God, the believer and work (3)
Brian Griffiths, Ballylintagh, N. Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
In Colossians 3 verses 22 to 24, Paul addresses servants or slaves, the captives of conquered peoples, who performed the most menial tasks and occupied a ‘non-status’ in Roman society. Yet, he exhorts them to do their work heartily, not simply to please their earthly masters but the Lord Himself. They were to see their work as for the Lord, fulfilling their duties with sincerity and in His fear. They were to be motivated by two things: the Lord’s reward in the future; and the knowledge that they served the Lord Christ. He wanted them to appreciate that their daily work, often menial and degrading, was to be rendered as if it were a service to the Lord. They were to acknowledge Him as the ultimate authority over them and to Him they would finally be accountable. These same principles apply today to Christians as employees.
In the parallel passage of Ephesians 6 verses 7 and 8 we learn that the Lord takes a detailed interest in our work, no matter what it is. Each of us will be rewarded by Christ in the way He decides is appropriate. Paul refers to any service or task performed in the course of our employment as a ‘good thing’. The word translated ‘good’ is the Greek word agathos, meaning ‘noble’, or ‘intrinsically good’. In Ephesians, Paul teaches that ‘we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works’, 2. 10. These are not just spiritual, as opposed to secular, activities. The scriptures do not support the idea of such a division. The context suggests a much broader understanding. We are to walk worthy of the calling explained in the earlier part of the letter. Paul shows that this worthy walk extends to five areas of our lives: personal; family; assembly; community; and work-life. By our good works we are to honour the Lord in each of these aspects of life, including the work we do and why and how we do it. All legitimate duties that form part of our role in the workplace should be performed willingly and to the best of our ability. There can be no room for anarchy, indiscipline, neglect of duty, or anything that could be classed as irresponsible behaviour in the worklife of a Christian.
It is God’s will that a Christian willingly subjects himself to the authority of his employer, so long as the directions of his employer do not require him to do what is contrary to God’s interests. The Christian has reason to appreciate that his work is valued and significant since he is, first and foremost, the servant of Christ in the workplace. Note the expressions in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3: ‘as unto Christ’; ‘the servants of Christ’; ‘as to the Lord, your Master in heaven’; ‘receive of the Lord’; and, ‘ye serve the Lord Christ’. Why this predominance of Christ? Because He is God our Creator, our Lord, our heavenly Master and in effect we are the employees of Christ! Everything about our work, our motives, rewards, attitudes, the use of our time, gifts and abilities, our decisions, our relationships with our fellow employees and employer, everything should be directed by Him, and for Him. We should do our work ‘in the fear of the Lord’, for at the Judgement Seat of Christ we will be held accountable to Him when He reviews and evaluates our lives.
Christians have also a responsibility before the Lord to be good and fair employers. In Colossians chapter 4 Paul addresses the responsibilities of Christian masters and how they treat their slaves. He exhorts them to reward the efforts of their slaves with what is ‘just’ and ‘equal’. This would have been a tall order for the owner of a slave in Paul’s day. The word translated ‘just’ in Colossians chapter 4 verse 1 is the Greek word diakaios, meaning to do what is right, to fulfill all claims that are legitimate and becoming. The word ‘equal’ translates the Greek word isotes, meaning to distribute fairly and equitably. Christian employers should reward their employees with a fair recompense for their labour and act without prejudice or favour. Equality of reward and opportunity, conforming to and even exceeding the requirements of employment law, should characterize their employment policies and practice, e.g., in health and safety and employee welfare, training and development and opportunities for promotion. In Ephesians 6 verse 9, Paul exhorts masters or employers to desist from exercising their power and authority over employees in an overbearing and oppressive way. They are to remember that they also have a heavenly Master who has set standards and expectations for their attitude and behaviour. As Christian employees are accountable to their employers, Christian employers are accountable to their heavenly Master.
