Key Topic Overview Articles
Making Time Off Predictable and Required
Read more here about a study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"
Introduction – Rest and Work
Human beings need a rhythm of work and rest in order to live up to their God-given potential. Just as God gives people important work to do, God also asks people to rest periodically from their labor. Work gives each individual the opportunity to partner with God in his goals for creation, while rest lets that person enter into communion with God in enjoyment of creation. Ideally, all people would work and rest in comfortable alternation, leaving humanity physically healthy, mentally stimulated, and spiritually fulfilled.
Alas, for many people this happens rarely. Many neglect to rest or do not have the opportunity to rest, given the patterns of their lives. With the dizzying advance of technology, people can work anywhere and anytime. In 2014 The Economist reported that 60% of people who use smartphones are connected to their offices for 13.5 or more hours a day. Many people have ceased to attempt to balance work with rest. Others find all their time consumed by the need to earn a paycheck, care for children or aging parents (or both), and fulfill others’ needs and expectations of them. Over-worked, they find it increasingly difficult to experience the kind of life-restoring, humanizing rest that they need.
Conversely, some people are under-worked, either for lack of full-time employment or from feeling disengaged from their jobs. Some lack the motivation to work or have not developed habits needed for work. Structural changes in the labor market over the past half-century have decreased work opportunities for those without access to higher education. And even those who work full time may suffer from a lack of productive engagement. If a worker feels that his or her work isn’t valued, measured, or appreciated, that worker will struggle to exhibit ownership over the task at hand. If he or she is not prepared to work productively, successful results are unlikely. The outcome will be a life-depleting lack of motivation.
When people lack rest they suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Physical and mental exhaustion can often lead to emotional volatility, as a poorly rested individual become easily irritated and/or anxious. This lack of rest can escalate into larger issues. Relationships become strained. Over time a person’s spiritual life—a connection to God and the deepest meaning and joy in life—becomes diminished too.
Research bears out the cascading consequences of a rest deficiency. First, lack of rest can compromise health and the quality of work. Heavy workloads and long hours are a significant source of stress in the work place. According to an American Psychological Association survey, more than a third (36%) of workers experience chronic work stress, which can lead to anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, increased blood pressure, as well as a weakened immune system. This kind of stress can also increase chances of heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Furthermore, exhaustion depletes a person’s skill at managing interpersonal relationships. Studies show that when someone is tired he or she misreads other people’s social signals. A tired person will project negative motives onto other people, and find it hard to resist lashing out in response. Finally, there are spiritual implications to lack of rest. God created both work and rest, and carelessness in these areas can estrange people from him.
Howard E. Butt, Jr., on Rest
Both those who are over-worked and those who are under-worked may find it hard to connect with God in a rhythm of work and rest.
Yet by God’s grace it is still possible to integrate rest and work into the pattern of life that God intends. This study will explore the reasons why and how to do so.
From the opening pages of the Bible, both work and rest are surprisingly significant topics. In the first chapter of Genesis God creates everything, yet despite his infinite power and perfection God takes time to rest. This topical study will trace the theme of rest in scripture through four main topics: 1) why people need to rest, 2) why people can’t rest, 3) how rest is restored, and 4) and how people can rest in faith.
The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time
In 2017, the Harvard Business Review published a summary of recent medical and psychological studies arguing that humans are designed for periods of rest, silence, and deep thought: "Taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us now live, work, and lead." They also include four tips for cultivating silence and sabbath even in the middle of a busy workplace.
On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:2-3)
The seventh day is the very first thing to be hallowed in Scripture, to acquire that special status that properly belongs to God alone. In this way Genesis emphasizes the sacredness of the sabbath. – Bruce Waltke 
After six days of creation, God looks upon the works of his hands and pronounces it “very good” (Gen 1:31). But it is not until the seventh day that God calls something, “holy,” the day of rest that he interjects into the time and space of creation. The day of rest receives the attribution of holiness, which is the very essence of God’s character. The two short verses of Genesis 2:2-3 emphasize three times that God rested.
Today, many people think of rest as something they have to do so that they can work. Given the choice, some people would prefer bodies that did not need rest. In modern society, rest is often seen as the opposite of productivity. Rest is a functional necessity, serving the higher end of work, devoid of higher meaning or significance. Is this view of rest and work biblically accurate?
In Genesis 2 God both works and rests. God, in his omnipotence, clearly does not need to rest for reasons of physical tiredness or exhaustion. He does not need to rest so that he can become more productive, given that he has already created everything. So clearly there is something more to rest than maintaining energy for the production line.
It is also interesting that the first thing in all of creation that is made holy is not a person or even an object, rather it is a day. What then is the significance of rest for God, and why does he make this day holy? Genesis 2 does not say why God makes the seventh day holy, merely that he does make it holy. So it helps to turn to the concept of sabbath as it is developed throughout the Bible. Surprisingly, the term sabbath does not appear again until Exodus 16:23-29, when Israel is wandering in the wilderness after being delivered from Egypt. The next significant mention of sabbath occurs in the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11. The fourth commandment to remember the sabbath and to keep it holy is grounded upon God’s pattern of working six days and resting on the seventh, making an explicit link between creation and sabbath observance, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:11). Israel is commanded to rest because God rests in creation.
It is important to note that the sanctity of rest in no way undervalues the importance or dignity of work. Rather, these opening chapters of Genesis establish a pattern of work and rest; to do one without the other is a deviation from God’s created order. In fact, the fourth commandment combines both a command to work and to rest: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” God affirms the goodness of work and the sacredness of rest, with the two beautifully woven together. The fourth commandment as given in Deuteronomy supports the rhythm of work and rest with a different argument—because of God’s deliverance of his people out of Egypt. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:13-15) People should work and rest as God instructs because of his model in creation and his model in redemption.
Exodus 31:16-17 provides even deeper insights. “Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Two important discoveries come from this passage. First, the sabbath functions as a sign, pointing to the “covenant” between God and Israel. This covenant embodies the privileged relationship that Israel enjoys with God, which begins with the patriarch Abraham. Old Testament scholar John Durham writes in his commentary, “The reason the sabbath is to be kept is that Yahweh has commanded it as a sign of the covenant in perpetuity between himself and Israel, the covenant by which Israel has made a response to the gift of Yahweh’s Presence.” In other words, keeping sabbath is a living out of the special relationship God’s people enjoy with God. Second, the sabbath is a day when God himself is “refreshed” and he wants his people to experience that same refreshment. Thus the sabbath enacts God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with his people. God offers his people weekly refreshment through communion with him and with his creation.
Further evidence of this relational aspect of the Sabbath emerges in Ezekiel 20:12, “I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them.” According to this verse, God gives Israel “his sabbaths” (the refreshment that belongs to him, as a relational sign between God and his people) so that they might know who he is as well as know the sanctifying effects of relating with him. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke corroborates this relational emphasis: “[T]he sabbath is the sign that Creator has set Israel apart for a special covenantal relationship with him.” The sign is not arbitrary, like a tattoo or a secret gesture. Instead, the sign of sabbath is real participation with God in the delight of resting in God’s own creation. God chooses not to be distant from his creation. Rather, God chooses to intimately commune with his people and with his creation through their participation in his sabbath rest.
The New Testament extends both the directive to enter into God’s rest and the possibility of doing so. Hebrews chapter four encourages Jesus’ followers to rest. “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (Hebrews 4:1) The ancient Israelites, according to Hebrews, fail to take God up on his offer of rest because they are disobedient to him. But followers of Jesus receive good news about the rest God promises from the beginning. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, believers are able to accept God’s offer of rest regardless of who they are or where they live. “A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (Heb. 4:9-11)
These texts convey a deeper significance to rest, communicated by this notion of “sabbath.” Rest is much more than recuperating from a hectic, tiring week. It is the affirmation of a special relationship people have with God. Rest is a privilege graciously extended by a God who desires his creation to delight in the refreshment he enjoys. The sabbath is holy because it is a day that belongs to God and he graciously chooses to share himself with his creation. He is a generous God who delights in the delight of his people. Rest communicates the character of a holy God who relishes in the act of creation (Proverbs 8:30-31) and desires to commune with it. Rest is the gracious outworking of God’s desire to be in intimate, joyful relationship with humanity and creation.
In sum, God sanctifies the seventh day in creation to set it apart from the other days as a day of rest. God does not need to rest, yet finds rest refreshing nonetheless. God rests so his people can partake in his refreshment. Moreover his rest from work fosters his relationship with his people. People take delight in the “very good” creation of God, upon which humanity’s work is meant to build.
In the first two chapters of Genesis, God both works and rests. God also create people to be similar to him: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) God creates people with a job in mind: responsibility over creation. Both the fact that people are created in God’s image and the immensity of the task he entrusts to them prove that God intends his people to be workers. Similarly, he intends his people to be resters, after the pattern he models on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2). God’s dual invitations to work and to rest serve as a validation of the special bond between God, humanity, and creation.
If rest is a source of refreshment and a means to better relationship with God and with other people, why don’t people do it? The answer begins with the Fall of humanity.
To Adam God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:17-19).
Adam and Eve’s disobedience breaks the intimate fellowship that they were intended to have with God, and they become estranged from their Creator. The impact of humanity’s rebellion is devastating to all aspects of creation including both work and rest. Work was originally intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, but because of man’s sin God curses the ground, and work becomes difficult and painful. Rest was intended to be a similarly ennobling affirmation of humanity’s intimate fellowship with God, but due to the chasm sin creates between God and people, rest becomes deeply distorted. After the fall rest becomes a necessary antidote to the harshness of work, yet rest is elusive because humanity’s perfect relationship with God is broken.
It is important to clarify here that work itself is not a curse; rather, the ground is cursed, giving rise to greater pain, frustration, and hardship associated with work. Work is still noble and it still brings joy, but because of sin it is also beset with challenges and difficulties. The Fall makes work exhausting, and, the deeper significance of rest established in creation is overshadowed by people’s physical need for rest. In a world that is broken, people rest merely to survive, to refuel for more backbreaking work.
Despite the brokenness that enters the world due to human sin, God’s goal is to restore for his people a holy rhythm of work and rest. He does this first by giving the Israelites specific commandments regarding work and rest. Later God expands the scope and possibility of both rest and work through the life and sacrifice of Jesus.
God sets out restoring guidelines in the law of the Old Testament. The most well-known of these commandments are the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai after Israel is delivered from slavery in Egypt. Amongst the Ten, God includes the commandment to rest:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, - you, your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:8-11).
God commands Israel to honor the sabbath and to keep it holy, resting from the work that defines the other six days. This rest includes the entire household, servants and animals, so that all can “be refreshed” (Exo 23:12). God ends this commandment with a reminder that he too rested on the seventh day following six days of creation. It is as if to say that following a commanded rhythm of work and rest might restore some of the utopic harmony that is lost to human beings after the Fall.
Because life out of Eden is extra hard for humans in their work, God also institutes other cycles of rest into Israel’s calendar year. There are seasonal festivals and feasts given by God in Leviticus 23, including the feast of the Passover, a harvest festival, a day for atonement, and a rest day preceding it by a week (known today as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah respectively), as well as the festival of booths (known today as Sukkot). For each of these festivals God commands the Israelites to stop their regular work and observe a rest. God also commands the Israelites to do specific actions on each festival day, which may serve to help the people connect better with God. Here is one such example of a command to rest and to perform a connecting ritual (in this case on Rosh Hashanah):
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire. (Lev. 23:23-25)
On this festival God commands the people to rest from their normal occupations, and instead to take action that reminds them that God is the ultimate provider of both their work and their rest. In the case of this particular festival, the Israelites are commanded to blow the trumpets and to give some their earnings back to God in the form of a sacrifice.
A yearly pattern of rest is relevant even from a modern business perspective. Justice Louis Brandeis, who sat on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, once took a short vacation right before the start of an important trial. He received criticism for this decision, but Brandeis delivered a convincing defense: “I need rest. I find that I can do a year’s work in eleven months, but I can’t do it in twelve.” Many people think their jobs are too all-encompassing to allow them to take a break during the year, but if a top US justice can do it then others probably can too.
God also commands the Israelites to observe patterns of extended rest every seven (Exodus 23, Leviticus 25:1-7) and forty-nine years (Lev 25:8-55). Because the land is cursed due to effects of The Fall, these extended periods of rest provide time for the land to recover.
In the Old Testament these weekly, yearly, seven-yearly and forty-nine-yearly cycles of rest serve two functions. The first is to give both people and land a physical rest from the hardship and frustration of work. The second reason for these rhythmic rests is to invite people to commune with God in worship, satisfying a greater need than just that of their physical bodies. God’s people need physical rest, yes, but also deep spiritual rest—rest from the instability, anxiety, and insecurity created by the threat of enemy invasion. God institutes these cycles of rest so that his people can set aside time to worship him and rediscover his covenantal love and faithfulness towards them. During these times of worship, Israel is reminded that God himself is their rest: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Exodus 33:14). When Israel turns to God in trust and obedience, this promise of rest is realized through Divine protection and blessing. Israel later achieves victory from her enemies in battle and gains possession of the Promised Land:
And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:44-45).
Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples of the rest that God provides for his people, a rest which goes beyond simple physical rest. God provides rest from war (Joshua 11:23, Joshua 14:15; 1 Kings 5:4; 1 Chronicles 22:9; Psalm 46:9-10; Proverbs 1:33; Isaiah 14:3), from social strife (2 Corinthians 13:11, Ecclesiastes 10:4; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; Hebrews 12:14; James 3:17-18; 1 Peter 3:8), from fear (Mark 4:37-38; Matthew 8:24-25; Luke 8:23-24; Genesis 32:11; Psalm 127:2; Micah 4:4; Matthew 6:31; Luke 12:29), and from anxiety (1 Peter 5:7; Matthew 6:25; Philippians 4:6). His presence provides security (Deuteronomy 33:12; Proverbs 19:23) and peace in the midst of death (Deuteronomy 31:16; Job 3:13-17; Revelation 14:13).
This deeper rest can be described as a spiritual rest—a rest that comes from being in covenantal communion with God. The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel describes this deep rest as menuha. According to Heschel, “menuha came into existence on the sabbath and can be described as tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose. Menuha is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust.”
Heschel beautifully communicates what humanity loses in the Fall. In addition to the physical aspects of rest, there is a deeper spiritual need that all humans have—this yearning for menuha or the assurance that all is well. The problem is that many people look to all the wrong things to provide this deeper spiritual rest, resulting in increased restless.
This is the situation that plagues many people today. People may not be aware of the need for both physical and spiritual rest. Physical rest without spiritual rest is not satisfying; nor is spiritual rest without physical rest restoring. Honoring the sabbath does not mean engaging in soul-numbing frivolity nor is it austerely communing with God. Keeping the sabbath holy means recognizing the brokenness of the world after the Fall and looking to God to mend both broken bodies and misguided hopes.
The biblical narrative of work and rest is a rich and somewhat complicated story. Work is intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, and rest is intended to be an invitation to enjoy intimate fellowship with him. The Fall makes work difficult, and creates a desperate need for people to experience both physical and spiritual rest. But people often find it difficult to rest. The next passage of Scripture will illuminate why that is.
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather [manna], and they found none. The LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day (Exodus 16:27–30).
This passage comes immediately after God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Egypt. Through awesome displays of power and might, God demonstrates his faithfulness to Israel and delivers them from the bondage of slavery. As they journey towards the Promised Land, God continues to provide for all their needs, including food in the form of this unknown substance, manna. He specifically instructs them to collect enough manna for each day, but not more than a day’s need, with the exception of the sixth day when they are commanded to collect enough for two days, so they can rest from work on the sabbath (Exo 16:4-5).
God’s instructions are clear. Collect enough food for each day—no more, no less—and God will be faithful to provide each day. After experiencing the dramatic and miraculous exodus from Egypt, there should be no conceivable reason for the Israelites to believe that God wouldn’t provide for their needs. However, there are still some in Israel who go out on the seventh day to gather manna. Do they simply forget it is the sabbath? No, the explicit point of God’s instructions is to test whether Israel trusts and obeys: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not’” (Exo 16:4). God recognizes the deeper problem within the hearts of his people—they do not rest on the sabbath because their hearts do not trust in God’s provision. Similarly, people today who do not trust God will not be able to allow him to restore the relationship with him and with other people that is broken as a result of the Fall.
If distrust is one reason people overwork, dissatisfaction is another. The author of Ecclesiastes observes that some people work constantly because neither their work nor the fruits of their labor, nor pleasure brings them satisfaction.
I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil (Ecclesiastes 4:7–9).
People end up in the “unhappy business” of working to relieve dissatisfaction with their lives, their loss of relationship with God and with people, their fears about not having the things they need, and their inability to find pleasure in anything. But obsessive work only makes people more restless and unhappy.
Because refusing to rest on the sabbath stands in the way of God’s plan to restore the world from the effects of the Fall, it is a very serious offense in the Old Testament.
In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:18, emphasis added).
When God gives Israel the sabbath, he gives them a bit of the Garden of Eden. So when the people of God reject the sabbath, it “brings more wrath on Israel” by subjecting them to the effects of the Fall a second time.
The commandment to rest and the challenges to fulfilling that commandment are not particular to Israel. The struggle is real in modern times as well. Rest is as necessary as ever. It remains the pattern God lays out for people made in his image. The reasons that people can’t rest today are the same too. Either people are unable to rest because they are still enslaved by external forces, like Israel was in the land of Egypt, or like the Israelites in the desert people choose not to rest because they don’t trust God. Christ makes it possible for believers to rest, but still rest remains far from perfect .
Like the enslaved Israelites, many of God’s people today lack basic necessities, even the food and water to survive. The world is so broken by sin that God’s promise of provision is not always fulfilled in this life. It would be no good news to impose an undue burden on people in dire circumstances by commanding them to take a day off from work when such rest is impossible. The sabbath is intended to be a liberation for people, not an added burden. Jesus performs work to relieve people in need on the sabbath and teaches that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Christ give people freedom to rest, not an impossible task to fulfill.
God ultimately delivers the Israelites from slavery and into the Promised Land. Jesus, similarly, shows nothing but compassion for those in distress, healing on the sabbath and explaining that, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12). So for those people currently enslaved either literally or by economic necessity, there is no rule that will allow anyone to judge them for their sabbath practices. All Christians would do well, rather, to partner with God in his continuing work of liberating the oppressed.
Others people operate in the rebellions mode that the Israelites adopted in the Sinai desert. Rather than believing that God will provide for their needs each day, these people put it upon themselves to obtain what they think they need. Many people would rather trust their own actions than trust a God who promises to provide for all the needs of his people yet remains unseen. The deeper problem leading to inability to rest is this lack of trust in God despite his demonstrated love and faithfulness. It’s this refusal to trust God that leads people to forfeit the rest they so desperately need.
Why is rest so difficult? Some people respond: “I feel guilty that I’m not working”, “I’m afraid other people will get ahead”, “I’ll lose my job if I don’t keep working”, “My coworkers will judge me”, “I won’t get promoted”, “My company will go under if I don’t work”, “People will think I’m lazy” or “So I won’t feel anxious”. Some would even respond, “I love what I do and enjoy the work.” This list can go on and on, and many of these reasons are not necessarily bad ones. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work hard to provide for a family or to keep a job, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with working hard to succeed or because it brings satisfaction intrinsically. God intends work for all these purposes. The problem arises when underlying these good desires is the desire to be god rather than to trust the real God.
When people today have time to rest and yet refuse to obey God’s command, they are doing exactly what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They do not believe that God will provide for their needs. Rather they trust in self-sufficiency, inadvertently stealing God’s job away from him. In futile and foolish attempts to be god, people forfeit the grace that God promises. As Augustine noted, people’s hearts will remain restless until they find their rest in God.
Conversely, people might be making a god out of work, seeking to find all of their fulfillment there rather than in God. Underlying what may superficially appear to be a harmless decision to work is actually a rejection of God, his grace, and his revealed character of generosity.
Regardless of an individual’s proclivities or economic circumstances, each person should ask him or herself whether current patterns of work and rest truly reflect God’s generosity and provision. Based on what a person has received by God’s grace so far, it often does not make sense to work so much and to rest so little. Indeed, the self-congratulation many people seek may not be what God wants to provide more of. In the moment when each person must decide whether to work or to rest, it may help to ask, “Is working now instead of resting actually the way to receive the good that God has in store for me and for others? Does my work have the power to gain for me anything that God would not provide if I rest?” Clearly, there will be cases when the answer is “yes,” analogously to when an animal falls into a pit and some immediate work is the only way to bring a good outcome (Matthew 12:11-12). But for many people ,when tempted to imagine there is no choice but to work at the expense of rest, the answer will be “no.”
What can break people out of this destructive, self-centered cycle so that they can experience the rest they need? As much as many would like rest to be a matter of strict discipline, people cannot simply schedule regular periods of rest into their calendars and expect to experience the deep menuha rest that Heschel described. The deeper problem with rest is not a matter of scheduling. It is a matter of trust in God. Somehow, people’s hearts have to be changed.
In the New Testament, two passages clarify how God is restoring rest. In the first passage, Jesus makes the unequivocal and controversial claim that he will give people rest.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
This claim infuriates some Israelites because only God can provide that kind of rest, as in Exodus 33:14, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” It is indeed Jesus’ intention to identify himself as the one true God who can provide the kind of rest that is promised to Israel. But how can Jesus provide this rest?
In the second passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes another startling claim that he is greater than the sabbath as he is “lord of the sabbath” (Matt 12:8).
“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (Matt 12:6-8)
Jesus makes the dramatic claim that he provides a greater rest than the law of the sabbath can offer. How does Jesus provide a deeper rest than the sabbath law? Romans gives an explanation.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3–4).
The sabbath law on its own has no ability to address the deeper problem within people. The fourth commandment teaches that people ought to rest, but it cannot enable them to do so because a commandment on its own is powerless to change hearts. The common inability to rest, rather, exposes a much deeper problem. People desire to be self-sufficient without God, and yet the effort that it takes to do so leaves people exhausted and empty. This is where the good news of the Gospel comes in. According to Romans (see below), God knows that the law is powerless to change hearts. Jesus refers to himself as the lord of the sabbath because he does something that the sabbath law could never do. God wants to commune with his people through rest, but people can’t commune with God if they fear his condemnation. Jesus frees people from condemnation by forgiving all sin through his sacrifice on the cross. In doing so Jesus grants Christians renewed access to God that individuals could never earn or accomplish on their own. No longer estranged from God due to sin, people can now enter into real restful communion with God.
Indeed, an examination of the Christian faith, as laid out in the letters to the early church, concurs about what Christ has accomplished for people with regard to rest.
First of all, in Christ believers are saved from condemnation under the Law.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
Because people no longer need to be afraid of God, believers no longer feel compelled to work incessantly in a futile attempt to please God.
By establishing forgiveness, Christ reconciles each person’s relationship with God. In doing so, Jesus restores the possibility of people experiencing loving fellowship with God.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
According to this passage, all people should be able to experience a restful relationship with God, despite any real-world obstacles.
Furthermore, through Christ’s sacrifice the parent-child relationship between God and his people is restored.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
Christ reinstates all the privileges and benefits of being a child of God that God gave people in the garden of Eden. Adopted as God’ children, people have every right to ask for what they need, and God promises not to withhold any good thing from them. (Romans 8:32, 2 Corinthians 9:8). Moreover, individuals have the honor of partnering with God in the work he intends to do in the world.
A spirit of adoption does not negate the possibility of suffering in the life of a Christian. Rather, suffering can be viewed as part of taking on the family business. People sometimes have the opportunity to suffer with God in the same way that Jesus comes alongside all people who are suffering. Whether believers feel extremely provided for or extremely in need, Jesus’ sacrifice means that they no longer have to turn to their own work as the ultimate source of security and identity.
Similarly, when people partner with God in his work of restoring the world to his original intention, the Holy Spirit empowers them to deepen their relationships with others. It is only through Jesus’ sacrifice that people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-7). Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers find it possible to give their time and property sacrificially to others (Acts 4:34). God gives his followers his very Spirit to empower them to live by faith, to work by faith, and finally to rest in faith.
The last insight on this subject in the New Testament is that Christ will come again one day to fully restore God’s intention for both work and rest. In the fallen world which continues today, people will always be subject to a pattern of frustration, exhaustion, and partial recuperation. But when Christ comes again to make the world the way God has always intended it to be, he will reestablish an integrated pattern of purposeful work in partnership with God and rest in perfect communion with him. The following passage from Revelation reveals both themes of work and rest.
The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!" (Revelation 19:9-10)
Life in the new creation will involve both work (in fellow service with the angels) and rest (enjoying the marriage supper of the Lamb.) Human work and rest in the age to come will both occur in perfect partnership with God. Believers can wait for this eventuality in expectation, even as each person endeavors to experience closeness with God in his or her work and rest today (Hebrews 4:1).
The sacrifice of Jesus provides Christians freedom to enter into God’s rest on a perpetual basis. Therefore, it is an open question whether a practice of keeping a weekly day of rest, referred to in the Old Testament as sabbath, is necessary for a Christian believer. The New Testament scripture seems to give a Christian the freedom to choose for him or herself the answer to this question.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6)
Some Christians interpret this passage as warrant for not having a formal sabbath day, although Romans clearly states that those who choose to keep a sabbath should not be judged for it. Whether a believer sets aside a specific day for sabbath, or rests only as the spirit leads, this passage from Romans indicates that both practices should include thanking God.
Although people are free to choose when and how to rest, there are compelling arguments both for observing a weekly sabbath rest and for worshiping collectively with other Christians on a customary day of the week (whether or not the latter feels restful to an individual.) Some sort of weekly meeting involving worship has been widely observed throughout the history of the church.
Jesus’ disciples certainly go to the temple on the Jewish sabbath, if for no other reason than to convince others that Jesus is the Messiah.
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. (Acts 17:1-4)
Indeed, Paul’s practice is to attend sabbath meeting in any town he visits and to use that platform to proclaim the good news about Jesus. It doesn’t seem particularly restful to him (indeed, his speeches are often followed by violent mob outbursts), and perhaps rest is not the primary reason he observes this custom.
In his own life Jesus demonstrates two distinct practices of sabbath. Jesus engages in both personal spiritual rests and communal worship experiences. Jesus takes moments alone to rest in God’s presence (Matthew 14:13). At other times, he uses the Jewish sabbath worship for reaching out to others with his message of salvation (Luke 4:16-21). Since both resting personally and worshiping communally are important in the life of Jesus, modern Christians might do well to make similar choices with their God-given freedom.
Whether or not people choose to rest in a particular weekly pattern, those who manage other people have a responsibility to ensure that these workers have proper access to rest. God’s commandment to the Israelites reveals his deep concern for the rest of his people:
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:14-15)
In this passage, the end of slavery brings freedom to rest. Christians’ freedom to observe the sabbath in a manner of their choosing must always be seen in this light. Rest, at its core, is freedom from the unceasing work inherent in slavery. Because God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he expects his followers at the very least to refrain from enslaving others. Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life is not limited to one religious group, but “for many” (Matthew 26:28). Thus when managers protect rest time for employees, they can view this management practice as partnering with God in his continual work of deliverance.
Providing for the rest of all workers may take different forms in different industries or organizations. Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications company based in North Carolina, has a policy that everyone should leave work by 6 pm in order to spend dinner time with the people they love. If necessary, people may work from home after 8 pm or so, but workers are expected not to work or communicate with one another at least between 6 and 8. Co-founder Henry Kaestner says the biblical Sabbath is an inspiration for the policy, not because of its religious particularity, but because it gives everyone time for rest and relationship.
The fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is well known for being closed on Sundays. This is certainly one way to ensure that everyone has a day off, at least from their work at the company itself. According to the company’s website, founder Truett Cathy’s decision to make weekly sabbath a company policy “was as much practical as spiritual. He believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” Hopefully, in addition, everyone who works at the company doesn’t feel the need to work elsewhere on Sunday to make ends meet.
God loves people so much that he is willing to leave the place of perfect rest in order to enter into the unrest of this world. Christ, the lord of the sabbath, becomes incarnate as a man who has “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) so that his followers can find real rest. This final section explores how people can experience a greater and deeper rest. The first step is to look to Jesus in a deepening faith.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28–30)
Believers can give Jesus their burdens and experience deeper rest. However, it takes a full surrendering of minds, hearts, and wills.
Many barriers to rest start in the mind. Thoughts that are angry, fearful, or anxious prevent rest. It is particularly difficult to rest when life circumstances create resentments against others, fears of the myriad things that can go wrong, or anxiety about others’ expectations. Hebrews reminds believers to let go the obstacles of the mind and to look instead to Christ, with trust in him for the future.
Christ himself, as he faces the agony and shame of death, focuses upon the joy of the future.
Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
This freedom to fix active thoughts on Christ, and in particular a future hope of glory, can be found throughout the letters of the New Testament.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8).
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4).
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
A critical part of experiencing deep rest is being proactive about what thoughts fill the mind. Philippians exhorts people to think about things that are good and true and beautiful. Colossians encourages Christians to imagine the glorious future that awaits all those who look to Christ. 2 Corinthians asks believers to recognize current problems and difficulties as momentary afflictions compared to the eternal rest that awaits. Christians can choose to follow this advice or be overwhelmed by trials and difficulties. To rest fully is to anchor the mind upon Jesus and the perfect future that awaits all who follow him.
Secondly, entering into a faithful rest involves examining existing desires. Jesus invites “all who are weary” to come to him for rest (Matthew 11:28) but each individuals must first respond in his or her heart to that invitation. Coming to Christ is not a trivial or passive decision. Jesus makes clear that being a disciple is a life-consuming reality that requires a self-denial that doesn’t come naturally.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matt 16:24-26).
