What’s an Exile to Do? Show the Uniqueness of Christian Employees

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this continuing series of posts on the Apostle Peter’s “Survival Manual for Christian Exiles” (aka First Peter), we’ve seen him exhort us his readers, as the New Israel (2:9-10), to live lives of moral excellence in Gentile society (2:11-12). Moving through three spheres of our societal life in 2:13–3:12, he presupposes that his Christian readers are treated by non-Christians as “Repugnant Cultural Others” (thanks to Susan Friend Harding for that phrase). Having focused on our civic conduct in 2:13-17, he will next concentrate on our household conduct in 2:18–3:7. To the extent that our conduct involves economic relations, he’ll tell us that a Christian employee should behave differently from a non-Christian employee. Just how is the behavior of Christian employees different? For perspective on this question, we need to orient ourselves to the slave-master relationship in Peter’s first-century Greco-Roman world.

For our purposes, it’s important to understand that slavery in the NT era was quite different from slavery in North America during the 17th through 19th centuries. Slavery was an accepted fact of Mediterranean economic life and labor structure. Slaves were not only domestic or field workers, but also semiskilled laborers, craftsmen, architects, physicians, philosophers, teachers, grammarians, writers, librarians, administrators, accountants, or estate managers. Though most Greco-Roman slaves got into their position involuntarily (because of war, kidnapping, or birth), some non-slaves actually sold themselves into slavery to climb the social ladder for a better standard of living. While many lived in miserable conditions, many others enjoyed more favorable living conditions than free laborers. In addition, manumission was on the rise, and under Roman law slaves could expect to be set free at least by the time they reached age 30. In Peter’s day, then, there was no general mood of unrest among slaves, and, though slave rebellions did occur, neither slaves nor government took up the cause of abolition. In general, the status and experience of NT-era slaves within a family household approximated that of a semi-permanent employee with less legal, social, and economic freedom than others. (In that light, we’re justified in seeing ancient servants and masters as analogies to present-day employees and bosses.) As Peter’s words suggest, however, a person’s experience as a slave depended primarily on the character and social status of his or her master. There were cruel, brutal, and unjust masters. As a rule, however, a master’s treatment of his children was a predictor of his treatment of his slaves. Still, there was a wildcard that might complicate matters in a household: if slaves converted to a credo outside the culturally accepted emperor worship or polytheism, their standing could sink even more among the “Repugnant Cultural Others.”

Against that background, Peter commands us Christian employee-servants to be subject … to our boss-masters, to take our place under them, to submit to them (2:18). Emphatically, our duty is not conditioned on their being good and gentle (considerate); it applies even if they’re unjust (corrupt, unscrupulous). Pressing home his point, the Apostle specifies the attitude with which we take our place: with all respect. Having started his teaching on Christian duties by highlighting the fear of God (1:17; 2:17), Peter states here for the first of three times (2:18; 3:2; 3:16) the respectful attitude that Christians are to exhibit toward others at home, in church, or in society. He declares, in effect, “let non-Christian employee-servants be disrespectful: we Christian employee-servants will be different. We’ll treat our boss-masters with the respect their position demands. In the service of our God, we’re not free to dishonor them. To the contrary, God obligates us to subject ourselves to them with all due respect.”

But why does Peter constrain us employee-servants to do our duty even to the worst boss-masters? His reason is not to keep us from gaining our freedom (1 Cor 7:21) or changing our circumstances. No, his reason is that subjection to those over us finds favor with God; it pleases Him (2:19-20). Even when we suffer unjustly while doing good, God looks on our good works in Christ and is pleased to accept and reward them (3:13-17; see WCF 16.5). Peter’s words are particularly encouraging if our bosses mistreat us, but he has more encouragement to offer. Adding to God’s favor, he reminds us of our call to Christ (2:21), of our conversion to new life in Christ (2:25). Like no other NT author, Peter’s teaching in 2:21-25 takes full advantage of Isaiah 53, building on the Passion itself wherein Jesus suffered a death reserved, fittingly enough, for slaves, criminals, and others lacking full Roman citizenship. Jesus was the consummate suffering Servant, and all of us Christians, employee-servants or not, share a likeness to Him. In what way? Certainly not as the substitute suffering unjustly for sinners (2:24), but as His servant-people (2:16) who suffer unjustly. So, as Christ suffered for us, we who are His must suffer as He did. While suffering unjustly, He never sinned or deceived (2:22), reviled or threatened (2:23); even so we must not sin or deceive, revile or threaten. While suffering unjustly, He kept entrusting Himself, His people, and His persecutors to the righteous Judge (2:23); even so we, while suffering unjustly, must keep entrusting ourselves and our persecutors to the righteous Judge. We do these things because His sin-bearing changed the direction of our lives: He secured our death to sin, our new life to righteousness, our healing from sins (2:24), our conversion to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (2:25).

Christian employees, has your Christian confession made you “Repugnant Cultural Others” to your bosses? If so, Peter exhorts you: show them, especially the non-Christians, the honor that their position calls for. Show them that, though you’re under them, you’re first under Christ, the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls, following His example. You’re being conformed to His image, living righteously, suffering unjustly, and enjoying divine favor that no boss can ever take away. In other words, show them the uniqueness of Christian employees.

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