Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 6:1-2 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/7/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 6:1-2
“Under the Yoke”
We come today to think about slavery! The pew bible translates verse 1 as “servant” but the term is doulos in the Greek, the word to refer to a slave. So, this passage speaks about how Christians who are slaves should treat their earthly masters, whether those masters are Christians or not themselves. There is a call for such Christian slaves to show honor to their earthly masters. That will be our topic for today. And, of course, we don’t have slavery as an institution today in our country. But there are many parallels between slavery and employment. Though the relationship between an employer and an employee is not identical as a master with a slaver, there is a decent bit of similarity, especially when it comes to the honor that is being required here. And so, we’ll talk about the original context here regarding slaves and masters, but be drawing applications especially to employee-employer relationships.
Before we dig into today’s passage, I think it would be appropriate to discuss briefly the Bible on slavery. At this point in human history, slavery in general is illegal throughout the world. Humans have largely come to the conclusion that the traditional institution of slavery is something to no longer practice. So then, people often today wonder why the Bible has passages like this that require slaves to honor their masters. Does the Bible promote slavery along with all its associated immoralities? That is often the accusation made by people against the Bible. But that is simply not an accurate assessment of what the Bible says about the institution of slavery.
True, the Bible does not come out and explicitly condemn any and all forms of slavery. Yet, interestingly the Bible never speaks of God founding slavery as an institution like it does with other human institutions such as marriage, family, church, and even government. Those are institutions with authority structures among humans that God established. But it is noteworthy that the Bible never speaks of God inventing the institution of slavery. Humans obviously invented it at some point as one way to handle economics in society. That being said, the Bible does speak to how people involved in the institution of slavery were to conduct themselves; some of the Old Testament laws for Israel addressed this too for them.
But this doesn’t mean that God thought it was good to be a slave. No, in fact the Bible is very clear on this. If you can gain your freedom you should, 1 Corinthians 7:21. Even more specific, it commands Christians in 1 Corinthians 7:23 not to become a slave of men. Interesting, Paul there says that if when you become a Christian, you were already a slave, don’t be concerned about it. You can be a Christian and a slave at the same time. But as a Christian, don’t become a slave of men. That’s an interesting command. We often think of people becoming slaves against their will. Surely, that has happened far too often in history. But sometimes people voluntarily became slaves out of their own free will. They desire some great benefit that someone else can provide them, and so in turn for receiving that huge benefit, they choose to become their slave. We don’t allow that anymore in society, but that is at least sometimes how slavery worked in the past. But Paul commands Christian’s, don’t become slaves. When you read that, we see the Bible is obviously not advocating slavery.
And yet when we remember that slavery back then was often done voluntarily, as a financial decision someone might make, then we realize that the issues with slavery tend not to be the institution itself, but some of the associated matters with slavery. For example, many people have been kidnapped and sold as slaves against their will. That’s immoral. And, in fact, the Bible condemns that as well. It’s right here in 1 Timothy, back in chapter 1, verse 10. In the list of many kinds of sinners, our pew Bible mentions kidnappers. This word is very specific in Greek and is also often-translated as slave-traders. It refers to someone who sell people they first kidnapped. Paul there says that is evil to do that; it is against God’s law. So, you see the Bible condemns this evil practice that was associated with a certain form of slavery. 1 Timothy 1:10 would have spoken against the African slave trade that historically brought kidnapped blacks to be sold as slaves in America as well.
Another immorality associated with slavery is when a master abuses a slave. But the Bible condemns that as well. Colossians 4:1 requires masters to treat their slaves justly and fairly. Ephesians 6:9 says that masters are to stop all their threatening of their slaves. These sorts of passages show that the evil harsh treatment of slaves by masters is wrong. The Bible again says that kind of slavery is immoral.
So, I hope you see my point in this. Contrary to how some want to simplistically say that the Bible condones or promotes the evils of slavery, that is just not the case. Actually, I’ve just demonstrated the opposite. To be fair, I could be more nuanced in this topic. I could pull more passages from both sides: some that have been used to claim the Bible promotes or supports slavery; others that show how the Bible sets the trajectory of society against slavery. I could be more nuanced than I have been, but that’s a sermon or study in itself. For today, I just want to leave you with the basic idea that it would be overly simplistic to say the Bible promotes slavery, and in actuality the Bible does speak against many of the evils that have historically been associated with slavery.