Each person has something in his or her heart that he or she falsely believes will bring rest. Many people don’t experience true rest because they are consciously or subconsciously pursuing something that promises rest, but can’t ever deliver it. The Bible considers anything people pursue above Christ to be an idol. Some people berate or abuse others, hoping it will make them feel less inadequate. Others entertain themselves to the point of numbness, or excite themselves to the point of exhaustion. Still others may pile up achievements, hoping to climb high enough to rise above the fear of lacking what they need. When people feel stress and fatigue from the work week or experience anxiety, many turn to these idols to bring a sense of relief. Pastor Tim Keller elaborates upon this point in his book, Counterfeit Gods.
An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry…. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.
Keller argues that even good things can become idols that take the place of Christ. People instinctively look to these things to provide a sense of deeper rest, but idols will all fail at some point. Idols keep people from trusting God, thus people forfeit the grace that brings true rest. God invites his followers to rest amidst work, but idols require ever-increasing frenzy. How can people overthrow these idols and place Christ at the center of the heart’s desires? The answer is repentance. In repentance, an individual surrenders the illusion of control. He or she has to die to a false sense of self-sufficiency. Rather, each believer must trust that God can and will graciously provide for all the “desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Without this repentance, people cannot experience deep.rest.
Marva Dawn, in her book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, describes what people find when they repent of idols and surrender completely to God. “When we cease striving to be God, we learn a whole new kind of contentment, the delight of the presence of God in our present circumstances. When we give up our silly rebellion against God’s purposes, we discover that he provides the security for which we were searching.”
Lastly, peoples’ habits may hinder them from experiencing a deep rest. It is important to examine whether current rhythms of work and rest bring an individual closer to peaceful communion with God, or further away from it. In the Old Testament, God institutes various patterns or cycles of rest, creating regular rhythms for the Israelites. Though Jesus’ sacrifice frees Christians from needing to follow the Old Testament law to the letter, nevertheless weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual, and sabbatical rhythms of can provide needed guidelines for people who want to enter into the freeing rest that Christ makes possible.
To sum up, here are some practical suggestions for those who are looking to release their burdens to Jesus and enter into God’s rest:
- Reflect on things that are just, pure, and pleasing (Philippians 4:8). Some people find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal.
- Imagine a future that transcends the current problems of this world (Colossians 3:1-4). It may help to cultivate a holy imagination.
- Reframe current troubles as small within an eternal timescale (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Imagine looking at a current situation from a distant future time point (also known as a “fast-forward” model of decision making.) 
- If there is a solution that promises to fix all life’s problems, and it’s not Jesus, repent of it.
- Reflect on whether adding daily rest practices might be helpful. Examples include: reading a daily devotional book or Bible reading plan (if this doesn't feel like unpleasant work), praying worshipfully at the beginning and end of every day, or praying together with family members at an evening meal.
- Reflect on weekly rest practices that feel resourcing. Some people commit to one full day of rest a week, or to a weekly meeting of a small group of Christians. Many people find a weekly church service refreshing, but that shouldn’t serve as some sort of high-water mark of sabbath rest. Other weekly rest ideas include: eating a meal with friends and neighbors, playing or listening to music, or engaging in a fun physical activity.
- There are other rest practices that might help people refocus on God either seasonally or annually. Spend extended times in prayer or reading scripture. Go on a retreat. Celebrate holidays or seasons of more intensive spiritual devotion, such as Advent and Lent.
An important question about personal rest practices, whatever they are, is whether they pull an individual into a deeper experience of God’s faithfulness. God gives the weekly sabbath to remind the Israelites of his never-ending faithful provision, and Jesus heals on the sabbath to prove his ultimate dominion over all problems. Any particular approach, whether it be attending a church service, reading a devotional, or eating with friends, is not a fool-proof solution. Rather, all practices afford people greater opportunities to commune with God, in whom humanity finds the deepest and most satisfying rest.
It is also important to note that there are seasons in life where an individual may not be able to experience the rest that he or she might need. New parents, for example, cannot take a day off from caring for the needs of their infant. Entrepreneurs, who often have no one to whom they can delegate all the necessary work, may find it impossible to set aside enough time for rest. In these seasons when people are not able to rest properly, they need not feel guilty, but instead turn to God with hopeful expectation for future rhythms of rest and work. “A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9), both from an eternal perspective and in this lifetime. Babies get older, start-ups develop institutional capacities, and personal practices of sabbath change even as God’s goodness remains constant.
In conclusion, rest is intended to remind people of the inestimable privilege of being created in God’s image. The hallowing of the seventh day is God’s gracious invitation to enjoy an intimate communion with him and to delight in his creation. Yet because of humanity’s sin in the Fall, work, which God originally creates as good, now becomes painful and frustrating.
Even as physical rest is necessity to survive, human limitations point to the need for spiritual rest too. With the exception of those who work in slavery-like conditions, chronic overwork arises from a disbelief in God’s provision and attempts to take matters into human hands. Work addiction has its roots in deep fears and insecurities. Without the drum-beat of constant work, some people may be insecure about future stability, identity, or self-worth.
Into this vicious cycle, Jesus enters as the “lord of the sabbath,” the one who is greater than the sabbath and accomplishes what the sabbath law can never do alone. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection restore peoples’ relationship with God. Once again humanity can work in partnership with God and rest in his presence.
Each individual has the freedom to choose wise rhythms of work and rest for him or herself. Yet ultimately, it is faith in Christ that leads to a deeper spiritual rest. Jesus offers to take each believer’s burdens, and he means it. The God-given identity that Jesus provides for each person who follows him gives Christians both the strength to seek out physical rest and the courage to advocate for the freedom of others. Yes, there is always a future God’s people can hope for with more satisfying work and more pleasant rest. In the meantime, however, Christians can follow God’s lead and throw themselves fully into both work and rest.
Weighing in at one mighty chapter, Philemon is the shortest book written by Paul and one of the shortest in the entire New Testament. Given its length, that this book made it into the canon seems initially surprising. And yet a glimpse at this short epistle begins to show us why—this little work packs a powerful message. Paul is dealing with issues associated with slavery, a core social institution and reality of the ancient world. In Paul’s dealing with the cultural expectations of slavery, there is far more here than discussion about an ancient institution. Paul also is treating the topic of social roles and the profound change knowing Jesus should make for people. He is engaged in dealing with themes tied to power, rank, justice, and mercy.
Paul writes to Philemon, a slave owner. It is about Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves who had gone missing, apparently by running away, and had ended up with Paul. By all rights, Onesimus was at Philemon’s mercy, given he was the property of the slave owner and had violated all kinds of social rules. How Paul handles this situation reveals not only that Jesus makes a difference, but how that difference impacts leadership and power.
Here is how we will proceed. I set the background of how the letter relates to leadership, work through the letter in sequence, and then draw on points to be made about leadership. I plan to walk through the whole of Philemon before showing how it connects to issues tied to power, rank, and leadership because one needs to see the whole of what Paul is doing to appreciate all that is happening. This is not a piece here and another piece there approach with applications sprinkled in along the way. Paul is reaching for a reconfiguration of how relationships are seen and implemented. The lessons come in not only what he says, but how Paul does it. My treatment develops what the Theology of Work Commentary has to say about mutuality in Philemon going in several directions by looking at the letter’s discussion of fellowship, as well as filling out the commentary’s claim that Paul shuns the use of command in addressing Philemon. This second point is seen in how Paul deals with the issue of Philemon’s social rank.
Why place Philemon into a discussion on leadership? Some people lead by character. They are seen as leaders by how they do what they do. Others have leadership because of social or corporate rank. Philemon is in the latter category.
This is the first reality that forms the background to the letter and Paul’s decision to write it. As an owner of a slave who had run away, Philemon has social control of the situation. Paul is addressing him as one who has choices and leverage in how the situation is to be handled. It seems likely that both are aware that Onesimus has been found since so little is said about the status of the slave. So the issue is how will Philemon lead given the slave has been found.
Second, there is an “injustice” that the slave has performed against Philemon in the social context of ancient slavery. By running away or seeking Paul’s help in a dispute with Philemon, Onesimus has incurred a social and economic debt Paul is going to address in ways that are distinct from the way this situation would normally have been addressed.
Paul’s greeting to Philemon sets the stage for the delicate social negotiation he is about to undertake. Paul opens commending Philemon’s love and faith that leads Paul to pray for Philemon with thanksgiving. The quality of Philemon’s fellowship in faith is the object of Paul’s prayer. The goal of Philemon’s faithful fellowship should be to promote the knowledge of the good that belongs to those who know Christ. Here is faith at work before we discuss how it works with work. Faith has a target, how I engage with other people. The goal is to seek the knowledge of the good, applied in relationships, including social relationships of power. The knowledge here is not mere facts, but a practical, relational good as the rest of the letter is about to show. The Greek word fellowship (koinōnia) really describes a participation, a joint interacting and engagement with others (v. 6). Paul can be hopeful of this result because Philemon’s track record shows he has been a cause of refreshment to the hearts of saints. All of these themes are in the first seven verses before Paul makes a single request. But make no mistake, these are not simply opening remarks or casual comments. They help to lay the foundation for what Paul is going to ask.
Two points emerge about leading from this opening.
First, Paul states a goal of leadership is building quality in relationships. This is the goal of any relationship, the promotion of the knowledge of a practical good where people can work well together. Leadership is about more than accomplishing a task or meeting quotas. How people are treated matters. It is this goal that drives the request to come.
Second, Paul is an encourager in seeking these goals. He instills confidence that Philemon can go where Paul is about to take him, even as the request will require sacrifice of certain rights Philemon has. Paul knows Philemon well enough to know the slave owner can do what he is about to ask. The track record shows Philemon is capable of going in the requested direction.
Paul’s way into his request will sacrifice his position of leadership as an example of what he is about to ask. It is easy to miss this move, coming as it does at the start. In vv. 8-9, Paul says he could command what he is about to ask. He could simply play the leader’s card of power and social rank. He says as much in verse 14, when he says he wants Philemon to act not out of compulsion but out of free will. Paul will not act from a place of power and authority. Out of love, versus status, Paul’s appeal will come not as an ambassador nor as an apostle, but as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. In jail, Paul would rather Philemon act out of what is good and right relationally than force Philemon to act.
The request is on behalf of Onesimus. Paul has fun with the slave’s name, which means “useful.” “Useful” had become “useless” to Philemon, having run away, but now he is useful to them both. It is hard to know if Paul’s original assessment is because Onesimus had run away and thus was unable to serve Philemon or if this is his description of him socially and relationally as a slave, being seen only as property. The former seems more likely that the latter, as slaves were of use to their owners when they served in the house.
Paul is sending the slave back to Philemon, even though Paul would prefer to keep Onesimus and let him serve the gospel on Philemon’s behalf. Paul suggests that the consequence of Onesimus’s running away may have been a shift in the slave’s status, since he came to know Christ in the process. Onesimus has gone from being a slave to being a brother. He has gone from being a slave for a time until death comes, to being in relationship with Philemon forever.
So Paul’s request is that Onesimus be received as if it was Paul coming back to him! What a promotion. Onesimus has gone from slave to brother to “apostle” in just a few sentences. Paul’s request is interesting. He says, “If you consider me a partner (koinōnon), receive him as you would me.” Fellowship means partnership. Onesimus may have one status according to the world, but in Jesus there is another way to look on who he is. He is a brother.
There is to be no doubt that part of what drives Paul’s request here is that Philemon and Onesimus share the faith with Paul. Still the idea of looking beyond mere social status to what one is at a human level would be true even if Onesimus had not been a believer. What drives the commandment to love your neighbor, regardless of who they are, enemies included, is surely predicated on the fact all people are made in the image of God.
Philemon may well be asking, “But what of the risk of being taken advantage of, Paul?” Paul is aware of that question and offers a solution as well. He says if Onesimus has wronged Philemon at all, that this should be reckoned to Paul’s account. Paul will cover any damages Onesimus owes. He even writes the letter at this point in his own hand to make the point as personally as possible. Paul does push his point here, noting that Philemon owes Paul his very own self, probably a reference to Paul’s leading him to and nurturing him in the faith. If Philemon will do this, receive Onesimus as a brother, then this will refresh Paul’s heart. Philemon will do for Paul what he had already done for so many others (see v 7).
Paul is not shy in his request as he notes not only that he is confident Philemon will do this, but that he will do even more than what he asks. This is probably an allusion to the idea of sending the slave back to Paul. He then note he hopes to visit Philemon soon, so Philemon is to prepare a room for Paul.
With that said and the request made, Paul gives some final greetings and signs off commending Philemon to Jesus’ grace.
How does faith change work and leadership? On that question this letter says a lot because it treats how Christ impacts relationships, including relationships that exist in a world of social rank. Social rank shows itself and often controls our assessment of relationships in many spheres: work, home, church, and society at large. Here are some relational dynamics that Paul is focused on Philemon grasping and applying that also carry over into a whole host of contexts.
1. Jesus is a leveler when it comes to rank and social status. Paul asks Philemon to see Onesimus not in the social world’s terms but from within the faith. This changes everything. Paul does not do this once, but three times. The obvious place is where he asks Philemon to consider Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother. However, the second move is where he asks him to receive him as he would Paul, as an apostle. Yet, ironically, the third move is when Paul says he will appeal to Philemon not as an apostle but as a slave of Jesus Christ.
Each one of these appeals has a point. The enhanced status being in Christ gives Onesimus elevates him into a new light. But Paul’s other point is his appeal to Philemon to see the apostle as a slave. This makes the profound observation that we all serve Jesus and any power status we have is very relative. The work we do we do as unto the Lord, serving him. Even apostles serve at the leading and direction of God. This leveling, in both directions, reminds us that behind the rank the world often gives us is our core humanity that makes us all servants of God. We are called in whatever role we have to serve him well. In fact, one can argue that this is the core appeal that Paul is making is here. He is using his stepping back from his authority in humility as the example that sets the stage for what Philemon is being asked to undertake. To say such a perspective is a merely game changer profoundly understates how significant a move this is as the following points show.
2. Leadership ultimately is not primarily about the exercise of power, status, rights, or efficiency but grounds itself in relationships, a participation that leads to the practical good and affirms new potential. The practical good often does involve following through on commitments and doing one’s job with integrity, but it also, as here, can mean being forgiving and honoring the potential a person has to change and become a new person. Paul ultimately is asking Philemon to grant and acknowledge this change in Onesimus. To see him in a new light, a light that Jesus had ignited that made Onesimus a different person than the one who had run away.
3. As a leader, Paul is willing to bear the cost of the sacrifices he asks others to make. It is important that Paul, sensing the loss and cost Philemon is asked to bear, is willing to pay for the loss and make sure some sense of justice is maintained as he asks for leniency and compassion. The debt Paul is willing to bear mirrors a parable Jesus tells, where the Good Samaritan not only rescues the man beaten up on the side of the road, but pays the innkeeper for any debt the man will accrue as the man recovers at the inn. This bearing another’s burden is part of the “participation” or demands of fellowship Paul is contending for in this letter. Of course, the supreme example of bearing such a cost on behalf of another is what Jesus did in dying for our sin and paying our spiritual debt. By injecting himself into the relational equation, Paul also makes himself a participant in this situation, becoming part of the fellowship he is calling for Philemon to display.
4. Good leadership appeals to people to act out of their best choices rather than forcing compulsion. Paul as a leader is not just seeking for Philemon to make a decision here but to do so with an understanding and appreciation for why it is a good decision. He is appealing to Philemon’s free will so that character is developed. Paul is not just interested in a bottom line decision. There is a famous saying that “He who is convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In that scenario, nothing really changes. Any act that comes from mere compulsion often is done once and then left behind because the rationale for it is not really grasped. Once the compulsion is removed the behavior reverts back with no gain for character. Paul wants Philemon to act not because he must but because he should. He wants Philemon to get that profound difference.
5. As a leader, Paul still can place moral pressure on those he asks to make a decision. One of the more interesting features of this letter is how Paul applies “pressure.” There is a (non)use of power. Paul does not do it so much from rank, but he does do it quite intentionally—relationally—by reminding Philemon of the debt he has to Paul. Paul is not appealing as an apostle, but he is appealing to him based on what he has personally done for Philemon. Granted Philemon is well aware of who Paul is, but Paul is approaching him on another level. In effect, Paul is saying, if you appreciate how I have related to you with you as the beneficiary, then you will see how I am asking you to treat another. If you can be the beneficiary of such relationships, you can contribute to others in the same way. That this appeal is at a relational level underscores the entire approach of the letter to build a relationally strong response from Philemon. The approach matches the goal.
One also is reminded that we are to learn from God’s example with us. Such lessons may be behind what Paul is asking for, something a text like Philippians 2:6-11 also teaches. Jesus did not regard deity and thing to be grasped onto but emptied himself into the form of a servant for us, even to the point of dying as an innocent for us. Jesus also tells a parable where a person forgiven a huge debt fails to forgive another a small debt. That forgiven, non-forgiver is rebuked and rejected in the parable for not showing the same forgiveness he had received. Paul is asking for something similar here. If I can serve you to your benefit, Philemon, then you can serve others. If Jesus or I can empty myself for others, so can you.
6. The final point is that at the core of this request to Philemon was a call to live out one’s relationships not by appeal to status, but with an eye to service. If Philemon does what Paul asks, then Paul will be refreshed. If Philemon does more than what Paul asks, then Paul will be served in a way that allows Philemon to participate both in Paul’s ministry and in Onesimus’s service. When we lead out of a concern for building relationship and character, when we are willing to see potential and create space for growth and change in another, and when we are willing to sacrifice in the process, we are serving in our leadership, following not only the model of Paul’s request to Philemon but the example of the Lord. That is faith at work, at work in exemplary and sacrificial service that builds relationships and character. Not only does the leader grow, but so do those he or she leads as he or she models how faith works.
Two applications remain. The first is how Philemon’s rights are (not) handled. Paul does address the injustice by expressing a willingness to make up any debt Philemon incurs. However, in the end, it is interesting how little time is spent with this issue. In many contexts today, this would be the issue to address. The fact Paul spends so little time with this and leads Philemon not to go in this direction is revealing about how recast relationships also shift what becomes important to consider and address.
The second application comes from what we do not know about the impact of the letter. A key element of leadership is being able to learn and deal with confrontation like that Paul just undertook with Philemon. We actually do not know what Philemon did with what Paul said to him. Did he listen and apply the advice or not? We do not know. However, what Paul’s approach shows is that leaders need to be able to learn. What this Scripture urges us to consider is that rank and power are not the key lenses through which to view relationships, even in social contexts where we might have rank. We are especially to consider the relational dynamics that we gain from God and from the example of Jesus when it comes to thinking about the relational dilemmas we often face. This can reconfigure how culture might teach us to react to such events. It gives us other lenses that might be more powerful in helping us grow and in helping others to grow as well. Leaders who truly lead also guide others into being better, not only in the tasks they perform but also in how they do it. When relating is central to how leaders lead, leaders learn and also produce growth both in themselves and in others. That in the end is what Paul calls real fellowship, real relating.
When Christians ask about vocation (or "calling"), we usually mean, “Is God calling me to a particular job, profession or type of work?” This is a significant question, because the work we do is important to God. If work is important, it makes sense to ask what work God wants us to do.
In the Bible, God does indeed call people—some people, at least—to particular work, and gives all people various kinds of guidance for their work. We will explore biblical accounts of these “calls” in depth. Although scripture seldom actually uses the word “call” to describe God's guidance to jobs, occupations, or tasks, these occurrences in the Bible do correspond to what we usually mean by a vocational “calling.” So, as a preliminary answer, we can say “yes,” God does lead people to particular jobs, occupations, and types of work.
But in the Bible, the concept of calling goes deeper than any one aspect of life, such as work. God calls people to become united with himself in every aspect of life. This can only occur as a response to Christ’s call to follow him. The calling to follow Christ lies at the root of every other calling. It is important, however, not to confuse a calling to follow Christ with a calling to become a professional church worker. People in every walk of life are called to follow Christ with equal depth and commitment.
In this article, after exploring the call to follow Christ, we will explore the calling to particular work in light of many of the biblical passages related to calling. We will show how the cooperative work of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit guides and models our work.
Along the way, we will examine related topics such as:
- how to discern God’s calling or guidance in the area of work
- the community nature of calling
- the calling to church vs. non-church work
- callings to the creative and redemptive work of God beyond the paid workplace
- the importance of how you work at whatever job you have, and
- the ultimate freedom that Christians enjoy in their work.
When Christians ask about vocation (or "calling"), we usually mean, “Is God calling me to a particular job, profession or type of work?” This is a significant question, because the work we do is important to God. If work is important, it makes sense to ask what work God wants us to do.
In the Bible, God does indeed call people—some people, at least—to particular work, and gives all people various kinds of guidance for their work. We will explore biblical accounts of these “calls” in depth. Although scripture seldom actually uses the word “call” to describe God's guidance to jobs, occupations, or tasks, these occurrences in the Bible do correspond to what we usually mean by a vocational “calling.” So, as a preliminary answer, we can say “yes,” God does lead people to particular jobs, occupations, and types of work.
But in the Bible, the concept of calling goes deeper than any one aspect of life, such as work. God calls people to become united with himself in every aspect of life. This can only occur as a response to Christ’s call to follow him. The calling to follow Christ lies at the root of every other calling. It is important, however, not to confuse a calling to follow Christ with a calling to become a professional church worker. People in every walk of life are called to follow Christ with equal depth and commitment.
In this article, after exploring the call to follow Christ, we will explore the calling to particular work in light of many of the biblical passages related to calling. We will show how the cooperative work of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit guides and models our work.
Along the way, we will examine related topics such as:
- how to discern God’s calling or guidance in the area of work
- the community nature of calling
- the calling to church vs. non-church work
- callings to the creative and redemptive work of God beyond the paid workplace
- the importance of how you work at whatever job you have, and
- the ultimate freedom that Christians enjoy in their work.
In the Bible, the word “call” is used most often to refer to God's initiative to bring people to Christ and to participate in his redemptive work in the world. This sense of calling is especially prominent in the letters of Paul, whether or not the word “call” is actually used.
…including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
1 Timothy 2:4
[God] desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
2 Corinthians 5:17-20
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
The calling to belong to Christ goes deeper than the kinds of workplace “calling” that are the main focus of this article. For this reason, it is important to start our exploration of calling with the call to follow Jesus. It is a call to a restored relationship with God and with other people and with the world around us. It encompasses all of a person’s being and doing. It reminds us that the call to a particular kind of work is secondary to the call to belong to Christ and to participate in his redemption of the world.
In particular, our work must be an integral part of our participation in Christ himself. His work of creation underlies the act of creativity and production in the universe (John 1:1-3). His work of redemption can occur in every workplace through justice, healing, reconciliation, compassion, kindness, humility and patience (Colossians 3:12). Christ’s redemptive work is not limited to evangelism, but encompasses everything necessary to make the world what God always intended it to be. This redemptive work occurs in harmony with the work of creation, production and sustenance that God delegated to humanity in the Garden of Eden. The Bible does not indicate that the work of redemption has superseded the work of creation. Both continue, and in general, Christians are commanded to participate in the work of both creation and redemption.
Before we can discuss the possibility of God’s guidance to a particular kind of work, we must recognize both that God created people to work and that he commands people to work to the degree they are able. At the beginning of the Bible, God builds work into the essence of humanity. He creates people in his own image, and he himself is a worker. He puts Adam in the garden for the purpose of working it. Later, in various parts of scripture, God commands all people to work to the degree they are able. Work continues through to the very end of the Bible. There is work in the Garden of Eden, and there is work in the New Heaven/New Earth.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.….So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
Based on these passages, we could say that everyone is “called” to work, as long as we recognize that in this sense “called” really means “created” and “commanded” to work. God created you as a worker, and he commands you to work, even if he doesn’t mail you a specific job offer. It can be difficult to discern the particular work God may be calling you to, but there can be no doubt that he made you as a worker and that he expects you to work, to the degree you are able.
Although we are focusing on God’s call to work, work is only one element of life. God calls us to belong to Christ in every element of our lives.
Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Our jobs are not necessarily the most important aspect of our calling or our service in Christ’s work of redemption. First, we must remember that work is not limited to paid work. The work God leads us to may be unpaid work, such as raising children or caring for a disabled family member or tutoring students after school. Even if we are called to paid work, God probably doesn’t call many of us to jobs that would prevent us from also serving others through unpaid work.
Even if you have a paid job, the most important work God calls you to may be outside your job. Your job may meet your need for money — which in itself fulfills part of God’s command to work — but it may not fulfill all the other purposes God has for your work. We have seen that caring for children and for aged or incapacitated people is a kind of work, and many people who do it also have another paid job. On the other hand, a so-called hobby could be the most important work God is leading you to. You might work at writing, painting, music, acting, astronomy, leading a youth group, volunteering at a historical society, maintaining a nature reserve or a thousand other kinds of work. If something like this is your calling, you will probably engage it in a more serious way than someone else to whom it is a leisure activity, yet you may still earn your living in some other way. There is a distinction between work and leisure. But any given activity could be work — paid or unpaid — for one person, and leisure for another.
Second, we must take care not to let work dominate the other elements of life. Even if God leads you to a particular job or profession, you will need to set limits to that work to make room for the other elements of God’s call or guidance in your life. If God leads you to be married and to be a small business owner, for example, then you will have to balance the time and responsibilities of both callings. Work should not crowd out leisure, rest and worship. There is no formula for balancing work and the other elements of life. But take care not to let a sense of calling to a job blind you to God’s calling in the other areas of life. For more on this, see the TOW Project article "Rest and Work."
At this point, we are now able to delve into the possibility of God’s guidance to a particular task, job, career or type of work. We have seen that:
- Everyone is called to belong to Christ and to participate in his creative and redemptive work.
- Everyone is commanded to work to the degree they are able.
- God calls us to a whole life, not just to a job.
Putting these together leads us to conclude that your profession is probably not God’s highest concern for you. God is much more concerned that you come under the saving grace of Christ and participate in his work of creation and redemption, whatever your job may be. Exactly what kind of work you do is a lower-level concern.
Although getting us into the right job or career is not God’s highest concern, that doesn’t mean it is of no concern. In fact, the distinctive work of the Holy Spirit is to guide and empower people for the life and work to which God leads them. In the Old Testament, God gave people the skills needed for their work on occasion, as we have seen with Bezalel and Oholiab in the building of the tabernacle. But now the Spirit routinely guides believers to particular work and gives them the skills they need (1 Corinthians 12:7-10). He provides guidance for both what kind of work people do and how to do that work.
With the understanding that the ultimate image of calling in the Bible is the calling to follow Jesus, we are ready to explore callings to particular kinds of work. If by “calling,” we mean a direct, unmistakable command from God to take up a particular task, job, profession or type of work, then calling is very rare in the Bible. No more than a hundred or so people were called by God in this sense. God called Noah to build the ark. God called Moses and Aaron to their tasks (Exodus 3:4, 28:1). He called prophets such as Samuel (1 Samuel 3:10), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-5), Amos (Amos 7:15) and others. He called Abram and Sarah and a few others to undertake journeys or to relocate (which might be taken as a kind of workplace calling). He placed people in political leadership including Joseph, Gideon, Saul, David and David’s descendants. God chose Bezalel and Oholiab as chief craftsmen for the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-6). Jesus called the apostles and some other of his disciples (e.g., Mark 3:14-19), and the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul to be missionaries (Acts 13:2). The word “call” is not always used, but the unmistakable direction of God for a particular person to do a particular job is clear in these cases.
Aside from these examples, very few people in the Bible received an individual call to a particular kind of work from God. This strongly suggests that a direct calling from God to particular work is also rare today. If God is calling you directly and unmistakably to particular work, you don’t need guidance from an article such as this, except perhaps for the affirmation that, yes, this type of calling does occur in the Bible in rare instances. Therefore, we will not discuss direct, unmistakable, personal calling further, but will instead focus on whether God guides or leads people to particular types of work through less dramatic means.
Although God does not give most people a direct, individual, unmistakable call to a particular job or profession, God does give guidance to people in less dramatic forms, including Bible study, prayer, Christian community and individual reflection. Developing a general attentiveness to God’s guidance in life is beyond the scope of this article. But we will look at three major considerations for discerning God’s vocational guidance.
The first consideration is the needs of the world. The single strongest indicator of what God wants you to do is probably your awareness of what needs to get done to make the world more like what God intends. This doesn’t necessarily mean huge, global problems, but simply anything in the world that needs to be done. Earning a living to support yourself and your family is one example mentioned in the Bible:
The good leave an inheritance to their children's children.
The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.
1 Timothy 5:8
Whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.
Another biblical example is working so as to meet the needs of individuals around you besides your family:
Happy are those who are kind to the poor.
1 Thessalonians 4:11
Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.
The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Working to serve the good of the larger society is also a biblical imperative:
Of course, it is impossible for you to meet every need of the world, so you have to narrow it down a bit. Start with needs for which you are personally responsible, such as raising your children or paying your debts. Beyond that, pay attention to needs that you are in a good position to meet, or that few other people are willing to address, or that you find especially pressing. You might be in a good position to run for an elected office in your own city or town, for example, compared to moving away to find work. On the other hand, you might be one of the few people willing to document human rights abuses in a country half way around the world. Or you might become convinced that teaching troubled youth is more pressing than joining a band. Moreover, it might become clear that something in your life other than your job or career is the most important way you are helping to meet the world’s needs. It would be pointless to get a job counseling troubled youth, only to neglect your own children.
