During college, I worked two summers at a resort hotel as an assistant to “George,” who supervised food operations. George was hard-working, shrewd, witty, and flawed. He could be loud and critical, he wore polyester, and he played favorites. He divided the world into two camps—his friends and his enemies. The chief baker was an enemy. Nothing she did pleased him.
One day she made apple cinnamon pancakes. George sent me to requisition a taste of the batter. He took a spoonful. “Not sweet enough,” he thundered. “Send it back.” I hustled the batter to the baker, then brought a taste of the sweetened concoction to him. “Too sweet,” he fumed. “Send it back.”
This time, the baker got an idea. She noisily shook empty containers over the batter, waved her spoon around, and returned it unchanged. The boss sampled it again. “Perfect,” he beamed. “That woman wouldn’t do anything right if I didn’t keep my eye on her.”
Feeling Like Slaves
Younger adults believe they will never work for a George, whose misdeeds—though minor indignities and irritations—are uncool. They think work should offer more than tasks and income. It should be a realm for growth, fulfillment, discovery of gifts, and self-actualization. Older adults, on the other hand, think they will never work for anyone but a George. They think of work as a sad necessity, something to be endured for the sake of income and benefits.
Both younger and older adults, though, need a concept of employment and authority that’s grounded in Scripture rather than culture. Consider, for example, Peter’s command, “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Pet. 2:18). This is necessary, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21).
We may resonate with Peter because we feel like slaves at times. We feel like slaves when we’re given menial tasks that require no skill. We feel like slaves when the boss tells us to pick up coffee or laundry or lunch. We feel like slaves when we receive an impersonal memo that changes our job description. We may also feel like slaves with important tasks, if they demand 70, 80, 90 hours a week, tearing us from family, friends, fun, and even sleep.
Instructions to Slaves
Of course, what feels like slavery to us is not the same as Greco-Roman or American slavery. American slavery rested on kidnapping—a capital offense in Moses’s law—and racism. Roman slavery rested on the view that slaves were inferior by nature, and sub-human. In both cases, slaves were property. In Peter’s day, slaves were not considered persons. People said “a slave is a living possession,” a “talking tool,” and “property with a soul.” And if a slave is property, it’s impossible—legally speaking—to mistreat one. So slavery is dehumanizing. Most Greco-Roman writers thought it pointless to address slaves, since they didn’t see them as responsible moral agents.
But Peter does address slaves, and his word may sound offensive at first: “Slaves, submit to your masters with all respect.” Peter doesn’t endorse slavery but instead instructs believers how to live within a pervasive, entrenched institution. Slaves must submit “with respect”—literally, “with fear.” Ultimately, the believer fears God, not man (1 Pet. 3:14-15). But God appoints human authorities, so we obey them for God’s sake. Respect for a master is respect for God, who ordains and commissions all authorities (Rom. 13:1-4).
Judging Our Bosses
The analogy between slaves and employees is imperfect, but Peter’s instructions speak to us if we serve harsh leaders who mistreat and even beat slaves who have done no wrong (1 Pet. 2:19-20). We should think, If God can command a harder thing—that slaves respectfully submit to harsh masters—surely I can submit to harsh, selfish, or uncool superiors, who have far less power over me.
Nonetheless, the command feels daunting, even if we’re not sure why. If we have an angry boss, we are tempted to return anger for anger. If we have a lazy leader, we probably won’t want to work hard. And we bristle at every command if we think we know better than the chief. Yet Peter commands believers to submit, with respect, to difficult leaders. That applies to work, schools, churches, and governments. It’s human nature to resist poor leaders.
But Americans may especially need Peter’s teaching, since we honor rebels and exalt independence, freedom, the right of free speech, including the supposed right to criticize. We don’t like to submit to leaders unless we judge them worthy.
Be Subject with All Respect
Today, the most common occupations in America are cashier, retail sales assistant, and food preparer. They’re not slavery, but they’re not glamorous either. Those who hold these positions may feel underpaid, unappreciated, and boxed in. Yet no one—not even executive leadership—gets to use all their skills or pursue all their interests at work. For everyone is a “slave” to someone. The CEO answers to the board and stockholders. The state university president answers to the legislature, which answers to the citizens, including students, who are, therefore, both subordinate and superior to the president.
Therefore, all of us need Peter’s call to submit to God-given authorities. Almost everyone spends time under leaders who seem unqualified; we balk at the prospect. Besides, humans are prone to rebel, even against noble authorities. Notice that Peter doesn’t say, “Submit to good leaders.” Also, he doesn’t say, “Agree with your leaders,” because he’s not calling us to submit only if we concur with their directions.
Instead, he says, “Be subject to your masters with all respect.” Authorities deserve respect, if not for their merits, then out of reverence for God, who placed them in their role. We are governed by our obligations, not the qualities of our leaders.
Servant of All
When we honor flawed leaders, we follow Jesus, who honored many flawed authority figures, including his own parents, Joseph and Mary. In him, we have the power to submit to harsh leaders in our own lives because he himself became a servant to us (Isa. 42, 49, 53; Matt. 20, Luke 22, John 13). He served us freely, when we had no right to that service. And his service was far greater than any we render to him or any human.
Now he asks that we serve him directly and in our work for our leaders. It’s an obedience we should want to render as we remember Peter’s description of Jesus: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).