Monday, February 13, 2017

1 Timothy 6:1-2 : “Relationships between Employers and Employees”

A good relationship with God and people is  inherent  to the teaching of the Bible. It is  at the heart of the 10 commandments  and  it is reaffirmed by Jesus in Mark 12:30,31: “Love God … love your neighbour…”.  

In chapters 5:1-6:2   of   Paul’s letter to Timothy he  deals  with relationships  at  different levels. 

In  5:1-2  Paul  tells  Timothy how to relate, as a pastor  to older men, younger men , older women and younger women in the church.

In  5:3-16  Paul helps Timothy  in terms of relating  to widows and vulnerable people in the church.

In 5: 17-25  Paul  explains  how  we ought to relate to  the  elders of the church, particularly in the matter of the church’s material support of them, and  in the matter of  dealing with accusations  against  the elders. 

 In  6:1-2  Paul  deals with the matter of the relationship  of slaves  towards  their  masters. Further instructions on this matter are found in Ephesians  6:5-9 (Timothy’s congregation)  and Colossians  3:22-4:1 where directives  are not only given to  slaves  but also to their masters.  The  letter to Philemon in particular  is about a slave called Onesimus who  had stolen from his master Philemon, and who had fled. Onesimus had become a Christian  though Paul’s ministry in Rome, and Paul, in this letter   appealed  to Philemon to take him back  as a brother in the Lord.

I am taking the liberty to apply the slave – master  relationship to the employer – employee relationship.  The   biblical principles  governing the relationships,  be they slave – master or employee- employer  are  similar.  But there is a vital difference. An employee  enters into  a voluntary  agreement  with an employer to work for them  for a certain mutually agreed upon wage. A slave is a person who is the property of, and wholly subject to, another person.  John Stott points out that slaves have three defining characteristics: “Their person is another’s property, so that they may be bought and sold; their will is subject to another’s authority; and their labour is obtained by another’s coercion” [1].   They are “under the yoke of slavery.”

Paul is giving directives  to Christian slaves regarding their attitude toward their masters, whether they  be  non-Christian  or   Christian  masters.  It  is estimated that  at the height of  the Roman practise of slavery as much as a  third of the Roman Empire were slaves. So we are not surprised  that the gospel came to slave and free [Gal. 3: 28], since the gospel of Jesus was never  limited to  any class of people, but that it was always intended for the whole world. And  so it was inevitable that Paul should write  directives  to Christians who were slaves, remembering  the specific challenges associated  with the  life of a slave.   

Slavery is still  very much in practise  in this modern world. [2] Modern slavery is a multi-billion-dollar industry with estimates of up to U$35 billion generated annually. The United Nations estimates that roughly 27 to 30 million individuals are currently caught in the slave trade industry. India has the most slaves of any country, at roughly 18.4 million. China is second with 3.4 million slaves, followed by Pakistan (2.1 million), Bangladesh (1.5 million), and Uzbekistan (1.2 million). By percentages of the population living in slavery Uzbekistan tops with 4% of its population living under slavery followed by Cambodia (1.6%), India, (1.4%) and Qatar (1.4%). Mauritania was the last nation in the world to officially abolish slavery, doing so in 2007.

Modern slavery is frequently a by-product of poverty. Countries that lack education, economic freedom, the rule of law, and which have poor societal  structures tend to encourage and propagate slavery. In Namibia slavery is forbidden by our constitution. Chapter three, article 9  on  “Slavery and Forced Labour“,  point # 1  says: “No persons shall be held in slavery or servitude.” Point #2  says, ”No persons shall be required to perform forced labour”.

So, the   matter  that  calls for comment  is the  fact that Paul says nothing here to condemn slavery. In fact   Paul calls on Christians who are “under a yoke as slaves to regard their masters as worthy of all honour.”  Were you expecting Paul to be a  William Wilberforce, leading a campaign for the liberation of slaves?  Why did Jesus, or the apostles, or the early church do nothing to abolish slavery? How do we explain this, since Paul freely acknowledges that slaves are under a yoke?
The simplest  answer would be that the institution of slavery was woven into every part of the ancient world. Dismantling slavery  spontaneously would have brought about the instant collapse of society, resulting in chaos.  So, there is nothing  said about that at all, and  instead he gives Christian slaves  an instruction to submit to their masters.

Here we learn once again that the gospel  marches to a different drum. It employs a different strategy. The gospel is not indifferent to the plight  of  slaves, but it solves the problem  in a different way. The gospel always  begins by dealing with primary causes. The physical liberation of  slaves  is not  the first priority  for  the gospel.  The first  priority  of the gospel  is  the liberation from the slavery of sin. When Jesus was  reading from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue, he   read , “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives…”  [Lk 4:18].  The context is very clear that  He was talking about the slavery of sin, from which every  social evil flows , including the   slavery  of which our text speaks.

