Distinctly Christian Living

Image result for christian livingChristians should stand out because of their values and actions, but they do not.  Os Guinness has pointed out that the ‘progressive’ wings of the church often adopt the values of the majority culture.   He says you can predict what actions and values the church will adopt in five years by watching what the surrounding culture values today.

So, what should we be pursuing?  What should we be looking for?

  • Sacrificing idols

What is an idol?  Anything that sets itself up in opposition to God, or in dominance over God.  Christians are firstly people whose lives are founded on and centered around their relationship with God through Christ.

  • Loving community

Christians do not look only to their own growth and development, but also to the growth and development of others.  They consider others more highly than themselves.  This involves putting aside the many distractions of twenty-first century living and being focused on others for their good.

  • Sexually pure

Sex was created by God for enjoyment within a faithful marriage.  With contraception and sexual ‘freedom’ people have less frequent and less satisfying sex.  Married couples have a foundation of mutual consent and constant access.  It is no wonder married couples have more sex in the long run.  There are times when couples get into a rut or become too busy or distant.  However, healthy marriages have regular sex.

The downgrading of sex to a commodity for purchase has led to an explosion in the sex trade.  The evils of sex-trafficking and pornography have mushroomed in recent years.  Multiple meaningless partners seems attractive in our lusting culture, but the reality of meaningless hook-ups does not fit the billing.  Christians have good news for the culture, sex is best within the security of a life-long commitment.

  • Obeying authority

Good leaders are first of all good followers.  They command respect because they are respectful.  Obeying a chain of command promotes law and order.  A promotion of law and order brings peace.

A misguided view of autonomy and freedom is bringing increased anarchy to the United States.  It looks like Rome at the end of the empire.  A fierce individualism and a pride which does not sacrifice self for the greater good will be America’s undoing.

  • Working hard

Grit is shown to be the marker of successful adults.  It is hard to train people in grit, but the Holy Spirit is meant to give Christians uncommon endurance through hard times.  Modern Americans are less resilient and more coddled.

In education, teachers are learning to establish a growth mindset in the disposition of students.  It is a mindset that sets goals and then makes plans to achieve them.  Christians have goals set by God and supernatural empowerment to get the job done.

  • Rejoicing

Joy should mark the Christian life, but Christians are often known as kill-joys.  The result is that many successful youth groups manufacture a hyped, jacked up joy which resembles the emotional high students achieve at a rock concert.  A deeper Christian joy has been sacrificed for a plastic imitation.

True joy comes from a true faith.  True faith is often developed from quiet contemplation of God and a vulnerability in his presence.  There is a joy that is fruit of the Holy Spirit – we need to rediscover it.

  • Praying

People who are aware of their dependence on God increase their communication with God.  People without a thought for God cease to pray.

North Americans lack skill in prayer because they lack mentors.  You can not do what you don’t know to do.  We need more immersive development of prayer.  Skilled prayers need to invite others to pray.

  • Giving thanks

People who see their limitations and their dependence on others are thankful.  People who are isolated and self-sufficient lack gratitude.  Gratitude is less than it can be because people do not reach out, they do not accept help, and they do not operate outside their own capacities.

We are created to be in a team with others.  We are created to depend on others’ giftedness and production.  Our teams are created to be dependent on God.  When he achieves his ends through our limited resources, we thank him.

  • On fire

When God works his will through inadequate humans they get fired up.  The Holy Spirit is a fire who burns in the heart of an active believer.  Set the bar low and we quench the fire.  Cut down others in an atmosphere of pessimism and we pour cold water on the community.

Like coals igniting each other in the hearth, church should be a place glowing with warmth and welcome.

  • At peace

God is in control.  He is on the throne.  The world has been sustained for millennia without our help.  A posture of surrender at the foot of God’s throne is a posture of peace.  We were created to be free from anxiety – free from worry.

A church should be a place where the heavy laden come to rest.

