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I once learnt a management principle that’s so simple, and yet so profound, that it’s stuck with me for years. Authority and responsibility should always go together. Authority doesn’t exist for its own sake. If you have authority, it’s there so you can carry out certain obligations. That means you have a responsibility to carry out those obligations, and so you should be held to account for how well you discharge your responsibility. Conversely, if you’re given any responsibility, then you should also be given the authority to carry out that responsibility. Ideally, authority and responsibility are two equally matched sides of the same coin. When authority and responsibility aren’t balanced, problems arise. If a person is given authority without a corresponding responsibility, it’s chaotic for everyone. It can lead to authoritarian leadership, bullying, and abuse. Conversely, if a person is given responsibility without a corresponding authority, the person will often feel frustrated, they won’t be able to achieve their goals, their motivation will be squashed, they can be blamed for things they can’t control, and they can end up disillusioned and undermining the whole organisation.
Authority is a reality of life. Many of us have authority of one form or another. Some kinds of authority are clear. Political leaders have authority over the people in their constituency. Bosses and managers have authority over their employees. Teachers have authority over their students. And many employees—even those who don’t have the title “manager”—still have quite a lot of authority in certain areas: for example, a council worker has authority to stop traffic. And none of that authority exists for its own sake. Any authority we have has a corresponding responsibility. That’s true for everyone. But for believers in Christ, this principle is especially significant. That’s because believers in Christ are, fundamentally, people who are under authority: the authority of the “Lord” Jesus Christ. That means we have a responsibility, not just to our job, but to Christ himself. This is the point that Paul is making when he addresses “Masters” in his letter to the Ephesians:
Masters, act the same way towards your slaves, giving up the use of threats, by recognising that both their and your Master is in heaven and shows no favouritism.Ephesians 6:9
In the original language in which Paul wrote, the same word kyrios was used to describe both the “Lord” Jesus Christ and “masters” of slaves. That’s because, despite the differences between the two, the same basic idea—authority—applies to both. And here in Ephesians 6:9, Paul is deliberately making a point based on this idea of authority. Paul is here speaking directly to “masters” of slaves, and he is reminding them that they themselves have a “master”: the “Lord” Jesus Christ. But what Paul says here isn’t just limited to first-century slave masters. It applies to anyone who has authority over others. And that means it applies to most of us, in various ways, depending on what authority we might have.
Act the same way
Paul begins by urging masters to “act the same way”. The same way as what? Paul is referring back to what he has just written in the previous verses to first-century slaves (see my post on Ephesians 6:5–8). He’s saying, quite radically, that believing masters should adopt the same kind of attitudes and resulting actions that he’s just told their slaves to adopt! These attitudes and actions include such things as “whole-hearted sincerity” (verse 5), “not just serving to be seen, as people-pleasers” (verse 6), “doing God’s will from within” (verse 6), and having a “good attitude” (verse 7). Paul is reminding masters—and, by implication, any one of us with authority over others—that our authority is not there to serve ourselves. Rather, our authority exists for the sake of the people under our responsibility. That’s because we all have the same ultimate “master”. All believers are, in that sense, “slaves” of Christ. So all of us must exercise whatever authority we might have not for ourselves, but for the sake of our responsibility to Christ: “as rendering service to the Lord and not human beings” (verse 7). And we need to remember that the responsibility to serve applies to all of us: “for each one of us, whatever good we have done, this we will get back from the Lord—whether slave or free” (verse 8).
Paul is saying that we should always understand and use our authority in light of our responsibility: our responsibility to others, and most importantly, our responsibility to our ultimate authority, Christ. Now Paul is not saying here that anyone with earthly authority should pretend that authority doesn’t exist. If we do that, it can be disastrous for others; we will end up being irresponsible and unthinkingly wielding our authority in a way that disheartens those under our responsibility, and creates chaos. Rather, it means using that authority rightly. It means seriously considering what responsibilities we have, and discharging those responsibilities sincerely, for the sake of others, and for the sake of Christ.
Give up the use of threats
One very important result of this attitude of service and responsibility is “giving up the use of threats”. In the first-century world in which Paul was writing, masters often controlled their slaves by the use of threats: physical beatings, sexual harassment and more. This was common, because there wasn’t very good legal protection against it. It was very easy for masters to use their authority in a threatening way, and get away with it. But this isn’t just a first-century problem. All of us who have a position of authority today need to watch out that we don’t use our authority wrongly. Sadly, it’s still possible to get away with using authority wrongly.
The “use of threats” means misusing your power and authority by being overbearing, manipulative, or demeaning. It involves motivating people by fear, so that they are afraid that you might use your authority as a weapon against them if they don’t fall into line. It’s the kind of leadership style that comes from leaders who see their own position—or their “goal” or their “mission”—as more important than their people. But Paul is saying here that believers in Christ must give up this use of threats. That doesn’t mean that Christian bosses should never apply penalties for wrong behaviour. It does mean Christian bosses need to be fair and just, paying close attention to transparent and fair processes, not playing favourites, not throwing their weight around, and not using their position to get ahead at the expense of others.
