R. Paul Stevens
I grew up in a business home. My father became president of a midsized steel manufacturing firm and I worked in the company in almost everything—the tool room, punch press, warehouse, except being president. Over supper my father would talk about some of the challenges of being a Christian in business—customer relationships, product integrity, employee remuneration and the ethics of advertising. My mother always wanted my dad to run his business as a charitable organization. But he would say, “Without profit we cannot continue. Profit is like blood in the human body. You do not live for it but without it you cannot live.” Does Christianity have anything to do with business? Except to critique greed? Except to critique the capitalist system?
I am not sure whether you ask this question, but I certainly do. Work occupies such a large part of my life. I work six days a week and put in about 40-60 hours as a retired person. Most professionals do this. Farmers always have. My own work over the years has included making rivets by hand, packing cartons, one whole summer filing invoices, being a pastor, being a carpenter and bookkeeper, being a business owner, being a professor, and as professor emeritus, still working. But all of these were remunerated.I have also worked at painting our apartment, caring for children, cooking meals, changing diapers, putting out the garbage, washing the car annually (even when it doesn't need it), repairing the plumbing at home, installing a shower door, hosting with Gail a family dinner, and listening to a child. All of these were work but were not remunerated. This week I prepared some teaching, met with students, answered a lot of emails, and attended a couple of meetings, listened to a friend, travelled to the interior with Gail to visit a friend. What is Christian about this? To answer that I must explain how I became a Christian.
I became a Christian in a strange way. I was baptized in a Baptist church but not yet a Christian, which is not supposed to happen! Baptists baptize believers. Exclusively. But, as an unbeliever I became the president of the youth group and organized bible studies and a prayer retreat. I hired a pastor to speak at the retreat and the only thing I can remember his speaking was a lie. But, in spite of him, I became a Christian that weekend. God crossed the infinity of time and space and knocked on my door as he does with each of us. The pastor explained that at sixteen he had been called to the mission field but he refused to go. So, he said, “God fixed it so I could never go. God made me have a motorcycle accident.” His left leg was mangled. He is lame and “now,” he said, “no mission board will take me. So I am doomed to do God’s second best—to be a pastor.” I am so glad I was not converted to that man’s God. But his story reveals the hierarchy that is in many people’s minds, deep in their souls, and deep in the culture of most churches.
At the top of the hierarchy is the missionary. Then the pastor. (In Korea the pastor is top.) Then people-helpers like doctors, lawyers and counsellors. Followed by homemakers. Then people in the trades. I worked in carpentry for seven years, and I found it was physically dirty but morally clean, and then I went into business, and found it was physically clean…. Lower down is business, near the bottom. Then some questionable occupations like stock broking and some would say televangelism. And finally there are some prohibited occupations like being a loan shark, a prostitute or a witch.
Christianity has smashed this dreadful hierarchy. Jesus destroyed the sacred secular dualism that says some work is pleasing to God. like being a pastor or a missionary, and other work is secular and not pleasing to God. According to this view work has value only to make money to support yourself and Christian workers who are really doing “the Lord’s work.” The English reformer William Tyndale said, "There is no work better than another to please God; to pour water, to wash dishes, to be a souter (cobbler), or an apostle, all are one, as touching the deed, to please God." [i] He got killed for teaching this. Please spare me a little longer. I am 77 and hope to see my great grandchildren. Where does this radical view of “the Lord’s work” as more universal come from? There are several passages in the New Testament that address the question of “whose work matters to God?” and turn the hierarchy upside down. There is one in particular.
Slaves, Masters and the Challenge of Working in the Marketplace
In Colossians 3:22-4:1 Paul speaks to the lowest of the low, to people who had no citizenship, no rights, and no pay—slaves. How could they possibly be doing something worthwhile when they were working like machines? And Paul says to them “You are working for Jesus. Treat your masters as though you were working for Jesus, and not just when they are looking.” Along with the letter to the Philemon, where Paul returns a runaway slave to his master, this letter spells the moral end to slavery by abolishing its spirit. Even a slave can be liberated to serve with a free heart in Christ, and a Christian master can treat his slaves as equal.
What did the slaves do? They washed. They cleaned. They cooked. They ran errands. They did heavy manual work. Some of them were trusted with accounts, with supervision and leadership in a large household. Some would take their masters in the chariot to the games or to the brothel. Life was not easy nor uncomplicated. But Paul says "Whatever you do work at it with all your heart."
Apparently the problem in Colossae was not in false teachers coming from the outside but from the inside. This little church in Turkey, a few miles from Laodicea, a church founded by the apostle Paul's missionary activity while in Ephesus, was influenced profoundly by the spirit of the age. It was a syncretistic environment, not unlike ours in North America and parts of Asia. It has been called an insipient Gnosticism. It was more like a mood than a movement, something that seeped into the church offering a new spirituality, a new spiritual freedom, and new spiritual practices that created a new elitism. These elites were critical of ordinary believers. It is to these people that Paul addresses his high doctrine of Christ and his eminently practical wisdom on how to live the Christian life at home and in the workplace in the passage we are examining. He is preaching the gospel as it relates to the issue of his day. Martin Luther said, “If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all.”[ii]
So, in verse 22 Paul says the slaves are to work with “sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
Let me take the second clause first—“reverence for the Lord.” The literal meaning or “reverence” is worshipping God, pleasing God, offering up yourself and your work to God, showing reverent affection for God through your work (for that is the meaning of the “fear of the Lord”). What does this mean?