The point is that God has given everyone the ability to recognize something of what the world needs. He seems to expect us to notice it and get to work, rather than waiting for a special call from him. There is no biblical formula for translating the needs of the world into a precise job calling. That’s why you need to seek God’s guidance in the various forms of discernment available to you.
The second consideration is your skills and gifts. The Bible says that God gives people gifts for accomplishing the work he wants them to do, and it names some of the gifts and skills that God imparts:
Do those who plow for sowing plow continually? Do they continually open and harrow their ground? When they have leveled its surface, do they not scatter dill, sow cummin, and plant wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and spelt as the border? For they are well instructed; their God teaches them.
We have gifts that differ, according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
1 Corinthians 12:7-10
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
Johnny Cash on Gifts
As the last two passages show, when Paul discusses the gifts of the Spirit, he is usually referring to their use in the church. But if all work done by Christians is done for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), then we can infer that the Spirit’s gifts are also given for use in the workplace. Gifts and skills therefore provide an element of guidance for discerning God’s guidance.
Gifts Assessment Tools
Gifts assessment tools can be very helpful for discerning your gifts and exploring how they relate to various types of work. The most rigorous, statistically-verified tools are typically available through professional counselors and institutions because they require qualified interpretation. Among these are the Strong Interest Inventory, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, California Psychological Inventory, Work-Life Values Checklist, and the PDINH: Global Personality Inventory (developed on a truly global basis). While these are not explicitly Christian in their language, they can, with a skilled, Christian interpreter become starting points for exploring God's gifts and his guidance to work. There are also explicitly Christian tools with a conscious spiritual and theological foundation. SIMA (the System for Identifying Motivated Abilities) and MAP (Motivated Abilities Pattern) are two such that require professional interpretation.
Some tools with a Christian undergirding can be used without professional interpretation, such as What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles (published annually) and Live Your Calling: A Practical Guide to Finding and Fulfilling Your Mission In Life, by Kevin and Kay Marie Brennfleck. While these can be self-administered, it is best to use them with a trained vocational and career counselor and, ideally, within the context of a Christian church of other community. Christian career counselors can be found in most urban areas, in almost every Christian college and university setting, and in some individual churches.
A number of tools have been developed to help people discern their gifts and make use of them in workplace settings (see “For further exploration”). However, it is easy to pay too much attention to your skills and gifts. The present generation of westerners is the most gift-analyzed in human history, yet this penchant for analysis can lead to self-absorption, crowding out attention to the needs of the world. These passages say that God gives gifts for the common good, not personal satisfaction. Besides, in many cases, God gives his gifts only after you take the job in which you’ll need them. Paying too much attention to the gifts you already have can keep you from receiving the gifts God wants to give you.
Nonetheless, the gifts you already have may give you some indication about how to best meet the needs of the world. It would be narcissistic to declare that God has called you to be the world’s greatest pianist, and then expect him to download the necessary talent into you after years of mediocre piano playing and lukewarm practicing. Career guidance via skills and gifts is a difficult balancing act, which is why it must be sought in the midst of relationship with God and fellow Christians.
Here again, we must not become focused on work to the exclusion of the rest of life. God also gives gifts for our family life, friendships, recreation, volunteering and the whole breadth of life’s activities.
Finally, the Bible says that your truest or deepest desires are also important to God.
Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
Christians sometimes expect that if God calls them to some job, it will be something they hate. Otherwise, why would God have to call them to it? One morbid Christian fantasy is to think of one country you would hate living in, and then suppose that God is calling you to be a missionary there. But the best missionaries have a great desire for the place and people they serve. Besides, who says God wants you to be a missionary? If God is guiding you towards some kind of job or profession, it’s more likely that you may find a deep desire for it in your heart.
However, it can be exceedingly difficult to get in touch with your truest or deepest desires. Our motivations become so confused by sin and the brokenness of the world that our apparent desires are often far from the true desires that God has implanted in the depths of our hearts.
Romans 7:8, 15, 21-23
But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead…. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
The Gathering Testimony: Joanna Gaines
Joanna Gaines, co-host of HGTV's "Fixer Upper," shares how following God's direction — even while questioning it — has led to experiences beyond her wildest dreams.
For this reason, we cannot just say, “Do what makes you happy.” What makes you happy — or seems to make you happy — might be far from meeting the needs of the world, or using your skills and gifts for the common good, or even from fulfilling your true desires. And the opposite is often true. The work that would fulfill your true desire appears at first to be undesirable, and may require great sacrifice and difficult labor. And your truest desires may be met in many areas of life, not necessarily in work. Knowing what you truly desire requires spiritual maturity, perhaps more than you may have at the moment you’re facing a decision. But at least you can get rid of the idea that God only calls you to something you hate. In this light, Frederick Buechner writes: “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
These three considerations — the needs of the world, your skills and gifts, and your truest desires — are guides, but they are not absolutes. For one thing, in a fallen world, you may have very little ability to choose your job anyway. Throughout history, most people have had the job of slave, farmer or homemaker, and that is still the case in much of the world outside the most developed countries. It is hard to imagine that - residents of a few developed countries aside - God wants most people to be slaves, farmers or homemakers. Rather, it seems that circumstances prevent most people from choosing jobs they truly desire to do. This is not to imply that some people don’t or shouldn’t enjoy farming, homemaking, or any other kind of legitimate work, but rather that the circumstances of the world dictate that many people work in jobs they don’t like. Yet, under God’s care, even being a slave can be a blessing (Matthew 24:45-47, 1 Corinthians 7:21-24). In no way does this legitimize slavery in today’s world. It simply means that God is with you wherever you work. It may be better to learn to like the job you have — and to find ways to participate in Christ’s work in it — than to try to find a job you think you’ll like better.
Even in the developed economies, many people have little choice about the kind of work they do for a living. The Christian community would do well to equip people both to make choices about their profession, and to follow God’s leading in whatever work we find ourselves doing. Whatever your job, God’s gifts enable you to work for the common good, to find more contentment in your work, and to overcome or endure the negative aspects of your situation. Most importantly, God promises eventual liberation from work’s toil, sweaty labor, and thistles.
Even if you do have the freedom to choose your job, the three considerations we have been considering - the needs of the world, your gifts and skills, and your truest desires - are guides, not dictators. In Christ, believers have perfect freedom:
So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
2 Corinthians 3:17
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
That means you have the freedom to take risks, to fail, and to make mistakes. God might lead you to a job you know nothing about, have no present knack for, and don’t think you’d like. Would you be willing to take that job? Conversely, you might discover late in life that you missed God’s professional calling for you. Take heart, at the end, you will not be judged on getting the right job or fulfilling your God-given potential. You will be judged on the merits of Jesus Christ, applied to you only by God’s grace in giving you faith. The calling to belong to Christ is God’s only indispensable calling.
The body of Christ on earth is the community of believers (Romans 12:5). Therefore, freedom in Christ means that God’s calling or leading is best discerned in dialogue with the community, not in isolation. We have already seen that the needs of the world (a form of community) are important as you discern what kind of work God is leading you towards. The community is also an important factor in how you discern God’s leading. What do others perceive as God’s leading for you? What do they experience as your gifts and skills, the needs of the world, and the deepest desires they discern in you? Engage in discussions about God’s leading with those in your community who know you well. It may be wise to talk with a spiritual companion or advisor, to gather feedback from people you work closely with, or to ask a group of people to meet with you regularly as you discern God’s leading.
The community is also an essential element in discerning who is led to the different kinds of work needed in the world. Many people may have similar gifts and desires that can help meet the needs of the world. But it may not be that God wants all of them to do the same work. You need to discern not only the work God is leading you to, but also the work he is leading others to. The community needs a balanced ensemble of workers working in harmony. For example, physicians bring powerful gifts and skills — and frequently a deep desire for healing — into the world’s great needs for physical healing. Yet in the US, at least, there may be too many specialists and not enough primary care physicians to meet the community’s deeds. One by one, medical students are matching their gifts, desires and the needs of the world to discern a leading toward medicine. But all-in-all, the ensemble of physicians is becoming a bit unbalanced. Discerning God’s calling is a community endeavor.
Many Christians have the impression that church workers — especially evangelists, missionaries, pastors, priests, ministers and the like — have a higher calling than other workers. While there is little in the Bible to support this impression, by the Middle Ages, "religious" life — as a monk or nun — was widely considered holier than ordinary life. Regrettably, this distortion remains influential in churches of all traditions, even though the doctrine of virtually every church today affirms the equal value of the work of lay people. In the Bible, God calls individuals both to church-related and non-church-related work. For example:
Calls to Church Work
Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests — Aaron and Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Acts 13:2, 5
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” ....When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them.
Calls to Non-Church Work
The LORD said to Moses, “Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him.”
(Moses and Joshua were both primarily military/political leaders, not cultic/religious leaders. They were both exceptionally close to God, but that doesn’t make them religious leaders. Rather it shows that God calls people in all walks of life.)
1 Samuel 16:12-13
He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Johnny Cash on Calling
Given the Biblical evidence, it would be inaccurate to think that God calls church workers but not other types of workers.
Some confusion arises because many churches require that their individuals be “called” to be ordained or to serve as pastors, priests or other ministers. Often the word “call” is used to describe the process of selecting a minister or the decision to enter church work full-time. However, as in the Bible itself, these situations are rarely direct, unmistakable, personal calls from God. Rather, they may describe a strong sense of guidance by God. As we have seen, God’s guidance can occur just as strongly in non-church-related jobs and professions. Since the Theology of Work Project does not take church work as one of its subjects, we will not attempt to evaluate whether “callings” to church work are more intense, more direct, more evident or more necessary than callings to non-church work. We will affirm that church work is not in general a higher calling than non-church work, and that the term “call” applies just as much to non-church work as to church work.
We also affirm that non-church work is as much “full-time Christian service” as church work.
All Christians are called (that is, commanded) to conduct everything they do, round the clock, as full-time service to Christ:
Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.
Before concluding our discussion on this point, we should note that one stream of thought views 1 Timothy 5:17-18 as contradicting the view we have just laid out. According to this perspective, being a church elder (roughly equivalent to a pastor or priest in modern church usage) is in fact a higher calling.
1 Timothy 5:17-18
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”
Under this view, being a pastor is a “double honor” compared to other professions. But most Bible commentaries reject this interpretation. A more accurate reading is that elders who do their work well are worthy of greater honor (or a greater honorarium) compared to other elders who do their work merely adequately. The Old Testament quotations about pay further reinforce the sense that this passage is about rewarding high-performing elders, not about comparing church work to other work. The passage’s true comparison is among pastors, not between pastors and lay people.
The only jobs that do not have equal status in God’s eyes are those that require work forbidden by the Bible or are incompatible with its values. For example, jobs requiring murder, adultery, stealing, false witness or greed (Exodus 20:13-17), usury (Leviticus 25:26), damage to health (Matthew 10:8), or harm to the environment (Genesis 2:15) are illegitimate in God’s sight. This is not to say that people who do these jobs have lesser status in God’s eyes. People whose circumstances lead them to illegitimate work are not necessarily bad people. Deuteronomy 22:21 condemns prostituting yourself, for example, yet Christ's response to prostitutes was not condemnation, but deliverance (Luke 7:47-50; Matthew 21:31-32). Jobs of this sort might be the lesser of two evils in certain situations, but they could never be God’s desired work for someone.
In this blog post from The High Calling, we learn the story of Mark Sheerin. Mark was once an international aid worker for the Christian ministry World Vision, traveling around to distant lands and helping the poor. He quit that job to go create a financial planning and wealth management firm. And he is convinced that his current work glorifies God as much as his former work did.
A call to ministry or church work is no more sacred than a call to other types of work. What matters most is not one's job title or place of work, but obedience to God, the one who calls us.
If God leads or guides people to their work, could it ever be legitimate to change jobs? Wouldn’t that be rejecting God’s guidance to the work you already have? Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant theologian, famously argued against changing jobs. This was based largely on his understanding of this passage:
Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. (1 Corinthians 7:20)
Luther equated “condition” with occupation, and concluded that it was not legitimate for Christians to change occupations. However, Luther’s contemporary John Calvin did not accept this interpretation — and most modern theologians do not either. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to take sufficient account of the very next verse, which suggests that changing occupations is legitimate, at least in some circumstances:
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.
Miroslav Volf has written that since the factors by which God guides people to work may change over the course of a working life, God may indeed guide people to change their work. Your capabilities should grow with your experience in serving God. He may lead you to bigger tasks that require you to change jobs. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).
Conversely, if you become a Christian later in life, might God require you to change jobs? It might seem that finding new life in Christ means getting a new job or career. However, generally, this is not the case. Since there is no hierarchy of professions, it is generally a mistake to think God wants you to find a “higher calling” upon becoming a Christian. Unless your job is of the illegitimate type discussed earlier, or unless the job or colleagues threaten to keep you stuck in unchristian habits, there may be no need to change jobs. However, whether you change jobs or not, you probably need to do your work differently than before, paying attention now to biblical commands, values, and virtues, as happened with Zacchaeus the tax collector:
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”Luke 19:5-9
Can You Do This Job to the Glory of God?
In this post from The High Calling, Ann Kroeker considers Biblical principles that can be applied to our decision to take or turn down a job opportunity.
How you work is at least as important to God as what job or profession you have. In every job, you have at least some opportunity to meet people’s needs, to employ your gifts and skills, and to express — or discover — your deepest desires. Your decision every day to serve God today is more important than positioning yourself for the right job tomorrow.
In fact, the little you may be able to do in God’s service today is often the key to being able to do more in the future. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” said Jesus (Luke 16:10). Over a lifetime, you can serve Christ best by making the most of every job for his purposes, whether you feel called to every job or not. The specifics of how to follow Christ in the workplace are covered in a number of topical articles by the Theology of Work Project, available at www.theologyofwork.org, including Truth and Deception, Ethics at Work, and Evangelism - Sharing the Gospel at Work.
How do you plug your heart and soul into a job that you are just not into, one that is so far removed from what you imagined for yourself, clearly under-utilizing your gifts and capabilities?
We take seriously God’s calling and guiding of people to various kinds of ordinary work. In doing so, we are trying to correct the long-standing tendency to regard ordinary work as unimportant to God and unworthy of his calling. But it would be equally wrong to elevate the importance of your job or profession to a position of idolatry. Getting the right job does not bring salvation, or even happiness. Moreover, the true aim of work for the Christian is to serve the common good, not to advance his or her own interests. Over a lifetime, serving the common good comes far more from doing each day’s work to the best of your ability in Christ, than it does from finding the best job for yourself.
For further exploration
For an historical-theological perspective on vocation at greater length than is possible in this article, see Vocation in Historical-Theological Perspective, by Gordon Preece.
The Legitimacy of Various Professions
Banks, Robert. God the Worker: Journeys into the Mind, Heart and Imagination of God. Sutherland, N.S.W.: Albatross Books, 1992.
Pope John Paul II. On Human Work (Laborem Exercens). Vatican Translation. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1981, especially chapters 6, 9, 10, 21 and 22.
Richardson, Alan. The Biblical Doctrine of Work. London: SCM Press LTD, 1952, especially chapters “Creative Craftsmanship and Skill,” “Work as Divine Ordinance for Man,” and “‘Vocation’ in the New Testament.” Richardson generally takes a dimmer view of ordinary work than this Note does, and his biblical approach reflects a 1940-50s sensibility that seems dated today. However, he compiled an excellent collection of work-related scripture, given the book’s brevity, and his chapters discuss many of the most important faith-work topics. Also, like the Theology of Work Project, he used a process designed to invite wide participation and response, which is incorporated in the published draft. We do not necessarily agree with his conclusions or biblical views, but we find his book highly thought-provoking.
Stevens, R. Paul. Doing God's Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006, especially chapters 1 and 2.
Career Guidance and Discerning Gifts
Banks, Robert. Faith Goes to Work. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999.
Mackenzie, Alistair, Wayne Kirkland and Annette Dunham. Soul Purpose. Christ Church, NZ: NavPress, 2004.
Schuurman, Douglas J. Vocation: Discerning Our Calling in Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.
Schuster, John P. Answering Your Call: A Guide for Living Your Deepest Purpose. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002.
Calling in Christian Thought and Practice
Guinness, Os. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. London: Word Publishing, 1998.
Hardy, Lee. The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.
Placher, Williams C., ed. Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.
Preece, Gordon R. The Viability of the Vocation Tradition in Trinitarian, Credal and Reformed Perspective: The Threefold Call. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.
Stevens, R. Paul. The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.
Volf, Miroslav. Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001.
Competition is a fact of everyday work. But is it godly for Christians to compete? Or is it something we should try to avoid as much as possible? Should we use whatever influence we have to reduce or even eliminate competition?
We all know how hard it is to succeed in a competitive market, and how we’re constantly tempted to seek our own advantage at others’ expense – the dog-eat-dog model of competition. At the same time, we know competition also has beneficial effects. Phone and airline prices, for example, have been dramatically improved since competition was introduced in those sectors. A neighborhood with only one grocery store will tend to get worse service at higher prices than one with three grocery stores. The pressures of competition are both constructive (encouraging excellence, value creation and accountability to customers) and dangerous (creating temptations to cut corners, deceive customers or disrupt the work of competitors). Competition both destroys and creates wealth and jobs. Competition cultivates both fear and hope.
As we seek a Christian understanding of competition—or of anything else—the Great Commandment (Matthew 22: 37-39) to love God and neighbor is an incomparable touchstone. “Neighbor” includes everyone we interact with, even strangers (Luke 10:25-37) and enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). How about economic competitors? Because I am interacting with them (through my economic activity) they are my neighbors. Yet how can I love them if I am competing with them?
We propose that the solution is to love our competitors by practicing “competition as cooperation.” In this way, we compete not only to serve ourselves, our households and our coworkers but also our customers and even our competitors themselves. This is not natural behavior in a fallen world, but it is possible if we have the right understanding of what “competition” really is, and the moral and spiritual formation necessary to look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).
Competition occurs whenever there is choice. If buyers have a choice of which products to buy and from whom to buy them, then the sellers are in competition with one another, and so are the buyers. Competition can occur in all forms of human activity—athletic, academic, romantic, and so on—but we will concentrate here on economic competition because of its central role in work.
The need to make choices, and hence the need for competition, is inherent in finitude and would thus be present even in an unfallen humanity. We are finite in space, time, and resources, so we must make choices about what things to use for what purposes. To give a vastly simplified example, you cannot both go to a football match at 8 pm and also stay home and read a book at 8 pm. The football match and the book are in competition for your time and (typically) your money. In a larger sense, everything you might spend your time and resources on is in competition with every other thing you could spend time and resources on. You must choose among them, limited by your total time and resources.
A system in which buyers are free to choose among competing sellers and their products is called a “market economy.” Buyers choose from a range of products, each priced according to what the seller thinks will attract sales. By offering a range of products, and through the rising and lowering of prices, well-structured markets serve people by revealing how many and what kind of various goods and services are desired by what people and under what conditions – information without which we could not organize our work to serve one another. This is not simply because we lack the necessary computational capacity – a problem that might be solved by advances in computing. The only possible method for gathering this information is by measuring what choices people make when they are free to decide. This is precisely what markets do. That is why much of it is actually called “market research.” The information necessary to organize all human economic activity collectively cannot be collected in any other way, because no one has it. Suppose you see a loaf of bread for $1.50 and buy it. Would you have bought it if it had been priced at $1.40? $1? $2? $4? No one knows. Even you don’t know, because you didn’t think about it. The information does not exist and cannot exist apart from actually choosing whether to make a purchase. But having this information – not only for yourself but for every bread customer, and not only for bread but for every product you might have bought instead of bread – would be necessary to collectively organize the production of bread.
God, having infinite knowledge, could presumably command the exactly right production and distribution without needing markets. But unless and until God does so, people must choose the products and services that seem best, given the finite time and resources they possess. As we each offer our products and services to one another, we will inevitably compete with one another to offer the most appealing options.
Engaging in economic competition seems to be permissible in the Bible. The description of the godly woman in Proverbs 31 praises her repeatedly for engaging in economic exchange in competitive markets. She gives generously to those in need (Prov. 31:20) but is also shrewd in purchasing (Prov. 31:13, 14 and 16) and selling (Prov. 31:18, 24 and 28). Her merchandise is profitable (Prov. 31:18) and her household gains wealth (Prov. 31:11) and social standing (Prov. 31:23 and 31). The Hebrew word translated as “profitable” in Proverbs 31:18 refers specifically to profit-producing market transactions. The goods she sells so profitably are recognized as a contribution to the community (Prov. 31:31).
As we have seen, markets are inherently competitive, and Jesus apparently worked in a trade whose goods were sold in a marketplace (Mark 6:3), as did Paul (Acts 18:3) and other biblical figures. Paul speaks of buying in markets (1 Corinthians 10:25) as an ordinary activity we may engage in. We find this reflected in Scripture’s extensive references to buying and selling; consider the regulations of commerce in the Old Testament law (e.g. Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 25) and concern about justice in the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah. 5:27-29 and Ezek. 18:7-13), wisdom literature and poetry (e.g. Psalm 94 and Proverbs 20), and the continuation of these concerns in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 25 and James 4). These regulations show that competition has the potential to hurt people—a point we will return to shortly—but show that God’s word regulates competition rather than abolishing it.
Given the potential benefits of market economics, it may not be surprising that the Bible seems to affirm God’s people engaging in competition. Otherwise, believers could only participate in command economies. By no means does this mean that the Bible prescribes some kind of unbounded, dog-eat-dog, “to the victor belongs the spoils” kind of economic competition. Rather, it suggests that the question “How does God want us to engage in competition?” may yield fruitful answers.
Although competition underlies economic choice and its many benefits, competition also lies behind many ills that befall individuals and society. The cause is not competition, per se, but sin entering the realm of competition. One of the primary effects of sin is to cause people to think, foolishly, that their own best interests are in fundamental conflict with their neighbors’ (James 4:1-12). This causes us to compete by trying to harm our competitors—and the people our work is meant to serve—rather than by trying to improve our products. A company may use false advertising to denigrate a competitor. An employee may spread rumors about a rival for promotion. A consultant may bill for more hours than they actually spent on the client’s account.
The Mosaic laws oppose this kind of sin by protecting property rights (Deuteronomy 24:10-15), requiring diligent work (Exodus 20:9) and punishing fraud (Deut. 19:14 and 25:13-16). By contrast, throughout the Old Testament histories and prophetic literature, wicked kings are denounced for accumulating wealth through political appropriation and outright theft (e.g., 1 Kings 21:1-29 and Micah 6:9-16). Greed and tightfistedness, of course, are denounced regardless of context – a theme that is taken up as a central focus in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 12:13-21)–but economic competition, per se, is not identified in any special way as unjust.
Scripture leaves no room for naiveté about the dangers of competition. Consider three passages – from many others that could be selected:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)
‘Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor's boundary marker.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deuteronomy 27:17-19)
Here we see three of the largest among the many temptations created by economic competition:
- The temptation of selfishness, making our own interests more important to us than the interests of others
- The temptation of envy, judging our own well-being by comparison with the well-being of others
- The temptation of greed, breaking the rules of fair play to extract wealth and advantage from others through injustice
These evils are too familiar to need much explanation. They are a matter of daily experience. In a fallen world, we know that people will in fact sometimes yield to these temptations. Many will yield frequently and habitually, creating organized systems of evil. These organized systems of evil are what Scripture often refers to as “the world.” The Lord is at work in the church to empower us for godliness in the face of temptations, and even among the ungodly his grace restrains evil (Romans 2:14-15). However, it is insufficient simply to warn that these temptations exist. We must be aware of the full scope of the fall and the evil of the world, and make our plans accordingly (Ephesians 6:12; 1 John 2:15-16). We require something more than good intentions to restrain ourselves from the temptations toward evil in economic competition.
Church, Don’t Miss the Opportunity of the Global Workplace
Competition that takes place across the boundaries of nations and people-groups, and the ethical questions it raises, becomes far more complex with globalization. For example, low tariffs generally increase the economic opportunities for workers in poorer countries, while at the same time tending to displace workers in wealthier ones. We hardly have space here to canvass all the specific questions being raised in our time concerning migration, trade restrictions, outsourcing, etc. We can only note that Scripture commends global goodwill (e.g. Leviticus 24:22) and assistance (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10) and also affirms the need for particular communities to cohere in an orderly way (e.g. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). It is in the tension between global goodwill and particular coherence that most of these ethical tensions reside. Ideally, we might hope to assess such tradeoffs from a neutral point of view, but in reality, we always cohere more closely to some groups than to others.
Another vital ethical concern in Scripture is to make a place for those who lose in economic competition, or who cannot compete at all due to incapacity for work. The Old Testament gleaning laws provide a beautiful example of ensuring that the economy always provides opportunity for those who are economically struggling. A portion of agricultural product must be left in the field for poor people to gather, elegantly combining a requirement that the wealthy be generous and a requirement that the poor support themselves through their own work (Leviticus 19:9, Deuteronomy 24:19-22). The system leads to an especially lovely outcome in the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz (Ruth 2). Finding comparable ways to combine these two imperatives in contemporary economic systems is a continuing challenge to which the people of God should diligently apply themselves. Of course, Scripture commands that those who are unable to work be generously cared for. Primary responsibility for this rests in the household, in accordance with God’s concern for the integrity of the family (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:8); but it is also a general duty, and the church in particular has a responsibility to do what it can to take the lead (e.g. 1 John 3:17).
We have seen that competition is essential, yet it can also hurt people. The Bible recognizes both of these facts. It accepts—and in places commends—competition. Yet it decries the harm people do one another when they compete unlovingly, and commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). How can we reconcile this seeming contradiction? By engaging in competition as a form of cooperation. Even in the act of competing with others, we must cooperate with them and with society in loving regard for their needs and God’s purposes. In this section we outline how participating in economic competition can be a form of cooperation, and can therefore be a way of loving our neighbors.
We start by recognizing that economics is not only a result of our finitude; it is a result of our relationality. As the Theology of Work Project commentary on Genesis asserts, we are made as relational creatures in the image of our relational God. We are interdependent, cooperative creatures in virtually every respect, including in the world of work. “Economics,” considered from one vantage point, is simply the social and cultural aspect – the relational and cooperative aspect – of work.
Our diversity of needs, preferences and circumstances creates opportunities for mutual love through economic exchange. The things we make or services we perform offer people choices. One person may prefer to love and glorify God and love their neighbor by preparing food for others, and in return receive the means to listen to music on a mobile device. Another person may prefer to love and glorify God and love their neighbor by maintaining computer servers that deliver music to mobile devices, and in turn receive prepared food. Thus, Jane the restaurant worker makes money preparing food and spends it downloading a song from Mary’s company, while Mary the IT professional makes money maintaining servers and spends it ordering lunch at Jane’s restaurant. In other words, we compete not only because we want to make the sale, but also because we want to provide something good for the customer.
The relational aspect of work is the deeper reason it was “not good” (Genesis 2:18) for Adam to be alone. Eve was needed not simply for procreation, but as Adam’s “helper,” his cooperative partner in the work of cultivating and keeping the world. A single person cannot cooperate, and was thus unable to manifest the glory of the triune God, whose persons work in eternal cooperation. As John Bolt puts it:
“It is not good that the man should be alone.” For us to understand this properly, we must set aside for the moment modern notions of companionate marriage. The point is not that Adam was lonely; rather, there is something humanly incomplete about him. If humanity is to image God as the Creator intended, “man” needs the complement of “woman.” Here we have, in nuce, the foundation of all social order. 
Many people together – the human community – are able to do the work of cultivating and keeping creation, thus manifesting the relational love that is God.
This is why cooperation is at the heart of God’s will for our work. It is noteworthy that alongside competition, cooperation is a consistent theme in the Theology of Work Project commentaries. A very large number of the modern-day applications suggested by the commentaries are aimed at cultivating better cooperation in workplaces. This is a concern that is supported extensively in Scripture (Psalm 133:1; Proverbs 26:21; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; Philippians 2:1-5; 2 Timothy 2:24).
What does it mean to cooperate? It might be defined as coordinating our activities with one another toward a shared end. This simple definition allows us to consider whether some things that do not appear to be cooperative, such as competition, actually are forms of cooperation.
The Theology of Work Project commentary on Proverbs states that business is at heart a form of cooperation. The passage describes the proper relationship between cooperation and competition with helpful precision:
The near-universal ascendancy of market economies is arguably due to the benefits of competition. But business, politics and other forms of competition are at heart forms of cooperation, albeit with significant competitive aspects. Society fosters competition in order that all may thrive.
The statement that business is at heart a form of cooperation will strike many as implausible. But no goods or services could be delivered to customers without many people cooperating. Within each company, coworkers must cooperate. Cooperation also takes place across companies. More than one company, and sometimes very many of them, cooperate in the production of any given good or service. Buyers (customers) must cooperate with sellers (companies) in the activity of commerce to obtain those goods and services.
Cooperation is the basic reality of economic activity. Competition is a second-order effect of this cooperation. When customers have multiple options of companies with which they will cooperate as buyers of goods and services, the companies must compete with one another to see who can cooperate more efficiently to deliver value to customers.
Strange as it may sound, competing with one another ethically – with right motivation and just conduct – can actually be a form of cooperation. If Honda and Ford each compete to make and sell cars that serve customers best, customers benefit from better cars, prices and service. This fulfils God’s own design for work. As Dorothy Sayers puts it, “The very first demand that his religion makes upon the carpenter is that he should make good tables.”
Sometimes making good products is aided by intentional cooperation, as with safety and engineering standards (e.g. tire ratings and sizes). Sometimes this means buying parts from one another’s supply chains or servicing one another’s vehicles. Cooperation must never be undertaken in order to harm customers, such as colluding to set prices or undermining environmental regulations. Competition must never aim to damage the other company (for example by false advertising) and thereby reduce customers’ access to quality choices. In ethical markets, companies compete within the bounds of love for customers and respect for one another.
