Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ephesians 6:5-9 The Spirit-Filled Workplace

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The Bible tells us plainly in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 that if a man is unwilling to work, then he is not to eat. It seems there was one guy in New York some years ago who found a way around that. The 36 year old man who often lived on the streets would sometimes wander into an exclusive restaurant and order the most expensive items on the menu. When the check arrived, he simply shrugged his shoulders and waited for the police to come and arrest him. He didn’t mind going to jail – he’d pled guilty to stealing restaurant meals some 31 times by the time the Associated Press ran his story. In jail he knew that he would have a roof over his head and three meals a day. The story reported that because of his unwillingness to work and his attempts to manipulate the system, New York taxpayers had spent upwards of a quarter-million dollars feeding this man who refused to work to feed himself.

We were made to work. Work is not something we do because of the fall into sin. The fall affects the returns and satisfaction we get from our work, and it affects our ability to work, but it does not create the need to work. God created work. Before sin ever entered, God gave Adam work to do in the garden. Children understand this. When there is a job to be done around the house or in the yard, kids are eager to help out. They get excited about “Bring a Kid to Work Day.” Left to play among themselves, they will quickly begin playing pretend, and one will be a shopkeeper, or a police officer, or a soldier, or a chef, or the like. But something happens along the way of life wherein work becomes dreadful. We get to the point where we don’t enjoy it, but merely endure it. The words of Scripture here in this text, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives can transform that and turn our everyday work into something significant and of eternal value.

I am sure it has not escaped your notice that I am talking about work, and the passage is talking about slavery. I certainly do not mean to make light of slavery. Slavery, as it was practiced in America and elsewhere in recent centuries, is one of the most abominable institutions ever undertaken by depraved men, as its contemporary cousin—human trafficking. However, slavery as we have come to know it in our culture is different from the slavery that was practiced in the Roman Empire. For instance, the kind of slavery that Paul was addressing was never based on ethnicity or skin color. Slaves consisted of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Also, though certainly many slaves had been taken or purchased against their will, there were many people who voluntarily sold themselves into slavery in that day. They did this by entering into a contract with their masters which stipulated the terms of the arrangement and set time limits on their service. Why would someone do this? For some, the ancient life of slavery promised the individual a better life than they knew as freedmen. It may have offered them better (or at least guaranteed) housing and food, medical care, and opportunities for education and social advancement. Many slaves in the Roman Empire learned to read and write, and became educators, physicians, accountants, and overseers of tremendous estates. Certainly however there are cases in which slaves even in that day were treated brutally and deprived of basic human rights. Still, so common was slavery in those days that it is estimated that approximately half of the population of the Empire was enslaved to the other half, and we know that many of those became enslaved by choice. Nowhere in the New Testament is the institution of slavery endorsed or condoned, but its reality is not avoided. In fact, over time, the institution of slavery was radically transformed by the Christian worldview with its high ideals set forth in this and other passages of Scripture. After all, this passage assumes that both slaves and their masters are brothers and sisters to one another in Christ, and are fellow participants in the same congregation. We must remember that though Christianity has transformed cultures in history, its aim has always been to first transform individuals. Transformed individuals change societies. Transformed societies are limited in ability to transform individuals.

So with these things in mind, it seems to me that the common workplace of our day is the right locus of application for these verses. None of us are likely to be legally enslaved to another person, and those who are in some form of slavery today or in recent history, are not in a similar situation to what Paul was addressing. Yet all of us to one degree or another find ourselves as laborers in another’s employ or as managers who oversee a laboring force, or in many cases, as both. This is the last of the sections that flow out of Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:18 to be Spirit-filled, or controlled by the Holy Spirit. Having been born-again by faith in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, Christians are able to live under the Spirit’s control as we surrender ourselves to Him. As we have seen, this has a transforming effect on churches, marriages, families, and if the principles of these verses are rightly applied and obeyed, on workplaces as well. So, what are the mandates found here for the Spirit-filled worker and the Spirit-filled manager?

