We are in that section of Paul’s ethical instructions dealing with the particular callings of Christians given their various stations in life. We have read and considered his words to husbands and wives and to parents and children. Now we will read what he has to say to slaves and masters, or in modern parlance, to employees and employers for that is exactly the sort of relationship that he is discussing in these verses. So we begin reading in v.22.
The interesting term “eye-service,” — one of those words formed by sticking two words together as the Germans are always doing — occurs only here and in the parallel passage in Ephesians 6:6. It refers to the motivation of the worker: he either wants to be noticed or he works as he does because he knows his master is watching. In other words, it suggests that the behavior would be different if no one were watching. Talk about the perpetual relevance of Holy Scripture: “eye-service” is as much a feature of working life today as ever it has been in the past and certainly as it was in the ancient world.
There is plenty of comment in Greco-Roman writings about how slaves should conduct themselves. The Romans were quick to lecture slaves about their behavior. What is different here in Paul is that he speaks directly to the slaves themselves as ethically responsible agents with a life for which are responsible for before the Lord. And the entire foundation of Paul’s counsel is already hinted at in the term “earthly” masters. There is another master, not of this earth, and we all – no matter our situation in life – must live our lives before his all-seeing eye.
You may have noticed that v. 23 begins with an echo of v. 17, the concluding statement of Paul’s ethical summary in the first part of chapter 3. In other words the specific responsibilities of spouses and parents and children and slaves and slave owners are still nothing more nor less than the living of a faithful Christian life in which whatever is done is done in the name of the Lord Jesus with a view to pleasing him. This about slaves and masters is just the specific application of that general principle.
One commentator translates Paul’s Greek with the words “there is no pull with God.” He rejects the common translation as we have it in our ESVs, “there is no partiality” with God, because “partiality” can suggest that God treats everyone alike. God does not treat everyone alike as we all know. Some have much more difficult lives than others, some are asked to do things that others are not, some were slave owners and some were slaves in the Colossian church. Paul’s point is rather that a person cannot expect better treatment from God because of his rank or social position or worldly influence. God’s judgment is not influenced by such considerations in the way man’s often is. In the present world the rich and the powerful do far better in court than the poor. Every study of our judicial system makes that perfectly clear. Expensive lawyers are expensive because they deliver the goods. But no lawyer can get you a better judgment in the divine court. [Clark, 124] That’s the point.
Up to this point the masters in the room would be smiling and nodding their heads as Paul addressed the obligation of slaves to their masters, though perhaps they realized that a radical ethic had been introduced, however subtly, by the term “earthly masters” — there obviously was another master higher than they – and they would have been perhaps a bit more uncomfortable with the promise of divine judgment in the final verse of the chapter for the wrong-doing presumably of masters in v. 25 though “of slaves and masters alike” is probably the point. But 4:1 would have dropped like a bombshell on any audience of slave owners in the Greco-Roman world.
There is nothing to suggest that Christian masters were only to treat their Christian slaves justly. They must be Christian men to all their slaves. It is important to remember, as we read these verses that in the church in Colossae there would have been both slaves and slave owners sitting side by side in the congregation and listening to Paul’s letter being read for the first time. One scholar of ancient Roman slavery suggests that perhaps a third of the population of Colossae would have been slaves. Just imagine the atmosphere in the room as these words were read. And remember this as well: a slave owner who treated his slave as a brother in Christ was very likely to be despised for it by the other members of his class, the other slave owners. His treatment of his own slaves as men and women of dignity and worth, as equal before God, as deserving of his regard, his respect, and his care, would be thought both dangerous to the social order and likely to cause problems for other slave owners whose slaves would want similar treatment. In the culture of the time this was radical stuff, revolutionary rhetoric.
Slavery in the ancient world was a fact of life, so much so that virtually no one, including the slaves themselves, ever thought of abolishing the institution itself. Even Spartacus did not have that expectation. All sorts of people were slaves. It was not, as in the American south, confined to a particular race, nor were all slaves captives. A sizeable number had sold themselves into slavery. Cruelty on the part of masters was common enough and some slaves, for example those who worked in mines, lived a short and brutish life. Aristotle once summed up the life of the slave in four words: “work, punishment, and food.” In his famous work on ethics, he spoke of slaves as “lifeless things” and that, therefore, the concept of justice did not apply to their treatment, precisely what the Apostle Paul contradicts here. But brutal mistreatment was hardly the lot of all or even most slaves in the world at that time. As we might have expected, slaves being a major investment on the part of the slave owner and their health and happiness important to his own prosperity, the lot of many slaves was comparatively good. They often held somewhat significant offices and were responsible for significant things. They were often valuable members of the extended family, deeply involved in running the family businesses, home or raising the children.
The separation between slaves and freedman was often not very great. Some slaves owned property, even owned slaves, and were considerably better off than many freedmen. Slaves were regularly granted legal freedom by their masters though, not infrequently, such manumission could involve a loss of living standard for the slave himself. There were some who sold themselves into slavery precisely to climb the social ladder. There were, from time to time, slave rebellions, such as the famous one under Spartacus in the first century, but there was not in the Greco-Roman world a general climate of unrest among slaves. It was an accepted part of the social and economic structure of the world of that time. Generally, if a master treated his children well, he was likely to treat his slaves well also.
We look back on that institution with disgust and, in some respects, rightfully so. But, it would be well for us all to admit that there are employer-employee relationships, even in the most modern economies, that bear some resemblance to a number of features of slavery as it was practiced in the ancient world. Tennessee Ernie Ford sung of miners who “owed their soul to the company store” and of many others a similar thing could be said. A relatively few rule in our modern economies and most work for them and only a few of those workers feel secure in thinking that, if they wished, they could take their labor elsewhere. In fact, not a few thinkers, from Tolstoy to the present day, think that western society has only succeeded in replacing an obsolete form of slavery that was no longer economically justifiable with new forms. Human life in sin produces bondage of all kinds and always will. If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentary on the history of American baseball, for example, you’ll find that throughout most of the history of the sport, the team owners were able to practice a form of slavery and many of the consequences of that practice were very unfortunate.
The early church was in no position to effect the eradication of slavery in the empire and there was no movement in the world to do so until much later, when Christianity was established in its influence. It was inconceivable to the Greco-Roman mind that a world could exist without slavery. It is not surprising that a culture that considered foreigners as barbarians and thought labor was beneath the dignity of a free man would welcome slavery! But everywhere and in many ways, Christianity laid the axe to the root of that institution, even in that hostile culture. Christian slaves died as martyrs and were honored as such; some rose to positions of prominence in the church, one former slave was bishop of Rome from 218-223. When the owners of slaves became Christians, the old relationship virtually ceased, as Paul suggests it should here in Colossians 3 and 4. What the Apostle commanded, the church actually practiced to a very great degree. They came together at the table of the Lord to eat the same food and drink the same drink. Lactantius, who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries, wrote in his learned defense of Christianity,
“Should any say: Are there not also among you poor and rich, servants and masters, distinctions among individuals? No; we call ourselves brethren for no other reason than that we hold ourselves all equal. For since we measure everything human not by its outward appearance, but by it intrinsic value, we have, notwithstanding the difference of outward relations, no slaves, but we call them and consider them brethren in the Spirit and fellow-servants in religion.” [In Schaff, Ch. Hist, ii, 352.]
It’s a wonderful statement. It’s the kind of thing that ought to make us proud of our faith and still more our Savior. The world was changed dramatically and forever in its ethics and particularly social ethics when Christianity made its way out into the Greco-Roman world. Everyone in the western world takes it for granted that slavery is an evil. It didn’t always. It wouldn’t today had it not been for the influence of Christianity. And don’t you want more and more of that spirit to dominate our life together and everywhere in the Christian church? Wouldn’t such a spirit that once changed the world continue to be an almost unconquerable witness to the truth of the gospel in such an alienated and divided world as ours?! While not every Christian slave owner lived up to this standard, very many did and we have the proof of that in the catacombs.
In a typical Roman cemetery one will find everywhere references to the deceased there buried as a slave or as a freeman. But not in the Christian tombs. There you find just the name along with some ascription of Christian hope; no reference to whether he was a slave or free. And, of course, these principles couldn’t help to lead to the manumission, the release, of multitudes of slaves by their Christian masters. One Roman prefect, a man named Hermas, became a Christian and was baptized at Easter with his wife and children and 1,250 slaves. At their baptism, he gave them all their freedom and gifts beside. Such are the implications of the gospel of freedom in Jesus Christ and of the exchange of our slavery to sin, death, and the Devil for our slavery to Jesus Christ our new Master. Like some slaves of old, we who are Christians have willingly sold ourselves into slavery precisely that we might move upward! But what a Master we have in Jesus Christ; the king who makes all men free!
Let me tell you a story. Actually, let John Jasper tell it, for it is about him. Jasper was for many years in the nineteenth century the celebrated pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Church in Richmond, Virginia. He was a slave for some 50 years, up to the time of the Civil War and was a slave during part of the time he pastored the church. This reminiscence comes from a sermon he preached as an old man to his congregation.
“Master Sam Hargrove called me to preach the gospel – he was my old master and he started me out with my message. I was seeking God six long weeks – just because I was such a fool I couldn’t see the way. The Lord struck me first on Capital Square, and I left there badly crippled. One July morning something happened. I was a tobacco-stemmer – that is, I took the tobacco leaf and tore the stem out, and there was no one in that factory who could beat me at that work. But that morning the stems wouldn’t come out to save me, and I tore up tobacco by the pound and flung it under the table. Fact is, brethren, the darkness of death was in my soul that morning. My sins were piled on me like mountains; my feet were sinking down to the regions of despair, and I felt that of all sinners I was the worst. I thought that I would die right then and, with what I supposed was my last breath, I flung up to heaven a cry for mercy. Before I knew it, the light broke; I was light as a feather, my feet were on the mountain, salvation rolled like a flood through my soul, and I felt that I could knock off the factory roof with my shouts.
But I said to myself that I would hold still until dinner, and so I cried and laughed and tore up tobacco. Presently, I looked up the table and there was an old man – he loved me and tried hard to lead me out of darkness, so I slipped round to where he was, and said in his ear as low as I could, ‘Hallelujah; my soul is redeemed!’ Then I jumped back to my work, but after once opening my mouth it was hard to keep it shut. It wasn’t long before I looked up the line again and there was a good old woman there who knew all my sorrows and had been praying for me for a long time. … I had to tell her and so I skipped along quiet as a breeze and started to whisper in her ear, but just then the holding-back straps of Jasper’s britches broke, and what I thought would be a whisper was loud enough to be heard across the James River. One man said that he thought the factory was falling down; all I know was that I had raised my first shout to the glory of my Redeemer.
But for one thing there would have been a general revival in the factory that morning. That one thing was the overseer. He bulged into the room and, with a voice that sounded like he had his breakfast that morning on rasps and files, bellowed out: ‘What’s all this row about?” Somebody shouted out that John Jasper had got religion but that didn’t work at all with the boss. He told me to get back to my table and he had something in his hand that looked ugly. It was no time for making fine points, so I said, ‘Yes, sir, I will; I didn’t mean any harm; the first taste of salvation got the better of me, but I’ll get back to my work. And I tell you, I got back quick.
About that time Master Sam came out of the office and said, “What is the matter out there?” I heard the overseer tell him, ‘John Jasper kicked up a fuss and said he got religion, but I done fix him, and he got back to his table.” The Devil told me to hate the overseer that morning, but the love of God was rolling through my soul, and somehow I didn’t mind what he said.
A little later I heard Master Sam tell the overseer that he wanted to see Jasper. Master Sam was a good man; he was a Baptist, and one of the head men of the old First Church down here, and I was glad when I heard Master Sam say that he wanted to see me. When I got to his office he said, ‘John, what was the matter out there just now?’ … I said to him, ‘Master Sam, ever since the fourth of July I have been crying after the Lord, six long weeks, and just now out there at the table God took my sins away and set my feet on the rock. I didn’t mean to make any noise, Master Sam, but before I knew it, the fires broke out in my soul and I just let go one shout to the glory of my Savior.’
Master Sam was sitting with his eyes a little down to the floor, and with a…quiver in his voice he said very slowly, ‘John, I believe that way myself. I love the Savior that you have just found and I want to tell you that I don’t complain because you made the noise just now that you did. Then Master Sam did something that nearly me made drop to the floor. He got out of his chair and walked over to me and gave me his hand, and he said, ‘John, I wish you mighty well. Your Savior is mine and we are brothers in the Lord.’ When he said that, I turned around and put my arm against the wall, and held my mouth to keep from shouting. Master Sam knew well the good he had done me.
