When it comes to the complex issue of labor and management, the Bible has answers. But are we asking it the right questions?
In the old joke, a man wanted to know God’s will from the Scripture. I’ll open the Bible at random and point, and that will be God’s direction for me. When he opened his eyes, his finger was resting on the verse, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” I’ll try it again, he said: this time he opened to the verse, “Go thou and do likewise.”
God’s Word is true, but those verses were not the answer to that man’s question!
Yet, we commit the same error on the topic of labor: most of the teaching I have run across is based squarely on three Bible passages on the theme of SLAVERY, texts that only indirectly have to do with employers and their employees or labor and management. It is “wrongly dividing the Word of truth” to take passages about slaves and slap them on the table as God’s program for labor and management. Yet if we search the internet for blogs or sermons about slaves and masters in the New Testament, they will find that plenty of North American churches are preaching a message that sounds something like this:
Here is what the Bible says and it’s simple!
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord (Col 3:22).
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ (Eph 6:5).
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Pet 2:18).
And [chuckle, chuckle], no, we’re not slaves, but just turn slave into employee, and swap out master and make it employer, and it comes out about right!
Rather than give a full expression of the Christian work ethic, I want to explore this whole “an Employee is a what the Bible calls a Slave” business.
One blogger writes that the slave and the employee are more or less the same thing:
That’s not to say that the relationships are exactly the same, not at all. But the application of Paul’s teaching does relate to the situations we find ourselves in.
He goes on to explain that the “employee/slave” has the freedom to quit and find new work; otherwise, he argues, the differences between the two roles are minimal.
Another writer falsely assumes that “the social structure of master and slave in 1st century Roman culture” is basically “reflected today in the employer/employee relationship.”
Also typical of this viewpoint is John MacArthur:
Because God has sovereignly established the social order, we are to serve our employer as though we are serving the Lord (cf. Col. 3:17, 22-25). If employers are unfair, God will deal with them. The mandate is to submit, not strike or demonstrate. 
Peppered throughout that short statement is a whole list of assumptions that are foreign to the text of Colossians:
- Employers are established by God and must be obeyed, period.
- Employees are wholly accountable to their employers.
- On the other hand, employers are not answerable to their employees.
- Employers are accountable to God alone.
- Employers who are unfair (who “do wrong”, which might include being exploitive or abusive or dishonest) must not be restrained or punished by human authority.
- Going on strike is unchristian.
- Demonstrating is unchristian.
I challenge my readers to show from Scripture where any of these seven principles are taught in the Bible when it is speaking of free employees and their employers.
And yes, the Bible does speak of paid labor, for example, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard” (Matt 20:1-2). They are not slaves, and they had the right to take or leave the work and negotiate their pay. By contrast, in another parable, the master owns slaves [from the word doulos, see below], whom he sends to work in his fields (Matt 13:27). Slaves and free employees knew very well which position was which!
Ironically, MacArthur’s latest book  makes much of the Greek word doulos, emphasizing that it means bondslave, not merely servant and certainly not employee. Then, how can he and others so blithely redefine the word in Col 3:22? In Eph 6:5 Paul uses doulos and its cognate verb douleuo, which means “to perform the duties of a slave” – not a servant, not a hired worker, not an employee, but a slave who is owned by a master and serves “with fear and trembling.” After all, a slave might receive a flogging for disobedience (1 Pet 2:20), a right that the Roman law protected. Paul knew very well the difference between slavery and free labor (1 Cor 7:21-24). To non-slaves, that is, free workers, he says “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men” – that is, free workers are not slaves.
In apostolic times, a maximum of 1/3 of the population was enslaved. When the apostles wrote Colossians and Ephesians and 1 Peter and addressed the Christian slaves, everyone knew precisely of whom they were speaking: slaves, and by no means not hired labor. This is not splitting hairs between two synonyms: in a very real sense, these three texts have not been directly applicable in the US since the 13th Amendment of 1865 – “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States.” If you are living in slavery today, do not submit to your master; rather close this blog, pick up the phone and dial the police! Likewise, we should be grateful to the Lord that, for example, there is legal recourse for a woman threatened with firing if she doesn’t “cooperate” with her boss; or regulations concerning hazardous substances such polyvinylchloride; or prohibitions of exploitative child labor. These labor rights and others stand fundamentally opposed to the “an Employee is a Slave” model; the Christian of today has every liberty to make use of these and other protections with an untroubled conscience.
To be sure, some of the virtues of a good slave (sincerity, hard work, fearing the Lord, good will, honesty, respect) are virtues for any Christian in any situation, whether employer or employee. But that does not mean that a slave = a worker. That hermeneutical leap is just as egregious as saying that “fear God and honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17) makes it a sin to campaign against a sitting president.
Paul does talk about an ethic for free workers (the “other two-thirds” of the working population), for example in 1 Thess 4:11-12 and 2 Thess 3:6-15, an ethic in which I strongly believe and have written about elsewhere. It’s interesting that nowhere in his letters does Paul address employers of free workers. But Paul is not the only biblical author. The Old Testament law addresses itself more often to employers or to slave-owners than it does to workers and slaves. When the prophets preach, it is rarely to scold laborers for not putting in a fair day’s work, but the masters and employers for exploiting their workers (Ezek 22:29 – “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice”). Employers and masters were restrained not just by their personal ethic or by “industry standards,” but by the Law of Moses. In the New Testament, it is James who is the champion of labor, directing his preaching to those who neglect the needy (Jas 1:27; 2:14-17), look down on the working poor (2:1-7), hanker after inflated profits (4:13-17) or exploit hired workers (5:1-6; “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts”).
Pastors might ask themselves when was the last time they preached against unfair management practices. I’ve heard many sermons where workers are told how to act righteously (and slavishly). I have heard perhaps one sermon, at least that I can recall, where employers or business owners were challenged to live more righteously with their employees. In our current climate, it is almost an unspoken evangelical assumption that employers and business people and entepreneurs are on the side of the angels, creating wealth, creating jobs, and carrying on the good fight against lazy and greedy workers. Maybe that’s how it plays out with the people of your congregation; for its part, the Bible assumes that employers might act as sinfully as their workers.
NOTES:  John MacArthur, “Submission in the Workplace, Part I.” Online: www.biblebb.com/files/mac/sg60-26.htm. MacArthur also indulges in the fallacy of guilt by association when he links workers’ rights with radical feminism, gay rights and revolution: “Our society is preoccupied with demanding its rights. It campaigns for the rights of students, women, children, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, criminals, employees, and the homeless. When people believe their rights have been denied, they often react with strikes, protests, insurrections, and walk outs. The underlying mentality is, ‘Give me my rights or I’ll fight back in every way possible.’ In contrast, God’s Word says Christians are not to demand their rights by being troublemakers or lawbreakers in society. The believing citizen is to submit to civil authorities (1 Pet. 2:13-17) and the believing servant is to submit to his master (vv. 18-21).” Gary adds: Paul, to name one example, certainly did demand his legal rights as a citizen, acting as a “trouble-maker” against established authority on at least four occasions.
 John MacArthur, Slave: the Hidden Truth about your Identity in Christ, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. MacArthur mishandles the Greek and overstates his case in this volume, but that is an issue for another day.
“You are not a slave,” by Gary Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica