Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men
The final portion of Colossians 3 speaks on household or family responsibilities of a Christian. For many of us, a significant portion of our daily lives revolve around our families – some more so than others. We should come into contact with our wives, husbands, parents,children, masters, slaves on a daily basis – which makes these relationship harder than most others to manage. Expectations are higher; demands are greater, the investment of emotions is greater. Amongst all these household relationships, perhaps the most complicated one to address through a Biblical way would be that of slaves to their masters. That is the context of Colossians 3:22-24, the Biblical perspective of how slaves should perform their roles in the household. In today’s study, we will look into the definition of slaves in ancient times and in Christianity today, and how this verse should be applied to us.
In the Greco-Roman era slaves were a given. Even in ancient Biblical eras – the Egyptian and Babylonian empires for example were known for their en-slavery of the Israelites. As late as the 19th Century, slavery was still a very modern societal issue. But thanks to many champions of various skin colours and continents; it is not a common issue these days. While it undoubtedly still exists in certain cultures, it has been outlawed in most countries. But while Paul was writing this epistle, slavery still exists – it was legal and it was accepted. It was expected.
In my country it is common for households to hire domestic helpers – commonly known as maids; who typically come from a few of our neighboring countries. In essence, it’s more or less like a civilized and cleaned up version of the slavery systems of the old days – just that they aren’t slaves, really – they are employees and protected by the government and their embassies. You don’t own them. You cannot torture or overwork them. Most employers do generally treat them well; but there are some who treat their domestic helpers as slaves, unfortunately. The reverse is true – most helpers do their job well, but there are some who steal from their employers, abuse the children, slack off on their responsibilities. But they are not our slaves. We are not talking about our employees. We are not talking about those who are employed. What are slaves?
Whatever you do, work at it with your heart – Many people tend to read Col 3:23 out of context, forgetting that Paul was strictly talking about slaves. Perhaps if Paul had the time to hold a weekly, 2 hour session on ‘how to treat your slaves’ course for masters of slaves , he would mention about treating them with all your heart at about week 7 or 8. Or maybe not. Not that masters shouldn’t be sincere towards their slaves, but that isn’t the first and foremost thing that Paul wanted to instruct them on. That wasn’t the most important issue for masters of slaves. That was the most important thing for slaves.
There’s a parallel passage in Paul’s letter to the Church of Ephesus as well – Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. [Eph 6:5-8]
as working for The Lord, not for men – Galatians 1:10 explains this very succinctly for us – Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. We were slaves to sin, but by the blood of Christ we were redeemed and freed from the shackles of sin and today, if we are slaves of anything, it can only be Christ – But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life [Rom 6:22].
Now before we upset ourselves by drawing on the definitions of ‘slave’ which we explored a little earlier, there is one notable difference in being a slave of men and being a slave of Christ. Slaves belong to the master, just as we belong to Christ. However, human masters did not create their slaves, they did not know their slaves from before they were born. God created us. God knew us right from the beginning. Some Christians do not accept the term ‘Christian slavery’, in fact modern translations render the term ‘slaves of Christ’ as ‘servants of Christ’. Perhaps it’s just a difference in definition. What does the term ‘slave’ means to you?
If you’re upset with using the word ‘slave’ in relation to Christianity, if you are uncomfortable with calling yourself a slave of Christ, then don’t use the term. If it makes it any better, then use the word ‘servant’ – although there is indeed a difference between slave and servant. Servanthood does suggest more of an employment than a possession – which I think is the key behind why the term ‘slave’ has been used by Christians. As for me, when I look at the term ‘slave of Christ’, I really just think it means that I belong to Christ [Rom 8:9, 1 Cor 3:23, 2 Cor 10:7, Gal 5:24]. Christ owns me. Not that Christ will abuse me or torture me or render my human rights useless or take away my freewill. But he owns me. Maybe 1 Peter 2:16 clears it up a little for us – Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. We’re not slaves to anything or anybody in this world any longer because we’ve been freed – but this freedom is not a license for us to do evil and to sin. In other words, see ourselves as slaves of Christ – not to shackle us down, but to remind ourselves of our identity as citizens of Christ.
That said, I have no personal issue with slavery – my race isn’t typically associated to slavery (I’m yellow-skinned), so if you’re uncomfortable, then just don’t use it. Our God is still the same Lord whether we call ourselves slaves of Christ or servant of Christ or citizens of Christ.
I believe that given the context in Colossians 3, Paul was certainly speaking specifically to slaves – real slaves who had human masters, and who probably had to deal with complicated emotions, situations and issues – things like freedom which so many of us take for granted are taken away from them, for example. It wasn’t like Paul was new to the concept of being slaves to Christ either – he was the one who introduced that idea when he called himself a slave (or servant, depending on your version) of Christ [Rom 1:1]. Is it wrong for us to adopt this verse and apply it to ourselves in our roles as slaves (or servants) of Christ? Well, it isn’t up to me to call the shots on right or wrong, but I certainly would look at this verse in this way. Our relationship with God is a dynamic one – there are hundreds of terms you can use to describe it – father and child, teacher and student, master and slave, master and servant, doctor and patient – the list goes on. Our relationship with God is far greater and beyond that of a master and slave. But it is one part of it. Let us learn how to be sincere and diligent in everything that we do for the good of the Kingdom.