After awhile he said, ‘John, did you tell any of them in there about your conversion?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Master Sam, I told them before I knew it, and I feel like telling everybody in the world about it.’ Then he said, ‘John, you may tell it. Go back in there and go up and down the tables, and tell all of them. And then if you want to, go upstairs and tell them all about it, and then downstairs and tell the hogshead men and the drivers what the Lord has done for you.’
By this time Master Sam’s face was raining tears, and he said, ‘John, you need work no more today. I give you a holiday. After you get through telling it here at the factory, go up to the house and tell your folks; go round to your neighbors and tell them; go anywhere you want to and tell the good news. It will do you good, do them good, and help you to honor your Lord and Savior.
Oh, that happy day! Can I ever forget it? That was my conversion morning, and that day the Lord sent me out with the good news of the kingdom. For more than forty years I’ve been telling the story. My step is getting rather slow, my voice breaks down, and sometimes I am awfully tired, but still I’m telling it.
Ah, my dear old master! He sleeps out yonder in the old cemetery, and in this world I shall see his face no more; but I don’t forget him. He gave me a holiday, and sent me out to tell my friends what great things God had done for my soul. Often as I preach I feel that I am doing what my old master told me to do. If he was here now, I think he would lift up those kind black eyes of his, and say, ‘That’s right, John: still telling it, fly like an angel, and wherever you go carry the Gospel to the people.’ Farewell, my old master, when I land in the heavenly city, I’ll call at your mansion that the Lord had ready for you when you got there, and I shall say, ‘Master Sam, I did what you told me, and many are coming up here with their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb who were led into the way by my preaching; and as you started me I want you to share in the glory of that salvation.’ And I tell you what I think: that when Master Sam sees me, he’ll say, ‘John, don’t call me ‘master’ anymore; we’re brothers now, and we will live forever around the throne of God.’”
I suspect that those sorts of things happened a great deal in Ephesus and in Colossae and in the other churches of the Gentile world to which the gospel came and to which these ethics were taught. There would have been masters and slaves just like that referring to one another as brothers and never able to relate to one another again in the way in which they had long years before. Now, here too was a slave who obeyed his earthly master with sincerity of heart. He shouldn’t have been a slave. By that time everybody in the world knew he shouldn’t have been a slave. But he was, and he still whole-heartedly served his master as a way of serving the Lord. He served Sam Hargrove whole-heartedly, as if he were serving the Lord not men. And there was a master who – for all that we might wish he were more like the Roman prefect, who gave all his slaves their freedom and a gift as well one Easter Sunday – treated his slave in a distinctively, unabashedly Christian way. And there is something exquisitely beautiful about the bond that Christ and the love of Christ forged between those two good men and the way in which it transformed their relationship to one another.
Usually nowadays, and, again, this is the inheritance of the Christian faith in our world, when Americans read these texts in Colossians and Ephesians, Paul’s instructions to slaves and slave owners, they think only of slavery itself and whether Paul should have or meant to condemn the institution and whether the Christian faith is implicated in what seems to some to have been Paul’s acceptance of the status quo. But, of course, there was nothing that Christian slaves could do about slavery in those days and it would not necessarily have been a kindness in many cases for a Christian slave owner to set his slaves free — though many of them did — because their relationship to their master was their economic lifeline. Theirs was not an economy like ours. But if the relationship between master and slave was changed so profoundly it ceased to make very much difference that one was a master and the other was a slave. The slave/owner relationship that Paul requires of Christian slaves and owners here would have transformed the circumstances of slavery in a way so radical that slavery would no longer be adequate as a term to describe it.
We Christians know a great deal about slavery; more than most. We know ourselves first as slaves to sin and death and we know what it is like to be at the beck and call of something we despise. All human beings are by nature such slaves, to be sure, but only some people know it and feel the galling yoke of that slavery. This is the point that Moses makes in Deuteronomy, when he commands the Israelites to be gracious and generous to slaves in their midst. Indeed, when an Israelite sold himself into slavery in order to pay his debts, the law of God required the slave holder, when the time came to release his slave – and all slavery was temporary in Israel, a means of economic recovery that was permitted and strictly regulated – the slave holder was required to send his former slave away with gifts. No doubt this is where the saintly Hermas got the idea.