A well-structured marketplace shaped by ethical competition also reduces economic conflict by encouraging value creation – that is, work and economic exchange that operate for mutual benefit rather than benefitting one person at the expense of another. Work can create value by reorganizing the raw material of God’s creation, and economic exchange can create value by moving resources from those who need a particular good or service less to those who need it more. By creating value, people can meet their own economic needs not by taking value away from others but by increasing the total amount of value in the world.
For example, a steel mill turns iron ore into steel girders. This benefits iron ore miners (by giving them an income) and city dwellers (by making it possible to build apartment buildings) as well as the mill owners and workers. It does not merely take money away from city dwellers and give it to ore miners and mill owners and workers, but instead leaves everyone better off. Work has created value because the product, steel girders, is more useful (i.e., has greater value) than iron ore. Economic exchange has created value because the city dwellers need (i.e., value) the girders more than the money they paid for them, while the miners and millers need (i.e., value) the money more than the iron ore they used up. All parties are better off after the manufacture and sale of the girders than before. In this way, sellers support themselves and their households not at the expense of customers but precisely by serving customers. This is true even though a company is always in a certain level of competition with its customers over price. That is, the product creates value, but there is still a certain amount of tension over the price, meaning how much of the value accrues to the seller and how much to the buyer. The tension between the seller’s good and the buyer’s good can never be fully removed, and thus the temptation to benefit ourselves by harming others will always be with us. By giving each party multiple choices, ethical competition creates the most opportunities and support for pursuing value creation rather than merely transfer of wealth.
Ethically sound approaches to economics recognize that cooperation is the basic reality and that ethical competition serves cooperative ends. True, when the level of competition is increased it can create a social environment of rapid change, economic dislocation, migration and impermanent institutions. In every economy, provision must be made for those who cannot provide for themselves by competing. None of this proves that competition is not serving the needs of social cooperation. Quite the contrary, a highly competitive environment often serves the public good and facilitates social cooperation better than the available alternatives. Those who lose their jobs when a company goes out of business are in relatively good shape if there are many competitor companies where they may look for a new job, but not in such good shape if there are few or no competitors left in the industry.
Let’s look more specifically at how our participation in economic competition can align with our definition of cooperation. The definition requires coordination “toward a shared end.” If competition is to be a form of cooperation, this implies the existence of a common or public good that all companies pursue as they compete. The proper, shared end of competition is the central purpose Scripture identifies for our work and exchange – to meet the economic needs of our households and communities, and to promote the general flourishing of our world. Competition is not always in fact directed toward this end, because many people and companies do not recognize this as a goal. However, competition is in fact oriented toward the public good when people and organizations identify serving customers and making the world a better place as their goal. This is a challenge to the view that prevails in some quarters that the primary or even sole purpose of business is to make money for shareholders; in fact, there is no reason a business cannot compete as much to serve customers as to deliver shareholder return, and the two are often compatible.
To the degree that competitors are not motivated by love of God and neighbor (or some other internalized ethic) to serve the common good, it is necessary for society to create laws and regulations to protect the common good. In a fallen world, this is inevitable. Yet regulation is a poor substitute for love. Society would be much better served if most or all of its people were committed to working, and even competing, based on serving a common good, rather than only their own interests. This is one of the purposes of a theology of work, to help people work and compete in ways that serve God and neighbor, and not only themselves.
Paul’s athletic metaphor is very rich in this regard. Athletes often talk about tough competition “bringing out their best.” In sports, following the rules and doing your best to beat the other team fair and square can be a way of cooperating with the other team to produce an outcome both desire – namely a good, enjoyable game in which both teams play their best and the better team wins. Excellence and accomplishment are promoted. Similarly, working hard to beat competing companies by serving customers better can be a way of cooperating with those competitors to produce an outcome both desire – an efficient marketplace that provides the best possible good and services while delivering returns to investors.
Ethical competition may not seem to involve coordinating, which by our definition is a quality of cooperation. Indeed, direct and explicit coordination between competitors in order to reduce competition is normally illegal and unethical because it involves colluding against customers. However, coordination between competitors does occur at a higher social level and can serve the common good. Tangible examples include trade organizations, publicity and lobbying for the industry as a whole, securing supply chains, setting industry standards, training institutes and (in countries where the law permits it) collective bargaining. These tangible forms of cooperation establish the existence of shared norms and, at the deepest level, the recognition of a common humanity across competing firms.
This, in turn, points toward an even higher social level of cooperation. The most important purpose of the economic system – especially in the price-setting function of markets – is to facilitate a vast coordination among competing economic actors. Buyers seek to buy better goods at lower prices; sellers seek to produce and sell more profitably. If the economic system and the larger ecosystem of social institutions are functioning as they should, prices will rise and fall to allow supply to find demand and vice versa. This allocates existing goods and services more effectively than any other system, and—perhaps more importantly—gives the most effective incentives for guiding investment in future goods and services.
This social coordination function of economic exchange, structured by ethical competition as a form of cooperation, is becoming more and more important in light of globalization. Market exchange is the only method yet discovered that is able to effectively coordinate the actions of very large numbers of very diverse people and organizations toward shared ends that benefit all. We will always need governmental organizations to accomplish the political good that economic systems cannot accomplish on their own. Conversely, we will always need markets to accomplish the economic good that political systems cannot accomplish on their own.
Surprisingly, vigorous competition helps, rather than harms, the competitors themselves. If Honda delivers more value to customers, that will force Ford to improve, and vice versa. This brings to mind the proverb, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. (Proverbs 27:17). Tough, unrelenting pressure from others is often the way we become our best. In this way, being a tough competitor can be a way of loving both our competitors and our societies. Countries that suppress competition by selecting a “national champion” company in a particular industry eventually discover that they have not enabled the company to thrive, but have set it on a path to complacency, mediocrity, and ultimately failure.
Isn’t it still possible that competitors harm one another by competing? If Ford succeeds in making vehicles customers want and selling them at lower prices than Honda, won’t Honda’s employees lose their jobs and stockholders lose their investments?
Not necessarily. Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, emphasizes that competition does not mean competing to “be the best” or “be number one,” which implies a zero-sum competition focused on defeating rivals – one company wins by causing another company to lose. Rather, competition means competing to “be unique,” to create value for customers in ways your rivals don’t. Value can be created in many different ways for many different customers, so there is room in a competitive market for many companies to flourish, as long as they compete to be unique as value creators rather than all seeking to serve customers in the same (“best”) way.
Ford’s success does not, by itself, force Honda to go out of business. It forces Honda to search for an alternative way to serve customers, one that satisfies needs Ford isn’t satisfying. Ford may beat Honda hands down in, say, the truck market, but Honda can respond by focusing on other markets, such as economy cars. Even within the economy car market, if Ford beats Honda at making one kind of economy car, Honda can find another kind of economy car to make that Ford doesn’t make (or doesn’t make as well). Honda goes out of business only if it cannot find any alternative opportunities to serve customers sustainably—in which case, keeping Honda in operation when it’s not succeeding at serving people is neither a sustainable option nor a morally preferable one.
In an interview at Harvard Business School, Porter was asked to summarize “the most common strategy mistakes.” He replied:
The granddaddy of all mistakes is competing to be the best, going down the same path as everybody else and thinking that somehow you can achieve better results. This is a hard race to win. So many managers confuse operational effectiveness with strategy.
Another common mistake is confusing marketing with strategy. It’s natural for strategy to arise from a focus on customers and their needs. So in many companies, strategy is built around the value proposition, which is the demand side of the equation. But . . . it’s about the supply side as well, the unique configuration of activities that delivers value. Strategy links choices on the demand side with the unique choices about the value chain (the supply side). You can’t have competitive advantage without both.
In other words, the goal lies not in persuading customers that you deliver value, but in actually delivering it. It is not to defeat competitors in delivering value, but to deliver value uniquely, through a distinct matching of your own (unique) abilities to customers’ needs.
In one widely used text, Joan Magretta summarizes Porter’s key insight:
Competition to be unique reflects a different mind-set and a different way of thinking about the nature of competition. Here, companies pursue distinctive ways of competing aimed at serving different sets of needs and customers. The focus, in other words, is on creating superior value for the chosen customers, not on imitating and matching rivals….
Competing to be unique is unlike warfare in that one company’s success does not require its rivals to fail. It is unlike competition in sports because every company can chose to invent its own game. A better analogy…might be the performing arts. There can be many good singers and actors – each outstanding and successful in a distinctive way. Each finds and creates an audience. The more good performers there are, the more audiences grow and the arts flourish. This kind of value creation is the essence of positive-sum value creation….
To be sure, not every company will succeed. Competition will weed out the underperformers. But companies that do a good job can earn sustainable returns because they create more value.
All this is congruent with the idea of competition as cooperation. It identifies the function of competition in terms of producing or promoting shared goods. It specifically repudiates the idea that harming or defeating rivals should be the purpose of competitive activity. Competitors seek to create value for customers, enriching themselves by enriching others and putting pressure on their rivals to do the same.
So far, we have been describing cooperation and competition in God’s original design – what they would look like if we still rightly reflected the image of the triune God who is love. It is essential to get our bearings from God himself and from his original design of our nature if we are to build our views in light of a sound standard.
To many people, however, any discussion about God’s design for a perfect world feels abstract and disconnected from real life. Whatever we may speculate about competition in an unfallen world, the world is in fact fallen. That is our reality now, and we often feel the brokenness of the present more intensely than we do our connection to our original nature – or the glorious future God has for us in Christ.
In the present evil age, economic competition is never perfectly ethical in practice, and is often practiced in unethical ways. As participants in competitive economic markets, our daily responsibility is to ensure that we engage in competition ethically and encourage ethical competition in others, motivated by love for all human beings.
The burden of ethics can be a heavy one. We may strive to compete ethically, but our competitors may not. Even if our competitors do not get the better of us by cheating in ways we refuse to do, loving our competitors – practicing competition as cooperation – is hard to do. It involves exerting ourselves and putting our interests at risk well above and beyond the minimum of expected behavior that is conventionally set for economic competitors. We may pay a high price for our decision to engage in competition ethically. Or we may find that unethical competition by others exploits us even to the point of preventing us from supporting ourselves and those who depend on us.
That is why the Cross matters so much to how we compete. The Cross is the only way back to the holy love of God in the Trinity. The image of that holy love is being restored in Christ, who died so God could reclaim us, and we are to imitate Christ as a mode of unity with him, so that the image of God can be restored in us as well. We must take up our cross and die daily to follow Christ (Matthew 16:24-28).
Death to self, on the model of the Cross, is central to Christian ethics. John Calvin called this kind of self-denial “the sum of the Christian life.” To engage in economic competition with the goal of benefiting customers and the public, and even our competitors themselves, involves us in an economic way of life centered on Christ-like self-denial.
This death to self is, of course, directly against the wishes of our fallen nature. We have no power in ourselves to conform ourselves to the cross of Christ. We live in the power of the Holy Spirit that makes us able to live as Christ bids.
This begins with a reformation of our own sinfulness. Evil is not just “out there” among our economic competitors, it is “in here,” in our hearts. Because of the fall, we ourselves have come to hate our competitors and want to justify advancing ourselves at their expense. As we seek to serve others self-sacrificially, as Christ did, we experience perennial tension over understanding ourselves as agents of God’s holy love, bringing that holy love into the world through our love of others, and being sinners forgiven by grace, humbly remembering that it is really God who wins all the important victories over evil, not us.
That said, evil is certainly also “out there,” and the New Testament emphasizes the power of evil in the world. With regard to economic competition, the fall imposes great restrictions on the depth and scale of social cooperation we can expect from the world. When we hold up the standard of competition as cooperation in loving and creative ways, including by our willingness to sacrifice our own advantage for its sake, we issue a challenge to worldly economic ideologies. Competition as cooperation provides a realistic way for pluralistic societies to orient individual and corporate economic activity toward the common good and other ethically sound ends. This will challenge both those who idolize market competition and those who deny that it is possible to engage in competition ethically.
We have emphasized that the Cross restores the image of God and the original design of our nature. However, the Cross points us forward as well as backward. It goes beyond merely restoring creation, because it emphasizes death to self as a way of life. The Cross, and the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit conforming us to it, makes it possible for us to engage in self-sacrificial acts and to live today in a way that actively anticipates the future consummation of God’s kingdom. We may choose, for example, to help a co-worker succeed in a project that benefits our customers, even though we know doing so may lead to the co-worker being promoted ahead of us to a new position. We may choose to oppose, or even to reveal to the outside world, actions of our organization that exploit others, even though we know we may lose our job as a result. We may choose to campaign for regulations necessary to restrain unfair competition, even though spending the time to do so brings nothing of direct value to us.
The Cross applies not only to our individual actions, but to the actions of peoples and nations. Revelation 21-22 shows God’s people coming into the New Jerusalem as “the nations,” not merely as a large aggregation of otherwise unconnected and undifferentiated individuals. Cultural structures, which had participated and in some cases even originated in the fall (Genesis 10-11) are redeemed, not just private individuals. “The nations,” as nations, gather to walk in God’s light (Revelation 21:24), reverently bring their glory and honor before him as their gift and service to him (Revelation 21:26) and receive the healing power of the tree of life (Revelation 22:2). Even the nations’ distinct political offices (Revelation 21:24) and diverse languages (Revelation 13:7) remain. And “they will be his peoples [laoi is plural] and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). What had been the unique designation of Israel (Genesis 17:7-8, Jeremiah 32:38, Ezekiel 37:27) now applies to every nation.
Pentecost points our present-day lives forward toward this future reality in which cultural structures will be redeemed. Jesus sends his people in the power of the Spirit to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). To this end, at Pentecost he pours out the Spirit on his people to give people in diverse nations the power to follow him and conform their lives to the Cross, not erasing their cultural diversity but using their diverse cultures as vehicles of discipleship (Acts 2:5-13). Pentecost establishes that discipleship occurs in the midst of fallen cultural structures, using those structures as vehicles through which we can practice the transformation of the gospel by the Spirit.
Dallas Willard, who wrote extensively on why the church must approach cultural structures in this way, distilled the idea into this powerful sentence: “Discipleship is not for the church; the church is for discipleship, and discipleship is for the world.”
None of this implies that the church should develop a cultural agenda separate from discipleship to Christ. Discipleship to Christ is the only goal, and any cultural agenda that is autonomous from discipleship is an idol. Moreover, humility about our own position as finite creatures – and sinful ones at that – is always needed. The church’s role is not to promulgate what it considers to be a set of godly socio-economic dictates that must be obeyed by all humanity, but to equip the people of God to learn how to work and compete in ways that serve their neighbors.
One way of summing up the practical imperative of ethical competition would be this: As much as you can, let the pressures of competition spur you on to deliver better value to customers, not to get ahead by damaging customers or your competitors. In a fallen world, doing this is difficult and painful. Market mechanisms do not ensure it will be done, but only provide the opportunity. The actual loving of neighbors is up to us. But it can be done, it is being done by many all around us, and we must do more of it.
At the personal level, the basic change is attitudinal. Do I view my competitor as a neighbor? How can I develop goodwill toward my competitors? Paul says just as we once viewed God with hate but now approach him in love, we need a corresponding change in attitude toward our other people (2 Corinthians 5:16).
One of the most important practical things we can do is to pray regularly for our competitors and for our competitive situation. It is doubtful that we will find any more effective way to mortify our pride, envy and greed than to ask God to provide for the good of those with whom we compete. We can pray for this directly, bringing our competitors before the Lord by name and petitioning for their good. We can also incorporate this into our prayers for blessing upon our own work, asking that the Lord would use our service to our customers to drive our competitors either to improve or to find new and different avenues of service. We can ask God to create a healthy, constructive environment for competition in our sector of the economy.
A natural next step from this interior dialogue is to ask God’s help to control our external dialogue and “tame the tongue” (James 3:8). How do we describe our competitors when we talk about them with coworkers and others? As obstacles to our own success, or still worse as enemies to be defeated? Economic competitors must restrain the desire to trash talk opposing teams, just like athletes and fans. While the Lord’s command to love our enemies implies that we can have enemies, there is no general need to see economic competitors as enemies (although they may be so in some cases). At any rate, we should not talk about our competitors in ways that dehumanize them or imply we desire their harm. We can instead describe them as benchmarks against which we measure our own success, a barometer of what is and is not serving customers well, and a source of discipline and accountability that keeps us focused on our mission.
At a deeper level, how do we describe the purpose of our work and our organization? When we describe our goal, do we describe the kind of common or public good toward which competition could coordinate our actions with those of our competitors? Or do we only talk about how we serve our own good?
This leads naturally to a third and vitally important step. Do our actions match these words? Are we, in fact, focused on providing for the economic needs of our households and communities, and promoting the flourishing of our neighbors and world? Does our organization seek to succeed by creating value for customers, and to distinguish itself from competitors by the unique value it creates? Is serving the customer the central goal of our work? Is improving the value we deliver to customers at the heart of our competitive strategy? The more we do, the more we aim at that shared goal toward which we want the market to coordinate the activity of ourselves and our competitors.
And of course it is imperative that we keep ourselves and our companies honest. The temptation to advance ourselves by hindering the work of our competitors rather than by serving customers well is perennial. This is why Scripture denounces theft, fraud and exploitation so frequently and so severely.
The idea that competition is cooperation is reflected in several of the Theology of Work Project commentaries (e.g, Matthew 5:7 and Romans 12:1-3), and these provide helpful thoughts about specific steps we can take to follow that path. The commentary on Proverbs emphasizes the question of what happens to those who lose the competition:
The proper penalty for failure in competition is not to be crushed or driven to poverty, but to be transformed or diverted to more productive work. Companies go out of business, but their successful rivals do not become monopolies. …Careers rise and fall, but the proper penalty for failure is not “You’ll never work in this town again,” but “What help do you need to find something better suited to your talents?” The wisest individuals and organizations learn how to engage in competition that makes the most of each player’s participation and offers a soft landing for those who lose today’s contest, but may make a valuable contribution tomorrow.
The commentary on Luke 6:27-36 makes a similar point: “At the corporate level, it means not crushing your competition, suppliers or customers, especially with unfair or unproductive actions such as frivolous lawsuits, monopolization, false rumors, stock manipulation, and the like."
The commentary on Philippians 1:27-2:11 offers two tangible ways to avoid pride in competitive circumstances:
As we have seen, ambition — even competition — is not necessarily bad…but unfairly advancing your own agenda is. It forces you to adopt an inaccurate, inflated assessment of yourself (“conceit”), which puts you into an ever more remote fantasyland where you can be effective neither in work nor in faith. There are two antidotes. First, make sure that your success depends on and contributes to others’ success. This generally means operating in genuine teamwork with others in your workplace. Second, continually seek accurate feedback about yourself and your performance. You may find that your performance is actually excellent, but if you learn that from accurate sources, it is not conceit. The simple act of accepting feedback from others is a form of humility, since you subordinate your self-image to their image of you. Needless to say, this is helpful only if you find accurate sources of feedback.
The Christian faith community can also play a role as the unique place of spiritual transformation and as a community that brings together people of all cultural groups – even economic competitors. Churches can reframe our understanding of competition by holding up ethical competition, or competition as cooperation, over against stereotypical understandings that absolutize competition to the exclusion of cooperation. They can convene occupation-specific conversations about what ethical competition might look like, and how it could be promoted in each field of endeavor.
We should also look beyond the personal and the ecclesial to the public. We should oppose unjust forms of competition that might be institutionalized in our environments, and seek ways of expanding opportunity to those disadvantaged in competition, such as the poor, the disabled and the marginalized. This can be exceptionally challenging if the status quo that we seek to change happens to benefit us. Yet a biblical perspective on competition urges us to reform unjust systems even if it raises competitive pressure on ourselves. (It can help to remember how much we often benefit from being under competitive pressure.)
As Christ-followers in a fallen world, we are called to love, and therefore work for the benefit of, our households, customers and communities. In virtually every culture in history, this has involved participating in competitive economic markets. The pride, envy and greed of fallen humanity are all around us at every turn. Yet God is at work in the world, using the legitimate structures of human culture – including competitive markets – to accomplish his purposes. Competition can be, and often is, a form of cooperation in which markets and prices shape the activity of competitors to benefit customers, companies and the public good. We can participate in economic markets in ways that manifest and promote competition as cooperation; this is our most promising strategy for promoting the common good of our communities and resisting the sinful abuse of market structures.
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Economics and Society
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Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly.
Ethics is about knowing and doing what is good or right, and workplace ethics is about knowing and doing what is good or right at work. For the Christian, this means applying the Bible and other resources of the Christian faith to help decide and do what is ethical or moral at work. (In this article, “ethics” and “morality” are used interchangeably.)
Three general approaches to ethics have achieved widespread use both in Christian moral thinking and in the world at large. The approaches are:
- Command — What do the rules say is the right way to act?
- Consequences — What actions are most likely to bring about the best outcome?
- Character — What kind of moral person do I want to be or become?"
What distinguishes Christian ethics is not that it uses different approaches, but that it brings biblical values into each of these approaches. There are biblical commands (also called principles), biblically desired outcomes and biblical character traits (also called virtues) that Christians need to bring into their moral decisions, actions and development.
In developing a Christian ethic, we will consider what help the Bible provides for each of these approaches. Then we’ll explore whether we might need to combine these three in some way to give us a more balanced and integrated approach. Finally, we’ll consider how to live with the reality that our world is fallen, or imperfect, and that there is almost never a perfect solution.
We will be developing a Christian approach to ethics as applied to work, but we will not attempt to give answers to major issues in workplace ethics. Instead, we will develop Christian ethical principles and methods that readers can use to apply the principles to issues and cases.
At this point, we offer you the choice between two different presentations of these approaches. Choose to read either a narrative involving a real-life case study or a more systematic presentation of the different approaches. The systematic approach is briefer and more abstract. The narrative approach is longer and applies the approaches to a real-life situation faced by used car dealer Wayne Kirkland.
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Atkinson, David, and David H. Field. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: IVP,1995.
Boulton, Wayne G. and Thomas D. Kennedy and Allen Verhey, eds. From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Burkett, Larry. Business by the Book. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.
Chewning, Richard C., John W. Eby and Shirley J. Roels. Business Through the Eyes of Faith. London: Apollos, 1992.
Cook, David. Moral Choices: A Way of Exploring Christian Ethics. London: SPCK, 2000.
Farley, Benjamin W. In Praise of Virtue: An Exploration of Biblical Virtues in a Christian Context. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Gardner, E. Clinton. Biblical Faith and Social Ethics. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1960.
Gill, Robin. Churchgoing and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Grenz, Stanley J. The Moral Quest. London: Apollos, 1997.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Vision and Virtue. Notre Dame: Fides/Claretian, 1974.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1975.
Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1981.
Higginson, Richard. Called to Account. Guildford: Eagle, 1993.
Higginson, Richard. Questions of Business Life. UK: Spring Harvest, 2002.
Hill, Alexander. Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.
Hollinger, Dennis P. Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.
Mackenzie, Alistair and Wayne Kirkland. Just Decisions. New Zealand: NavPress NZ, 2008.
Mackenzie, Alistair and Wayne Kirkland. Where’s God on Monday? Christchurch, NZ: NavPress NZ, 2002.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
McLemore, Clinton W. Street Smart Ethics. Louisville/London: WJKP, 2003.
Maxwell, John C. There’s No Such Thing as “Business” Ethics. USA: Warner Books, 2003.
Murdock, Mike. The Businessman’s Topical Bible. Tulsa: Honor Books, 1992.
Murdock, Mike. The Businesswoman’s Topical Bible. Tulsa: Honor Books, 1994.
Nash, Laura. Believers in Business, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994.
Rae, Scott B. and Kenman L. Wong. Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices: An Introduction To Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.
Sherman, Doug and William Hendricks. Your Work Matters to God. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1987.
Sherman, Doug and William Hendricks. Keeping Your Ethical Edge Sharp. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1990.
Stackhouse, Max L. “The Ten Commandments: Economic Implications” in On Moral Business, Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann and Shirley Roels, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Stassen, Glen H. and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.
Zigarelli, Michael. Management by Proverbs. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
A Christian view of work is distinctive in the way it insists that human work ultimately derives its meaning from God’s character and purposes. It is who God is and what God does that shape the way we see the world, our place and work in the world, and the values that we take to work. Fundamental to this understanding is recognition that God is at work in the world and we are workers made in the image of God and invited to work as partners in God’s continuing work. We work to further God’s purposes through our work and to reflect God’s character in the way we work. It is our understanding of this reality that injects distinctive Christian perspectives into our view of workplace ethics. But we begin with some more general observations about ethics.
The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethos, which has two meanings in common Greek usage: habit or custom, and ordinance or law. Usage in the New Testament includes both of these dimensions. For example, in Acts 25:16 it is usually translated “custom” (“it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone”), whereas in 1 Cor. 15:33 it is translated as “morals” or “character” (“Bad company ruins good morals,” NIV).
The two words — ethics and morals — are often used interchangeably. You could say that ethics is the study or science of moral principles that govern or influence our conduct. Dennis Hollinger says ethics is “…the systematic study of standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, virtue and vice, with a view to applying those standards in the realities of our lives.”
Christian ethical living is concerned with “…ordering our steps in every situation of life according to the fundamental faith commitments we share as Christians.” Or, according to another definition: “Christian ethics is the attempt to provide a framework and method for making decisions, that seeks to honor God as revealed in Scripture, follow the example of Jesus and be responsive to the Spirit, to achieve outcomes that further God’s purposes in the world.”
We need to locate our approach to Christian ethics within an understanding of different approaches to ethics and moral reasoning in general. Most often, three different approaches are identified. These can be simply described as command, consequences and character.
The command approach asks, “Is this action right or wrong in itself, according to the rules?” It is often called the deontological approach (from the Greek deon for duty or rule). It is based on the proposition that actions are inherently right or wrong, as defined by a set of rules or duties. This set of duties/rules may be given by divine command, natural law, rational logic or another source. In Christian ethics, we are interested in commands given by God or logically derived from God’s self-revelation in the Bible.
The consequences approach asks, “Will this action produce good or bad results?” It is often called the teleological approach (from the Greek telos for end) because it says that end results decide what is the morally correct course of action. The most moral course of action may be decided by:
- What will result in the greatest good? One well-known example of the teleological approach is called Utilitarianism, which defines the greatest good as whatever will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
- What advances one’s self interest best? For example, the system known as Ethical Egoism assumes that the most likely way to achieve what is in the best interests of all people is for each person to pursue their own best interest, within certain limits.
- What will produce the ends that are most in accord with God’s intent for his creation? This approach can focus on subordinate goals, e.g., gaining a better quality of life for a disabled person, or an ultimate goal, such as glorifying God and enjoying him forever. In the case of complicated circumstances, this approach tries to calculate which actions will maximize the balance of good over evil.
Because neither happiness nor self-interest seem to be the highest results God desires for his creation, neither Utilitarianism nor Ethical Egoism are generally considered Christian forms of ethics. But this does not mean that consequences are not ethically important to God, any more than the fact that there are unbiblical systems of rules means that ethical commands are not important to God.
This approach asks, “Is the actor a good person with good motives?” In this approach, the most moral course of action is decided by questions about character, motives and the recognition that individuals don’t act alone because they are also part of communities that shape their characters and attitudes and actions. This is often called virtue ethics. Since the beginning of the Christian era, virtues have been recognized as an essential element of Christian ethics. However, from the time of the Reformation until the late 20th century, virtue ethics — like consequential ethics — was overshadowed by command ethics in most Protestant ethical thinking.
But how do these three different approaches apply to Christian ethics?
Christians from most church traditions are agreed that the Bible plays an essential role in determining our understanding of such commands and principles. And it is not hard to find Bible verses that speak about work.
- In the first two chapters of the Bible, men and women are given work to do, both caring for and cultivating natural resources given by God (Gen. 1:26-29; Gen. 2:15; Gen. 2:18-20).
- God models a seven day pattern of work and rest (six days work, one day rest) that God’s people are called to emulate (Gen. 2:2; Ex. 20:9-11; Mark 2:27). There is also a daily pattern of work and rest (Psalm 104:19-23).
- Earning one’s living by honest work is commended (Psalm 128:2; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-10).
- The Book of Proverbs contains many exhortations to work hard and warnings against idleness (e.g., Prov. 6:6).
- Manual work is not to be despised. Even a king works with his hands (1 Samuel 11:5). Jesus did the work of an artisan (Mark 6:3).
- The prophets denounce the idle rich (e.g., Amos 6:3-6).
- Like the prophets before him (see Isa. 5:7-8; Micah 3:1-3; Amos 5:21-24), Jesus denounces those who profess faith but act unjustly (Matt. 23:23).
- The apostle Paul supported himself as a tentmaker to preserve his independence and self-respect, and to provide his converts with an example of diligence and self-reliance. Paul encouraged them to share with others in need (Eph. 4:28). He saw honest labor as a way of commending the gospel (1 Thess. 4:11). He reprimanded those enthusiasts who wanted to give up daily work to get on with what they considered more urgent gospel work, only to end up living off other people (2 Thess. 3:10 ff.).
- Work is to be approached as an act of worship (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17, 23).
The Bible also expresses concern about employment issues.
- We don’t just work to please our human bosses. We work for God (Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5-8). Work is to be approached wholeheartedly and done well (Eccl. 9:10; Col. 3:22-24).
- God intends that people should be adequately paid for the work they do and enjoy food, shelter and clothing as part of the fruit of that work (Luke 10:7; 2 Thess. 3:10; Psalm 128:1-2).
