Although they are sometimes quoted to command abject slavishness and prostrate subservience, scripture and tradition actually have little to say about relations between free (non-slave) labour and employers, and nothing at all about trade unions or collective bargaining. In our time, such matters are regulated by secular legislation in most or all countries. Both biblical and post-biblical early Christian writers emphatically maintained that Christians are to obey all secular laws except those that interfere with the practice of their religion, and only to the extent that obedience would do so.
However, present governmental rules do not cover every detail, allowing great flexibility and much leeway within the scope of secular laws. In addition to the parameters of these statutes and regulations, various bearers of the apostolic tradition expressed sentiments about labour relations: Christian employees are to respect and submit to their employers – even overbearing ones – (1 Peter 2.18; Barnabas 19.7) and obey them (Clement of AlexandriaPaedagogus 3.12). They are to serve Christian employers well (Clement of AlexandriaPaedagogus 3.12). They are not to complain about an employer’s generosity to others (Testament of Job 14.4f) nor submit only to kind and gentle ones (1 Peter 2.18), nor despise them (Clement of AlexandriaPaedagogus 3.12).
Most readers of this Examiner column will remember that Clement was dean of Christianity’s leading institute of higher learning between AD 192 and 202. More diligent readers will identify The Letter of Barnabas as a Christian writing of the late first or early second century that was so influential it was often regarded as scripture. Few will know that some early Christians considered The Testament of Job (first century AD) as authoritative as the Bible books we now have.
For their part, employers are to pay wages quickly (Testimonies against the Jews 81 [north Africa, shortly before AD 249]; Clement of AlexandriaStromata 2.18) instead of withholding them on some insubstantial pretext (James 5.4), and generally to treat them well (Clement of AlexandriaPaedagogus 3.12). Nor are they to threaten them (Clement of AlexandriaPaedagogus 3.12) nor issue orders in bitterness to them (Barnabas 19.7).
Although the situation would hardly arise today because employers and employees no longer worship together, and the laws of Western states protect the latter from being pressured to do so, the church father Tertullian in the early third century forbade a Christian servant to participate in a pagan sacrifice sponsored by their employer, or otherwise assist in idolatry in the slightest way. However, this is no longer too a remote possibility now that Wicca and other forms of paganism are on the increase, especially in the West.
The biblical provisions for master-slave relations are inapplicable to free labour for two reasons. First, unlike slaves in early Christian times, modern workers possess legally-enforceable rights to contract for employment, to join trade unions, to refuse exposure to unreasonable hazards, and to terminate employment. Workers are no longer chattels—such as animals and money—which the owner may kill, sell, or destroy at will within a legal system that was as rigidly protective of property-owners as was Roman law. The difference in legal rights is so extreme that it would be misleading to apply the teachings of the New Testament and other early tradition on slavery to the modern world, which does not recognize the ownership of one human being by another. Second, the institution of slavery is illegal in all Christian and socialist countries, and therefore the ancient rules on slavery cannot apply. Slavery does exist, but in Western countries only underground and illegally and, once again, biblical and post-biblical early Christian writers emphatically maintained that Christians are to obey all secular laws except those that interfere with the practice of their religion, and only to the extent that the laws do so. The present article therefore cited only employment situations that are applicable in both ancient and modern times.