So then, let’s move into our first point for today. Paul commands slaves to count their own masters as worthy of all honor. That’s verse 1. For starters, notice how Paul describes these slaves. They are under a yoke. That’s a metaphorical use of yoke, of course. Remember what is a yoke. It’s that wooden device that usually goes over two animals that allows them to pull some heavy load. It’s a lot of work if you are an ox or a donkey pulling some heavy load with a yoke. That’s what Paul says slavery is like. It’s a burden. A lot of people voluntarily enter into a form of modern day slavery by overspending with a credit card. They become burdened in great debt that they owe to Visa and MasterCard. That’s no good. But the reality is that slavery would have been a great burden to be under their master’s work for them. Apply this to employment. Yes, slavery and employment have differences. Once you are a slave you have to work that load whether you want to or not. Under employment, there is technically an option that you could quit the job or find some other type of work. But while you decide to be there, you are under a yoke to some degree. You have work given you to do and if you want to remain employed then you will need to bear the burden of the workload given to you. And so, my application here for the workplace is to recognize that work is a chore and a burden to some degree. That’s the reality.
And so, it’s in that context we are called to honor our masters. It’s surely easier to honor and respect a boss when you don’t have a heavy load upon you. But when you have a heavy load that they put on you, there is the temptation to be inwardly frustrated with them. You might inwardly blame them for the difficulty of your work. And so, it’s in the context of being under a yoke that you are called to respect and honor your boss. The difficulty of the work doesn’t give you an excuse to dishonor the boss.
So then verse 1 gives the slaves the command to count their masters worthy of all honor. Don’t miss that word “count”. It doesn’t say to honor those masters that are worthy of all honor. It says to count your masters worthy of all honor. In other words, you are to regard them as worthy of the honor, even if they aren’t. Their position of authority, coupled with our Christian confession, means we are going to submit to them as unto Christ. So, even if they are not that worthy of a master, we do what we can to treat them with the honor as if they were honorable masters. And notice the amount of honor. “All” honor! All the honor that is due to their position, we show it to them.
Again, applying this to employment, we know that when our boss doesn’t do a good job as boss, that we want to excuse our disrespect for him. We feel justified in slandering him to others when he is not around. Yet, that is not honoring someone to gossip about them behind their back. Similarly, we can find ourselves willing to honor a boss as long as the boss leads like I would want him to lead the company; but when he starts doing things differently than I would want, then suddenly we struggle to honor him. But this verse would have us to honor even bosses who don’t always do the best job, because they are the boss. If they are the boss, then that means you are not. Morality requires us to honor them.
And that leads us to our second point. If we don’t honor them, the name or doctrine of God might end up being blasphemed. That’s the last part of verse 1. Now to clarify, the word blaspheme is simply an older world for slander. It’s when you speak negatively against someone or something. This point assumes that your boss is a non-Christian. The concern here is that if you act wickedly in your workplace, your non-Christian boss who knows you claim to be a Christian might revile Christianity because of you. They might say that if this is how Christians act, then I don’t want anything to do with Christianity.
It’s interesting that it says both the name and the doctrine of God could get reviled. In terms of the name, the Bible often uses the name of God to refer to God’s reputation and His glory. People might look at you if you are living unchristianly at work, and say your God’s not made a difference in your life. They might incorrectly chalk it up to some failing in God. They might go around saying that, and that would be slander against the name of God. Or as for the doctrine of God, if they see you dishonoring your boss, they might mistakenly think that’s what God’s Word teaches. They might think that the doctrine of God is that it’s okay to disrespect and dishonor your boss. They might go around saying that, and that would be slander against the doctrine of God. And so, realize that this verse says that if your dishonoring your boss results in this slander, you are to blame in this.
What instead should be the case is that the Christian worker should adorn their hard work with all honor for their boss. Not only should we not go around dishonoring our boss, we should strive to excel the most in showing honor to the boss. Instead of being a cause of slander, seek to be a cause of praise. Remember, Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” If you have a non-Christian boss, live as a witness. Live so that they are like, “Man, Christians make the best employees!” Hopefully they will see the beauty of Christianity in that, and want to become a Christian themselves!
Now, to clarify, of course Christians aren’t perfect. We still struggle with sin. We wouldn’t want to act in front of our boss like we don’t still struggle with sin. In fact, our Christian testimony should find ways to let people know that Christians aren’t perfect and don’t claim to be perfect. Your actions should help people see this, that when you do something wrong, that you are quick to acknowledge it and seek to repent of it. That’s living Christianly. Let us look to adorn our work in the workplace with such Christian living and testimony.