- Employers are told to treat their employees justly and fairly, knowing that they themselves also have a master that they will ultimately answer to (Col. 4:1).
- They are to recognize that “workers deserve their wages” (Luke 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).
- Employees are reminded of their responsibilities towards their employers (1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9).
Beyond these injunctions, there are a multitude of other Bible verses that speak about relationship and integrity issues at work. The Businessman’s Topical Bible(and its companion Businesswoman’s version) identifies 100 common workplace problems and then uses 1550 Bible verses to point to answers. The topics include what to do when a customer is dissatisfied, when you lose a key employee, when you feel betrayed, when you feel tempted to cheat and when your employee needs motivation.
In this post from The High Calling, Ann Kroeker comments on this article here at TOW, and particularly considers Biblical principles that can be applied to our decision to take or turn down a job opportunity.
Nonetheless, the attempt to formulate a complete book of rules based on Scripture that will speak to every conceivable ethical dilemma would seem to be a hopeless quest. No set of commands can be vast enough to cover every issue that arises. And there are situations in today’s workplace that have no precedent in Biblical times. Is it ethical to award stock options based on performance? Is it ethical to advertise a product to entice people to buy more of it? Is it ethical to have hiring preferences for under-represented ethnic groups? Is it ethical to buy a competing company? None of these situations would seem to be covered by a biblical command.
Moreover, this is the problem that the scribes and Pharisees ran into as they tried to come up with a comprehensive code and ended up not only overwhelmed by trivia, but also missing the main points. Yet, at the same time, it would be foolish for us to ignore the fact that Scripture does offer clarity on many issues: stealing, lying, loving the other person including our enemies, acting justly, caring for the poor and oppressed, etc. As Chris Marshall says, “The exclusion of any normative authority for Scriptural commands, laws or principles can also threaten to undermine the distinctively Christian character of Christian ethics and allow too much place for subjective judgment.” The Bible can’t be turned into a comprehensive rule book for ethics in the modern marketplace. But that is not to say that it doesn’t contain some important and still relevant rules.
A variety of attempts have been made to reduce the multitude of biblical commands to just a few overarching commands or principles. Some examples of this emphasize the importance of the Ten Commandments of Moses, or the Beatitudes of Jesus or quotes from the book of Proverbs.
Larry Burkett’s Business by the Book, rather grandly subtitled The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for Business Men and Women, announces Six Basic Biblical Business Minimums:
Reflect Christ in your business practices.
Provide a quality product at a fair price.
Honor your creditors.
Treat your employees fairly.
Treat your customers fairly.
There are many other attempts to do something similar. Most of these include numerous useful insights, but they also often end up creating contrived schemes more than announcing fundamental biblical insights that really help to focus our attention on the heart of things.
Building on some more fundamental biblical principles, Business Through the Eyes of Faithtakes the command to love our neighbor as the primary ethical concern. Then it develops this by using Micah 6:8 as the organizing principle for determining how God would have us apply love in business: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” Thus, love, as applied through justice, kindness and faithfulness becomes the foundational ethical principle. And we find Jesus himself emphasizing the importance of these same three elements in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” This would seem to be getting closer to the heart of Christian ethics as well as transcending the gulf that often exists between personal and social ethics. If following a few fundamental commands seems to be a better approach than looking for a specific command for every issue, then the question becomes, “Is there one biblical command upon which all the others are built?”
There is an undeniable attraction in reducing all the Bible’s moral imperatives to just one overarching command. For John Maxwell, this is The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This involves only asking one question, “How would I like to be treated in this situation?”Maxwell acknowledges that putting it into practice may also require a number of other principles, including:
- Treat people better than they treat you.
- Walk the second mile.
- Help people who can’t help you.
- Do right when it’s natural to do wrong.
- Keep your promises even when it hurts.
Regrettably, this increases rather than reduces the number of fundamental commandments. It also introduces principles that are not directly from the Bible.
Joseph Fletcher, with his Situation Ethics,subjected everything to Jesus’ “love commandment”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). He then ran into a similar problem, being forced to devise a number of other principles (four presuppositions and six propositions), to clarify how the most loving thing might be determined. Maxwell is anxious to distance himself from the “moral relativism” of Situation Ethics and, unlike Fletcher, doesn’t say that the love commandment is the only absolute moral principle in a way that reduces all other moral rules to becoming only helpful “illuminators.” But Maxwell and Fletcher both demonstrate that, while the simplicity of choosing to elevate one principle is attractive and helpful in some ways, it is simplistic and deceptive in other ways.
They also demonstrate the inadequacy of utilizing only one approach to doing ethics; in their cases, the command approach. Both of these examples begin by promoting one absolute biblical command, but then quickly move to consider circumstances and consequences in order to decide which other qualifying commands are required to provide clarity. And the way they talk about love suggests that its demonstration will largely depend on the character of the actor anyway.
For Alexander Hill, “the foundation of Christian ethics in business is the changeless character of God.” The commands or principles that humans should follow are defined by the character of God. Note that although Hill starts with God’s character, his method is not considered a form of character-based ethics, as will be described a little later. This is because when it comes to determining how humans should act, Hill’s method is to develop rules and principles. Rules and principles are the hallmarks of the command approach to ethics.
The most common recurring descriptions of God’s character in the Bible are holiness, justice and love. Our laws, rules and practices should bring about holiness, justice and love. Hill maintains that Christian ethics requires that all three principles be taken into account all the time. Each, like a leg on a three-legged stool, balances the other two. Overemphasizing the importance of one at the expense of the others always leads to a distortion in ethical thinking. For example, an overemphasis on holiness can easily lead to rules that require Christians to withdraw from the world into a kind of impotent isolationism. An overemphasis on justice can easily produce excessively harsh penalties for breaking the rules. An overemphasis on love can sometimes lead to vagueness and lack of accountability.
Hill’s approach would seem to provide for a better balance than those that just focus on a single principle. It does provide some help to explore both personal and social ethical dimensions. However, the concepts of love, justice and holiness still need explaining by referring to other principles. The hope of reducing the vast mass of rules to a few master principles remains once again unfulfilled.
The fundamental question the consequentialist asks is, “Will it produce good results?” or “Which choice will produce the best result?” Unlike the command approach (where the best option is determined by rules that define the inherent goodness of the action), the consequences approach is decided by the outcome. It is the end result that determines what is the most moral course of action. This involves trying to anticipate and calculate the results of different courses of action and choosing what is really good or the best result possible.
Because so many people think of ethics in terms of the Ten Commandments and of the Bible as a rule book, it is perhaps surprising to discover how often the Scriptures themselves encourage readers to consider the consequences of their actions and let this influence their decision making.
For example, Proverbs is full of warnings and promises — pithy sayings that spell out the likely outcomes of certain actions. For example, Proverbs 14:14 states, “The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve.”
Jesus, too, warns his listeners to weigh carefully the consequences of their decisions. “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16). In fact, in one sense Jesus’ whole life and ministry can be viewed as a living example of making decisions for the greater good.
His Beatitudes also display an implicit consequential aspect to them — if you want to be “filled” then hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc. (Matt 5:6). So, too, does much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, such as:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:16)
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. (Matt. 5:25)
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:3-4)
If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. 6:15)
Considering the consequences is an important biblical approach to our ethical decision-making. However, there are also a number of potential landmines in such thinking when it comes to answering, “What is good?” “Good for whom?” “Does a good end always justify the means?” “Does the context influence what is good?” Measuring the good is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Click here to join an in-depth discussion of practical applications of the consequential approach to ethics located in the narrative case study of Wayne. After reading it, you will find a link to return here. (Links to the section “Measuring the Good” of the case study.)
Rather than asking how to decide “What are the rules?” or “What will produce the best results?” in each particular situation, the virtue approach asks, “What type of person should I become?” The assumption is that if a person develops good character, he or she is more likely to do the right/good thing throughout a lifetime of situations. For this reason, it is more an ethics of becoming than of doing.
It also recognizes that knowing what the right thing is — by employing consequential or command ethics — doesn’t ensure you will actually do the right thing. Doing the right thing takes character. Character ethics is developing the habit of doing the right thing along with the ability to know the right thing. It is about how the character of God is shaping our own characters — about whether we are becoming more holy, just and loving people, to name three prominent character traits in the Bible. These are no longer just principles to guide us in our decision-making. These are character attributes that are becoming ingrained in us as default settings. There are several reasons why this is so important.
Firstly, because the way we have been talking about ethical dilemmas until now suggests that we have both the time and the ability to reason our way through some complex issues towards making the right decision. And sometimes we do. But what about most of the time? Are not most of our decisions made in a split second while we are on the run? How do we relate to this person, or sort out that problem, or advise a customer, or motivate an underperforming individual or team?
Secondly, could it be that many of the ethical choices we make are already substantially decided before we make the decision? That our character automatically shapes much of what we decide to do? And because of this, our ethical decisions are largely determined by who we are (the type of character and values we’ve embodied) rather than what decision-making process we employ.
Thirdly, are we really individuals freely making personal decisions, or are our decisions largely shaped by the communities we are part of? Are character and community intertwined with our values in ways that are inseparable when it comes to talking about ethics?
David Cook argues that we rarely make conscious moral decisions. Most times we don’t think about the moral dilemma, but simply respond to it. If this is the case and our reactions are substantially instinctive, then the importance of developing Godly character is strengthened, because we are making so many of our ethical choices automatically. Good people have a greater chance of making good choices.
Just as the command and consequence approaches have to determine which commands and consequences are truly good, the character approach has to determine which virtues are good. Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. St. Ambrose (339-397) agreed that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically “theological” virtues from the Bible — faith, hope and love. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas went on to contrast these virtues with corresponding vices — the ones we know as the seven deadly sins.
Virtue ethics has remained prominent in Catholic thought, but only recently have Protestant theologians started to enthusiastically explore the character approach. Mostly they have looked to the Bible as the source of virtues. We have seen that Alexander Hill identified the biblical virtues of holiness, justice and love as God’s chief virtues. Nonetheless, even he subordinates the virtue approach to the rule approach. He doesn’t say that humans should develop virtues in themselves. Instead, he says people should develop rules in accordance with God’s virtues.
Those Protestant theologians who have tried to identify Christian virtues that humans should cultivate have tended to focus specifically on the life and teaching of Jesus. Stassen and Gushee note:
The Bible is not flat; Christ is its peak and its center. No moral issue should be addressed apart from consideration of the meaning of Jesus Christ for reflection on that issue.
For Stassen and Gushee, the obvious starting place to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to is the Sermon on the Mount and in particular the Beatitudes. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst/hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion — these are some of the key qualities to be nurtured. For Jesus, our actions and behavior are a manifestation of much more fundamental core attitudes, motives and character qualities (Mark 7:21-22). The apostle Paul also emphasizes the importance of character development. For example, in Galatians, Paul exhorts those who belong to Jesus not to gratify the desires of “the flesh” but rather to allow the Spirit to grow “fruit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:16-25). To the Philippians, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves….Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).
Jesus is our model. It is his example we are called to imitate. It is his character we are called to develop through the working of his Spirit. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
Click here for an in-depth discussion of practical applications of the character approach to ethics. After reading it, you will find a link to return here. (Links to the section “How does character develop and grow in our lives?” of the case study.)
As Christians, we seek to become like Jesus (1 John 3:2). So we must be acutely aware of the danger we face of “reframing” Jesus’ commandments, desired consequences and character in ways that are less challenging to our own lifestyle and worldview. Remaking Jesus in our own image is a temptation we all face. It is easy, particularly in communities of relative affluence, to unconsciously filter out the enormous social, economic, political and environmental implications of Jesus’ life and teachings, so that all we’re left with is a Jesus who limits himself to addressing a small range of “personal” moral issues. “What Would Jesus Do?” can easily become trivialized. Research suggests that most regular churchgoers only exhibit ethical understandings distinctive from the rest of the population as this relates to a few issues of sexual conduct, personal honesty and the accumulation of wealth. In most other respects, we are shaped more by the values of our culture than the ethics of Jesus.
The encouraging thing about this research is that it does demonstrate clearly that churchgoing does make a difference to our ethical understanding. But sadly, only in a very limited way, because those ethical concerns that are regularly addressed in church exclude most workplace and business ethics issues. Surely the fact that the CEOs of Enron and WorldCom could profess to be devout Christian men with the support of their churches suggests a few blind spots? We must work harder to address more marketplace issues in the way we tell and celebrate and explore the Christian story.
Christian character does not develop just as a result of individual transformation. It is in the context of community that such character is primarily nurtured. As Benjamin Farley writes:
The New Testament, in concert with the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes the indispensable context of the believing community….It is within this nurturing context of faith, hope and love…that the Christian life, as a process, unfolds. It is never a matter of the individual alone, pitted against an alien and hostile culture, that constitutes the epicenter of Christian moral action.
We are much more likely to become people of virtue when we are committed to a community that seeks to retell, understand, embrace and live out the gospel story - especially where these communities are themselves committed to discovering a clearer picture of the character of Jesus, and asking the hard and uncomfortable questions that help us to confront our limited view of the virtuous life. When this happens, we are less likely to duplicate the many sad examples of Christians doing business in un-Christian ways.
So there we have it: Commands, Consequences and Character. Three different approaches to ethics. In reality, some combination of these approaches is often present in dealing with real, everyday situations. For example, it is hard to think about the application of specific commands or rules without also considering the consequences of such actions. While, at the same time, choosing between different anticipated consequences depends on knowing what principles we want to prioritize to define what is best. And, whatever has been decided in theory, it is character that finally dictates how a person chooses to act.
Hence, when it comes to making moral decisions, we find ourselves involved in an ethical dance that involves an interplay between these different approaches.
Summary of the Three Approaches
|Primary question||What is the applicable rule?||What will produce the best result?||Am I becoming a good person?|
In part, what we emphasize depends on the nature of the situation we find ourselves confronted with. For example, one common difference in approaches relates to whether we find ourselves trying to solve a major moral dilemma or a more everyday moral choice. Let us explore what we mean.
A lot of teaching on business ethics is built around exploring significant case studies and is developed in response to profound moral dilemmas; in particular, the challenges that come when important principles clash and seem to point towards different solutions. The attempt to address such problems tends to start with emphasizing the importance of developing a method for moral reasoning in the face of such challenges. Such a model usually emphasizes the importance of considering relevant rules and calculating likely outcomes with the aim of comparing and weighing these to discern the best option for action in that particular context. The emphasis on virtue and character in this case relates primarily to making sure that enough motivation and resolve is found to ensure that appropriate action results. This can be pictured like this:
Rules/consequences-priority (decision-action) model
Determine what is the right thing to do in each situation →
Define the applicable rules
Discern the best outcomes
Become a virtuous person by doing the right thing in situation after situation →
Do what you have determined is right (character)
The sort of method that is recommended usually looks something like this:
- Gather all the relevant facts.
- Clarify the key ethical issues.
- Identify rules and principles relevant for the case.
- Consult the important sources of guidance — especially the Bible, with sensitivity to the best way of reading the Bible to address this situation. But also consult other relevant sources.
- Ask for help from others in your community who know you and the situation. This will help you avoid self-deception and paying too much attention to your particular biases.
- List all the alternative courses of action.
- Compare the alternatives with the principles.
- Calculate the likely results of each course of action and consider the consequences.
- Consider your decision prayerfully before God.
- Make your decision and act on it.
- Create systems and practices that shape the organization/society’s character, so that it tends to do what you have determined is right as a matter of course.
- Find ways to continuously practice the activities inherent in doing what is right, as you have determined.
A second model recognizes that most ethical decisions in our daily lives and work are made instantly, often under pressure and without much room for forethought. They are the product of habits of a lifetime and also shaped by the cultures of places we work and the peer groups and faith communities we belong to. They are influenced by the extent to which Christian virtues and character have been molded into the core of our beings. This is regular Christian discipleship. This is not to suggest that moral reasoning doesn’t also accompany this emphasis on the importance of being as the foundation for our doing. Within the virtuous life, there is still a place for understanding rules and calculating consequences. But in this case, it is with rules and consequences subordinated to virtues and viewed as servants rather than masters. This reverses the priority illustrated in our previous diagram:
Character-priority (ethical development) model
Become a virtuous person →
Develop a virtuous character so you will have the wisdom and fortitude to obey the rules and seek the best outcomes
Determine what is the right thing to do when the situation is unclear →
Determine the applicable rules in each situation (commands)
Discern the best outcome in each situation (consequences)
This is not to suggest that emphasis on virtues doesn’t also give rise to moral dilemmas, because we can find competing virtues themselves pulling in different directions. For example, courage and prudence can pull in different directions, or justice and peace, or loyalty and truth. Making good moral decisions in these cases is less about seeing one right answer because there is probably not just one. Making good moral decisions is more about seeing the alternatives as tensions that can provide a stimulus towards balanced Christian responses.
So far we have been talking as if we have the ability to follow God’s rules, to seek the outcomes God seeks, to become the kind of characters God wants us to become. But usually we fall far short of that ability. We may not have the power or position to do the right thing. We may lack the courage. We may be tripped up by our own ungodly desires, attitudes, fears, relationships and other factors
Sometimes we lack not only the ability, but even the knowledge needed to do right. It may not be clear what God’s rules are when it comes to warfare or bioethics, for example. We may not know which outcome God desires when the alternatives are working as a prostitute or watching your children go hungry. We may not be able to picture the kind of character Jesus wants us to be in a workplace where people seem to be either competent and mean-spirited, or inept and kindly.
In most situations in work and life, we simply can’t reach a perfect solution. Often we face a choice not between the better and the best, but between the bad and the worse. Nonetheless, God is still with us. A Christian ethical approach does not condemn us to failure if we cannot attain perfection. Instead, it gives us resources to do the best we can or at least just to do better than we would otherwise. In a corrupt system, there may be little we can do to make a real difference. Even so, the Bible gives us a picture of the way God intends things to be, even if we cannot get there any time soon. This is meant to be a cause for hope, not guilt. God chose to enter human life — in the person of Jesus — in the midst of a corrupt regime. He suffered the worst consequences of it, but emerged victorious by God’s grace. We can expect the same as Jesus’ followers. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
In the end it all comes down to grace. God’s grace may make it clear to us what the right thing is. God’s grace may make us able to do what we know is right. Even if we fail, God’s grace can forgive us and make it possible for us to try again.
The fallenness of the world is one of the most important reasons we think the character approach is so important. We may not be able to obey all God’s rules or desire all the outcomes God desires. But by God’s grace, we can practice doing something better today than we did yesterday. If we do nothing but tell the truth once today when we would have lied yesterday, our character has become slightly more like God intends. A lifetime of growing ethically better, bit by bit, makes a real difference.
The Bible is the basic source for the commands we are to obey, the consequences we are to seek, and the characters we are to become as followers of Jesus Christ. Although the Bible’s commands may be the first things that come to mind when we think about Christian ethics, consequences and character are essential elements of Christian ethics too. For most of us, the most effective way to become more ethical is probably to give greater attention to how our actions and decisions at work are shaping our character. The best ethical decisions at work and elsewhere are the decisions that shape our character to be more like Jesus’. Ultimately, by God’s grace, “we will be like him” (1 John 3:2).
Click here if you would like to return to the beginning of the Ethics and Work article.
The Case of the Broken Gearbox
Wayne is a Christian car dealer. Just over twelve months ago, Wayne sold a secondhand Toyota Camry to a customer in good faith. The car had a comprehensive check before sale and was determined to be in above-average condition for its price range. Now, twelve months later, the customer calls Wayne. A problem has recently developed with the automatic transmission. What is Wayne going to do to fix the problem? A long time has elapsed since the sale, but still Wayne is sympathetic to the client’s plight. Should he (Wayne wonders) take responsibility for the problem and carry the cost of fixing the gearbox? In reality, this would mean choosing to accept a financial loss on the Camry. Adding the cost of the repair will make the car more expensive to Wayne than the price he charged for it. Rather than immediately commit himself to a particular course of action, Wayne tells the customer he will get back to him within a day.
As Wayne puts the phone down a number of different concerns begin swirling through his mind. Who should carry the cost, Wayne or his client? On what basis should Wayne make his decision? And in what ways might his Christian faith influence what he chooses to do?
- What commands should a Christian obey?
- What consequences should a Christian seek?
- What does Christian character call for?
We will stay with Wayne as he considers each of these approaches.
As Wayne contemplates his dilemma with the car, he wonders if there is any simple rule or command that can help him decide the right thing to do. One starting point is obvious enough — do the laws of the land provide a clear answer? What is the law?
Wayne knows that the Consumer Guarantees Act (of New Zealand) gives customers six guarantees about a vehicle they purchase. The critical one is that it must be of acceptable quality. The vehicle must be:
- Fit for the purpose that type of vehicle is normally used for.
- Acceptable in finish and appearance.
- Free from minor defects.
- Durable — in other words, the vehicle is able to be used for its normal purposes for a reasonable time after purchase.
- The age and price of a vehicle must be taken into account when deciding whether it meets an acceptable quality.
So what is considered a “reasonable” time after purchase? There is no clearly defined answer to this, so Wayne’s legal obligations are not precisely defined. However, for a seven-year-old Camry with medium mileage like the one Wayne has sold, three months or 5000 kilometers (km) would be considered a “reasonable” period for Wayne to be legally obliged to repair the car. A customer might well think that six or twelve months were “reasonable”. A period as long as twelve months, however, is unlikely to be upheld if it were ever tested in a court of law.
Wayne asks the customer how many kilometers he has driven in the car over the twelve months. The answer is 22,000 km. This suggests to Wayne that he has no legal obligation to repair the fault. Both the time since the sale, and the distance it has traveled, are well beyond what would be a “reasonable” warranty for a car of this age and mileage.
Legal and/or Moral Commands?
Even though Wayne is satisfied he is under no legal obligation to pay for the repair, that is not the end of the matter as far as he is concerned. Legality and morality, he knows, are not the same things. The law usually defines society’s minimum moral requirements for the protection of people. Wayne remembers an incident that a friend told him about recently. The Board of Directors of a particular company was discussing a business proposition. Initial comments were about the legality of the proposal, and it soon became clear that the scheme was well within the law. But then one director said, “It is legal. But is it right?”
“As soon as that question was asked,” Wayne’s friend commented, “it was followed by a long silence, because we all knew that the answer was ‘No’. Even before we had time to discuss why.”
Wayne knows that what the law says is clearly not enough. However, thinking beyond legal minimum standards is not always easy. What higher standards should a company follow? There was a time in western society when Christian ethical principles provided a higher standard that was widely — if not universally — accepted. In America, the J.C. Penney company — a large department store chain — was famous as “The Golden Rule Store,” and it would have been considered proper to make a customer service decision based upon biblical commands. Undoubtedly something similar applied (or still applies) in societies strongly identified with a single religion or philosophy.
But as western societies have become secularized, religious considerations have become unacceptable as a basis for corporate ethics. However, no other generally accepted source of ethical guidance has taken the place that biblical ethics formerly held. This generally means that there is no source of ethical guidance beyond merely keeping the law. This is a problem for many business schools when they seek to discuss ethics. Concerned to assert their secular status and to show themselves free from partiality or religious interference, they often end up largely ignoring morality and values. The result is an arid focus around what is legal. The discussion among the company directors above demonstrates the inadequacy of this attitude. They all knew something was wrong, but they had no way to talk about it.
Commands Beyond the Law
Despite these difficulties, a Christian approach to ethics looks for some command from God that will name clearly what is right and wrong. In some cases, it’s not hard to find Bible verses that speak about work and employment issues, for instance. In others, it can be very difficult to identify, understand or apply biblical verses properly. How do we know which rules and principles apply in which situations? There are lots of different systems for applying the Bible.
So where does Wayne begin looking for this sort of answer to his dilemma?
In desperation, Wayne goes searching for help on his bookshelf. He spots a title that could be the very thing he’s looking for — The Businessman’s Topical Bible. A quick glance indicates how this book tackles the problem. It looks for a specific Bible verse to provide a rule that deals with the particular work issue we’re facing.
Wayne scans through the pages. In them, the author Mike Murdock lists 1550 verses from the Bible, to “provide God’s insight into situations and circumstances encountered every day in today’s business world.” These are grouped under sections, such as “Your Attitude”, “Your Work”, “Your Daily Schedule”, “Your Family”, “Your Finances”, “The Businessman and Integrity”, or “When a Customer is Dissatisfied.” Nearly 100 topics are included, covering a wide range of common business situations.
As he looks at some of the sections, Wayne notices that the author doesn’t try to outline any particular method for making decisions. He simply lists Bible verses he thinks are relevant to each situation, without any explanation or commentary. The implication is that they apply directly and are self-explanatory.
Wayne finds some topics that he initially thinks might help with his problem:
- “When a customer is dissatisfied” includes verses such as 2 Timothy 2:24: “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” and Luke 6:35: “Love your enemies, do good to them, lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great.”
- “The Businessman and Integrity,” where Psalm 112:5 is quoted: “Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely, who conducts his affairs with justice.”
- “The Businessman and Negotiation,” including 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
On closer inspection, Wayne finds that such random Bible verses give him little help. 2 Timothy 2:24 seems to give opposite advice from 2 Tim. 1:7, and, anyway, 1:7 is about teaching, not refunds. Luke 6:35 is about enemies, not customers. These verses don’t really seem to apply to Wayne’s situation. In fact, one of the problems with such an approach is that if the Bible is seen as an “answer book” for all the various situations we might encounter, we can easily slide into taking verses out of context and make them mean something different from that intended by their original author. (This is often called “proof-texting.”)
When we start with a “problem” and go looking for an “answer,” we’re really using the Scriptures in a back-to-front way. The risk is that we simply take what fits into our pre-formatted scheme and ignore everything else, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself and allowing the consistent themes and messages to make themselves evident in the reading and re-reading of the text.
For example, when Wayne takes a closer look at the section “When a customer is dissatisfied,” he notices the verse in Luke 21:19: “By standing firm you will gain life.” When he reads the passage it is a part of, he realizes it has absolutely nothing to do with a dissatisfied customer in business. Luke is quoting the words of Jesus to his followers, telling them what they should do when they are arrested and persecuted for their faith! The verse has been taken out of context, as have many others in the sections Wayne looks at.
There’s another danger from hunting out a scriptural rule for every occasion. Such an exercise can easily descend into a kind of reductionism and legalism. We only have to look at the scribes and the Pharisees to see what this might look like. In their genuine desire to obey God, they elaborated the law into a set of specific do’s and don’ts, that in the end, blinded them to their own legalism and arrogance, rather than assisting them to follow God.
If this sounds like a severe criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, let us just note briefly here that what they were attempting to do was admirable. They were some of the few people who seriously sought to apply faith to the whole of life, including business. They realized that faith wasn’t just about observing temple rituals and attending synagogue meetings. They were trying to define what it meant to be godly in every aspect of life. The trouble is, the only way they knew to go about this was by trying to define a rule for every occasion. And this led to an explosion of rules that went way beyond what Scripture actually said, yet still failed to cover every situation.
For example, take their desire to fulfill the commandment about keeping the Sabbath. In seeking to nail down how this might look in practice, they completely missed the point of the exercise, even berating Jesus for having the audacity to heal on the Sabbath! They became captive to their own self-constructed rules, and in doing so found themselves obstructing rather than assisting others to fulfill the intention of the law.
So attempting to formulate a complete book of rules based on Scripture that will speak to every conceivable ethical dilemma we face in our work contexts, is a hopeless and pointless quest. Not only does the Bible fail to account for the thousands of situations that arise in business, but in trying to make it do so we risk forcing it to say something it was never intended to mean…or even worse, trivializing Scripture and missing the point altogether.
However, while the Bible can’t and shouldn’t be turned into a comprehensive rule book for ethics in the marketplace, it still does contain some important and relevant commands/rules. Many statements in Scripture are straightforward and easily applicable. Not every situation we face at work is complex. In many business activities it is not difficult to discern the Bible’s counsel. If Scripture tells us (e.g., Colossians 3:22) to work wholeheartedly for our earthly masters (similar to “boss”), then we need to do it. If it warns us against laziness and not taking responsibility for earning our keep (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 3: 10-12), then that should be our aim. When it tells us to deal with conflict by talking directly with the person who has offended us, there’s the guideline we need to follow. When it tells us not to steal and not to slander people, we should adhere rigorously to those commands.
Disappointed, Wayne puts the book back on the shelf. As he does so, he glances at another title that grabs his attention — Business By The Book. Intrigued, he picks it up and quickly discovers that the approach of author Larry Burkett is to identify principles in the Bible. By “principles,” he means precepts wider and more general than rules, yet still in the form of biblically-derived commands about the right thing to do.
The subtitle of the book, Wayne notes, is “The Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for Business Men and Women.” This seems promising. So he begins to read. It’s clear that Business by the Book assumes that God has laid down in principles the necessary ethical instruction for “doing business His way.” According to Burkett, the Bible contains statutes, commandments and principles that provide “God’s plan for His people in business.”
Fundamental to this are the Ten Commandments — which Burkett considers to be the minimum standard separating God’s people from those around them. Then there are “other minimums that set apart God’s followers from others in the business world.”
In this regard, Burkett develops “six basic biblical business minimums.” They are:
- Reflect Christ in your business practices.
- Be accountable.
- Provide a quality product at a fair price.
- Honor your creditors.
- Treat your employees fairly.
- Treat your customers fairly.
These are not rules found in the Bible, but are principles that Larry Burkett believes can be directly deduced from the rules in the Bible. The intent is that they will cover more of the actual situations that arise in the workplace because they are not so narrow as specific rules.
Does This Help Wayne?