Doing the Lord’s Work in the World
Reverence means that the slaves were actually doing the Lord’s work. And so are we. When people tell me they are leaving secular work and going into the Lord’s work, meaning ministry, I ask, “What were you doing before?”
God is a worker. When we open the Bible the first thing we see is God at work. Unlike the gods of the Graeco-Roman mythologies who refrain from work, dining on fantastic food and resting in heaven, God works. God creates, God sustains everything. God transforms and fixes. God consummates and brings the whole story to a worthy end. And God invites his God-imaging creatures to enter into his work, creating, like IT people, sustaining, like systems people and homemakers, transforming like technicians and pastors, and consummating work like that done by artists, journalists and educators.
In fact the Bible tells us the story of people working and doing the Lord’s work: a livestock breeder (Jacob), a futures broker in the grain exchange (Joseph), a silversmith (Bezalel), a project manager who was also a wine taster (Nehemiah), a dumpster dipper (Ruth the gleaner), an orchardist (Amos), a government official (Daniel), students in a pagan university (Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the University of Babylon), a politician (David), a homemaker (Martha), mobile home manufacturers (Aquila and Priscilla), an agent for the government revenue agency (Zaccheus the tax collector), a craftsperson (Dorcas), and a textile merchant (Lydia, who also as a woman was the first pastor in Europe).
What difference would it make if you knew you were doing the Lord’s work?
Working for the Lord Wherever You Are
Reverence—not just because you are doing the Lord’s work, but also because you are working for the Lord. Twice in the passage Paul says, “It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Slaves? Stock brokers? People in finance and IT? University students? Retired people working as volunteers?
At a stroke Paul in this passage liberates the slaves from their miserable servitude to become full time servants of God. Ultimately this would spell the end of slavery though it would take almost nineteen centuries to accomplish and, of course, we still have some slavery in the world.
What makes work Christian is not the religious character of the work, not even the excellence with which it is done, but the fact that it is done for Jesus, with faith, hope and love. Some church work is not Christian and much so-called secular work is Christian and pleasing to God. I have a friend who believes that if Christians shut their mouths for one year and just worked with Jesus as their boss, then more people would want to become Christians.
But it is not just the slaves. Even the masters are full time servants of Jesus. “You also have a master in heaven” Paul says to the employers. And therefore must give your slaves what is right and fair. Slave and master are equals, both servants of God and both accountable to God. How do we do this?
There is a change in motive here. A Pagan slave might obey in everything for fear of death or dismissal. But a Christian slave will achieve the same consistent obedience for wholly different reasons. His worth is not dependent on his earthly master's approval. He has his worth in Christ, the Christ on which he sets his affection and his mind. So he is now free to do even menial chores because it is not only his master that he is serving, but Christ. And Christ receives his service. Christ is his boss. What a transformation this brings to us workers to have Jesus as our boss: to be liberated from bondage to what our earthly masters think of us because we already have the approval of the Lord Jesus.
But this brings us to the second great principle in the verse 22—“sincerity” or single-mindedness.
Working with all Your Heart
If reverence refers to our relationship with God; sincerity refers to our relationship with our employer, in this case the slave owner. Here Paul says something important. He says put your heart into it. Get into your work. I often ask Christian CEOs if their Christian employees are good workers. Normally they say no. They are really interested in getting to their Bible study group or their church activity. As Paul says, “not just when their eye is on you.” Paul deals with something he calls “eye service” (from the Greek word which transliterates as ophthalmic). This is the situation where someone works efficiently when the boss is looking, doing only as much as will attract favour and avoid punishment. It soon becomes a fine art so that a lot of energy is put into finding ways of doing just enough, just enough to keep your job and keep the boss happy, and not so little that you endanger your position.
When I worked out in the factory of my father’s company I noticed how my dad would do his daily walk-around speaking with every employee. As soon as he came out of the office into the factory everyone got really busy. But as soon as the office door was shut, they pulled out their Playboy magazines and relaxed. Not currying their boss’ favour. Augustine was criticized for buying his sandals from a non-Christian sandal maker when his village had a Christian sandal maker. He said, “I have to do too much walking to wear an inferior sandal.” He meant it from the heart.
Doing the Lord’s Work. Working for the Lord. Working with all your heart.
From Monday to Friday or Saturday the church is scattered into the world, sent as missionaries, to be salt and light and, when opportunity comes, to put in a good word for Jesus. We should pray for one another, and the church should publicly pray for people providentially placed in the workplace where professional missionaries cannot go. The marketplace is the greatest mission field in the world in the twenty-first century. It is also part of the mission of God, bringing God’s shalom into the world, improving and embellishing human life. George MacLeod of the Scottish Iona Community summed it up:
I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek…; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmen should be about.