I. The Spirit-Filled Worker Labors Ultimately for Christ (vv5-8)

I guess it is sort of customary to complain about work. Everyone does from time to time, and some seem to do so all the time. We complain about supervisors, subordinates, schedules, expectations, and any number of other things that surround the workplace. Many of these things are outside of our control, but one thing we can control is our own attitudes. I would even say that, when it seems impossible for us to gain or retain control of our own attitudes, this is a reminder to us that we need to be under the Spirit’s control. I recall a conversation I had about work with my pastor over 15 years ago. I was complaining about my job and told my pastor that I couldn’t wait to leave that job and begin a career in ministry. My pastor lovingly corrected me and said, “Have you ever considered that your job is your ministry? So, why not do the best you can there for the glory of God, and try to make a difference in the lives of the people you work with, and work hard like you are going to be the next president of the company?” I took that advice to heart, and my attitude began to change, the environment began to change, and my job performance and the performance of those around me began to change. I attribute all of that to the work of the Holy Spirit as I surrendered more and more control over my own attitude and actions to His power in my life. When the day came that I did leave that job, the owner of the company pleaded with me to stay, offering me raises and promotions, and promised me an open door to return at any time in the future. The Holy Spirit’s control had transformed my own attitude, my work, and my working relationships.

This is precisely what the Apostle Paul is saying here to those who are laboring in the service of others, be they servants (in this context) or employees (in our present context). He says that we are to be “obedient” to those who are our “masters according to the flesh.” In saying “according to the flesh,” he is pointing out that they have oversight over us in a limited way, but there is someone else who is our Master in a greater way. Our obedience to our bosses, managers, or supervisors is a reflection of our obedience to Christ. He says that these “slaves” are to be obedient “as to Christ.” Jesus is our ultimate Master and Lord, and whatever work we do, we ultimately do for Him. We need to think of our work as if Jesus Himself was the one who signed our paychecks, and carry out our responsibilities in the workplace to the best of our God-given, Spirit-empowered abilities. He is glorified through this. Christians ought to stand out in the workplace for their performance and their attitudes.

The attitude of the Christian laborer is to be one, Paul says, of “fear and trembling.” This is not in the sense of paranoia or trepidation, but respect for authority and recognition of God’s sovereign authority over our lives and the lives of those for whom we work. And this is not just something external or done for show, but it is done “in the sincerity of your heart.” It is not “by way of eyeservice as men-pleasers.” In other words, we don’t just work hard and perform well when others are watching, but all the more when no one is watching. We do it because it is right for Christian people to live this way. It is the “will of God,” he says here, for us to work this way “from the heart.”

Some of you surely remember the TV show “Leave It To Beaver.” If so, you remember that Wally had a friend named Eddie Haskell. Eddie is a good example of what Paul is talking about here. When he came to the door of the Cleaver household, he was always very kind and respectful toward the parents, but as soon as they left the room, he began trying to persuade Beaver or Wally to do something wrong. His good attitude and good behavior was only for “eyeservice” to please people. It was not in the sincerity of his heart. We are not to be like Eddie Haskell in the workplace. If we speak well of the boss when he’s around, and then tear him down when he’s not around, then we are hypocritical. If we enthusiastically affirm our responsibilities face to face with the boss, but then grumble about what we have to do once we are alone or with coworkers, then we are not working with sincerity. The tasks we are assigned, no matter how menial or difficult, are opportunities for our Christian character and the power of the Holy Spirit to be put on display. Our attitude about these things will speak loudly to those we work with and work for about our commitment to Jesus as Lord over our lives.

We have to remember ultimately God is the one for whom we do whatever we do. That is why Paul says in v7, “with good will render service as to the Lord, and not to men.” The boss may be unfair, unreasonable, unrealistic, and a genuinely bad guy, but ultimately we don’t work for him. We work for God, and God is good – all the time. It is by God’s grace that we have the ability to work and the opportunity to work. And it is for God’s glory that we work. Our work is His means of providing for our needs and our means of proclaiming His truth through our words and way of life. And in the end, we have to keep in mind v8: “Whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” Your hard work and positive attitude may go unrewarded and unnoticed at work, but it won’t in heaven. God will see to it that you receive the full benefit of every good thing you’ve done with the right attitude and for the right motivation, even if the boss doesn’t. And He will also carry out vindication for you when you are treated harshly by unbearable managers. So we have to work with that eternal perspective.

That sounds all well and good here in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. But how will it be come Monday morning? It will be downright hard, if not impossible, to carry out unless we are walking in the Spirit’s power. But as we are filled with the Spirit, we will remember the truth of God’s word, we will remember His ultimate purposes in what we do, and we will be able to work hard with the right attitude even if others try to make that difficult for us. He will enable His people to labor diligently for His own glory. The Spirit-filled worker labors ultimately for Jesus.

Now, people in management will say a hearty amen to all of this. They will like the fact that Christian employees are being called to work in this way. But, there are implications for them here in this text as well in v9.

