Submission: In the Workplace

The Value of Work

We have not been created for idleness but rather for labor. When Adam was formed, he was given not only headship over the creation but also responsibilities within it: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen 2:15).[1] Every tree and its fruit were available for personal consumption, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam was effectively a head gardener. This would not have been burdensome to him, at least in the beginning. Weeds, thorns and thistles, requiring hard labor, would feature only after Adam and Eve fell into sin.

There is dignity in work, as exemplified in the life of Christ. For most of His time upon the earth, He was engaged in manual labor as a carpenter in Nazareth (Mar 6:3). Even Jewish boys who were highborn or gravitated towards academic pursuits were taught a trade. We should not despise anyone who works with their hands.

The principles governing employers and employees are well delineated throughout the Scriptures. Working to provide for one’s family is a basic requirement for a husband or father: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1Ti 5:8). The apostle Paul linked the fulfilment of this responsibility with a good testimony. One of the most traumatic life experiences for an adult man is to lose his job. We should be prayerful and practically supportive of brethren we know, and their families too, who through no fault of their own are struggling to make ends meet due to unemployment.

The Employer-Employee Relationship

This is where the principle of submission comes to the fore. The language of the New Testament reflects the times in which it was written, so when we read of “masters” and “servants” we may substitute employers and employees in today’s language. The Bible teaches that workers should be subject to their employers by obeying them and serving them diligently. They should continue to do so even when the boss is not looking.

We must not miss the thrust of Scripture in the relevant passages. They elevate a man’s work to a much higher level; he is not just serving his employer but, above and beyond that, he is rendering service to Christ the Lord. This is often forgotten. Let us notice the appropriate emphasis: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free” (Eph 6:5-8; cf. Col 3:22-25).

The use of the term “bond or free” refers to the reality of those days when many slaves were in the service of their masters throughout the Roman Empire. Some bond slaves were well treated and remunerated for their services. They might eventually buy their freedom. Many others were mistreated and regarded as less than human. Paul’s letter to Philemon concerning the runaway slave, Onesimus, was effectively a nail in the coffin of the prevailing attitudes of his day. Following full confession, true repentance and genuine faith, the returning slave was to be regarded as “a brother beloved” (Phm 16).

In writing to both Timothy and Titus, the apostle Paul added other important matters. Workers should seek to please their bosses well and not answer back in a disrespectful way, neither are they to pilfer from the workplace. Godly behavior is said to “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things” (Titus 2:9-10). Our testimony in the workplace should commend the truth we profess and the message we proclaim.

Further exhortations are given concerning a believer’s attitude to their employee should he or she also be a believer. Liberties are not to be taken and special concessions are not to be expected. The warning is given that poor behavior may result in “the name of God and his doctrine” being blasphemed (1Ti 6:1-2).

“But what if …?”

While it is not the focus of this article to consider the responsibilities of employers, the Bible is just as clear in exhorting them to be fair in the treatment and payment of their workers. The employees are not to be browbeaten or underpaid (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). Payment is not to be delayed (Lev 19:13). These earthly masters should remember that they also have a Master in heaven who will hold them to account.

Scripture is always relevant and honest about the vagaries of human behavior. Some bosses will be hard to please and even unreasonable. The apostle Peter describes such using a word that means twisted or crooked (1Pe 2:18). Even so, these employers are to be shown due respect for the position they hold.

But what if the bosses are tyrants and the workers are oppressed and underpaid? Should they protest and suspend their labor? This would be advocated by organized labor movements who view the relationship between bosses and workers as an ongoing “class struggle.” There is no support at all in the Bible for Christians to join a strike. There is a better way. Christians like Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885), “the poor man’s earl,” have often been at the forefront of peacefully advocating legislation to guarantee better working conditions for all, but especially the poor.

A man I greatly respected was a teacher at my senior school and a Christian gentleman of high principle. When the teacher’s union called for a strike, he quietly refused to comply with their demands. He had originally signed a contract with his employer pledging that he would teach; he was not going to break his word for anyone! He continued to report for work and do what he could, even though classes were suspended. He donated his earnings for those particular days to a charity. Nobody could claim he was just after the money. He would not have been a popular man at that time. No doubt he suffered ridicule and slander from the militants, but he remained true and faithful to God and to His Word.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.