“Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.”
You must be reminded that the apostle in this section of his epistle is still speaking of our honest conversation among the Gentiles. That is, we are expected to walk as children of God in the midst of the world, and never compromise our Christian identity for material, carnal reasons. This we are to do even when the corrupt world wrongfully accuses us, and cruelly abuses us.
Not only are we to do this with respect to our relation to the government which the Lord providentially places over us, but now the apostle also exhorts us to do this in the sphere of labor.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear!
The servant, who is addressed here, is literally a domestic, a servant who lives in the same house with his master. He is not one who works on the far end of his master’s estate, where his master hardly ever sees him, but he is one who is constantly under the eye and surveillance of his master.
Masters, on the other hand, as the term suggests, are the lords who rule over the servants. A transliteration of the term which the apostle uses here is our word despot. However, since this word has come to have a bad meaning among us, referring to one who, is ruthless, tyrannical, we must point out that it does not necessarily have this bad sense. Rather, the term emphasizes the absoluteness of his dominion. One, therefore, who was a master in the sense in which the apostle uses the term, was one who had absolute authority over his house-servant. Such a master, the apostle says, could be either good and gentle, or he could be forward, that is, cruel and perverse.
That there are masters who are good and gentle, does not mean that they are necessarily good in the ethical sense, in the spiritual sense of the word. This would be true, of course, if the master was a child of God. But there are masters who are good and gentle who are not children of God. They are that, not because they are the recipients of a certain “common grace,” as some aver; so that they are enabled to do good even acts of civic righteousness. Rather, the apostle refers to those who are kindly disposed to their servants, and who treat them well. There may be many reasons for this, but grace is not one of them. Most of them know, of course, that it will not pay for them to treat their servants unkindly. The servant will work more faithfully and energetically when he is good to him, rather than when he is treated perversely. His goodness toward his servants is not motivated by grace at all, but out of selfish, carnal, material gain. But the apostle does not have these good masters especially in mind. It stands to reason that it is not difficult to be subject to good masters. But it is a different matter when the master is perverse, and he treats you harshly and unjustly. And this becomes all the more difficult when you consider that the apostle insists that we be in subjection to such masters in all fear. This does not signify especially a fear of fright and of punishment, but rather, a fear of respect. It means that without exception the attitude of these servants is to be motivated by the proper fear of respect, principled by the fear of God.
To be noticed here is the fact that the Word of God never seeks to change the system of society, nor does it attempt to alter the relation of masters and servants. Nor does Scripture anywhere ever say to the masters that they must free their slaves; or, that the slaves should rebel against their cruel masters and seek to free themselves. Noticeably Scripture always leaves the masters as masters, and the servants as servants.
Now, of course, we in our modern society and economy are no longer accustomed to the master-slave relation. Fact of the matter is that in our ears such terms are repulsive. Under our modern system workers are free, free to work if they please and free to leave their jobs if they so desire. Under our system management no longer owns the laborer, nor can he do with him as he pleases. Yet the principle set forth by the apostle in our text still obtains. It must still be maintained that in the shop or whatever the nature of employment may be, the employer must have authority over his employee for the time that the employee works for him. And that authority must be respected. On the other hand, the employee must be in subjection to the authority of his employer in fear—not the slavish fear of eye-service or crawling fright, but the fear of respect, in the fear of God. So that even under our system, though the masters do not own their laborers and the laborer is free to leave his employ, the laborer is expected to be in subjection, and the master is expected to apply his authority in the fear of God.
However, in the master-servant, or employer-employee relation, whichever you prefer to call it, there is always the temptation not to be spiritual. You see, the elect strangers, whether they be masters or servants, are still in the flesh. Were this not the case, there would be no need for the admonition of our text. But the truth is that we are still in the flesh, we still have our old nature; and that nature, unless it is brought into subjection, will be carnal, materialistic, seek the things below.