So, that’s how we should act in the workplace if we have an unbelieving boss. But what if we have a boss who is a fellow Christian? Should this change the dynamic we have toward them in terms of showing them honor and submission and respect? Do we have less need to honor or serve them well if they are a fellow Christian? Verse 2 says that if anything we should serve them all more because they are believers.
Notice in verse 2 what the temptation here might be. We might be tempted to despise our earthly bosses. If they are a Christian and ordering me around, I might be tempted to look down upon them, to scorn them. Why might this be the case? Verse 2 tells us why. Because they are brethren. Think about it. In the church as Christians we are equals in Christ. Galatians 3:28 says this explicitly, that Christians are “all one in Christ Jesus,” that in Him there is “neither slave nor free”. So, here’s the challenge. In the church, you and your boss are equals; peers. But in the workplace, you’re not equals. Your boss is the authority; he’s the superior and you are the inferior. Since we all value our Christianity so much and see how who we are in Christ is what ultimately defines us, we might be tempted to begrudge the fact that my Christian brother is my boss at work and not simply my peer. But Paul says that the spiritual equality in Christ doesn’t negate the earthly position that would exist in master-slave relations, and by extension in the workplace.
Rather, Paul goes on to say that the spiritual reality that we are both Christians should actually make you serve your Christian boss all the more. It says in verse 2 because your boss is a fellow believer and beloved by you. It says that this is who is benefitting from your service. Think about it. If you work hard and honor your non-Christian boss, you will help your non-Christian boss succeed in his business. That’s good and right to do and you should put your heart into this. But how much more should we especially want a Christian boss to do well and succeed in his business. You love your Christian boss as a fellow brother in Christ. You should love them and work all the more for them. And we know that if your fellow Christian boss does well, then that will ultimately help the kingdom of God. If they do well financially, they’ll be able to help the church’s work more, for example.
Let me give you an earthly example here. Let’s say as a child your family has a family business. When you get a little older, you become employed as an employee in your family business. The long-term plan is that you will eventually inherit the business and become the next generation owner of the business. But in the mean time you are technically just an employee and your parents are your bosses. Shouldn’t you all the more want to serve your parents well as your boss? Because you love them as your dear parents. And because you essentially have a stake in the company’s long term success. That’s a somewhat similar analogy for us serving a Christian boss. You serve them because you love them as dear fellow Christians, and because as they succeed, that success will have a kingdom benefit too, at a bare minimum by their tithes and offerings given to the church.
What a gift it is when you have a Christian boss. What a joy to know that you’ll be helping and serving a fellow Christian. Don’t take that for granted. Don’t take them for granted. See the blessing that it is. Don’t treat them less than you would a non-Christian boss just because they’re a Christian. Honor them with all honor. Even when they make mistakes. Even when their leadership struggles at times to lead in a Christian way because they struggle with sin just like you do. Seek to honor the Lord by especially honoring a Christian boss.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, with all this slavery talk and talk of yokes and burdens, I remind you of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus said in John 8 that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. But Jesus said he came to set us free from such slavery, and if the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed! Jesus as the Son liberates us from the slavery of sin. The sin in our lives is but a yoke and burden, but Christ took that away that we would be free. In doing this, he makes us sons as well in the house of God. Those who put their faith and hope in Christ have been liberated from the tyranny of sin and death. Already we have begun to taste of this freedom as we have been born again. And there will be a day when Christ will complete the work within us and we will no longer commit sin any longer. How wonderful that will be. How liberating that will be! Let us honor our Lord who became a servant to us in order to free us from sin.
Yet, as we think of how Jesus liberates from the yoke of sin, we do remember that he calls us to a different yoke. Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Yes, on the one hand, we can talk of the freedom we have in Christ. On the other hand, we can speak of how we’ve become slaves of Christ. Both statements are true. To be liberated from the slavery of sin is to become a slave of Christ. But his yoke is easy and his burden light. Come to Christ in faith. Follow him. Serve him. Find the great joy in this.
As such, let us even willingly serve and honor our earthly masters. Whether it be our bosses in the workplace, or some other authority in life. Let us honor and serve them for Christ’s sake. That we would adorn our profession of faith in this way. That outsiders would see this and praise the name and doctrine of God. That believers would be benefited from our honor and service. May God grant us the grace to honor and serve in this way to his glory and for our good. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.