Clearly the two “minimums” of “providing a quality product at a fair price” and “treating your customers fairly” are relevant to Wayne’s problem. But while it’s useful to identify these principles, this doesn’t actually get Wayne any closer to what he should do. He is still left struggling to determine exactly what it is in this case that might be “fair” treatment and what process he might use to establish what is fair? He readily agrees with both Burkett’s principles — but this doesn’t help him proceed any further. This is a common problem with command-based methods. If the set of commands is specific, it will not cover the huge range of situations that occur in the world. If it is general, it will not provide actual solutions to the problems it covers.
However, the book does offer the suggestion of talking with friends about what they think might be fair in this situation. This, Wayne decides, would be a useful thing to do. He likes the idea of developing a more communal environment to help him gain perspective on his dilemma. Doing this works against some of the intense individualism we all battle with, and it also recognizes that many ethical challenges are complex and need insightful others to give perspective and support.
Wayne is less enthralled by what he considers to be a quite prescriptive approach to using the Bible. It seems to reduce Scripture to a series of easy-to-understand principles and rules — like a “how-to” manual. While it is encouraging to see approaches like Business by the Book taking seriously the challenge to let our faith influence the world of business in practical ways, sadly it is built around a limited selection of principles, shaped by Burkett’s particular perspective. Hence, like most other similar attempts to summarize the Bible’s approach to business, it provides helpful insights into some issues, but also promises more than it can deliver.
Wayne is still struggling with his dilemma. He returns to his bookshelf to see what else might be of assistance. John Maxwell’s There’s No Such Thing as “Business” Ethics almost jumps out at him!
John Maxwell thinks we have made Christian decision-making far too complex. It’s his belief that all the Bible’s moral imperatives can essentially be reduced to just one overarching command. According to Maxwell, there’s no such thing as business ethics: there’s only one rule for making decisions. This is the “Golden Rule,” proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount — “Do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NIV).
This one guideline (“How would I like to be treated in this situation?”) should govern all ethical decision-making. Simple, but not easy, is the way Maxwell describes this rule. However, he acknowledges that it requires a number of other principles to explain what it involves, including:
- Treat people better than they treat you.
- Walk the second mile.
- Help people who can’t help you.
- Do right when it’s natural to do wrong.
- Keep your promises even when it hurts.
Even though he doesn’t explicitly quote the Bible, Maxwell’s approach is clearly rooted in Matthew 7:12. Over the past two centuries this saying has become known as the Golden Rule, and Maxwell notes that the core of this precept is found in other religions and cultures as well. It is therefore a principle that can be commended to Christians and non-Christians alike.
Several of the explanatory principles mentioned by Maxwell are also clearly based on other elements of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “Treat people better than they treat you” seems to be a natural implication of Matthew 5:43-48, and “Walk the second mile” is a clear reference to Matthew 5:41.
One thing that attracts Wayne to this Golden Rule approach to business ethics is that it is grounded in the teachings of Jesus. Given that we are often guilty of evading Jesus and his ethics, this is refreshing.
How Does This Help Wayne Solve His Problem?
The Golden Rule is certainly a very useful clarifying principle for Wayne. It causes him to think, “How would I want to be treated if I were in my customer’s shoes?” And the associated principles of “treating people better than they treat you” and “walking the second mile” do challenge Wayne to go beyond what is legally expected of him. However, Maxwell’s approach still does little to help Wayne determine the specifics of what he might take responsibility for.
There is no doubt that the Golden Rule is close to the heart of Jesus’ ethical teachings. The simplicity of elevating the significance of one principle is attractive, and it is obviously helpful in some ways. However, it may also prove far too simplistic and quite deceptive in other ways. Maxwell’s need to flesh it out with further qualifying rules shows that this is, in fact, true.
Some of Maxwell’s fundamental assumptions are also questionable, such as his belief that ethical behavior pays (at least in the long-term). There is no convincing evidence that this is the case. In fact, as Scott Rae and Kenman Wong point out, if this were always (or even mostly) true:
…there would be no need for books or courses on business ethics, as nearly everyone would practice solid moral behavior because of the prospect of financial reward.
There is another limitation to Maxwell’s approach. It assumes that there are only two players involved in the decision (the person making the choice and the person being affected by it). As long as it works to the advantage of these two people, according to the Golden Rule it is the best thing. Wayne realizes that in his particular current situation that’s largely true. However, his mind turns to many other decisions he has to make, where other people are impacted indirectly, and/or the environment is also affected.
For example, not so long ago Wayne sold a large four-wheel drive vehicle. He felt he did apply the Golden Rule to the customer (treating her with respect, giving her the best deal he possibly could, disclosing all relevant information, etc.). However, in that sale one thing he didn’t take into consideration was the broader issue of how much impact this vehicle, with its high fuel consumption, would have on the environment.
Wayne is fast running out of books! But as he gazes up to his bookshelf again, he notices Alexander Hill’s Just Business. Hill, a professor of business and economics, has attempted in this book to find a middle way between the simplistic single-rule approach and other more complicated approaches with multiple rules.
His central point is that Christian ethics in business should be built not on rules, but rather on the changeless character of God. As we study and observe God’s character, we can learn to imitate God. “Behavior consistent with God’s character is ethical — that which is not, is unethical.”
We are called, therefore, to act according to principles that help us emulate God’s character. Few of us would argue with that, but the big question is…so what is God like? Hill’s answer is that the three characteristics of God most often emphasized in the Bible are:
More specifically, he defines these traits as follows:
Pursuing holiness involves single-mindedness, making God our highest priority. Which means considering all other concerns of lesser importance — concerns such as material goods, career goals and even personal relationships. Pursuing holiness includes zeal, purity, accountability and humility.
“Justice provides order to human relationships by laying out reciprocal sets of rights and duties for those living in the context of community.” Two fundamental personal rights are the right to be treated with dignity and the right to exercise free will. The duties or responsibilities (which are really the flip side of the justice coin) require that we treat others in ways that offer them these rights. The rights and duties exist in tension, providing a necessary counterbalance to each other. For example, a worker’s right to a livable wage means the employer has a duty to pay the employee fairly. And it also requires the worker to work faithfully for his or her pay. Justice cuts both ways.
Hill acknowledges that love is generally viewed as the pre-eminent virtue. However, it needs to be moderated by the other two characteristics. Its primary contribution to the holiness-justice-love mix is its emphasis on relationships, through empathy, mercy and self-sacrifice. Love creates bonds between people, and conversely, the breaching of these bonds causes pain.
A Three-Legged Stool
Hill’s view then is that “a business act is ethical if it reflects God’s holy-just-loving character.” (There’s no particular significance to the ordering of these three characteristics. In fact, they are completely intertwined with each other.) The image Hill uses to express this is that of a three-legged stool. If we are to operate biblically in business, all three aspects (legs) need to be taken into account consistently; otherwise, we will have a badly imbalanced stool.
For example, if holiness is overemphasized to the exclusion of love and justice, then the result will be legalism, self-righteous judgmentalism and withdrawal from society.
If justice dominates, then harsh results, emotional coldness and condemnation are the likely outcome.
When love is the only major measure, things can easily lapse into permissiveness and favoritism, because there are no other moral compass points to direct us to the limits that love requires.
Alexander Hill condemns any attempt to reduce Scripture to a book of rules that can be applied to specific situations. He’s also acutely aware of the complexities of the business world. (This is something that Wayne appreciates!)
While Hill’s approach is built on three principles (broad commands implied by the characteristics of God), he frequently also takes into account the consequences — especially to determine whether justice has been produced.
How is Wayne Helped by This Approach?
Wayne struggles to get his head around exactly what holiness looks like in his situation, but he finds the balancing principles of justice and love quite useful. What particular rights and duties exist in his seller-customer relationship? And what response to the customer’s request might be just for both parties? Wayne resolves that he may have a duty to contribute to the repair — though he thinks that the customer also has a responsibility to contribute. Justice cuts both ways — being fair to both customer and seller.
Given that Wayne gave the customer a very cheap price on the car in the first place — with little profit margin — he feels it would be unfair to be expected to pay for the entire repair. But the principle of love causes him to also reflect carefully on the question, “What might it mean for me to love this person?” Again, while no definitive answer results, it does prompt Wayne to consider the customer’s own financial situation. What impact will a sizeable repair bill have on this particular customer?
Some General Comments
One of the great strengths of Hill’s approach is the clarity it provides when considering more complex ethical dilemmas, without being too simplistic. The holiness-justice-love stool is more carefully balanced than the single principle of the Golden Rule, and infinitely less cumbersome than the multi-rule approaches we looked at previously.
The main limitation of the three-legged stool is that we’re still left with the challenge of determining exactly what is holy, just and loving for the affected parties. And what do you do when justice, say, conflicts with love? Which gets priority?
But nevertheless Wayne is beginning to feel he’s making progress. It was always obvious that reaching a decision would not be easy, but Hill’s three-legged stool in particular has given him something to work with. Clearly, whatever approach to ethics we adopt, discerning and balancing the relevant rules and principles is an important part. But in addition, we must also try to calculate the consequences of different courses of action to see which decisions produce the most loving and just and holy results.
Until now, Wayne has been asking, “What are the rules I should follow?” — and looking for rules or principles from the Bible.
But another way for Wayne to approach this is to evaluate which option would produce the best result. In other words, if Wayne examined the potential consequences of each response and compared the likely results, he might be able to decide based on the ideal outcome. In this approach, Wayne would stop looking for rules to tell him what to do at every step, but would instead simply do whatever it takes to achieve the proper outcome.
This approach of calculating consequences and comparing the results is often known as “consequentialism” or “teleological ethics” — from the Greek word telos, meaning “end.” Unlike the command approach (where the best option is determined by whether the action conforms to the applicable rules) the consequences approach is decided by the outcome. It is the end result that determines what is the most moral course of action.
Because so many people think of the Bible as a rule book, and of ethics in terms of the Ten Commandments, it is perhaps surprising to discover how often the Scriptures themselves encourage readers to consider the consequences of their actions and let this influence their decision making.
The book of Proverbs does this repeatedly. It is full of warnings and promises, in pithy little sayings that spell out the likely outcomes of certain actions. For example, Proverbs 14:14: “The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good what their deeds deserve.”
Jesus too warns his listeners to weigh carefully the consequences of their decisions. In fact, in one sense the whole life and ministry of Jesus can be viewed as a living example of making decisions for the “greater good.” His Beatitudes display an implicit consequential aspect — if you want to be “filled” then hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc. The same applies to much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, such as:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. (5:25)
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (6:3-4)
If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (6:15)
Considering the consequences should play an important role in our decision-making. However, as Wayne will discover, consequentialism raises four curly questions. They are:
- What is good? (How do we define good? For example, presumably it is more than simply making the customer — or Wayne — financially better off.)
- Good for whom? (Who really benefits from this decision?)
- Can the good be calculated? (Can we fully foresee what will result and is good in any given situation?)
- Good in what context? (Can things that are good in one context be bad in another?)
Our definition of what is good is critical. The best-known form of consequentialist thinking defines happiness or pleasure as the highest good. This particular version of consequentialist ethics is called "Utilitarianism." Whatever produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people is good. Happiness is viewed as the primary goal of life (and with it goes the implication that pain should in all circumstances be minimized or avoided).
However, in the Bible happiness is not considered the ultimate good. Even when happiness is the subject of attention in the Bible, it tends to be redefined in ways that are significantly different from our culture’s understanding. For example, Jesus turns our thinking upside down in his Beatitudes. He claims that the situations we might feel aggrieved or sad about can be the very ones to make us blessed or happy!
So how might we define good biblically? In the Bible, what is considered good? The state of the world prior to the Fall in Genesis 3 is declared “good” and “very good” by God (Genesis 1:4, 9, 12, 18, 21, 25, 32 and 2:18-24). This state is restored and extended when Christ returns again and ushers in the new heaven/new earth of Revelation 21-22. The history of Israel; the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and God’s provision for the Christian community all have as their primary purpose the restoration of this state. And elements of this state are described in many biblical passages, including these:
People live in joyful relationships with God and with other people. (Genesis 2:19-25)
People do work that is enjoyable and provides the necessities of life for everyone. (Genesis 2:7-9)
People have equal standing in society without discrimination by race, economic disparity or sex. (Galatians 3:23)
There is no sickness or disease. (Revelation 21:4; 22:2)
Societies live in peace and prosperity. (Micah 4:3-4)
Although happiness seems much more possible in such a world than it is in the broken world we see around us, God’s primary intention is not to make us happy. It is to make us whole, as we were originally created to be. The New Testament is clear that embracing suffering and pain is often the road to wholeness — whether for us, or for those whom our suffering helps.
The choice Jesus made to submit to the way of the Cross is our model. He denied himself in order to bring liberation and life for others: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). 
An issue for consequentialist ethics is defining whose consequences are to be optimized.
There are those who use self-interest as the measuring stick. They take the approach that if the decision brings about good for them, then it is the best choice to make. This school of thought is known as ethical egoism.
You’re not impressed with this line of thinking? Well, before you rubbish it as completely wrong, reflect further on Wayne’s dilemma. Self-interest does not always mean operating from a totally selfish perspective. Wayne could choose to repair the problem in his customer’s car as a result of self-interest. He might decide that long-term his reputation and capacity to gain new business are dependent on satisfying the customer’s expectations.
So what might seem from the outside as a selfless response can often be driven by self-interest. And this is not always bad or wrong. It often has positive outcomes. We might say, “What’s good for me will often be good for everyone.” The economist and philosopher Adam Smith (often known as the father of modern capitalism) argued something like this when he said about those in business:
By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.
Today this may be judged rather optimistic and naïve. (Even the most capitalist of nations have added countless laws to protect customers and consumers.)
The Greater Good
A second and more substantial group of people advocates that consequences should determine our ethical decisions by using the greater good as the measuring stick. This group takes the approach that the best decision is the one that will bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. As we have seen, Utilitarianism seeks to maximize the good (happiness, in the case of Utilitarianism) for the greatest number. A course of action is not good if it makes a few people very happy but does nothing — or makes things worse — for a large number of people. Conversely, an act can be good if it makes many people happy at the expense of a few.
But we must be wary of making decisions based on the good of the majority when they have potentially negative or disastrous consequences for the minority — particularly if that minority is a marginalized and largely powerless group. Under such end-justifies-the-means terms, all manner of evils have been condoned.
The Bible consistently calls God’s people to stand up for and protect the poor and the marginalized. In fact, the Prophets regularly challenge the people of God to care for the most vulnerable, even declaring that the health of a society is measured by how they treat the "orphan, widow and alien" (three significant marginalized groups).
However, let’s not suggest that the end never justifies the means. There are hard choices to be made, where no alternative is thoroughly good or right. In such cases, the decision-makers are left with a choice between relative degrees of evil. The theory of war called "just war theory" is an example of how ethicists have tried to offer guidance in such situations. Sometimes a choice brings pain for others. However unavoidable that suffering may be, the choice must be made with genuine compassion and humility.
What Does This Mean for Wayne?
Attempting to consider the consequences of his decision is actually a lot simpler for Wayne in this particular situation than in many cases. This is because, as Wayne sees it, there are really only two parties who might be affected by his decision — he and the customer. Unlike many of the other decisions he faces as a car dealer which involve indefinable consequences relating to their impact on environmental, social and community issues, this choice is rather more simple. What good will result from a decision to pay for, or at least contribute to the repair? The answer is that he will have a satisfied customer and one who may be saved from unnecessary financial hardship. This may well serve the greater good better than not paying and benefiting personally as a result.
Consequences can be hard to measure and quantify; sometimes impossibly so. In some cases we know the consequences, but lack a way to measure them. Will you be happier if you get a job you enjoy or a job that makes you a lot of money? In other cases, we may not even recognize all the consequences of our decisions. There are often people and environments affected that we have not taken into account. Sometimes there is no way even to know about them in advance.
At a number of points, the Bible helps us recognize our own finiteness and severely limited perspective. In contrast, God is all-knowing and all-wise. While humans are responsible for their actions and expected to consider carefully the consequences, humility is required, and with it a dependence on the only One who knows all things.
Frequently we have no real way of knowing what consequences will result from our actions, or indeed how to rate or measure the good. On these counts alone, while a consideration of the consequences is often a valuable component of our decision-making, it is not sufficient as the only ethical approach. At the very least, both commands and consequences need to be taken into account. Commands often serve to guide us towards actions that can reasonably be expected to lead to good outcomes, in addition to being inherently good in themselves. For example, the command “Do not lie” is very likely to lead to better consequences than its opposite, especially in complex situations in which it would be hard to predict the consequences of telling a lie, even a well-intentioned “white” lie. At the same time, paying attention to the consequences often helps us determine which rules apply in which circumstances. “Do not murder” applies in all circumstances because the consequence is death, which cannot be undone by human power. But “Honor the Sabbath day” does not apply in the sense of preventing you from healing a person who is sick on the Sabbath, because the consequence of pain and suffering is antithetical to God’s restoration of the world to the state he intends for it (Luke 13:10-16, John 5:1-9).
Context is ethically important. Sometimes this is because actions mean different things among people of different cultures. Sometimes it is because people’s circumstances are different.
One of the best-known examples of this from the Bible is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8, where he examines ethical decisions that arise from eating food offered to idols. The key issue, he points out, is how our behavior will affect “weak believers.” In this case, Paul puts love and consideration for others ahead of his own liberty to do as he feels fit. The question is not just, “Is it right?” but rather, “What outcomes will it lead to?” What he feels free to do in one situation, he chooses not to do in another, where it might cause offense or problems. Paul is deciding on the rightness or wisdom of the action according to the consequences in this particular context.
This is not the same as moral relativism. Recognizing that Christian values need to be translated contextually, because what is good in one situation may not be good in another, is very different to the full blown relativism that is such a feature of our culture, where there are no absolute standards of truth or morality. For example, the command not to lie is an absolute standard. Yet it applies differently in different contexts: “Did you pay for this already?” requires a different process of application of the principle than, “Does this shirt look good on me?”
Increasingly, the society we live in is becoming more and more multicultural. We can expect to face a number of situations where the context challenges us to change our practices. For example, if you’re an employer, how do you allocate bereavement leave when several of your staff are from ethnic backgrounds where it is culturally essential for them to take several days, a number of times a year, to attend the funerals of relatives and friends?
Or suppose you are a tent manufacturer and you decide to get your tents made in a much poorer part of the world because of much cheaper costs. How do you decide what is appropriate payment for your employees?
The issue of context goes beyond cross-cultural matters. It’s also a factor in working out whether to treat people differently because of their circumstances. For example, a doctor might use graduated fees for patients based on their income. A car dealer might take a person’s economic circumstances into account when negotiating a price, as Flow Automotive did when they realized that poor people tend to end up paying more for cars because they tend to be less practiced in negotiations.
How Do Contextual Concerns Affect Wayne's Decision-Making?
When Wayne begins thinking about ways that these particular circumstances are influencing possible courses of action, he finds himself trying to understand and anticipate a number of things.
We’ve already mentioned the question of the customer’s financial situation. If Wayne refuses to pay for the repair, or only contributes partially, what impact financially is that likely have on the customer and his family? Is it likely to create stress? Wayne thinks that this is worth taking into consideration. In fact, for him it is part of the wider question of love and justice.
What if Wayne is aware that the customer is generous and liberal with his own time and money — serving others and genuinely seeking to make a difference in the world? If this is the case, Wayne may feel it is extra fitting to extend generosity towards him.
At the same time, Wayne is aware of also considering what he can afford, and the implications for him and his family if he ends up making little or no profit on this sale.
There’s another angle. Should Wayne think carefully about the sort of precedent he is setting? If he takes a soft line, will other customers also come running for assistance? Wayne smiles ruefully at the possibility. But for him personally, this is not a major issue. The other factors he has sifted through are, as far as he is concerned, of much greater importance. He doesn’t mind if he acquires a reputation as a “soft touch,” so long as he is satisfied with the appropriateness of his choice.
This gets Wayne thinking about how his character is being shaped to make moral choices.
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The two main approaches to decision-making that Wayne has made use of for analyzing his car-dealing dilemma so far — commands and consequences — concern themselves with the morality of the action/choice itself. However, there is another way of considering ethical choices — one that doesn’t focus on the action but rather on the person making the decision. This is often called “virtue” or “character” ethics, because its chief concern is the character of the person performing the action.
Rather than asking, “What is right?” or “What will produce the best results?” the virtue approach asks, “What type of person should I become?” The assumption is that if you mold your character more and more on God’s character, this will increasingly lead to doing the right/good thing. For this reason, it is more an ethics of being than of doing.
It also recognizes a flaw in the process that all of us are only too aware of. Knowing what the right thing is doesn’t ensure that the right thing is done! This is because it takes character to do the right thing.
Previously we’ve thought through the ways in which understanding God’s character might shape how we make our decisions. (We’ve especially looked at God’s love, justice and holiness.) The aim was to see how we might use those characteristics as a grid through which to determine right decisions. That fell under the command approach because we were trying to follow God’s character, not to form it! In the character approach, we ask how our actions will form or shape our characters. To do so, let’s subtly change the emphasis. Let’s look at how God’s character is shaping our characters. As Christians, our aim is to become more holy, just and loving people, so that these characteristics becoming ingrained in us as default settings.
To repeat, this is not just about the character of God anymore. Now the emphasis is on our characters.
There are several reasons why this is so important. Firstly, the way we have been talking about ethical dilemmas so far suggests a rather idealized decision making process, where we have both the time and the ability to reason our way through complex issues towards our decision. And sometimes we do. But most of our decisions are made in a split second while we are on the run. How we respond to a complaint from our boss, or sort out a misunderstanding with a customer, or advise an inexperienced shopper, or motivate an underperforming team — these steps are often taken without much thinking at all. It would be much more effective if we could depend on ingrained character traits or virtues to lead us instinctively to right decisions and actions.
Secondly, could it be that many of our ethical choices are already substantially decided before we make the decision? In other words, our characters automatically shape much of what we decide to do. Even when we do have time to think through a decision carefully, our decisions tend to be strongly influenced by our habits and characters, for better or worse. Because of this, our ethical decisions are largely determined by who we are (the type of character and values we’ve embodied), rather than what decision-making process we employ. Iris Murdoch has said, “At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.”
Thirdly, the character-based approach makes it easier to take into account the role of the community in ethical formation and decisions. Although we often perceive ourselves as individuals freely making personal decisions, our decisions can be shaped significantly by our communities. As we shall see, the character-based approach is often more effective at making use of the ethical resources our communities can offer.
For these reasons, some people believe that rather than focusing on good decision-making, we would do better to concentrate on developing good character. They claim that when virtue and goodness are grown in our lives, good decisions will automatically follow.
If developing character and virtue are so important, then there are several key questions we have to grapple with. They are:
- How do we define a virtue?
- Who actually determines what is virtuous?
- How do virtues actually develop?
The first of these questions is probably the easiest to answer. The Oxford Dictionary defines “virtue” as “a quality considered morally good or desirable.” Every culture values certain qualities highly. In their context they are considered virtuous.
But the second question regarding who exactly determines what particular qualities are good is a little more complex. Over the years, many philosophers, theologians and thinkers have attempted to list and define virtues. For example, Aristotle emphasized the classical Greek virtues of justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance. Ambrose (339-397), an early Christian leader, said that these were implicit in the Bible, but also added another three specifically biblical (or “theological”) virtues — faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13). As far back as the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great contrasted these seven virtues with corresponding vices — the ones we now know as the “seven deadly sins.” It is only recently that Protestant theologians have begun to seriously explore virtues. Glen Stassen and David Gushee suggest that “virtues are character traits that enable us to contribute (positively) to community.”
So what does this mean for those of us who follow Jesus? Who or what should determine for us what is virtuous? Clearly the Bible is the answer to this, and within the Scriptures, we suggest that the focal point for determining Christian virtues should be the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus is our most visible expression of God’s character. So if we want to know what virtues to develop, observing the qualities Jesus modeled and talked about is our best starting point. We agree with Stassen and Gushee who note that:
The Bible is not flat; Christ is its peak and its center. No moral issue should be addressed apart from consideration of the meaning of Jesus Christ for reflection on that issue.
The largest body of Jesus’ ethical teaching is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a good place to start if we are seeking to consider what specific virtues followers of Jesus should aspire to. To be even more focused, it’s in the Beatitudes that Jesus shines the spotlight on key virtues — the qualities and behaviors he especially values. Poverty of spirit, mercy, a thirst and hunger for justice, meekness/humility, peacemaking, compassion (Matthew 5:1-12) — these, it seems, should be our prime goals.
Repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus links our actions directly to our character — to our core attitudes and motives. Other comments by Jesus throughout the Gospels reinforce this connection. For example, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice…” (Mark 7:21-22).
The early church was quick to pick up on the importance of imitating Jesus. Take the writings of Paul, where we find a significant emphasis on character development. For example, he exhorts the Galatians not to gratify the desires of “the flesh” but rather to allow the Spirit to grow “fruit” such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:16-25). To the Philippians, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves … Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).
Christ then is our example and model. It is his character that we are called to develop. These references reflect the overwhelming emphasis the New Testament places on growing the character of Jesus.
All this talk about virtues has got Wayne a little confused. It’s hard to evaluate how your own character is developing. In fact, true character is probably more accurately measured by the observation of others than from our own analysis.
However, Wayne has been aware all through his decision-making process of a significant reaction. Rather than finding it easy to resist the customer’s complaint about the car and the request to fix it, his heart has gone out to the customer. Wayne genuinely wants to respond in a way that expresses care and concern. In fact, looking back over the slow but real development of Christian character through his lifetime, he especially recognizes (and values) a growth in compassion, kindness and generosity.
The result is he finds himself wanting to respond positively to the customer’s request in a way that many others might not. So, when Wayne begins to calculate the consequences, it is more about how far he can afford to go in providing assistance rather than how he can resist the customer’s request. It seems that his default setting has already been defined by values that are shaping his character.
We all know people whose lives exude character. The way they work in the marketplace seems to have integrity or consistency with the rest of their lives. But just exactly how have they become people of such character?
In our highly individualistic culture, it’s easy to presume that this has largely occurred as a result of the person’s strong commitment to Christ, a rigorous discipline and piety, and a desire to grow the character of Jesus in his or her life.
However, while these elements are clearly important, and the Holy Spirit certainly does transform us in deeply personal ways, such change rarely occurs outside of a wider context. Both MacIntyre and Hauerwas (two recent advocates of virtue ethics) emphasize the huge role that community plays in shaping and embodying the virtuous life. In fact, they suggest that the telling of stories (narratives) of a particular community is a primary shaper of a group’s character. Stories engage our imaginations and get us involved in ways that are often self-revealing. They have power to help develop both character and community.
For example, the dominant story in American culture for many years has been the self-directed individual who breaks free from the oppression of social conformity. From Frank Sinatra singing, “My Way” to the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” (to name just one — since most Hollywood movies are variations on this story) to the popularity of Babe Ruth, the dominant story is the triumph of the individual’s inner personality over the crushing burden of social expectations. It can be interesting to read the newspaper and trace how the event and the paper’s reporting of it are related to this dominant story, whether for worse or for better.
Clearly, for Christians the Bible provides our primary narrative. It is also a story of the triumph of an individual — Jesus — over the oppression of society. But Jesus repeatedly denies being self-directed. Instead he says his direction comes from outside, namely from God (e.g., John 12:49-50). And we are to become like Jesus (1 John 3:2). The story of Scripture reminds us of the people we are created by God to become and how God’s perspectives and values should shape our life in the world. It’s a story that we can find ourselves within, and one that invites responses from us with profound moral implications.
For Hauerwas, Stassen and Gushee, the specific story most critical to Christians is the story of Jesus, whose character and virtues are what we are called to emulate.
But the gospel narrative does not reach us in sharp focus. Despite ourselves, we absorb it through a filter — the filter of our culture and of our faith community. The way we retell this story — what virtues we emphasize, what failures we highlight, and how we encourage one another to nurture the habits and practices it describes — all of these have a significant impact on how we grow in virtue.
In fact, we need to be acutely aware of the tendency of all faith communities to reframe Jesus in ways that are less challenging to their own lifestyle and worldview. Making Jesus into our own image is a temptation we all face. Western churches of today live in a society where wealth and affluence are widespread, and where the story of self-directed triumph is accepted to a degree unknown ever before in history. The danger we face is to unconsciously filter out the enormous social, economic, political and environmental implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. When that happens, as it sadly often does, all we are left with in our faith-community narratives is a Jesus who limits himself to addressing a small range of personal moral issues.
This is not the Jesus of the Gospels. For Jesus models and teaches a consistent ethic of life, not one severely truncated and restricted to issues of sexual conduct and personal honesty — however important those might be. The ethics of Jesus encompass so much more.
So godly character does not just occur as a result of individual transformation. It is in the context of community that such character is primarily nurtured and developed. And that community must find ways to expose the inevitable blind spots of its take on Jesus. As Benjamin Farley writes:
The New Testament, in concert with the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes the indispensable context of the believing community, which, in this instance, is the church, the ekklesia. It is within this nurturing context of faith, hope and love that the Christian life, as a process, unfolds. It is never a matter of the individual alone, pitted against an alien and hostile culture, that constitutes the epicenter of Christian moral action.
If you came here from the Systematic Presentation article on ethics, click here to return to the Systematic Presentation. Otherwise, keep reading below.
Virtue ethics has important lessons to teach us:
- Making ethical decisions in the marketplace is much more than developing a good decision-making process. It’s even more than agreeing to a “Code of Ethics.” Who we are becoming will substantially shape our ethical choices.