***

The previous thoughts are reflections on 1 Thessalonians

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How the Gospel Became Diminished

In the Middle Ages, the gospel became overshadowed by rote following of traditions and rules.  It has been argued by many that the church often degenerates into a tool for control.  So, the result of ‘the gospel’ is conformity to an external code of self-righteousness.  People desperately hope that their good behaviors will satisfy the standards of the church, and so eventually they will get to heaven and avoid hell.

The Reformation occurred when these layers of tradition were stripped away and scholars like Erasmus, Zwingli, Calvin and Luther read the Bible with fresh eyes and called people out of a system of hypocrisy and corruption.  They emphasized that we are saved by grace through faith.  No person has to perform for God in order to be saved because no works can justify a person before God as judge.  God judges all people and finds them guilty, but he provides forgiveness for sin through the death of Jesus Christ.   All people, regardless of past conduct, can gain access to heaven.

Image result for christians behaving badlyThe unintended consequences of Reformed belief are very sad.  The code of conduct advocated in the Bible has been lost to many believers.  Because we are not saved as a result of our works, good works are not part of the gospel in the way we tell it.  In the Bible, though, Paul and other authors emphasize a new way of life which emerges for the Christian.  The ‘work of faith’ and the ‘labor of love’ sets Christians apart from surrounding people.  Jesus insisted that people would see his followers’ good works and praise his Father in heaven.  Quite frankly, that is not happening in the West these days.

The gospel should lay out the best life – what some people call the ‘good life’ – and it should call people to live it.  The best life is one lived with God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  It can not be entered into by merit, but only by the grace of God.   The emphasis in the gospel of the last century has been to do with punishment.  It has also been very much centered on individuals rather than God.  It focuses on the sin problem that people live with.  Our sin stops us from going to heaven and getting our great reward.  In fact our sin sends us to hell and the images of hell are horrific.  Everyone wants to go to heaven and no-one wants to go to hell.  Removing the barrier of our sin gets us to heaven.  End of story.  So, converts say sorry for their sin, ask God to take it away and wait to die so they can sip lemonade next to the pool in the eternal vacation in the sky.

The problem is that the New Testament gospel does not read like this.  Jesus’ gospel calls for repentance.  It calls for a new way of life.  He builds upon John the Baptist’s call for repentance.  The new life of the gospel is centered on new relationships where people love God with all they have.  In short, the gospel is a call to worship.  Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount the kind of conduct that must be eliminated and the kind of conduct that must begin.  He calls people to a life free from anxiety and full of faith.  The good news of the gospel is that this faithful, loving, and peaceful new life will never end.  It is given by God and it is maintained by him.

So conduct is part of the gospel.  People are released from the captivity of sin and self-centered living into a new life focused on God and serving others.  Paul recounts to his converts how his gospel taught others to walk worthy and to please God.

We need to show that God’s way of life is good and true.  Then we need to call people into that new life – a life where sin is forgiven and a new perspective is created.

***

Written after reflection on 1 Thessalonians.

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8 Lessons from Philemon

Philemon received a letter from the Apostle Paul asking him for a favor.  That favor may have been to release his slave, Onesimus, or perhaps at least to send him to Paul as a companion.  We don’t learn much about slavery from the book, even though we’d like to.  But we do learn at least eight other things.

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  • Churches in the first century were small

The early church grew from small bands of committed people working hard together.

The idea you need a megachurch to thrive is a very new concept rooted production-consumption expectations of goods and services.   The micro-church is also thriving today and always has.  It’s a church where everybody knows your name.  Unfortunately you can’t hide.  It requires commitment.  With so few people, you are probably going to be asked to do something.

  • Love and Faith result in thanksgiving

When evaluating a person or a group of people, their take-home-pay, their many qualifications, and their busy schedule don’t count for much.  The measure of a person is how committed their heart is to God and their neighbour.  Their faithfulness to their beliefs and to their relationships shows how good a person is – not what car they drive.

If we have friends and family who love well and are full of faith, it would be good to thank God for bringing them into our lives.  An encouraging card in the mail wouldn’t go amiss either.

