we should be hard workers. We should care about our bosses. We should not engage in workplace gossip. We should help our employer succeed. We should be the best!

Paul gives us three specific instructions about how to do that.

1. Serve Well

Paul says

Slaves, obe y your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

– Ephesians 6:5

By the way, fear there doesn’t mean “fear” like obey your master with terror. In just a minute, he’s going to instruct masters not to even threaten their servants. So this isn’t about terror. Rather “respect and fear” was an idiom in Greek that meant “complete respect,” “wholehearted respect.”  The point is that we should be completely respectful to our supervisors, whether they deserve it or not. We should serve sincerely. We should serve well!

I read something the other day that said “A train station is where a train stops, and a bus station is where a bus stops. At my desk, I have a work station.” The point is:  Don’t be like that! Right? Serve well! Work hard. Give it your all. Work with sincerity of heart.

When I read this passage, I immediately thought of Dana Garcia. She’s at Josh’s Grandmother’s funeral today. When we were on our missions trip in Mexico and building that house, Dana was a beast! She got out in that heat and she gave it her all. She just kept going! When we saw how hard she worked, we started calling her “Dana-mite.” Based on what I saw there and what I’ve heard, I have a feeling that that’s the way Dana pursues her job here in Raleigh. She serves well. So firstly,  Serve well. Secondly, Paul says:

2. Serve when no one’s looking.

Paul says this:

Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.

– Ephesians 6:6

See that phrase: “When their eye is on you?” In the Greek, it’s just one word. It says “Don’t give ‘eye-service.’” In other words, don’t just work when your boss is watching or when you know you’re going to get credit.

I heard someone at Beautification Day here at the school jokingly calling someone a blister. I said “What’s a blister?” He said “Someone who shows up after the work is done.” Don’t be a blister. Serve hard, whether people are looking or not. It’s a matter of integrity. It’s part of your witness to Christ.

When I used to work construction, there was one guy on the job that I didn’t ever want to be near. His name was Steve. I didn’t want to be near him because when the boss was around, he was always working up a storm, almost trying to make you look bad. But when it was time to work hard – stock the scaffold, or tear it down, or mix mortar and the boss wasn’t there – Steve really liked to do two things: (1) stand around, and (2) while he was standing around, he would talk about what a great Christian he was!. Whether the boss saw it or not, the other workers did. I was like “Please don’t do that! There are people I am trying to share the gospel with here and, when they see your laziness mixed with the name of Jesus, it doesn’t leave a good taste in their mouth.” Paul says we are not to serve that way.

Now let me give you a positive example. The other morning I was here at the school for All Pro Dads. I got to watch Eileen Alexander, who is librarian here at River Bend Elementary School, at work. It was her turn to stand in the hall and guide the kids to their classes as they arrived. It was really cool! I’ve seen teachers at other schools do that and just sort of get onto the kids. But Eileen knew almost every single one of those kids by name. As they came in, she would greet each one “Good morning, Grant, how are you today?”  “Good morning, Emma, I like your new shoes” and “How are you, Derrick?” It was really cool! Now, why did Eileen do that? Was it because Principal Major was watching? No. Was it because she wanted to impress people or get credit? No! She did it, because she takes pride in her work! She knows that her job is to care for those kids, whether someone is watching or not. That’s what Paul is talking about! She’s serving wholeheartedly. Serve well. Serve when no-one is looking. Thirdly:

3. Serve for God’s Reward

Paul says this:

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.

– Ephesians 6:7-8

If you are under authority, serve knowing that the Lord will reward you. Then he says the same thing to masters, to those in authority:

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way (what does that mean? Treat them well and serve them whether people are looking or not). Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

– Ephesians 6:5-9

What Paul is saying in both of these verses is this: Serve for God’s reward. Serve because you know that God in heaven will reward everyone in heaven for the good they do, no matter who they are.

Notice that in saying this we’re right back to eternity, right? It is eternity. It is knowing that God sees whether anyone else ever does or not and that God will reward us. It is eternity that enables us to serve well, whether our work situation is just or unjust. In fact, Jesus taught that those who face injustice have a greater potential for eternal reward.

It’s nice when we get rewarded for a job well done in this life, isn’t it? Nice when we are seen and recognized and rewarded. But that’s actually not to be our main motivation. Our main motivation is a God who sees it all, who weighs our motives, a God who is absolutely just, and a God who will reward us in eternity. So, this week serve well. Serve, when no one is looking. Serve for God’s reward.