- We cannot develop God’s character alone. We need others. When we are committed to a community seeking to retell, understand, embrace and live out the gospel story, we are much more likely to become people of virtue. And the world of business certainly needs people of character.
Such communities must find ways of discovering a clearer picture of the character of Jesus, of asking the hard and uncomfortable questions that help us confront our limited view of the virtuous life. When this happens, we are less likely to duplicate the many sad examples of Christians doing business in a thoroughly sub-Christian manner.
If you came here from the Systematic Presentation article on ethics and would like to return to where you left, click here to return to the Systematic Presentation. Otherwise, keep reading below.
Commands, Consequences and Character – three different approaches to making ethical decisions. And, as we have seen, there are plenty of variations within these streams. The truth is that in real everyday situations most people use a combination of approaches. For example, it’s hard to apply specific commands or rules without also considering the consequences of such actions. At the same time, when we weigh and compare different consequences we’ll want to identify the rules that lead to those results. And in the end, regardless of whatever we’ve decided in theory, it is actually character and an openness to the nudging of God’s Holy Spirit that often dictate how we act.
So when it comes to making moral decisions, we find ourselves involved in an ethical dance that is an interplay between these different approaches.
Summary of the Three Approaches
Approach to ethics
What do the rules say?
What will produce the best outcome?
Am I becoming a good person?
Which of these approaches do you favor in your own decision-making? Frequently, it depends on the nature of the situation you find yourself in. For example, are you trying to solve a major moral dilemma … or is this an everyday moral choice? Let’s explain what we mean.
Sometimes major moral dilemmas require and allow for careful consideration over an extended period of time. In such cases, one way of going about this decision-making process is to:
- Gather all the relevant facts.
- Clarify the key ethical issues.
- Identify rules and commands that are relevant for the case.
- Consult the important sources of guidance — especially the Bible, with sensitivity to the best way of reading the Bible to address this situation. But also consult other relevant sources.
- List all the alternative courses of action.
- Compare the alternatives with the principles.
- Calculate the likely results of each course of action, and consider the consequences.
- Consider your decision prayerfully before God.
- Make your decision and act on it.
As you can see, setting a course when faced with a major moral decision calls for a lot of blood, sweat and tears! Especially for an organization. However, when it comes to dealing with everyday problems that we meet as individuals, the pace of life is likely to make us more streamlined.
We have already suggested that most ethical decisions in our daily lives and work are made instantly, often under pressure and without much room for forethought. They are instinctive, being the product of habits of a lifetime, as well as shaped by the culture of the places we work and by the peer groups and faith communities we belong to.
Such decisions are influenced by the extent to which Christian virtues and character have been molded into the core of our being. This is regular Christian discipleship.
However, the importance of being as the foundation for our doing does not mean we have no need for moral reasoning. Within the virtuous life there is still a place for understanding rules and calculating consequences — but here the rules and consequences are subordinated to the virtues. They’re viewed as servants rather than masters. For example, even a person with the virtue of honesty has to understand and obey the rules of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (International Financial Reporting Standards, outside the USA) in order to produce accurate financial statements. Terms such as “in our opinion” and “unforeseeable” have particular definitions that must be followed. But an honest person always uses the rules to increase the overall accuracy of the financial statement, never to find a way to obscure the truth without breaking any laws.
This emphasis on virtues does not eliminate moral dilemmas. In fact, competing virtues are also capable of pulling us in different directions. Examples of this are the tensions that sometimes exist between justice and peace, or loyalty and truth, or courage and prudence.
Making good moral decisions in these cases is less about seeing one right answer (because there probably is not just one) and more about striving for a balanced Christian response that recognizes all the competing priorities.
We are not just left striving earnestly all the time to discern and enact the perfect Christian response. In fact, recognizing that we live in a fallen world means realizing that often there is no perfect Christian response — that sometimes all courses of action include negative consequences. It is only by God’s grace that we can live forgiven and free as Christians. No longer desperately dependent on trying to do the right thing in order to earn God’s approval, but still committed to try to do the right thing as defined by the character of our Lord and Savior, the carpenter of Nazareth, in whose footsteps we follow as we go about our daily work.
The suggestion that every Christian is called to share the gospel is unsettling to most Christians, since most of us don’t feel gifted as evangelists. Although it is thrilling to be part of someone’s journey to faith, broaching a spiritual conversation with colleagues at work can arouse no small amount of angst.
A Workable Definition of Evangelism
Evangelism is …
the organic process of intentionally engaging
individuals in their spiritual journey
joining the Holy Spirit
watching for where he is already at work
to help these individuals take one step closer to God
and new life in Christ,
becoming the unique reflection of the image of Christ
as the resurrected, glorified persons God intended.
Success in evangelism is consistently taking the initiative, using the gifts and opportunities God gives us, to help individuals move one step closer to Christ.
This might be true of you—and for a lot of understandable reasons. You might feel unprepared to answer the questions you fear colleagues will throw at you. You might feel like broaching spiritual conversations is inappropriate for the workplace—or that’s what you’ve been told. You might feel a bit intimidated by hostile attitudes toward Christianity held by some coworkers. You might think that sharing your faith could create conflict and generate bad feelings with colleagues. You might feel unqualified because—well, you know your faith isn’t very exemplary at work.
But what if we understood that being part of someone’s journey to faith in Jesus could begin with something as simple as having a cup of coffee with a colleague, encouraging someone who has had a rough week at work, or offering a helping hand to a boss or coworker under stress? What if we truly believed Jesus’ words about sharing the gospel with others?
- What if we believed that Jesus authorizes us to act on his behalf to fulfill our calling as his witnesses at work that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18)?
- What if his promise is true that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26)?
- What if we were confident in Christ’s presence—that he is with us always and everywhere, in every situation (Matthew 28:20)?
- What if even in brief interactions and casual mentions of our faith, we knew the Holy Spirit was at work in the hearts and minds of people to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8)?
- What if we knew we didn’t have to be perfect and say just the right things—that it was God’s work to draw people to himself that “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father” (John 6:44)?
- What if we understood that simply doing a good job at work can turn on the light for coworkers “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16)?
This is what early Christians believed and how they saw their role in fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations—and it changed the world. It’s the greatest communication success story in human history—how the gospel spread across the Mediterranean world and ultimately to every corner of the earth. Just before his ascension, Jesus outlined his strategic plan for reaching the entire world with the good news of God’s kingdom. He told his followers, And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) First-century disciples embraced this mission, and followers of Jesus grew from a few hundred before the day of Pentecost to over six million by the end of the third century—considerable growth by anyone’s calculus.
We might be tempted to believe that the exponential growth of the early church was the result of effective preaching by Peter, Paul, and a few other gifted communicators whose occupation was spreading the gospel. Or we might credit Paul’s strategy of targeting key cultural centers and planting churches that could share the gospel throughout the surrounding countryside. These efforts were no doubt noteworthy—after all they’re in the Bible  —but even more so is the fact that early Christians of every ethnicity, gender, and level of society were passionate about extending Christ’s kingdom. They were determined to “act as Christ’s embassy to a rebel world, whatever the consequences.”
History and the New Testament tell us that the gospel spread like wildfire along trade routes, in public places, and from house to house—or in Greek, from oikos to oikos. An oikos was the basic social and economic unit of the Greco-Roman world—not just a home where a family lived, but the small business of ancient times that included extended family members, workers, and customers who frequented the place.
It was through informal conversations within and between oikoi that men and women shared the gospel with friends, relatives, coworkers, colleagues, customers, students, teachers, and fellow soldiers—through their network of workplace relationships. They were not professional clergy but informal evangelists.
As early as Acts 8 we find that it is not the apostles but the “amateur” missionaries, the men evicted from Jerusalem as a result of the persecution which followed Stephen’s martyrdom, who took the gospel with them wherever they went. … This must not have been formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing.
As a result, the workplace became the most strategic venue for evangelism for the early church.
A study conducted by LifeWay Research found 80 percent of those who attend church one or more times a month, believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but most never do.
Today, the church of Jesus Christ is experiencing similar exponential growth in the Global South—which raises a question: With over 340,000 churches  and more than 600,000 clergy, and 75 percent of Americans “looking for ways to live a more meaningful life,” why is the Christian population in the West shrinking while the non-religious population is growing?
As Western culture moves further away from Christ, we might assume that reaching people with the gospel has become more difficult. In a way this is true. It is certainly harder to get people to visit a church, to listen to a gospel presentation from a stranger, or to attend a crusade. But a door for the gospel remains wide open through personal relationships. In fact, studies show that up to 90 percent of people in a given congregation who come to Christ as adults, do so because of a relationship with one or more Christians outside the four walls of the church. This is what makes the workplace so strategic. It’s where the actual work we do every day can not only contribute to human flourishing, but also give living proof that the gospel really is good news.
Christians of every era are called to be Christ’s ambassadors. An ambassador is a personal envoy sent from the head of a state. Just as a head of state sends an ambassador on a diplomatic mission, Christ sends us on a mission to represent him in both words and actions.
We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
The job has two aspects—conveying messages from the sovereign and representing the sovereign personally. Conveying messages requires words, but representing the sovereign personally requires more than words. It also takes action, for example by demonstrating the sovereign’s character and acting to accomplish the sovereign’s purposes. As Christ’s ambassadors, we convey Christ’s message of good news and we live in ways that show God’s love for the people we encounter at work and everywhere we go.
Jesus' words in Acts 1:8 flesh out this picture of being an ambassador. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus does not send his followers to go witnessing, but to be his witnesses. To go witnessing might only mean speaking words about God somewhere away from home, but to be a witness means living a life that shows God’s love wherever we are. In fact, we are never commanded in the Bible to go witnessing. To focus on telling before showing disconnects who we are from what we say—and that’s a problem. Church historian Michael Greene notes that the early church’s impact on the world was dependent on this linkage of the messengers’ lives and their words.
It was axiomatic that every Christian was called to be a witness to Christ, not only by life but lip.
The connection between belief and behavior runs right through Christian literature. The two cannot be separated without disastrous results. Among them, the end of effective evangelism.
Notice the order in Paul’s instructions to the Colossians, how actions precede spiritual conversation.
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. (Colossians 4:5-6, NIV)
When we serve other people through our actions, we bring the love of Jesus to them. Evangelism is not as much about bringing people to Jesus but bringing Jesus to people—to show and then tell. Bringing Jesus to people—serving them—was key to Paul’s strategy of bringing people to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 9:19 he says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Paul was willing to reach out to people wherever they felt at home in terms of space, language, or history, not make them accommodate themselves to him.
What does it look like to be Christ’s ambassador at work—to serve Christ at work and represent him there? While none of us will do these things perfectly, there are four components that make our witness credible to others—competence, character, concern, and wise conversation. We encourage you to consider how God can use these elements to attract others to himself. They are not a formula, a technique, or steps to success, but ways we show that our faith is real to coworkers and colleagues. As we review these concepts ourselves, we consistently see areas where we need to improve. But no one has messed up to the point of hopelessness. In fact, where we’ve made mistakes and can humbly confess our shortcomings, our witness becomes more believable. Even if it were possible to be perfect, people can’t identify with perfect Christians. To be able to identify with us as witnesses, they need to know that we ourselves need grace.
As Christ’s ambassadors we are key players in the great drama of redemption. God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself and he wants us to join him. He does not need us to carry out his plans, yet he gives us this great privilege. He has invited us to join him in redeeming creation and participating with the Holy Spirit in drawing people to himself. In his infinite wisdom, God ordained that his sovereignty and human responsibility would work together to achieve his purposes. Too grand for our finite minds to comprehend, God calls us to believe this in faith and fulfill our role in his story by making disciples. As workplace followers of Christ we have not only an obligation but an incredible opportunity to foster human flourishing and spread the gospel to the men and women with whom we live and work. None of us is equal to the task, but fortunately God is. God’s ability, not our own, is ultimately what gives us confidence in the work of evangelism. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
For Further Reading
Workplace Grace by Bill Peel and Walt Larrimore
Permission Evangelism by Michael L. Simpson
The Heart of Evangelism by Jerram Barrs
Apologetics at the Cross by Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen
This article is currently in development.
Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly. Most sections of overview articles are also on the website as brief resources in their own right.
Research has not yet begun on this article.
Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly. Most sections of overview articles are also on the website as brief resources in their own right.
This article is in development. We expect to complete it in 2014 or 2015.
The effectiveness of a church’s mission largely depends on its ability to mobilize its people in doing God’s work in the world. The largest force the church has to accomplish its mission is the People of God engaged in the life of the world every day in the course of their daily work. The church’s mission includes bringing people to Christ, guiding their spiritual growth and taking care of their needs. Yet the church’s mission to those beyond its congregation is an even greater need. Our purpose here is to focus on how churches equip their people to make the world beyond the church more like the way God intends the world to be.
Fortunately, increasing numbers of churches are developing new ways of resourcing and supporting their people for this work. We will describe both the thinking of these equipping churches and the practical strategies they are adopting. We hope that all the resources on the Theology of Work Project website can be of use to churches and workplace Christians in this regard. We welcome churches and individuals to send us materials and evaluations of resources they have tried for incorporation into future Theology of Work Project resources.
Churches that develop the ability to equip their people for mission in daily work usually find themselves asking the following questions:
- What is God’s Mission in the World?
- How does human work connect to God’s work?
- What does this mean for people in their daily work?
- How can we equip our people for God’s work in the world?
First of all, God’s mission is to inspire people to work with the materials he provides to bring forth new and good creations and to order the natural world. The world God created is good, and when humans begin to work alongside God in creation, things become ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). Unfortunately, because of the Fall of humanity, the world comes up far short of God’s intent, and the human condition ranges from very good (still, at times) to dismal or worse. Nonetheless, over the entire course of history—concentrated first in the nation of Israel, centered on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and continuing in God’s people today—God gives people the grace to return to him. He heals the World’s brokenness, and he opens the way to fully restore his original intent for the world, including humanity’s role of co-creativity with him. Both the creation of the world and its redemption by God’s grace are therefore the mission of God.
Christians participate in the mission of God through every activity of life that expresses God’s creativity, sustains God’s creation, and cooperates with God’s redemption. The church—including church-related organizations—is the one body exclusively dedicated to advancing the mission of God, so all Christians are part of the church. Of course, the church itself is not the kingdom of God, and church work is not the only way believers go about the work of advancing God’s kingdom. As Dallas Willard put it, ‘The church is for discipleship, and discipleship is for the world’. Gathered in churches, Christians advance the mission of God through a wide variety of activities. Scattered into an amazing variety of workplaces, we have opportunities to advance the mission of God through daily work in every sphere of society. Anglican Bishop D.T. Niles of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) pointed out that ‘the Church is the only society which exists for the benefit of its non-members’. The church comes into contact with non-members primarily through its people’s daily interactions with people in their places of work.
The result is that churches do the mission of God themselves, and they equip Christians to do the mission of God in other spheres of life and work. The latter role—equipping Christians for work outside church bodies—is essential, because unless Christians are trained and supported for it, our work is likely to have little positive effect toward God’s mission. Churches that support Christians at work find themselves on a journey in mission. Their focus has expanded from concentrating on what God is doing in the church to include what God is doing in the world. They also help church members gain a glimpse of the God who goes before them into their workday worlds and invites them to operate as partners in God’s work there.
Among churches that have undergone this shift in perspective, different theological emphases may be seen.
For some churches, it is an expansion of their existing evangelistic emphasis. They now more deliberately recognise workplaces as a strategic priority in their evangelistic outreach. After all, this is where most people spend the majority of their time and where Christians are most often in close contact with non-Christians.
For other churches, understanding God’s mission has involved embracing a broader view of mission that involves participation in the creating, sustaining and redeeming work of God the Father, Son and Spirit. Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, for example, has developed a remarkable faith and work programme dedicated to ‘the renaissance of Christian cultural engagement in New York City’. They understand that God’s mission includes ‘culture making,’ in the city at large, in addition to calling people to come to Christ through the church. Churches embracing this understanding of mission are often shaped by the influence of thinkers such as John Stott and Lesslie Newbigin. Stott’s influence has helped some from conservative evangelical backgrounds to add a new concern for serving others and caring for creation through their work, in addition to introducing people to Jesus. Lesslie Newbigin warned churches in the West against separating personal spirituality from the way we live and the issues we address at work and in the community. Miroslav Volf, coming from an eastern European Pentecostal background, adds an emphasis on work in the spirit.
For some other churches, understanding God’s mission in the world has meant re-thinking their perspective on our destination of salvation. These churches have discovered that salvation in Christ is not the escape of souls from this world, but the transformation of the world to become the kingdom of God on earth (Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, see "A Tale of Two Cities (Revelation 17-22)". This restored world will be brought to fulfilment when Christ returns to earth, and the work we do today contributes to the restoration of the kingdom of God in eternity. Thus, work has an inherent or eternal value on a par with evangelism and worship. Darrell Cosden’s book The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work is a good source for exploring this topic in biblical and theological depth.
One source that may be useful to churches exploring how to better equip their people for daily work is the Theology of Work Project’s Theological Foundations outline.
Whole Life Discipleship
One British church leader describes what is happening in his church this way: ‘This whole-life discipleship stuff is getting under the skin a bit – in our midweek prayer meeting one of our ladies prays for the prosperity of the city, then in the following morning leadership prayer meeting there it is again – we’re praying for businesses in Milton Keynes, for our unemployed to not just find jobs but know where they are called to serve God and fulfill that calling in his strength. Deloitte’s, Ernst and Young, Home, Milton Keynes Job Centre, Santander, Alanod, Accenture, MK Hospital, Bradwell School, BT, Keune & Nagel, Stowe School, Invensys PLC…Lights are on; salt is getting some taste to it!’
It is encouraging to find these common concerns among church leaders and thinkers from such diverse backgrounds. In spite of many differences, in each case the starting point is the understanding that mission starts with what God has done and is doing, including not only what we do at church, but also our everyday work at our jobs, at home and in voluntary service in the community.
God’s mission is not primarily about getting people more involved in what churches are doing, but getting churches more involved in what God is doing in the world. It is a shift in emphasis from attracting crowds to church meetings towards equipping and supporting followers of Jesus for their work in the world. This is not to suggest that gathering for worship and church meetings is not still important to these churches. Rather these churches recognise the importance of both gathering Christians together and sending them out to do the work of God in the world. Sending people out has become a more serious attempt to forge stronger links in people’s experience between Sunday and Monday in order to help them become more effective participants in God’s work in the world.
Creation Mandate Discipleship Exercises
It’s one thing to understand the creation mandate as a theological concept, but another to grasp it as a practical reality. Try these questions and exercises to help those you disciple to personalize what Genesis 1 teaches about work:
• Do you consider work as a blessing or a curse? Try to go through a week without grumbling about your job.
• Write down all the ways that God has blessed you in your work.
• If you supervise others, what do you do to make work a blessing for your employees?
• How is your work linked with others in the chain of provision? List every industry connected with your job.
• Imagine doing your job in heaven. What might that look like?
• In what way do your interactions with your coworkers reflect the character of Christ? What is the Spirit inviting you to improve? How might that change impact your workplace relationships?
• Name ten people you work with. For each name, think, “________ is God’s image-bearer and my partner in the work God has called us to do. May God bless _________ in their work.”
• Think about all the ways you encounter God’s nonhuman creation while you are at work. What ideas do you have for expanding your interactions with nature on the job?
• What is the gap between God’s intentions for work, and what you have experienced or observed? What could you do to bring your workplace closer to God’s design?
• How would you answer the question: “Why do you work?”
• “Why we work is always tightly connected with who we are as valued, redeemed image-bearers, sent into the world to work with kingdom purpose.” What does this statement mean to you in your current work context?
Taken from Equipping Christians for Kingdom Purpose in Their Work by Tom Lutz and Heidi Unruh. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. All rights reserved.
When it comes to answering the question, ‘Does our work matter to God?’ most churches say yes. But they give different answers when it comes to explaining ‘How does our work matter to God?’ For some, work is just about people earning money to support themselves and the work of the church. Others prioritise the importance of evangelism in the workplace. Neither of these approaches sees work as being a spiritual exercise and having intrinsic value. For these people work has only instrumental value, work matters only for what it means in terms of making money and opportunities for evangelism. Others expand on this to include work as a context for serving other people. For example, Christians involved in what are sometimes called ‘helping professions’ (doctors, nurses, social workers, counsellors and teachers) sense that their work matters to God in a way that people involved in most other professions don’t. Most churches seem to affirm the worth of more direct, person-to-person service kinds of work, and words like ‘ministry’ and ‘service’ are often applied to this work. Christians involved in other industries also look for opportunities to help people in their workplaces, but fewer churches affirm the intrinsic value of work outside the helping professions. Perhaps, the term ‘helping professions’ is part of the problem, as it suggests that the other professions—such as business, law, engineering, finance and all the rest—do not help anyone. In reality, all good work is a helping profession. A biblical understanding asserts that all work matters to God and provides an opportunity for people to participate in God’s ongoing creative work, as called for in Genesis 1:26-28.
A more complete understanding of the meaning of work can be visualised as a three legged stool. Each of the legs represents one of the three great callings we read about in the Bible; the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-38) and the creation calling—or “Cultural Mandate,” as it is often called (Genesis 1:26-28). The Great Commission emphasises the importance of Christians being involved in sharing their faith and making disciples. The Great Commandment emphasises the importance of Christian service, demonstrating love in action. The Cultural Mandate emphasises that our work in itself can be an act of worship and participation in God’s work. It is actually the first of all commandments, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,’ (Genesis 1:28), and the others complement, but do not supersede it. Hence, just as a stool requires all three legs to stand, so an integrated theology of work needs to affirm the importance of witness, service and intrinsic worth, although particular people according to their different giftings or circumstances may emphasise one more than the others. See Theological Foundations and Vocation in Historical-Theological Perspective at www.theologyofwork.org for more on a biblical theology of work.
Lunchtime Prayer Triplets
Work-Related Prayer Triplets: People meet in groups of three just for half an hour to pray for each other over breakfast, or lunch, or supper. Ideally they all work in the same organization, or at least in the same field. They pray specifically for each others’ work, workplaces and co-workers.
An integrated understanding of work from a biblical perspective needs to include a clear sense of Christian vocation, or calling. As Christians we are called first of all to find our identity in our relationship with God. This is our primary calling. We are called to ‘belong’ and to ‘be’ in relationship with God through Jesus, and then we are called to ‘do’ and to follow Jesus in all of life, including our daily work. It is a vocation centred on Jesus and not on the work that we do. At the same time, this is not discipleship divorced from our work, but rather a call to follow Jesus in all our daily activities—house work, voluntary work and church work, as well as employment, are included. Our calling is not just about our job. It is about our whole life’s work, becoming a follower of Jesus in all that we do.
Just as our calling in Christ guides us in our daily work, applying our faith to our daily work helps us grow spiritually. It is a two-way street. Consider the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. It is important to learn about the fruit at church, but the place we actually develop the fruit may well be our workplace. For example, doing our present job to the best of our ability—even while hoping to find another, better job—helps us develop patience and self-control. For further reading, the books, After You Believe by N.T. Wright and The Callings by Paul Helm, explore how daily work contributes to spiritual growth.
The church has an important ministry of vocational guidance which it needs to rediscover. According to the Bible, this is less about us finding personal fulfilment in our work and more about us finding opportunities for service in our work—finding opportunities to serve God and other people through our work. Work, in Christian perspective, is about service, and churches are being challenged to take much more seriously the support and equipping of all Christians for this ministry in daily life.
This does away with any notion that clergy do the work of God, while lay people support the clergy by giving money and volunteering at church. Clergy and church leaders do have a unique role, yet lay people in non-church-jobs have an equally important role in God’s mission. Lay people do support clergy and church workers by giving money and volunteering at church, yet this is not the primary way they contribute to God’s mission. This is not a matter of diminishing the role of clergy, but of equipping every person to do all their work as a service to God’s kingdom.
How can a church become more effective at equipping its people? The need for a reorientation outward and embarking on a journey in mission has already been identified—so has the need for an understanding of our Christian vocation and calling that includes a new appreciation of the role our daily work can play in the mission of God. It’s also helpful to ask, what does it look like in practice for a church to operate in a way that reflects these changed perspectives and priorities? Churches that have embarked on this journey demonstrate a number of common characteristics.
- have a vision of God at work where their people work
- actively hunt for examples and resources
- connect daily work to worship
- address the opportunities and challenges their people face at work
- invest resources in equipping people for daily work
- create structures to sustain this ministry
- empower and collaborate with people in the congregation to lead the ministry
- release and support their people for work outside the church
- encourage everyone to take responsibility
- include daily work as part of youth ministry and compassion/outreach/service ministries
Perhaps this list can provide a useful benchmark against which you can measure, evaluate and envision developments in your own church setting. We will examine some of the issues surrounding each of these developments.
This Is Our Church on Monday
Digital photos of people in their work settings are screened during a time for meditation and prayer while a song about the meaning of work is played through the sound system. Some people laugh as they see church members dressed differently than they have ever seen them before. Some in suits and ties. Others in boiler suits, or white coats and rubber gloves.
Prayer for Workers
A teacher said to Mark Greene, "I spend 45 minutes a week teaching Sunday School and they call me up the front of the church to pray for me. The rest of the week I am a full-time teacher and the church has never prayed for me." In contrast, another church is praying for a different group of workers each month. They have gone right through their church list with the aim to include everybody in special prayer for their daily work at least once a year.
Equipping churches see their people’s daily work as part of the church’s ministry. These churches have begun to ask, ‘Where are our people during the week?’ They have started to develop ways of identifying where their people are and what they are doing during the week. This may be identified as pins on a map, or a photo board, or a PowerPoint presentation of people at work, or a booklet listing people’s jobs and interests. These churches give the people of God a sense that they have been strategically placed by God in their working worlds to make a difference there.
There is no single model or simple formula. This is about each church embarking on its own journey towards resourcing Christians to serve God in their daily work. Each church must start with the people God has already given it and the places and types of work that already occupy their lives. This is not about heaping extra expectations and obligations on people already struggling to make time for church involvement. These churches affirm that teaching school children how to write is godly work, that excellence in making beds gives glory to Christ, that managing a company budget is good stewardship of God’s creation. Equipping churches offer encouragement and help to add a new sense of purpose to people in their existing weekday lives. It is about churches helping people to hold pressured lives together by better integrating faith and work and family and all of life.
Members of the Imagine Project in Britain have worked out that most Christians can give no more than 10 hours per week to church activities (including worship, small group and some other ministry) unless they are employed by the church or have a lot of voluntary time. They have started to ask, ‘How can this 10 hours be best used to equip one another to live well for Christ in the other 110 hours invested in work, family and leisure?’ and ‘What would change if we were really serious about equipping?’ In particular they are asking:
- What would we pray for when we were together?
- How could preaching really help us to live well for Christ, wherever we were?
- What issues would be given most time in leadership meetings?
- What songs would worship leaders choose?
- What would we talk about in small groups?
- What stories would we expect to hear when we came together?
- What criteria would decide whether we had had a good time together?
This Time Tomorrow
The Imagine Church Project in London encourages churches to invite a different person each week to answer three questions about This Time Tomorrow (TTT) in their worship services. What will you be doing this time tomorrow? What opportunities or challenges will you face? How can we pray for you?
Leaders and people together are attempting to learn what they can from the examples of other churches engaged in this process elsewhere. They are actively on the hunt for good theological and practical resources for personal and group studies and worship. The sidebars throughout this article describe a variety of practical strategies that churches have adopted. All of these are activities we hope will stimulate readers to think about creative options in their own settings.
From his study of a number of American churches that have embarked on the faith-at-work journey, Stuart Dugan drew four important conclusions:
- There is no single model for marketplace ministry that fits all churches or communities.
- Large churches are able to draw from more internal resources than small churches. Churches in business communities have a different orientation from those situated in labour or agricultural settings. Affluent churches are often better able to make a wider impact than those whose people are struggling just to make ends meet.
- Churches that adopt another church’s model without due consideration of its own ministry context, level of spiritual maturity, or regional need will most likely become frustrated. In other words, any church wishing to embark on this journey must discern its own path and follow the Spirit in its own congregation.
- No single model is adequate in and of itself even within a single congregation.
Successful churches never limit themselves to a single approach. Instead, they assess, re-evaluate, adjust and innovate to gather the strengths from different modes of operation, and they selectively adopt those best suited for their own needs. The church has much to learn from this entrepreneurial spirit that quickly adapts to changing market circumstances. Just as businesses must be highly adaptive in order to stay competitive in an ever-changing market, so too the church needs to respond flexibly and quickly in order to best serve the ever-changing needs of its people and community.
One key to the success of these efforts is the concept of permission-giving. Men and women who are already successful in their professions outside the church need to be given permission to convert their skills, contacts and passions into Kingdom-enhancing ventures. Traditional clergy-led churches often have the mindset that the pastor knows best and that the most effective approaches and programs come out of seminaries and Christian publishing houses. However, experience is teaching us that even greater things can be done by granting people who are already successful in businesses the permission to be successful in ministry beyond the congregation.
Where Do I Fit in God’s Jigsaw?
Where do I fit in God’s Jigsaw? Avonhead Baptist Church in New Zealand includes a lot of high school and university students about to graduate. They do a series of Sunday evening services and mid-week workshops on career and life planning. They find that a number of mid-lifers are also interested and looking for help in this area. They are using some outside expertise at this time. But they are hoping that some people graduating from this course can be trained to offer it to others themselves.
Willow Creek Church has offered a 9 week workshop for people who are in transition and exploring new directions, and Bob Buford’s ‘Halftime’ resources have also been widely used in American churches for mid-lifers.