  • Growth means more knowledge

If we want to grow, increase what we know.  A rebellion against stuffy know-it-alls reading the Bible has led to mindless know-nothings filling the pews.  Stupidity is not a virtue.  C.S. Lewis once said, “God wants a child’s heart, but he wants an adult’s mind.”

We spend time investing in education for our careers, but we don’t invest as much rigour into the education of our spirits.  It might be good to spend a year or two studying at somewhere like Moody Bible Institute to gain a grounding in the Bible.  How valuable is education in the Bible, in the Spirit, to us?  Does our Bible education dig as deep as our professional education?

  • Appeals are better made in love rather than authority

Pulling rank emphasizes a power differential.  People don’t really like to be reminded of being lower in a hierarchy.  It leads to resentment.  The better way is to show a subordinate how we care for them and the organization we both serve.  We can show them how they will benefit from the proposed action and how others will flourish.

  • God can allow negative circumstances for good ends

Negative circumstances, even things that are clearly evil, can be reframed as forming events.  God can allow a series of events to transpire that don’t make sense at the time.  In retrospect all the events fit together like a jigsaw to create a complete picture.

I have had athletes who suffer injuries tell me that without their injury their lives would be consumed with sports.  Although the sports injury is not a good thing, the resulting redirection was worth it in their opinion.

  • Christians’ relationship as brothers and sisters trumps social hierarchy

Churches should be full of bankers, beauty queens and the homeless all equally cared for and living together.  Unfortunately, segregation still occurs on Sunday morning.  Class distinctions in neighborhoods often result in class distinctions between local churches.  Although the issues are complicated, all people are equal at the foot of the cross.  God shows no favoritism and neither should we.

  • Christians can be confident in the character of other Christians

This should be true – unfortunately recent years of scandal among Christian leaders has made us less confident.  Christian leadership is not about power and control, it is about servanthood.  It is not about the exploitation of the weak but their strengthening.  People who are fighting to serve each other should be able to trust one another.

Confidence in the character of Christians should be higher than confidence in the character of the local Mafia.  However, the Mafia have a code they live and die by and Christians have a code they often ignore.  We were saved by God in order to be better people.  Time to embrace change.

  • Churches practiced open hospitality

In England, my friends and relatives might drop in at any time for a cup of tea.  In America a visit has to make it on the sacrosanct schedule – anything else is an intrusion on privacy.  There at least has to be a phone call before ringing on the doorbell, to make sure the visit is convenient.  Preferably visits are arranged weeks in advance to make sure no-one is a loser with an open schedule.

In ancient times, when prior communication was limited, people practiced hospitality more spontaneously.  They lived life in constant expectation of visitors and tried to outdo each other in their welcome.  This is a challenge to our modern disposition.  I would not say it is a biblical imperative but simply a challenge to our individualistic and private mindset.

***

Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to berestored to you in answer to your prayers.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

 

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What is True Peace?

Peace, to many, is simply the absence of conflict.  When a war ceases, we have peace.  In life, some people are content with life if it is free from a fight.  They think they have peace, but peace should be so much more.

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The word for peace in ancient Hebrew is shalom.  The Arabic word salam also means peace.  Both words have a much broader meaning often hidden by our one word translation.  The peace of old includes true wholeness.  Well-being is part and parcel of true peace.

The first goal of finding peace, then, is to remove the conflict obscuring the path forward.  Once the conflict is resolved, those who seek wholeness need to find deeper harmony and well-being.  The harmony is both external and internal.  External peace works on the environment to conform it with ideals.  All cultures have some form of the good life which informs the ordering of internal life.  If the culture’s ideas are faulty, the internal peace will be more difficult to achieve.  The human being works on both the external world and the internal world to bring harmony.

Although peace, in this sense, informs the ancient religions of Judaism and Islam, Islam, Judaism and Christianity are not known for harmony and well being.  Images of wholeness and completeness are often associated with Confucianism and Zen in the common consciousness.  In fact, some Christians, unaware of their roots dismiss quests for inner peace and harmony in the world as New Age or worse.