Furthermore,   we need to be assured  that  Paul did  encourage slaves to seek their  freedom  if they could attain it. Paul makes it clear that if a Christian who is a slave has an opportunity to become free, he ought to take it [1 Cor. 7:21,22]. In his letter to Philemon,  he encourages   him to receive Onesimus, his runaway slave  “no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, a beloved brother.”  I understand this to mean that Onesimus was  going back to work  for  Philemon, who would  care for him physically  and  treat him as a brother in the Lord.  

But mark this! Slavery, along with a host of other  forms  that  demean human beings   is an institution that arises  from of a fallen world. People were never designed by God for slavery. But there it is!  Many people are poor and literally sell themselves into slavery. Others are sold into slavery by their parents because of poverty. Poverty is another result of life in a fallen world. Jesus said, ”the poor you will always have with you” [Mk. 14:7]. And poverty lends itself to exploitation, and it needs to be regulated. And so, in   Exodus 20-21, in giving  the civil law to Israel, God also gives laws on slavery , not because He designed it so,  but to regulate  such practises in a fallen world, reminding masters  to treat their slaves well. [Ex. 21:1] The law is designed to  regulate  life in a fallen world. It  regulates  slavery. It regulates   divorce [Deut. 24:1-4]. And yet the Bible condones neither.  The civil law  simply mitigates and  constrains.  But it  does   not  condone  issues such as slavery. I repeat, people were not originally created  to be slaves.  We were created for freedom under God!

And  so  Paul says  to Christian slaves (who are  under the yoke of slavery)  that they should  honour their masters.  The explanation is given in v.1 : “Let all who are under the yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honour  (and here is the reason)  so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.” Paul gives an evangelistic reason.  He  tells the Christian slave that even in his less than  ideal  position,  his behaviour  to his master  has  a bearing on  God's reputation.  God’s  Word is at  stake. The truth  of the gospel is at stake.   This is remarkable.  The glory of God in the eyes of a master  is at stake in the behaviour of a slave  who professes Christ!

So, how does this  all apply to us? None of us are slaves, at least not in the way that these people were slaves and yet the principles  apply to  us, especially as we consider this in the light of our  working relationships as employers and employees. 

1.      Principle #1 :  As employees  in the service of our employers  we are called to  ensure  that in so doing we honour  God and the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This  means that  we  honour the Name of God by  fulfilling the highest standards in our employment.  Nowhere is this more true than when we work for a non- Christian boss.   Even those that are not nice to us!  The apostle Peter makes that point: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (I Pet.2:18).We are to bear witness to the gospel of Christ in the way that we live. The way that we live either commends the gospel, or it undermines the gospel. Let that be an abiding lesson to all of us! The greatest barriers of  our gospel witness  in  our community  and in  our working environment are our lives. Our lives will either commend the truth or undermine it.

2.    Principle #2 :   If we have the privilege of  working for a Christian boss, we are  not to abuse  them on the ground that  they are our brothers.  Paul is saying to these Christian slaves that they ought to serve there masters  even more diligently,  and better, precisely because they  are  fellow believers.  Our equality in Christ can be no  excuse for  poor service.

3.   Principle #3 is not found in our text, but  as indicated already, we find it in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3. I am adding it here because I wanted to add a word for masters or employers.

(i)             The first point here is that “enslaving” people is wrong (see 1 Timothy 1:10). And even though slavery  is a societal fact  Paul  encouraged a  believing  slave-owner named Philemon to give Onesimus, his slave, his freedom on the basis  that he is a brother in  the Lord. Once you have  spiritual freedom  through the gospel, social freedom should follow very quickly.   In business terms that means that  we need  to  treat employees with fairness and respect. It means paying them a fair wage  so that they can live in dignity.
(ii)            In Colossians 4:1  Paul  exhorts the slave-owners in Colossae to  treat  their   slaves  justly and fairly, knowing that they too where accountable to their Master in heaven.  Both, the  Christian employer and employee ultimately  have one Master  to whom they must give an account.   In his letter to the Ephesians Paul tells the slave-owners in the Ephesian church,  to stop their threatening, reminding  them that  God, their common Master shows no partiality  when  it comes to judging actions (Eph.  6:9)  

How are you acting towards those who are over you or under you? Has the gospel  taken hold of you in such a manner that  it affects those who are over or under you? You cannot possibly act in the way that  Paul is describing here unless you have a new heart and a new nature. Unless the Holy Spirit indwells you are not likely to have such inclinations. 

Since we came to know Christ, He has often put his finger on wrongs we have done to other people, particularly as we  begin to understand  the  fact that the Lord Christ bore our sins on the cross and grants us total forgiveness. So the  great rule for life, in whatever station we may  find ourselves in this life  is this:   The gospel, Jesus,   FIRST. Everything follows from that. 

William Wilberforce (1755 -1833 )  who led the  abolishment of slavery in England in the 18th/  19th century  could do what he did  only because of the  powerful gospel  preaching, the Great Awakening, that  happened in the pulpits of Britain at that time! The gospel is the  true  basis for our freedom, and for that we continually  labour here at Eastside! 

[1] John Stott, “The Message of I Timothy and Titus,” IVP, 1996, p.142

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