“Do not send him away empty handed,” the law says in Deut. 15:14. “Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you.” And why? “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.”
There is a common experience of slavery that lies at the bottom of the regard and affection and respect in which Christians are to hold one another. A common experience of hopelessness and need and a common experience of deliverance and liberty solely by the grace of God. This is what the perceptive Simone Weil meant when she wrote, “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves; slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them.” [Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 67]
But, there is another slavery that all Christians share, a slavery that still more powerfully and completely confirms them in a shared experience, in true brotherhood, and in a compelling sense of sympathy and fellow-feeling toward one another. And that is the slavery into which all Christians enter willingly when they surrender themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Paul is always referring to himself and to other Christians, according to the English translations of our New Testaments, as “servants” of the Lord Jesus; but, of course, that word “servant” is just our word “slave,” the same word Paul uses here. Servant means the same thing as slave, but the English word servant is a softer, more polite, less biting term. But every Christian is a slave. We have been, Paul says in another place, “bought with a price,” the blood, the death of Jesus Christ. And what is the consequence of that, he asks? It is this: “you are not your own.”
Christians admit this gladly. They glory in this slavery. They think it the highest possible honor to be Christ’s slave. They think of themselves as those slaves in the OT who so loved their masters and loved being in their employ that when they could go free, they asked to remain slaves instead and were taken to the doorpost and their ears were pierced through with an awl as a sign that they would remain this master’s slaves for life. I’m sure that text is in the Bible precisely because it so beautifully depicts the feeling of a true Christian. We want a master if that master is Jesus Christ; we don’t want our freedom if such freedom means that we would no longer belong to or serve in our Master’s household. No Christian feels himself so utterly free as that Christian who knows himself the willing slave of Jesus Christ. There are no chains except the chains of love and no obedience is required by our master except that obedience that is the honor of human life to offer to so worthy a master. To serve a master you love with every fiber of your being is not slavery; it is perfect freedom!
We look upon folk in the world, who so jealously guard their freedom, who refuse to follow Christ lest he require them to obey him and do his will, as the worst sort of slaves: slaves who don’t even know they are slaves; slaves so completely in thrall to their masters – the world, their own sinful natures, and the devil – that they do not feel the weight or hear the rattle of their chains.
When a man or woman has this understanding of his or her place, the deliverance from bondage that Christ accomplished for us, the glorious slavery into which he has brought those he loves, a slavery of love indeed, to be Christ’s slave is our glory. For the Christian businessman, it becomes more important to him than his bottom-line to treat his employees humbly, generously, graciously, and kindly. And so for every Christian supervisor, boss, lead, or manager. And, similarly, for the Christian employee it becomes a matter of sacred honor that he should give his employer, whether or not the employer observes it, deserves it, or will ever learn about it, more consecrated and devoted labor than he has paid for.
A book was published not long ago in which a Duke University professor took the temperature of American evangelicalism and found it “embattled but thriving.” Those words were actually in the subtitle of the book. One thing the book revealed was that American Christians of the Bible-believing type had very little idea of the implications of their faith for their life outside of family and church. When asked what difference it would make if there were suddenly many more Christians working at one’s company, most of those Christians surveyed could only imagine that there would be more lunchtime Bible studies. Oh, no! The theology-laced ethics of Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3:22-4:1 would absolutely transform the office and the shop-floor. It would make managers and company owners and stock-holders the willing servants of their employees and employees the most scrupulously diligent workers for the company. Love and respect and generosity and sympathy would transform the competitive and often adversarial environment of the American and capitalist workplace into a locale more welcoming, more person-affirming, more appreciative, more understanding, more cheerful, and more helpful than almost all those who work there could find even in their own homes.
You cannot truly serve the Lord Jesus in your relationships with others without doing good to others, without blessing their lives. “Whatever you do work heartily as for the Lord and not for men” is an absolutely life-transforming principle. It is a business transforming principle. It is a labor and management transforming principle. No matter how corrupt, how rotten the structures of human life and commerce may be, living for the Lord must redeem and transform and purify them. It is what we Christians are to do in every dimension of our lives and to do so is to honor the Lord and lift up his name.
You remember C.S. Lewis’ famous statement: “I was not born to be free; I was born to adore and to obey.” That’s true of every human being. The question, the only question then becomes: which master?