Christians would do well to search their scriptures to find ways ancient role-models found harmony with their environment and harmony with each other.  They would do well to see how people like Jesus could sleep in the middle of a storm.  How does someone arrive at this peace and rest?  What is it in our society that leads to frenetic activity and economic production as a path to happiness?  What if we unplugged, sat in a meadow for a while and communed with nature as a gracious gift from God?

***

I wish grace and peace to you.  However, what I mean by that is influenced by what I believe Paul meant by his greetings to Philemon

Philemon 1-7

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

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Is Slavery Supported in the Bible?

The Bible tells stories of many people with slaves.  Wealth was often measured by the amount of slaves a person had.  In twenty-first century consciousness we have a strong image of slavery.  It usually involves the subjugation of the black population by white plantation owners.  People were treated savagely and inhumanely.  Black people were separated from their loved ones.  They were chained and they were slaughtered.  The Bible condemns man’s inhumanity to man.  We are told to love and to be gentle and kind.  Slavery, of the kind we picture, has to be disallowed by God because of its cruelty.

Slavery in the time of the Bible was often milder.  It was not limited to one race.  A much higher percentage of the Roman world were slaves than were slaves in 18th century America.  However, just like American slavery, masters had absolute authority over their slaves.  Slaves were not their own people.  So why doesn’t Paul condemn slavery and pen directives for its abolishment once and for all?  Paul’s aim was not to disrupt the social system of his day.  In his letters Paul declares there is no difference in status before God of the slave and the free.  This was a radical elevation of the slave for the time.  Some slaves, commentators think, were already bringing disorder to their households.  This was bringing the gospel into disrepute.  The gospel, so it seemed to outsiders, caused discord and chaos.  Paul directed people, within the social institutions of the time, to live orderly and harmonious lives.

The fact that Paul didn’t dismantle slavery at the time does not mean Paul supported it.  In his own value system, he just had bigger fish to fry.  That seems easy for a non-slave to say, but the slaves Paul would have seen would have been in milder conditions than the slaves of the American South or modern trafficking.  Paul had a lot to say about bringing heart-reform and only a little to say about social reform.  He had a lot to say about church politics, but like Peter, he had little to say about developing a new system of government.

The abolition of slavery is a derived imperative of the gospel.  It is a necessary application of biblical truth.  For example, in the Old Testament the year of celebration, the Year of Jubilee, saw all slaves released.  The Jewish people remembered their years of slavery in Egypt as years of bitterness.  Their emancipation was celebrated as a great and wonderful thing.  If people have power – or can gain power, to overthrow slavery – they should.  It is an evil.  God did not design the world to have slaves.

In  2017, the United Nations reported that 40 million people were trapped in slavery and 152 million children were subject to child labour.  The cry of our heart should be, “Let my people go!”  We are part of a common humanity and so the plight of people near and far is all of our concern.  Have you looked into what you can do about this?

Note:  Written after reading Philemon in the Bible.

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Three Essential Elements in Persuading Others

With cultural divides growing wider and deeper, it is best to know how to effectively talk through disagreement.  One common strategy is to pretend everyone in the room agrees.  Another strategy is to insist no-one really knows much of anything.  A third popular strategy is to insist everyone is entitled to their own truth.  Life in a 21st century context is exposing the shallowness and danger in these approaches to argument.  We need something else.  We need to disagree with each other and to disagree well.

  • A gracious and respectful tone.

Contempt kills relationships.  Giving an air of superiority turns people off.  It is best to assume the person who disagrees with our perspective has a brain, has used it, and has come to a different conclusion from us.   Asking questions with genuine interest and affirming the other person’s ideas, where possible, help an opponent in a discussion feel more open.  Nothing ends an argument quite like a roll of the eyes, a tutting sound, or an attack on someone’s mother.

Ask a friend whether your tone is harsh when you discuss with others.  Ask them if you sound open and safe.  What is really at stake in the conversation?  Do you really want to win the argument and lose the relationship?

