Today we heard a sermon on Ephesians 6: 5-9, the text about how Christian slaves and masters should act toward each other and the proper attitudes they should have. The sermon (and my wife) prompted me to write here on the application of that text to relations in a capitalist-market society. First, the direct and primary interpretation has to do with master-slave relations. Slaves are to obey their masters as if they were obeying Christ, while masters are to treat their slaves with Christian concern. After all, both are equal in spiritual terms (Galatians 3: 28) and in the church, they have equal status. But can we apply the text to employer-employee relationships? And if we do, does this say something even more generally about our relationships in market transactions? Can this text “redeem” markets?
Let’s take employer-employee relationships first, as they can be the source of a good deal of criticism of markets. Employers are often accused of being greedy and therefore treating their employees as virtual slaves, paying them as low a wage as possible and attempting to extract as much productivity from them as possible. Ephesians, in the relevant part, vv.5-9, begins, in v. 5, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ….” If we can for application purposes, substitute the word “employees” for “slaves” we can broaden the usefulness of the text. Now I don’t have to tell the reader that this may be a controversial move. There may be similarities between the two, but in the end, the former are free and the latter are not. Still, both perform many of the same functions. Slaves in ancient times did all the same kind of work as freemen, even holding offices in government administration, making their own salaries, and owning and running their own businesses. So at the risk of misuse, I will apply this text to the present world.
In that case, employees are called to obey, but not merely, as v. 6 says, “by the way of eye-service, as people pleasers.” They are not just concerned with doing work and getting home or waiting for the weekend. They are not just concerned with “looking productive” or doing the minimum possible to get by and get raises and promotions. Instead, they are to work as if their immediate employer were Christ Himself—with reverence and sincerely. Reverence does not mean the employee worships his employer—there are names for that sort of groveling behavior—and it does not mean he/she can never disagree. Disagreement can be essential for the flourishing of a business or for the public good. But the overall motive for which one works is crucial and the employee is called to take his/her responsibility seriously to the point of a general call to obedience. Exceptions of course exist. One cannot legitimately obey a command to illegal or immoral acts. But the general case still holds.
- 9 then turns the argument to the employer (“master”). Once again, I am taking the liberty to replace the term “employer” for “master.” If I am allowed to make that application, then the employer has responsibilities also, toward his employees. He is called to “do the same to them [slaves=employees] and stop your threatening….” (v. 9). “The same” in this context is simply what the slave was called to do in terms of his attitude and actions toward masters. As the slave was called to work with a sincere heart, as if the Lord were his employer, and to be a “servant of Christ,” so the master-employer is called to treat his slaves-employees as Christ would. Christ we are told is the master of both slave-employee and master-employer. We are not told exactly what this looks like, but the analogy to the slave’s call may help. The employer of course can determine how much to pay his employees and under what conditions they will work (the difference here is that a free person must voluntarily submit to the initial contractual conditions, but after that the command become analogous). But if the employer sees Christ as his ultimate master he should consider the welfare of his employees. That means issues such as taking an interest in wages, in working conditions, etc. That means listening to the disagreements employees may have with him, without which he may take some very bad decisions. That means treating employees fairly and justly, and without partiality. In effect then, the employer is called to be as Christ in human form to his employees.
Now this has its issues too. The employer should never command actions that are immoral or illegal. And here is where he needs to listen to his employees as to what may be immoral or illegal or both. But on the other hand, he cannot permit actions or condone actions on the part of his employees that are immoral or illegal. That would not help his organization, himself OR his employees. He is a kind of master (the law even used that term for employee-employer relations long ago), but always is to be a Christian master-employer.
One final series of questions: Wouldn’t all this Christlikeness business destroy capitalism and market system? Would it prohibit making a profit, or effectively undermine it? Wouldn’t it effectively require employers to, for example, pay whatever the employee considered to be a “living wage”? These are good questions, and deserve serious answers.
Beginning with the wage question, no an employer is not called to pay whatever an employee believes he/she deserves or asserts is a “living wage.” That is pretty subjective and can easily be abused by fallible humans. What the employer does owe I believe is at the least, a wage that is fair in an objective sense, that is prevailing in the particular industry or profession. He should not adopt the view that his employees are in a ”ministry” and therefore should all work for low wages to serve God. If the employer is able to pay more than that standard he should, BUT only if he has the permission of shareholders (if there are any) and determines that his firm’s viability is not threatened by higher costs—which could jeopardize the entire firm and put ALL workers out of their jobs. Yes, profit can be reduced, but in many industries the margin for reduction is miniscule. If the profit is say 3%, then wage increases can easily consume that margin. Profit is legitimate. If we measure it in economic terms, then in a competitive industry, after all costs are paid, including wages and dividends to stockholders, the profit would be zero. Can stockholders give up part of their dividend to pay workers more? Of course, if they agree to it. Can the employer reduce costs in other areas to make higher wages possible? Yes. But if the entire firm is placed in financial jeopardy, then actions such as those cannot conscientiously be considered good.
So if we interpret Ephesians 6 in a radical way, the market economic system would be in jeopardy. Now if it demands this radical interpretation, then that is God’s will and it would be what Christian ought to advocate. But I do not believe Ephesians 6: 5-9 demands that kind of interpretation. In fact other texts support a less radical interpretation. That doesn’t give employers a moral sanction to oppress employees. But is also does not morally compel employers to essentially destroy their own businesses to satisfy a radical meaning for the text. And let us not forget that in doing so, the outcome would be worse—no jobs at all.
To conclude, this does have implications for “real life.” Currently the minimum wage movement is afoot in the United States, some of it driven by the so-called Christian Left, which does interpret texts such as Ephesians in inappropriate ways. In addition, we have the “living wage” movement, not to mention the debate over inequality, which itself touches on issues of employee-employer relationships. In all this, it is incumbent on thinking Christians to know what the Bible actually says, and to know it accurately. If we do not, we can end up harming the people we most want to help.