Christian employers should conform not only to the requirements of employment law but should aspire to excellence in employment practice so honouring the Lord in the public arena. This will go a long way to ensuring harmonious and productive working relationships, promoting rather than hindering the witness of the gospel among employees. The prophet Amos castigates economic abuse as one of the features of what was wrong with society in his day, Amos 8. 4, 6. The indictment levelled at society by Amos still has much to say to us today.
The purpose of work
In practical terms the purpose of work is to provide for our needs and the needs of others. It is in this context that the Bible praises honest work, Prov. 28. 19, and denounces laziness and slothfulness. Christians are to ‘do their work quietly and earn their own living’, 2 Thess. 3. 12 ESV. Failure to do so is censored by the scriptures, Prov. 19. 15; 20. 4, 13. It is to be understood, of course, that some believers may not be able to work on account of illness, incapacities or lack of opportunity.
Paul expresses a very low view of those who do not take their responsibility seriously in the matter of working for their living, see 2 Thess. 3. 7, 12. He censors those that are idle, busybodies and those not doing their work. Such, he argues, have no right to eat. He encourages believers to follow his example as he discharged his responsibilities in the work of the gospel. He refused to accept payment as a missionary, choosing instead to work with his hands night and day in order to avoid being a burden on others and to imitate him by not being idle but working hard in order to meet their own temporal needs.
Writing to Timothy, he denounces those who do not provide for their dependents as those who have ‘denied the faith’, and are worse than an infidel, 1 Tim. 5. 8. Unbelievers observe believers working, or not working, either on the job or at home. What they observe in the behaviour of believers should always command respect and commend the gospel, 1 Thess. 4. 10, 12.
The transforming power of salvation in the life of an individual is well illustrated by the apostle Paul when he commands those who once were thieves to turn away from their thieving and to give themselves to doing an honest day’s work with their hands, thus meeting their own needs and also to be able to give to others. What a transformation, Eph. 4. 28.
A biblical view of work
The biblical view relates work not only to the believer as an employee, or an employer to society, but also to God. This is founded in God’s calling of the believer to his various roles in life. Seeing our work as a stewardship or a calling from God will motivate us to strive to achieve excellence in all that we do since we are to offer our daily work to the Lord in order to please Him, Eph. 6. 6, 7; Col. 3. 23, 24. This should be an important consideration for believers when deciding what work they should do or the career path they should follow in life. If we accept that our work relates us to God as stewards then we will choose a career or a job in which we can use to the maximum effect the talents and abilities with which God has endowed us, and provide the greatest potential to live lives that commend the gospel.
However, not every occupation is open to a believer to follow. Some occupations may require a person to get involved in unethical, immoral or sinful activity that is contrary to God’s will. Some occupations in themselves may be legitimate but in certain contexts may be the wrong place for a Christian to work, e.g., working as an accountant in a business that is involved in immoral practices. Again, it is not uncommon for a new convert to Christ to find himself in the position where he is faced with having to change his employment or give up his business because to continue in it would be morally incompatible with his new life in Christ. Many have honoured the Lord and paid a great price in this respect so as to be free from moral compromise and to be an effective testimony for Him. However, Paul teaches that in normal circumstances our conversion to Christ should not require us to leave the calling or status in life that we occupied prior to our conversion, 1 Cor. 7. 17, 24.
Jesus Christ is the Lord of all of our life. We are to present the whole of our being to Him as a living sacrifice, Rom. 12. 1, 2, and to do whatsoever we do in word or deed ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him’, Col. 3. 17.
As believers we have every reason to view our daily work as profoundly significant to God. We are the servants of Christ and by our work we can glorify Him and contribute to the accomplishment of His will.
AUTHOR PROFILE: BRIAN GRIFFITHS fellowships in the Ballylintagh assembly, near Coleraine, Northern Ireland. He is married and has two grown-up children. He recently left employment in order to devote his time to Bible teaching and gospel work.