We see the same stereotypes in most of our TV shows. Take a group of five adults in a workplace setting, and you’ll almost always have an overbearing boss, the perky one, someone who can’t keep their personal life together, the nerd, and the old guy/gal. We’ve seen them so much that we tend to anticipate that people in life will act out these roles. In a real sense, our entertainment has become our expectation. And while TV shows are society’s current choice of distraction and amusement, the need to be mindful of a stereotype’s influence is actually an old issue.
There was a running gag in ancient comedies of the arrogant, back-talking slave who mocked the master behind his back and sassed his master to his face. Either of which would lead to the slave taking a beating for comedic effect. This motif was regularly present in Greek and Latin plays. These shows also type-casted the role of the slave to be wicked and selfish.
When Paul wrote to Timothy, as much as one-third of the Roman world was made up of slaves. Roman slavery was not like what we think of in terms of slavery – it wasn’t race-based (there were slaves of all races) and while some did the harsh, menial work other slaves had significant skills and responsibilities (such as medical work, teaching, and business). The average age of a slave was 17, and most could reasonably expect to be freed by the time they reached 30 (with typical life expectancy of 36 for women and 43 for men).
So if 1/3 of society was slave population, you can imagine that there would be a fair number of slaves in the church. And if the general expectation of “slave behavior” was rudeness, disrespect, and conduct that deserved an occasional beating – would God expect something different because of their society status?
1 Timothy 6:1-2
All who are under the yoke as slaves must regard their own masters to be worthy of all respect, so that God’s name and His teaching will not be blasphemed.
And those who have believing masters should not be disrespectful to them because they are brothers, but should serve them better, since those who benefit from their service are believers and dearly loved.
Whatever circumstance a slave found themselves in, they were to demonstrate their relationship with Jesus in the way they treated their master. Paul doesn’t say that the master must deserve respect or should earn respect…instead, the slave must [choose to] regard their own masters to be worthy of all respect. They were to ignore the low-bar expectations of society and realize that their actions mattered to God’s reputation. A slave that acted counter-culturally would stand out as a positive witness for God.
Paul is such a realist. He recognizes peoples’ general, selfish tendency to use a situation to their own benefit – and warns slaves not to take advantage of their believing masters. Choosing to act like society’s stereo-typical slave because you assume that grace and mercy will be available is not only hypocritical, but shows a lack of understanding of the love Christ showed all of us.
Paul’s directions are applicable for us, even though we don’t live in an indentured-servant society. We come across all sorts of stereotyped behaviors in our own jobs, and we need to make the choice to live out of our relationship with Jesus, rather than meet society’s low-bar expectations.
Every time we go to work, God’s reputation is on the line. Others will definitely notice how you go about your business – even if the boss is an overbearing jerk.