"Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free." (Ephesians 6:5-8)In Paul's day, slavery was a well established social institution. However, slavery in the Geek/Roman period differed from our own period of slavery in some very significant ways. First, slavery then had little or no relationship to racism. Those who were enslaved were not enslaved because their masters believed them to be inferior or created for slavery, they were most often enslaved as the result of being conquered in war. Part of the spoils of war was then the right to enslave those you concored. This is also the second major difference between slavery then and that of the past several centuries. The slave trade that supplied slaves to America and other nations was itself supplied by black tribes in Africa who would kidnap those of a rival tribe and sell them to the white Europeans for transport and sale to America. In Paul's day, slaves were made slaves through what was then a noble act of war and the right of the victor to enslave the conquered, where the slave trade of recent past was the result of the complicity of both Africans, Americans, and Europeans in the lustful pursuit of money. In saying this, I am in no way justifying slavery, but we must be cautions not to judge and understand slavery in Paul's time based upon our own recent experience with slavery.
Similarly, Paul is not justifying slavery. He is acknowledging it as the normative state of the world he and many believers lived in. Slavery existed and it would be centuries before it would pass away. Many of the first converts to Christianity were slaves and Paul's main focus in these verses is not to address the issue of slavery but to address those who were slaves and those who were masters and to give them instruction as to how they should relate to each other; both in the context of their existing relationship as slave and master and in their existing relationship with God. To Paul, it was more important to address the spiritual condition of the individual first, before addressing the ills of the culture around them, for Paul knew that, if you changed the heart of the individual, then eventually you would change the culture in which they lived. Today, there are few of us who remain as slaves. However, there is much we can learn from Paul that can be applied to our work lives where we serve the will of our employers.
In instructing slaves, there are several things that Paul teaches, all which address issues of the heart. First is that they should obedient. This Greek word means to listen to. Slaves should be attentive to the commands and direction of their masters. This involves an active listening that turns into corresponding action. A useful slave does not need to be instructed in every last detail of what he is expected to do. He hears and understands what his master is saying and then proceeds to carry out his commands. For example, there were times when I asked my kids to do the dishes. When I came back, the dishes were done but the kitchen was still a mess. Some people only do the letter of what was asked, but others understand the bigger picture and the fuller since of what was wanted. These are those who are most useful to the masters and to those who employ them.
Secondly, Paul encouraged slaves to have sincerity of heart. This Greek word means to have a singleness of purpose. Why do you do the kind of work that you do? For some, their work ethic is a calculated attempt at "climbing the corporate latter." The importance of their work is not as important to them as the importance of their getting ahead in life. They don't work to achieve the collective goals and purposes of the company, they work for their own individual goals and purposes. Their obedience is not singular, that being for the welfare of the company, but duplicitous, doing their work primarily for their own personal gain. If we work with singleness of heart, as unto the Lord, then our own growth and promotion will not come from our own efforts but from the Lord.
The Greek term for "eye service" refers to someone who must constantly be watched over. I remember a time when I asked someone at work to accomplish a task. A while latter I came to check in on them and they were just sitting around doing nothing. I asked them about the task and they said they said they had an issue that they did not know how to resolve, but instead of asking or trying to resolve the issue, they just stopped working and did nothing. Some people I can give a task to and I know they will find a way to get it done. Others I must constantly watch over to make sure they are on task and focused on the job at hand. The useful slave is the one who works even when no one is watching.
Men-pleasing is the constant focus of those who seek to ingratiate themselves in the estimation of others. They do this not for a noble reason but for their own personal gain. To them, the work is not as important as their own personal gain. In my company, it is important that people take ownership in their work; that they buy-in to the vision and mission of the company. That they see their labor as being important in the overall operation and function of the company. They need to see themselves, not just as an employ, but as a need and valuable part of a larger enterprise. The useful slave is not one whose only interest is themselves but one who finds meaning and purpose in their participation as part of a large whole. They work, not only for themselves, but for the good of all involved in the corporate enterprise.
Finally, Paul encourages slaves to perform their work with good-will towards those who benefit from their labor. For us this would be our companies and our customers who use our goods and services. One of the hardest places to find yourself at work is to be disgruntled in your labor. It is hard to perform our work well when we are bitter, angry, and dissatisfied with our bosses, our company, and the work we are asked to do. This is where we must ask God for strength and grace to do well at our jobs and to do well with a good heart. This can be extremely challenging and I have faced these challenges more than once in my carrier. One of the keys to overcoming disgruntlement at work is to understand that we not only labor for men but that our service is unto God. When we labor well, it is the same as if we labored for the Lord. We may not receive the rewards of our good labor from our bosses and our company, but we will from the Lord. We must not place our hope on our bosses kindness, the comfort of our jobs, or the corporate culture of our companies, our hope and joy must be always in the Lord. Whether or not our earthly masters recognize us, reward us, or treat us kindly, if we labor as unto the Lord, we will receive our reward.