  • Wit, humour, or cleverness

The Harvard Business Review writes, “The workplace needs laughter. According to research from institutions as serious as Wharton, MIT, and London Business School, every chuckle or guffaw brings with it a host of business benefits. Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”

In conversations humour breaks down barriers.  The safest place to start is to make fun of yourself or your own position.  When a positive and playful atmosphere arises, it is easier to be witty and clever about both positions at play.

  • Research

Not knowing what you are talking about is an obvious disadvantage.  It saps confidence and increases anxiety.  Many people supplement their initial knowledge by researching their own point of view more fully.  Some individuals make the effort to research their detractors views equally thoroughly.  Pulling quotations and data in support of other people’s positions can undermine those positions quite quickly.  If you understand the position you disagree with as well as anyone else, it begs the question, “Why don’t you agree?”  It provides a platform without fighting to be heard.  Others become curious and ask you what you know.

There needs to be more conversation

There needs to be more conversation across a variety of issues.  Solid conversations involve both speaking and listening.  Although pundits are speaking as vehemently as they ever have, I am not sure they are listening well.  Perhaps we should listen well to our opponents, articulate to their satisfaction what they are saying, and finally give our own opinions.

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***

the church at Colossae was under great pressure from outsiders.  No-one believed this new religion of Christianity had any real credibility.  Paul gave guidelines about how to have conversations with outsiders to the faith.

Colossians 4:2-18

 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.”

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

 

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Hints for Harmony in the Home

Home life can be more stressful than life outside.  The people in the home know us so well, they can push our buttons, treat us with contempt, or even become enemies.  All this when the people in the home are those we should love the most.

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  • Communication

Some people don’t communicate.  They excuse it because of other virtues, like bringing money into the home or doing chores.  However, to be uncommunicative is not acceptable.  Households need to develop safety so the hard things can be said and processed together.

The members of the house also need to develop and maintain communication skills.  Schools might teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but they often rely on the  home to teach social skills like effective communication.  Taking turns in speaking, listening well, and accurately laying out emotions and opinions are essential skills for success in life.  There is no embarrassment, if the skills are lacking, to look them up and start at any age.  We can not expect progress if we do not know what we are aiming for.

  • Love

Loving each other does not mean doing activities together or eating at the same time.  It can include activities side-by-side, but it is more than that.  Love is sacrifice.  Love is giving of self for the development and good of another.

Gary Chapman has famously written of five ways people give and receive love.  The family might talk about ways they like to love and be loved.  The five ways Chapman lays out are quality time, acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, and physical touch.  How do you show you love the other members of your household?

  • Respect

Sometimes we love people but we don’t respect them.  Within the household there is always a basis for respect based in human dignity.  Particularly low respect shows when name-calling begins.  Calling a person the names of animals like ‘dog’ or ‘cow’ shows we are in the process of dehumanizing them.

Constantly bringing to mind good conduct and mutual service in the past can help maintain healthy respect.  Celebrating achievements without making achievements the essence of a persona’ value is a worthwhile but tricky goal.  Everyone in the household has value.  When do they feel most valued?

  • Service

Leading the house in service, with no thought of reward is often the calling of parents.  Having the heart of a servant means having the heart of a leader.  Those who take the initiative to serve others in the home lead the home into mutual care-taking.  Sometimes acts of service need to be talked about and appreciated.  Catching children doing good encourages children to do more.  Be careful not to cheapen the good actions by rewards like candy or late bedtime.  The acts of kindness become self-serving in that environment.

Educate the children to understand and celebrate the internal satisfaction of serving others.  What motivates you to do the dishes?  Make a meal?  Take out the trash?  Communicate that to those who are learning from you.

***

These thoughts were taken from Colossians 3 where the home is centered around a strong father figure in Roman society.  Paul wants Christians to be an example of love and harmony to their neghbours, so he addresses areas where families struggle.

Note, the slaves were members of the household and Paul recommends orderly conduct for them.  He is not condoning slavery but recommending godly behavior in environments where household slaves are the norm.

Colossians 3:18-4:1

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,  since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

 

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