The parent, master, or boss’s obligations.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 September 2018

Ephesians 6.1-9.

Properly, the command ypakúete! means “super-listen”—pay very close attention. So why do so many bibles render it “obey”? Cultural bias.

Parents want our kids to obey us. Isn’t that what honoring your parents Ex 20.12 means? Isn’t that therefore what Paul meant? And we assume slavedrivers also wanted their slaves to obey them too—and if they didn’t, they’d whip ’em to death. Heck, some parents beat the tar out of their kids when they won’t obey. Kids and slaves: Same boat.

But remember: Paul was comparing relationships between parents and kids, and slaveholders and slaves, to that of Jesus and his kingdom, or God and his adopted children. How does God treat his children? Or slaves?—’cause you do realize we’re both.

Yeah, I’ve heard various preachers claim we’re not slaves anymore; that we stopped being slaves as soon as God adopted us, or that our relationship with God changed in the New Testament era. That too is cultural bias: These preachers grew up in free countries, and don’t care to think of themselves as slaves, so they don’t. But note the apostles didn’t share their hangup, and called themselves God’s and Jesus’s dúloi/“slaves” or “servants” anyway. Ro 1.1, Pp 1.1, Jm 1.1, 2Pe 1.1 Referred to us disciples as that too. 1Co 7.22, 1Pe 2.16 God’s our LORD, and didn’t stop being our master just because he’s also our Father.

Cultural bias means when we think of slaves, we think of American slavery: Slaves were treated as property, as cattle, instead of as human beings. Which wasn’t how the ancients thought of their slaves: Slaves were a lower caste, and people are generally awful to members of lower castes. Slaves had few to no rights. But they were still human beings, and some masters were benevolent instead of despotic.

God in particular. Yes he’s the LORD; yes we subjects are expected to follow God’s will. Yet at the same time God wants our relationship to be closer—infinitely more benevolent and loving than you’ll see between a sovereign and those under his thumb.

Christians who didn’t grow up in free countries—like the early Protestants, who lived in nations with slaves, who themselves lived under absolute monarchs—seem to have lost sight of this. That’s why some of their views of God’s sovereignty are so distorted. Subjects were expected to “love” their king in a patriotic way; not actually love him in any way like agápi. Certainly their kings didn’t love ’em back. But God isn’t like that at all. He has nothing but agápi/“charitable love” in him, and for us. It’s his sole motivation.

And if parents had this sort of love for their children, and slaveholders for their slaves, what ought those relationships look like? Keep that in mind when you read Paul’s instructions regarding kids and slaves.

I should point out: Since Paul didn’t actually tell kids to obey their parents, and slaves to obey their masters, it seems wholly inappropriate for Christians to teach wives to obey their husbands. Just saying.

Listen to your godparents.

Ephesians 6.1-4 KWL
1 Children, closely listen to your godparents in the Master, for this is righteous.
2 “Honor your father and mother” —which is the first command to include a promise—
3 “so things might go well for you, and you’ll be in the land a long time.” Ex 20.12
4 Parents, don’t enrage your children,
but raise them in the Master’s training and advice.

No doubt there are gonna be people who object to my translating gonéfsin/“ancestors” as “godparents.” Usually because they think of godparents a Catholic thing. It’s not; it’s a Christian thing. It’s just you don’t see a lot of use the term, but we do tend to refer to “spiritual mothers” and “spiritual fathers” and “spiritual mentors”—and properly that’s what a godparent is. It’s not just someone who sponsors you at your baptism: It’s any mature Christian who encourages you to become a mature Christian yourself.

The reason I didn’t render gonéfsin as the more typical or literal “parents” is because Paul called ’em gonéfsin ymón en Kyrío/“your ancestors in [the] Master.” These aren’t ordinary ancestors. They’re ancestors “in the Master”—they’re spiritual ancestors. They’re the Christians who came before us, who taught us Christianity, who discipled us. True, sometimes they’re literal ancestors, like when our parents and grandparents raised us Christian. And sometimes they’re not. My Sunday school teachers, pastors, seminary professors, and various Christian authors, were frequently as influential as Mom in pointing me to Jesus. They weren’t my parents, but they were like parents. So, godparents.

And one of the principles of Pharisee interpretation is if a scripture is like something else, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing it to help make your point. Jesus did it too, y’know. So Paul appropriated one of the Ten Commandments to this situation: Honor your parents, and honor your godparents. Thus things’ll go well with you, and you’ll live in this land—or in God’s kingdom—a long time. No that’s not the proper context of the verse, but Paul was using it as an analogy anyway. Don’t take it that literally.

This, Paul said, is righteous. Because our godparents (unless we’re in a cult or something) are looking out for our best interests. They want us to grow as Christians. They wanna bring us up to their level, and beyond if possible. So we need to pay careful attention to what they teach us. Not blindly obey them, ’cause they might be wrong, ’cause we’re all wrong. But follow them as they follow Jesus.

Now for parents. And in this case Paul used the usual Greek word patéres/“fathers,” because now he was addressing literal Christian parents, who are usually gonna the primary godparents in their children’s lives. Parents, we gotta not be jerks when it comes to our children. Because that’s how you raise apostate Christians: You ditch kindness and grace, harp on the rules, ignore the fact the kids can easily see our hypocrisy no matter how much we try to hide it, and as soon as they’re old enough to leave, they will.

