Although there is no time here to extensively address the issue of why it might on a superficial reading of Colossians 3:18-4:1 appear as if Scripture were condoning the slavery (as we understand it in the 21st century) let me make some brief comment before we get to applying this passage to our lives.
Yesterday’s devotion made it clear that the foundation for these imperatives for godly living was that Jesus is now our Lord, our King and this is what His kingdom ought to be like. Does that mean then that slavery is endorsed as part of Jesus’ kingdom?
No. As the ESV translators have said in the preface to their translation; “A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world.”
Translators seek to translate the original words into the modern equivalent in English and yet sometimes that English word can contain (as does the word ‘slave’) modern meaning that is distracting from what the original meaning was to the original hearers.
Here in Colossians ‘bondservants’ (in the ESV translation) is the word used to translate the Greek word, ‘doulos’ (which can mean either slave, bondservant or servant). In the Roman Empire, a bondservant was someone who was officially bound under contract to serve his/her master for seven years, when the contract expired the person was freed.
Scripture instructs ‘bondservants’ (ESV) or ‘slaves’ (NIV) to ‘obey’ their earthly masters and to work hard, to work as if they are working not just for their earthly masters but for the Lord ultimately (see 3:22-25).
The question is how does this apply to the present day since employment practices have changed so dramatically? The most obvious ‘hermeneutic bridge’ to the present is surely the issue of employment and being an employee or an employer.
Employees have ‘masters’ or ‘bosses’ whom they are contracted to work for. And as Christ followers we are to be the most incredible employees (Colossians 3:22-25)! We are to work respectfully, to work harder than anyone else because in fact we are working for our ultimate Master – Jesus. We are therefore those who are looking not just for the reward of a salary but looking for His reward in eternity for how we worked.
In Colossians 4:1 the instruction turns to those who are called ‘master’ by others. These are the equivalent of employers in our day. And to such people the instruction is clear and bold. Masters are to treat those who work for them in a manner that gives dignity, honour, value & proper respect (see the general instruction in 1 Peter 2:17).
Christ followers who employ other people are to know that their King requires that their faith and their belonging to His kingdom must impact their treatment of others in all spheres of life. And so, those who employ others are to be just and to be fair in all their dealings with their employees. They are to pay fairly and justly, they are to be like their Master, Jesus is towards them.
Finally, they are to keep in mind that they will appear one day before their Master, Jesus and will give an account on that day for how they treated those who worked for them.
What we see in this section of Scripture is that Jesus’ kingdom rule impacts every sphere of life. Employees for whom Jesus is Lord become the best employees on the planet and employers likewise have their employment practices transformed by the Lordship of Jesus so that they become blessing to those who work for them. Nothing in life is untouched by our followership of Jesus.
So in closing; whether you work for someone or whether you employ anyone in any context, contemplate for a moment whether your attitude, your thinking and your treatment of others in those contexts is godly?
Are you treating others (employers or employees) as King Jesus wants you to?
What might need to change?