I rejoice that many bosses I know do this very well. But the sad reality is that many bosses—even Christian bosses—can end up “using threats” to motivate people. Often, this happens subtly, not through intentional malice but through unintentional neglect. Even well-meaning bosses can end up creating situations where those under their authority feel threatened. This happens when the well-meaning boss relies on his or her own personal charisma, or his or her ability to relate personally to people, to get the job done, instead of setting up transparent structures and processes so that everyone can relate to one another securely without needing to rely on the personality. That’s why bosses need to pay attention to good workplace structures and processes: not just for the sake of compliance, but for the sake of their people. This includes things like creating and communicating fair codes of conduct with clearly defined consequences so everyone knows where they stand, proper grievance policies so people are able to appeal if needed, and specific job descriptions with proper and fair reviews. It also involves making sure information is communicated well, rather than being kept away from people for the sake of power plays. All of these things can go a long way towards making sure that authority is exercised fairly rather than threateningly.
Remember you’re equally accountable
As we’ve already seen, there’s an important truth underpinning all of what Paul is saying here: the Lord Jesus Christ is over all of us. While it’s true that some believers in Christ may have the position of being an earthly “master”, they must recognise that they themselves have a greater “master”/ “Lord”. So masters are to “recognis[e] that both their and your master is in heaven and shows no favouritism”. That is, we are all accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why our authority over others always needs to be matched by a sense of responsibility—responsibility that comes from the one who has that ultimate authority over us. Of course, as Paul has already explained in detail in his letter so far, our Lord is a Lord who loves us deeply and gave himself up for us (see e.g. Ephesians 5:1–2). He is not an arbitrary dictator, but a loving saviour. Yet he is still our Lord. And so, we are accountable to him, and we need to recognise this as we exercise our own particular areas of responsibility.
In our world, people at the top of the chain of authority tend to be given more privileges and advantages than those at the bottom. That means that sadly, those who are given authority can often get away with being less accountable. That’s why Christians who have authority must remember that they are accountable, not just to earthly authorities, but to Jesus Christ, our heavenly “master” or “Lord”. Jesus is a master who is utterly fair and doesn’t play our human power games. No matter how far up or down the chain of authority we sit, all believers have the same relationship to Christ. All of us have the same Lord (see Ephesians 4:5), all have the same status before him, and all of us are called to account for whatever particular human responsibilities we have been given. Jesus cares about each of us, Jesus calls us all to account, and none of us gets special treatment at the expense of others.
A word to those involved in Christian ministry
For those of us involved in Christian ministry, especially in leadership roles, it’s important to realise that what Paul says here applies to us too. That’s because, by the very nature of the task, Christian ministry involves relationships of power and authority. And that means Christian ministry also involves a corresponding responsibility (see Ephesians 3:7–8). As Paul has said, nobody with authority—Christian ministers included—has a special status before God which removes the need for accountability. God shows no favouritism, and so Christian ministers don’t get let off the hook simply because their task is different to others. This is not just something for the “secular workforce”.
Indeed, there is a special challenge that affects Christian ministers in this area. The challenge arises because Christian ministry is all about relationships: it involves more than formal workplace relations; it involves fellowship in the gospel. This means that our churches and ministry teams should be characterised by relationships of love and care. We are a family made up of brothers and sisters, not just a workplace made up of colleagues. So we should treat one another with love and care and deep affection, like a family. But while that’s true, there is also a danger that can arise when we see each other as a family. We can too easily assume that because we’re like a family, we don’t need to set up good workplace structures of responsibility and accountability.
The problem in Christian ministry, in other words, is this: we can let the love we have for each other, and the forgiveness we show to each other, cover over and disguise real issues of authority and responsibility. Love can mask the need to put into place good and fair structures and processes, including the kind of things I’ve already mentioned: job descriptions, codes of conduct, grievance policies, reviews, good communication, etc. Those in Christian leadership can sometimes naïvely forget that they have real authority, and so be blind to the kind of power dynamics that arise when there is a power imbalance. Christian ministers can too easily be well-meaning bosses who naïvely create threatening environments by acting in a way that they think is “relational” and loving but which, because it has no proper boundaries, actually creates an arbitrary and insecure situation in which people end up feeling powerless, bullied and excluded. We need to remember that these relationships of authority and responsibility are real and need to be taken seriously, even among our Christian brothers and sisters. So even as we act out of love and concern and care for one another, we should not neglect taking our responsibility and accountability seriously.
All of us in positions of authority need to remember that authority implies responsibility. Christians, who know that we have a loving heavenly Lord and Saviour, have a special reason to be responsible in the way we use that authority.
Consider an area of your life where you have authority over others (large or small, depending on your situation). How does remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is your “master” help you to act rightly in this area?
Is there a situation where you are using your authority threateningly, or in danger of unintentionally creating a threatening environment? What do you need to change in this situation?
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.