So don’t enrage your kids. Love them. Be the sort of godparent you wish you always had: Be like Jesus.

Listen to your bosses.

Free countries don’t have slaves. (Shouldn’t, anyway.) So Christians sometimes figure the advice to slaves and slaveholders don’t apply anymore. But they do, in that they apply to bosses and employees.

Yes, in a free country, employees can supposedly tell their bosses, “I quit,” leave their jobs, and go find another one—preferably a better one. In theory they can. In reality, it doesn’t always work that way. Some employees are under contract, and can’t quit without losing a prohibitive amount of money. More often, employees have no better job to go to: They’re making minimum wage under one awful boss, and the only other jobs open to them are likewise minimum wage under a different awful boss. Or, in a recession, there are no other jobs. The popular American myth is there are always opportunities for advancement, and if you can’t find a better job you can always create one. The cold hard fact is you can’t always afford to create one, and success isn’t a matter of hard work but dumb luck. (I’m not saying don’t try; I’m saying don’t expect. ’Cause that’s not wise. Ec 11.6 Success is never guaranteed.)

So when it comes to bosses and employees, there are a lot of similarities between slaveholders and slaves. One has to deal with bosses, same as slaves had to deal with their masters: We have to answer and be accountable to somebody. Bosses have to supervise employees, same as slaveholders had to oversee their slaves.

But in both master/slave and boss/employee relationships, God expects those in power to treat those without power with justice. No, not criminal justice. We’re talking biblical, social justice: It means fairly, righteously, benevolently, lovingly. It means we don’t just give ’em a paycheck and figure their well-being, safety, and health is their own business. It means we empower them, not just to do their jobs, but as fellow human beings.

Of course, Mammonists and selfish people see this relationship entirely differently. Capitalism isn’t about taking care of employees, but about making the greatest profit possible—legally or not. It isn’t about justice, but social Darwinism: Survival of the fittest, and same as among animals, “fittest” really means “most ruthless.” Plenty of “Christian businesses” are perfectly happy to slap a veneer of devotion and “biblical principles” upon the way their stores look, and feel righteous because they don’t cheat the government. But when it comes to employees, they feel no obligation to provide ’em livable wages or healthcare. Just Sundays off. (Which they’ll spend working a second job.)

Well. Whether bosses are truly righteous, or faking it for public acclaim, God still expects Christian employees to be righteous ourselves. Regardless of who our bosses are. That’s why Paul’s instructions are for slaves to listen to their masters—and remember, most masters in his scenario weren’t Christian. They were pagan. They didn’t give a rip about their slaves’ well-being. And it doesn’t make any difference: Be good slaves anyway.

Ephesians 6.5-8 KWL
5 Slaves, closely listen to the masters over your flesh
with respect, trembling, sincerity in your hearts—like you do Christ.
6 Not as carefully-watched slaves, like people-pleasers,
but like Christ’s slaves, doing God’s will from one’s soul.
7 Serve with good will, like as one does to the Master, and not only for humans,
8 each of you knowing when anyone does good works,
they’re rewarded by the Master—whether slaves or freemen.

Now you know Christian slaveholders abused this scripture greatly: They took it upon themselves to enforce these instructions for their own benefit. Power corrupts, remember? But Paul didn’t stop with his instructions to slaves:

Ephesians 6.9 KWL
Masters, do the same for your slaves. Stop the threats.
Know their and your Master is in heaven, and favoritism isn’t how he works.

If masters were unrighteous towards their slaves, God judged ’em for it. If you couldn’t tell, from slaveholders’ behavior towards their slaves, that these were Christians—if they produced no spiritual fruit, and demonstrated no love, patience, kindness, generosity, nor grace towards those they commanded—would they inherit God’s kingdom? Don’t bet on it.

Yes, God has his favorites, and when it comes to the End, God totally plays favorites: His kids inherit his kingdom, and everybody else stays outside. So why did Paul say favoritism isn’t how God works? Ep 6.9 Because he’s referring to equal justice. Specifically, this bit of the Law:

Leviticus 19.15 KWL
“Don’t do wrong in your judging. Don’t lift up the poor’s faces.
Don’t honor the powerful’s faces. Judge your neighbor righteously.”

We’re not to show favoritism to the poor just ’cause they’re poor. Nor are we to suck up to the rich and powerful. Right is right; justice is justice. Don’t pervert it because you wanna stick it to the Man—or because you’re hoping to some day become the Man. Don’t fall into the traps of either the progressives or the conservatives. Follow Jesus.

So as employees, honor your bosses like you’d honor Jesus: Show them respect, do your job well, and if they never reward your accomplishments, rest assured Jesus will reward you. And as bosses, treat your subordinates as Jesus treats you: Uplift instead of knocking down. “Stop the threats,” as Paul put it: Negative enforcement is way easier than positive enforcement, but it quickly creates bitter, vengeful, disloyal employees. Loving your employees is harder, but it gradually creates the best workers. Strive for that.