Slaves and Masters, Then and Now

Bishop’s Message

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)

It is surprising that this scriptural exhortation is addressed primarily to “slaves” (see v22). Slaves in Roman times were, by definition, people who had no personal freedom to choose what work they could or could not do. The slaves, on pain of death, did everything, and anything, the master asked them to do.

Many people condemn the apostle Paul for asking slaves to work heartily. They wish that Paul would have encouraged slaves to rise in protest against their oppressive working conditions. There certainly were slave revolts, fighting (and mostly dying) in their quest for freedom in that era.

When we meet in heaven, we may ask Paul why he didn’t inspire revolts against slavery, but I suspect that he had decided that such protests would have led to much bloodshed and greater harm for everyone, including the slaves themselves. In any event, we should note that in the very next verses, Paul instructs all slave masters “to provide … what is right and fair” to their slaves (Colossians 4:1 NIV), and that they would have to answer to God for the way they treat their slaves. “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favouritism” (v25).

Life in our modern marketplace is very different from the Roman era of masters and slaves. But Paul’s scriptural exhortations can still inspire and guide both employers and employees today. Do we identify ourselves as an employee who is insufficiently compensated for work in the marketplace? God’s Word encourages us to find motivation to still do good work by regarding Jesus to be our true Master—“It is the Lord Christ you are serving”—and we find comfort by believing that Christ will give us our proper reward and inheritance for all the good work we put in.

And if we identify more as an employer, God’s Word commands us to regard the provision of “what is right and fair” as our Key Performance Indicator which God will be looking at.

Whatever you do—whether as employer or employee—work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

Bishop Dr Gordon Wong was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2020.
He served as President of the Trinity Annual Conference from 2012-2020.