II. The Spirit-Filled Manager Is Accountable to Jesus (v9)

The 19th Century British historian Lord Acton is perhaps most famous for this saying. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The truth of Acton’s words is readily apparent, as all of us have seen how a good man and his morals are soon parted when he comes into a position of authority. But the Christian worldview turns this on its head. Jesus said, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.” This matter of the greater serving the lesser was not just something Jesus said. He lived this, even as He proclaimed, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45). It is this example of Jesus, and His teaching on the matter, that informs Paul’s instructions to Christians in authority.

Speaking to the masters of slaves in his day, Paul’s words are fitting for those who find themselves in positions of management, supervision, and authority in the workplace today. Having already admonished Christian servants or laborers to obey their masters as they obey the Lord, with a willing and sincere heart, doing good to them, he now says to the masters, “Do the same things to them.” In other words, the greatness of a person in authority is demonstrated in his or her willingness to serve the best interests of those under them on the ladder. Leaders who profess faith in Christ and walk in the Spirit’s power do not have to mistreat those under their authority, but through kindness, mercy, and gentleness, they are able to bring out the best in those who are in their employ. So Paul says, “Give up threatening.” History is filled with examples of those who exercise their authority through threats of violence or harsh treatment. These are not marks of one who follows the ultimate Master, nor of those who walk in the fullness of His Spirit. Just as the servant cannot control the attitudes and actions of his master, so the master cannot control that of his servants. He or she must do what is right in the sight of God, by the Spirit’s power, and entrust the results to God without resorting to corruption, manipulation, or harshness in the treatment of others.

Absolute power would indeed corrupt absolutely if anyone really had it. But the fact is that no human being has absolute power. All power or authority that we have is limited and subordinate to the ultimate authority of God. And this is the basis of what Paul says to those in authority. The command to abandon threats and treat servants with kindness is based on the knowledge that “both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” If the work or attitude of the subordinate is negative, they will give account to God. But so will the manager. The manager will account for how he or she has treated those who work for them. And there will be no partiality. God is no respecter of persons or offices. He will not always side with management, nor will He always side with labor. He will judge based on what is right, and He will do so perfectly. And there seems to be an important precedent found in Scripture that the one who has been entrusted with more authority will bear greater responsibility for what he or she does with that authority. If those under our authority are fellow-Christians, then we are brothers and sisters in God’s family and we should treat them accordingly. And if they are not believers, well, the likelihood of finding anything attractive in the Christian faith will diminish if we who proclaim to serve this loving Savior demonstrate a very unloving spirit toward them. We are all stewards – managers of what God has entrusted us with. And we will all give account to Him. So, if your boss is unbearable, rest in this promise that he or she will answer to God for that, but you continue to work well with a positive attitude as the Spirit empowers you. And if your employees are irresponsible, that may be cause for termination, but it is never cause for harsh treatment of them as persons. Even if discipline must be exercised in the workplace, it can still be carried out in a way that pleases the Lord. The Spirit-filled manager can abandon wrath, knowing that the laborer will account to God as well. Our responsibility, whether we are in authority or under authority, is to always do what is right, and leave the others in the Lord’s hands. He will judge perfectly and each will reap what they have sown.

Neither the worker nor the manager will be able to carry out the principles of this text apart from the Spirit’s power at work in and through them. We must be Spirit-filled people. We may not be able to control others or our circumstances, but we can surrender control of ourselves to the Holy Spirit and leave all the rest to God. Of course, before one can live under the control of the Spirit, one must possess the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s promised gift to all those who belong to Him by faith in Jesus. He comes to dwell within us when we receive the gracious salvation promised in the Gospel. None of us deserve this; all of us are sinners. But God, in His great love for us, offers us forgiveness of sins and the promise of the Spirit’s presence, and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. He died to bear the penalty of our sins on our behalf so that in exchange for our sins, we may be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and empowered to live for Him. So, the Gospel calls us to turn from sin and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in our lives. Perhaps someone senses the need to do this even today.

For those of us who have, there is no promise that all of our circumstances, at work, at home, at church, or in society, will always be pleasant. In fact, over and over again Scripture promises us that we will feel the force of life in this fallen world in unpleasant ways. We will be treated harshly. We will deal with the incompetence of others. But it is how we deal with these things that matter. If we deal with them in our own strength we will do what comes naturally: we will slack off, we will become hypocritical, we will grumble under the authority of others; or we will become angry and harsh toward those under our authority. But God has provided us with a supernatural power not our own that can enable us to overcome these tendencies. By yielding ourselves fully to His Spirit’s control, by being Spirit-filled, our workplace and working relationships can be transformed into something that will bring glory and honor to Christ. He is our ultimate authority and Master, no matter what role we occupy in the workplace, and it is to Him that we will all give account.

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