Consequently masters may be good and gentle, or froward and perverse. As we have pointed out before, for purely selfish reasons masters may be good to their servants or employers to their employees. But for the same reason they may also be perverse. It is well known in our day, as it was in earlier times, how management often seeks to extract the last ounce of strength from their employees, how they have made sweat-shops out of their factories, how they have dismissed men grown old in their employ without any consideration of their well-being. On the other hand, it is also true that there are servants, laborers, who respond favorably to their good masters, employers, not only to reciprocate, but for material reasons. Eye-pleasers they are, who seek the praises of men, or better jobs, or more pay. And when their employers are cruel and abuse them, they will rebel, and even organize to strike against them. Or, in some cases, and with wrong motives will submit to their abuse. Perhaps one is the father of a large family and cannot afford to quit his job. It may be also that jobs are scarce, so that he will not dare to go elsewhere to find work. Or, he may be naturally a man who can absorb a lot of abuse. Not with this kind of patience, and surely not for these reasons, would the apostle exhort us to be patient. Nor would he appraise such conduct as being thankworthy.
Literally, the apostle says: “For this is grace, if on account of conscience of God, someone bears grief, suffering unjustly.”
The motivation, therefore, for being in subjection with all fear, and especially to masters who treat you wrongfully, is conscience of God, i.e., conscience toward God. What does that mean? Conscience, you know, means literally: to know together with. Here it means to know together with God. And this implies that you stand before the face of God, knowing Him and His will. Because we fear God, and always stand consciously before His face, and desire to be pleasing to Him, therefore, we bear the wrong patiently. This is thankworthy, literally, this is grace. And grace means that which is beautiful, beautiful in God’s sight. This is beautiful to God, when He beholds us in the sphere of labor in subjection to our masters, even patiently bearing their abuse, because we are motivated by His fear.
But, you may ask, why is this so that God looks down in favor upon one who suffers wrongfully? Perhaps you are also one who asks: Should not one be commended who stands up for his rights, who tells the boss where to get off, who perhaps helps to organize a union that will strike in order to bring management in line, or to bring an end to the mistreatment? If the thoughts expressed in this question reveal your manner of thinking, as it is the manner of thinking of many today, and you think that even as Christian men you can organize to strike if necessary to get your rights, then the apostle tells you, negatively, this is not well-pleasing to God. But it is pleasing to Him when we bear our suffering patiently with a conscience toward Him. But why is this so?
The answer to this question we will see more in detail next time, the Lord willing, but we can say this now: the answer is to be found in the suffering of Christ. Not only did He suffer because He bore the sins of His people, but He also suffered wrongfully at the hands of the wicked world. He did not fight back. He did not use power to defend Himself. He did not open His mouth in self-defense. But he had a conscience toward God, and therefore bore patiently the evil that was heaped upon Him. And by this conduct the world of wicked men was condemned. And so it is still. The sufferings of Christ are filled up in His people. To be sure, Christ suffered because He bore the wrath of God over against our sin. That suffering His people cannot bear, nor need they. But there is also a suffering of Christ which He gives unto His people to bear, the suffering of reproach and shame. Christ suffered in this sense because He had a conscience toward God. We will experience this suffering when by the grace of God we emulate Him.
We must bear in mind that the apostle is speaking only of suffering wrongfully. This, and only this, is praiseworthy before God. It stands to reason that if the laborer does not do his work, if he idles away his time, if he does some other misdemeanor for which he is reprimanded, perhaps for which he is even buffeted, or loses his job, there is nothing praiseworthy in that. The apostle says “For what praise is it if sinning and being buffeted, you are patient?” If a man is unfaithful in his work, or, if he cannot do what is required of him, he must expect that he will be treated accordingly. And to suffer for these reasons, does not bring down the favor of God, but His displeasure.
Rather, the apostle is speaking here of suffering that is wrongfully imposed. And that means that the servant does his work faithfully. It means that he labors as before the face of God, not men. It means that the servant is mistreated and suffers because he is a child of God, and a disciple of Jesus. Such suffering evokes the favor of God, and is at the same time a manifestation of the grace of God in that servant. So God rejoices in His suffering people when He beholds His own work of grace in them. This is the significance of the text.
Thus also the Christian laborer will also put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. By doing their duty as before the face of God, they will silence evil speakers and evil doers. More importantly, their good conduct will register in their own consciences that they are the objects of the favor of God.
By nature the Christian is no different than the man of the world, who, when he is mistreated also in the sphere of labor, will fight back, rebel, organize force to withstand oppression. By nature he is also impatient. Against that old nature he is required constantly to fight. But having received grace, let him reveal that grace in that sphere of labor; and so will he experience the favor and blessing of God.