Just 4 Questions
When asked, ‘If there was only one thing you could do to change the culture of a congregation to support Christians at work, what would you do?’ R. Paul Stevens says ‘Give me three minutes and four questions in a service every Sunday for a year. I would get a different person up in front of the congregation each week and ask them: 1. Tell us about the work you do? 2. What are some of the issues you face in your work? 3. Does your faith make a difference to how you deal with these issues? 4. How would you like us to pray for you and your ministry in the workplace? Then we would pray for them.’
There is a wealth of creativity still to be tapped, and innovative models to be developed that will far outpace what is currently being done.
When given permission and adequate support, innovators in the field of faith-at-work ministry will likely accomplish what has not yet even been imagined. In the current age of ever-changing technology and workplace dynamics, including the impact of the global informational age, the types of marketplace ministry needs will be changing constantly and in need of new innovation. Robert Lewis, pastor-at-large at Fellowship Bible Church says it clearly, ‘Underneath the fabric of American Christianity are people who are crying out for a personal, hands-on experience for being difference makers, not serving difference makers. They come to the church to be cared for and challenged, but there needs to be a point of ultimate destination – a hands-on ministry of their own. Helping them find this opportunity should be our greatest passion’.
Strategies for helping churches become better equippers need to be worked on thoughtfully over the long term. It requires changing the congregation’s expectations and culture. A broad spectrum of participants from across the church is needed to accomplish so much change effectively and sustainably.
Another approach to implementing this sort of process has been adopted by churches involved in the Imagine Church Project that Neil Hudson is heading up for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. The process they follow is circular and continuing as churches are encouraged to revisit and reinforce changes that have been made previously. The six steps they picture moving clockwise around the circle include:
- Cast a vision – the vision of becoming a whole-life disciple-making church.
- Focus on the frontline – those contexts for mission where people already spend time in the world outside the church.
- Grow a core team – a group of personally engaged people to communicate the vision, encourage initiatives and pilot the change process.
- Make one-degree shifts – promote small but effective changes that act as levers reinforcing each other towards an overall change of culture.
- Share stories – celebrate small and everyday signs of growth and change, listen for the stories that are told in conversations that can be shared to encourage and bless others.
- Redefine the church contract – a change of focus as leaders and members learn to see church not primarily as a place to receive pastoral care but primarily as a place to develop vocational capability.
These churches are changing their approaches to worship. The connections between work and worship are explored in the songs they sing, the prayers they pray, the testimonies they share, and the themes that are sounded in the preaching. These churches have realised that worship is not just what happens in church. As a Sydney Anglican paper on the Meaning and Importance of Worship says, ‘Worship is the appropriate response of the entire person to God’s revelation in Christ: it is an all-of-life activity (e.g., Romans 12:1)’. These churches are encouraging their people to practise what the apostle Paul talked about when he said, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…It is the Lord Christ you are serving (Colossians 3:23-24).
There are many ways in which stronger links between faith and work can be forged in our corporate worship events. Some examples include:
Steve Graham, pastor of a Pentecostal church in Christchurch, New Zealand, is preaching a series of sermons on Joseph. He feels challenged to try harder to understand Joseph’s daily work circumstances and relate these insights to the working lives of his congregation. He is stunned by the warm response from people and the feedback they provide. He gets some of them to tell their stories in church. He starts getting questions about other ethical dilemmas. So he decides to do another series based on the 10 commandments, also with a workplace emphasis. The lively feedback and stories continue.
Preaching and Teaching: Many Christians say they cannot remember hearing a sermon or lesson about the meaning of work from God’s perspective. Equipping churches are learning how to teach and preach the Bible story from work-related angles. In sermons based on exploring a passage of scripture (‘expositional’ preaching), it is probably more effective to incorporate work-related themes into sermons on a weekly basis, rather than to preach one or two sermons on specially-selected workplace scriptures. The Theology of Work Project’s online commentary covering every book of the Bible can be a very useful resource for this.
Bible Readings: Most people are not used to listening for work-related themes in Bible readings. It often helps if such readings are introduced in a way that more explicitly invites congregation members to think about any connections with life and work concerns. The commentaries covering every book of the Bible at www.theologyofwork.org offer ideas for applying hundreds of Bible passages to work and may help congregations learn how to look for work-related themes in the Bible.
The pastor grabs a big bag full of interesting objects and invites the children to come forward and see what’s inside. It is full of uniforms and objects from people’s daily work. The kids put on the uniforms and guess who they belong to. There is a carpenter’s belt and blocklayer’s trowel and big white gumboots and a laptop computer and a plumber’s wrench and…. The noisiest moment is when the pastor starts up a chainsaw. The kids have a lot of laughs and end up praying for people in their work.
Children’s Sermons: There are many different ways that work-related stories or object lessons can be included as part of the children’s talk in a service, as the sidebar ‘Children’s Talk’ suggests.
Hymns and contemporary songs: There are many traditional hymns that talk about aspects of faith related to daily life and work, but contemporary songs that do this are harder to find. A number of work-related songs can be found in the Theology of Work Project Worship Resources.
As people file into Opawa Baptist Church they write down three different kinds of paid and unpaid work they are likely to do this week. During the offering, their writings are pegged on string lines in the auditorium. Later, during a prayer time, a couple of people walk along the lines reading off some of the different kinds of work listed there and everyone is invited to offer their work to God.
Intercessions: Regular prayers of intercession can include specific or more general expressions of concern for people in their places of work and the issues they are working through there.
Liturgy: This includes both formal and informal worship forms that forge stronger links with daily life outside the church by incorporating elements (both verbally and by using symbols and images) of people’s every day circumstances and concerns. One online source of work-related liturgical resources can be found at https://www.ecfvp.org/files/uploads/14MDLResourcesFormaPDF1.pdf.
Meditation and Prayer
Reflection Time: Music plays and is interspersed with some brief readings about God’s work and our work. At the same time, a series of images illustrating different aspects of God’s work in creation and also human work are projected onto a screen. This concludes with a corporate responsive prayer.
Visual images: Along with the usual images that appear in church sanctuaries it is good to include some that relate to people’s daily work in the world as a visual reminder of God’s involvement. These images offer another invitation to connect worship and work. This can be in the form of work tools or work-related sculptures or pictures of people at work.
Bridging the Sunday-Monday Gap
Small Boat Big Sea is a Christian group in Sydney that has adopted a pattern for its community life that includes talk about work as part of their regular sending function. A Christian lawyer is invited to talk about his job, what he enjoys, what he struggles with, and how his faith influences his approach to work. People also ask him some other questions. He is then asked what he would appreciate prayer for and the community gather around to pray for him. A different person is invited to talk about their daily work each week.
Commissioning Services: Numerous churches are experimenting with different ways of offering prayer and support for peoples’ daily life and work, similar to the way they do for people’s work in the church and its ministries. Sometimes this takes the form of a formal commissioning ceremony, but often it means just simply acknowledging and praying for different occupational groups on successive Sundays. It is important, however, not to give the impression that such ceremonies are second-rate versions of clergy or church worker commissionings. For example, instead of ‘ordaining’ someone for ‘ministry’ in their workplace—which uses terms most people regard as pertaining to clergy—it may be more helpful to ‘commission’ or ‘authorise’ someone for ‘work’ or ‘service’ in their field. Whatever terms are used, equipping churches pay attention to the overall pattern of recognizing and supporting congregants’ work. For example, if people are commissioned for short-term missions, but not for their daily work, it sends a message that church missions are more important than regular work. Or if doctors and nurses are commissioned for their work, but retail workers and homemakers are not, it sends a message that some jobs are more important to God than others are.
Festival of Work
In numerous churches the traditional Harvest Festival service has been transformed into a festival of work. Other churches use Labour Day services for this purpose. People come dressed in their work clothes and bring objects related to their work to place around the front of the sanctuary. The high point is a commissioning service in which everyone is commended to God for their ministry in daily life. In Bakewell in England they arranged a week-long festival of work with the whole town involved in a variety of displays and activities and culminating in a special service to celebrate and say ‘Thank you’ for different types of work in the town.
Festivals: Many churches are using Harvest Festival, or Rogation or Industrial Sunday, or Labour Day festivals to celebrate workplace experiences and explore work-related issues in creative ways.
Worship and Small Groups: Surveys suggest that although pastors think people talk about work issues in small groups, in fact they seldom do unless these issues are also raised in the congregational setting. Most Christians have never talked at any length to others in their group about their regular working lives, except when they have experienced a crisis at work. This suggests that work-related issues need to be named in preaching and prayers and testimonies and other meaningful ways in services if they are going to stimulate conversations beyond the worship service.
Are Your Home Groups Working?
At Ilam Baptist Church (Christchurch, New Zealand) several home groups decided to take the daily work of their people more seriously. They began by spending the first part of each evening listening to one person’s story of their work history and an explanation of the opportunities and challenges they now face in their work. Where they can, they have decided to visit that person’s workplace. They ask questions and end by praying for that person in their work and for the good of the enterprise and people they work with.
Worship and Spiritual Growth: A recent survey at Willow Creek Church and a number of other congregations discovered that church attendance and participation in church programmes is not directly connected with spiritual growth except for a believer’s early Christian experience. The development of personal spiritual practices is the key to ongoing spiritual growth. The report concluded that churches need to transition from the role of spiritual parent encouraging dependence on church programmes to spiritual coach providing resources for people to feed themselves. Churches that focus on this transition have begun to explore concrete methods of spiritual for whole-life discipleship. They also consider how the form and content of their worship services may need to change.
Faith and Work Resource Centres
A number of churches have started faith and work resource centres and web pages. At one church this includes a library of books for individuals to read and study resources for small groups, such as Mark Greene’s Christian Life and Work 6 week DVD series; Going to Work with God by Robert and Linda Banks (8 sessions); Where’s God on Monday? by Alistair Mackenzie and Wayne Kirkland (12 sessions). Faith and Work resources designed specifically for churches may be found, among other places, at the websites of:
Workplace Fellows and Intern Programs in Faith and Work
Some churches have started year-long fellows or internship programs for recent university graduates committed to integrating faith and work. The fellows form a close-knit community of worship and prayer under the leadership of a local pastor and a workplace Christian. They study the biblical and theological foundations of work, then apply their studies while working in ordinary jobs. They are paired with Christian mentors in their fields.
Some large churches have created programs on their own, including the Falls Church in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Smaller churches can work together to create programs, and in many cities, they have received assistance from The Fellows Initiative, an outgrowth of the program at the Falls Church. Often a local university, seminary or workplace ministry contributes expertise and organizational stability.
Worship and Ethics: Does churchgoing make a difference to the ethical perspectives of regular attenders? According to research done by Robin Gill and others who have examined the results of values surveys in Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the answer is a clear, but qualified, yes. Qualified, because according to these surveys, this is only true with regard to a few issues of personal morality (in particular sex, stealing and accumulating wealth), and not related to wider ethical considerations having to do with business, the environment and government. It would seem that going to church does make an ethical difference, but only as it relates to issues that are regularly addressed in church. Churches need to expand the range of issues they are prepared to name as important (this doesn’t mean that lots of service time needs to be devoted to detailed discussion of these issues, just that they have been put on the agenda). We can also start to explore more deliberately and carefully the working lives of biblical characters who faced ethical challenges in their places of work and encourage Christians to relate these examples to their own circumstances.
The congregation of Dumfries Baptist Church in Scotland turn to face the exit door as they say , ‘May the love of God sustain us in our working, May the light of Jesus radiate our thinking and speaking, May the power of the Spirit penetrate all our deliberating, And may all that is done witness to your presence in our lives’.
Benedictions: Benedictions that speak of God sending his people into the world to make a difference there can remind people that God is with them in their work. By utilizing people in such a way, God is fulfilling His words to Abraham, ‘By your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves’ (Genesis 22:18).
Faith at Work Breakfast
Once a month people gather in a central city venue in Christchurch, New Zealand. People pay $10.00 at the door, file in and choose what they want for breakfast. It is 7.00am. For the first 20 minutes there is buzz of lively conversation. At 7.20 a different person from the group each time is invited to share something of their faith and work story. The aim is to keep it honest, down to earth and catch a glimpse of everyday discipleship, rather than focus on more dramatic stories from professional speakers. There is time for questions. Sometimes a case study is presented for discussion. Formalities are concluded by 8.00 am. Many cities around the world have similar gatherings.
These churches are helping their people discover new ways of nourishing and living out their faith in the course of their daily work. This includes helping to provide people with Bible reading and prayer resources to encourage personal spiritual disciplines, as well as other recommended readings and taped or video material dealing with work issues. It may also mean encouraging the congregation to get involved in small work-related prayer groups, personal mentoring, peer groups, or seminars. Sometimes these approaches are embarked on in partnership with other churches or parachurch ministries.
What kinds of topics and issues need addressing?
Members of the Theology of Work Project decided that three sorts of resources were particularly lacking. These included a commentary on each book of the Bible explored from a workplace perspective, a simple statement of core beliefs to help in the construction of a sound theology of work, and the exploration of key workplace topical issues from a biblical and theological perspective in an easy to read format. These are now freely available on the Theology of Work website.
Adult Education Modules
Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York runs regular classes lasting five weeks each that deal with faith and work issues. These series include Why Work? A Theology of Work, Vocational Decision Making, Leadership, Work and Cultural Renewal, and Ethics.
But what might the core curriculum for a church look like?
It is clear that not everyone starts to examine faith and work issues for the same reasons. David Miller identifies four different doors people walk through to explore the integration of faith and work: Evangelism, Ethics, Experience (integration of a compartmentalised life), and Enrichment (a more nourishing everyday spirituality). Miller pictures these as four quadrants in his so-called ‘Integration Box’. One quadrant may be the initial concern that gets a person started in the process of seeking a more holistic integration of faith and work, but they may also go on to explore other dimensions of integration over time. Hence churches wanting to support Christians at work need to be aware that different approaches are required to connect with the needs of people at different starting points. Moreover, a holistic approach should probably include all four dimensions.
Some topics worth thinking about in preaching, teaching, seminars and discussion groups include:
- Your work matters to God. God’s work and our work in the Bible. An introduction to a theology of work. (See TOW Project’s Theological Foundations.)
- What in the world is God up to? An introduction to a theology of mission and of ministry, especially as this relates to the world of work. (Something like what we have developed in the opening sections of this paper.)
- Does God call Christians into work outside churches and Christian institutions? A theology of calling and vocation related to the work of all God’s people, both inside and outside the church. (See Vocation Overview.)
- How do I find where I fit? Practical exploration of what calling and vocation specifically mean for individuals, including practical processes for clarifying gifts and values and for discerning the guidance of God. (See Vocation Overview.)
- What about prayer in the fast lane? Exploring understandings and practices for developing a spirituality for everyday life. (See *Spiritual Formation and Work, CONTENT NOT YET AVAILABLE)
- How can I share my faith at work? Resourcing the people of God for evangelism in the workplace. (See *CONTENT NOT YET AVAILABLE Evangelism and Work)
- Ethics for the marketplace – theory and case studies. (See Ethics at Work)
- Managing competing time demands: family, job, church, community and leisure. What does healthy whole-life discipleship look like? (See Rest and Work)
- The work of Business. Models of Christian business and entrepreneurship. Business as mission and models for marketplace mission.
- How should we work as Christians. (See How Should We Work as Christians)
- The work of artists.
- Cultural and social transformation? Workplace ministry and cultural transformation. (See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, Tim Keller, Center Church, and Andy Crouch Culture Making.)
- Christian leadership for the marketplace and the world.
Contacts, Counsel, and Kudos for Job Seekers
Crossroads Career Network is a not-for-profit ministry at Perimeter Church, Atlanta, USA, which seeks to provide contacts, counsel, and encouragement to help you find a job, a career, your calling. Perimeter's Crossroads Career Ministry offers monthly career meetings that become foundations for support and spiritual growth. Each meeting includes a short presentation by a guest speaker or expert in the business community. Attendees gain insight and instruction on what scripture teaches about employment and provision from God. There is no charge to attend.
For Eugene Peterson the challenge lies in affirming the worth of the everyday ministry of all the people of God:
One of the most soul-damaging phrases that has crept into the Christian vocabulary is “full-time Christian work”. Every time it is used, it drives a wedge of misunderstanding between the way we pray and the way we work, between the way we worship and the way we make a living.... Most of what Jesus said and did took place in a secular workplace — in a farmer’s field, in a fishing boat, at a wedding feast, in a cemetery, at a public well asking a woman he didn’t know for a drink of water, on a country hillside that he turned into a huge picnic, in a courtroom, having supper in homes with acquaintances or friends…. Twenty seven times in John’s Gospel Jesus is identified as a worker: “My father is still working and I also am working” (John 5:17). Work doesn’t take us away from God; it continues the work of God. God comes into view on the first page of our scriptures as a worker. Once we identify God in his workplace working, it isn’t long before we find ourselves in our workplaces working in the name of God.
Creative Video Presentation
To introduce the work theme to a group of young people a humorous, but also sobering, video clip of oppressive work conditions from Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times is screened, interspersed with digital photos of youth group members in their work places. The rock song ‘We gotta get out of this place’ by The Animals is playing at the same time. During each chorus pictures are overdubbed with the words ‘We gotta get out of this place’ until the last line when the following words are added ‘Or do we?’ A presentation on faith at work follows.
Each church needs to identify the particular opportunities and challenges their people face in their places of work. Do people work as professionals, managers, labourers, technicians, public servants, teachers, or service workers? The opportunities and challenges vary widely between these types of work. Do congregants’ jobs have high status, pay, opportunity, power, security, and mobility, or low? Initiatives–a quarterly online publication of the National Center for the Laity in the USA (https://catholiclabor.org/library/national-center-for-the-laity/)– gives details in each issue of ways that local churches identify and are responding to the particular workplace situations their people are in. This could be a resource for churches looking for examples.
At Redeemer Church in New York there are at least 18 major professional groups, e, g. Arts, Education, Entrepreneurs, Finance, Legal, IT, Marketing etc. (plus a variety of other sub-groups) whose members meet once a month, usually around a meal and then in small groups, with the aim ‘to equip, connect, and mobilize professionals towards gospel-centered transformation for the common good’. Redeemer also runs a 9 month Gotham Fellowship internship program based on set readings, discussions and seminars to encourage spiritual growth and methodical reflection as interns continue to work. Redeemer also runs an annual competition for entrepreneurs.
Smaller churches may work together, perhaps in partnership with a seminary or other organization, to form a larger pool of workers so that most occupations can have their own group.
Effectively equipping church members for daily life and work requires significant investments of money and staff time. This may mean reallocating resources to support ministry in daily life and work. At the most advanced equipping churches, this is now a budgeted item. This is a fair test of how seriously the challenge has been taken. Those churches that do invest realise daily life and work is where faith is lived out in front of the world and is where the future of the church is being decided.
A Megachurch Approach
Saddleback Community Church provides resources every week for small groups that serve some 4000 Christians who meet regularly to discuss biblical perspectives on faith and work issues. These are in addition to Saddleback’s hundreds of regular home groups. One church member is contracted part-time to prepare studies for these groups. They also run a website and send out weekly Workplace Wisdom emails for encouragement and to stimulate reflection.
Equipping people is a complex business. Structures can help to facilitate or hinder ministry. What is a help for the first generation often becomes a hindrance for the next, because energy ends up serving and resourcing the structure, but not necessarily serving the originally intended function. Form should always follow function and not the other way around. The dream that births any structure needs revisiting regularly to see if it is still being pursued or if that vision has been lost or distorted.
At the same time, any successful attempt at ministry or mission also needs structures to maintain and facilitate its sustainability. Perhaps the most elaborate example of this in terms of churches involved in workplace ministry is the structure that Katherine Leary Alsdorf and her team (now led by David Kim) have developed at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Their Faith and Work Center includes a team of staff members who each head up different areas of ministry such as their Arts Ministry, Entrepreneurship Initiative, and Gotham Fellowship intern programme. The staff also co-ordinates the leadership of eighteen different Vocational Groups, each of which also includes a number of sub groups. A number of other churches also have staff who specialise in resourcing and supporting those who are unemployed or looking for work.
The challenge for churches just beginning on this journey is deciding which structural elements are important to start with. The Imagine Church Project suggests beginning with the formation of a core team. This helps provide continuity and maintain adequate funding and other resources. But it can slowly diminish the vitality and vision of the church’s workplace programs if it becomes too bureaucratic. The challenge is to create an institutionalized centre while maintaining the flexibility to engage a younger generation to build their own ministries.
British Baptist Pastor David Coffey says, ‘In my time as a Pastor I made a regular pattern to visit church members in their place of work, whenever this was appropriate. I have sat with the defence lawyer in a court room; I have watched a farmer assist in the birth of a calf; I have spent time with a cancer consultant in his hospital; I have walked the floor of a chemical factory and sat in the office of a manager who runs a large bookshop. I have driven a tank and spent time with some senior military officers; I have shared the tears and joys of family life with homemakers; I have visited a London hostel for the homeless and walked round a regional prison with a Governor. The purpose of such visits is primarily to encourage and disciple a church member in that place where God has called them to be a worker.’
Bible scholar Dale Bruner reports, ‘The revered Presbyterian preacher, George Buttrick, told a preaching class that the reason he gave a considerable amount of his workweek to visiting his parishioners in their homes and offices in downtown New York City was a passage from John's Gospel: 'the sheep will not listen to the voice of strangers' (John 10:4-5). I could believe that much of Dr. Buttrick's effectiveness as a preacher was this care for and time with his parishioners’.
What Should Church Leaders Do?
A very prominent Australian businessman commented in his acceptance speech at a dinner in his honour when he was presented with a prize for integrity in public and working life that while he had spent ten years as churchwarden of his Anglican church, as a support to and confidante of the ordained minister, not once in those ten years did that minister ask about his work or how he expressed his faith there.
The leaders of equipping churches have started to think about the complete mission of God as well as church growth. They are thinking about how they can help to enhance the everyday ministry and mission of their people in the world as well as through their own church programs and ministries. They are thinking about what their people are doing all the time and not just with their spare time. They also realise their own limitations and are recruiting lay leaders to head up workplace ministries.
It is easy to blame church leaders for the failure of churches to resource their people better for ministry in daily life. Leaders are only partly to blame, though. For many church members, it may be a relief to leave the responsibility for ministry up to the professionals and avoid accepting responsibility themselves. The equipping church vision is about the whole church accepting responsibility. In most churches where an equipping movement has begun to happen, it has been the result of new levels of conversation and partnership between church leaders and grass-roots church members. Sometimes this has also been assisted by input from resource people involved in other churches or other faith and work ministries. This is sometimes in-person and sometimes through their books, videos or online resources. For any of these initiatives to be sustainable requires vision casting from the top, ongoing energy and enthusiasm from the grass roots memberships, and outside resourcing.
Many pastors recognize the need to empower every believer in the ministry of daily life, but they experience multiple roadblocks when attempting to address this need. Dwight Dubois’ report “Equipping Pastors Conversations explores the myriad difficulties that pastors face. View or download the full report: Equipping Pastors Conversations (PDF).
If equipping is to become embedded as a priority in the life of a congregation, pastoral leadership and how it is exercised are crucial, though it is difficult to unpack what such leadership looks like. David Miller identifies five factors that are related to core aspects of pastoral ministry in general, which he thinks need to be more specifically applied to the workplace by church leaders. These include:
- A ministry of presence or listening in the work sphere, by visiting people in their places of work
- A ministry of preaching and prayer that intentionally and constructively addresses faith and work issues
- A ministry of teaching designed to address faith and work issues, also using the experience and expertise of other church members for input
- A ministry of personal integration that ensures that congregants are trained to utilise personal prayer and devotional study in their daily lives
- A ministry of gatherings of business people, perhaps in partnership with other marketplace ministries
Miller comments, ‘my research has found that lay-led and lay-founded groups are generally more effective at understanding and meeting workplace integration needs’. William Diehl has said something similar:
The key to bringing the workplace into the worship place is the pastor. If he or she has to have tight control over everything, it will not happen. There are two reasons why the pastor should not totally try to control: very few pastors have the breadth of knowledge of workplace issues to be able to design educational programmes of relevance; and secondly, lay leadership must be involved in both the planning and presentation of programmes in order to give them credibility in the eyes of the rest of the congregation.
Robert Banks also argues strongly for the involvement of ‘ordinary’ Christians if we are to develop a useful theology of everyday life, because:
- Ordinary Christians can best identify their everyday concerns.
- Ordinary Christians already have some elements of an everyday theology.
- Everyday theology is a co-operative effort between ordinary Christians and professional theologians.
- A workable theology of everyday life requires practical testing by ordinary Christians.
- Only a theology forged in the cut and thrust of everyday life will have vitality and relevance.
Businessman Kent Humphries, when he was President of Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, emphasised the important role that pastors have to play as equippers and mentors for ministry in the marketplace. It is clear that many pastors feel out of touch with the modern marketplace and inadequate for task. Some feel threatened by the enthusiasm and big dreams of marketplace entrepreneurs. Yet the clear message is that pastors have a very important role to play—not by pretending to be the experts, or as controllers, but rather as encouragers and supporters.
Initiating a process of partnership between pastors and working people will take a lot of time, a lot of conversations and a lot of collaboration. This sort of partnership also has the power to realise the dream of the whole church mobilised and supported in mission and ministry all of the time. Debra Meyerson explains the sort of leadership that is involved in her description of the best culture changers:
They bear no banners; they sound no trumpet. Their ends are sweeping, but their means are mundane. They are firm in their commitments, yet flexible in the ways they fulfill them. Their actions may be small but can spread like a virus. They yearn for rapid change but trust in patience. They often work individually, but pull people together. Instead of stridently pressing their agenda, they start conversations. Rather than battling powerful foes, they seek powerful friends. And in the face of setbacks they keep going.
This small group at Opawa Baptist Church meets monthly and follows a set three-part format, the three ‘dwellings’. Each part is delegated for a different person to lead each meeting.
1. Dwelling in the Word
Choose a Bible passage relevant to work. The group listens to the passage read and stops to think in silence about what it says to them. Then members of the group each share in turn their responses before reflecting together on what they are hearing.
2. Dwelling in the Work
Choose a case study from your work experience. The group listens to the experience described. Each person is invited to think about their response to this in silence and then share with the group their response. They concentrate particularly on answering two questions:
What strikes you as standing out as important in the situation?
What questions does this raise for you?
Everyone offers their feedback before there is any discussion.
3. Dwelling in the Practice
Choose a particular practice that you have found helpful and/or that might be of help to the group. Group members discuss how they see the implications of this for them. The group time concludes with members sharing needs and offering support and prayer for each other.
Equipping churches encourage their people to build relationships with both Christians and non-Christians in the marketplace. They recognise that this may mean some people have less time available for church roles. They resist the fear that emphasising the importance of ministry in daily life might undermine the recruitment of people for other important church leadership functions. They believe that people will be more committed to supporting a church that sets in front of them a large and exciting vision of God at work in their world and that helps them to discern their part in this and resources them for it. As Miroslav Volf says, ‘We need to build and strengthen mature communities of vision and character who celebrate faith as a way of life as they gather before God for worship and who, sent by God, live it out as they scatter to pursue various tasks in the world.’
Create small groups where people in similar jobs (for example, a group of architects, or moms, or teachers, or CFOs) share what is happening in their work and seek guidance from a Christian perspective. The point is that members have enough in common to actually help improve their abilities on the job. Meet for 4-5 hours once a month, including dinner. Each month two people share a situation in their work, and other members ask clarifying and seeking questions. Then they ask, Does this bring to mind anything from the Bible? In addition, Bible or occupation-related readings, prayer, and personal sharing may occur. Groups like this have been developed by C12, Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC) and others.
This article has been produced by a mixture of pastors and marketplace people and homemakers. We are very aware that, even as we seek to live more seamless lives that integrate faith better with our daily work, we are still guilty of living unintegrated lives that accentuate the gap between Sunday and Monday in many ways. We have not done as much as we could to bridge the gap between pastors and workplace Christians so that we can explore and express our faith together rather than being isolated in separate worlds. We have not done enough to initiate dialogue that transforms energy currently dissipated by frustration at the workplace into enabling energy that changes workplace environments. Nor have we done enough to transform energy consumed by frustrations within churches into positive movements towards more effective mission. We are on the same team, but we will only become effective when we learn from each other. We have to both educate each other and to be educated by each other in a spirit of humility.
Billions of people go to work each day to earn their living. Most church-goers are part of that workforce but many are not exercising their calling. They are not effectively using their gifts and the call God has given them to transform their workplace into an environment where God can move freely and change lives. The challenge facing the church today is to equip, encourage and enable workplace Christians to live out that calling effectively. Workplace Christians want to change their world and to be active in God’s plan to do so. They want their pastors to be an integral part of what God wants to do in their workplaces. However, until workplace Christians and pastors move proactively together to bridge the current gap between church on Sunday and work on Monday, this gap will remain. The cultures represented in the Bible (and those in many places still around the world) see humans more holistically as combining body, soul and spirit and all life activities as sacred. The idea that one goes from a sacred into a non-sacred activity or environment is alien to these groups. We need to learn from the Bible and more holistic cultures how to live life seamlessly. We confess that we have much more to learn about living seamlessly. We cannot expect others to do this for us. We must take responsibility ourselves. We can support each other better and work to start changing the environment within our own spheres of influence.
One example of a church creating a community economic development program is Grandview Calvary Baptist Church (GCBC) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. In the early 2000s, GCBC began praying and asking God how it could best serve its surrounding community. The church realized that some of the unemployed nearby were people who had education and skills, but were having trouble finding or working at full-time jobs.
The church tapped David Holcomb, an entrepreneur with a background in business and community development to create JustWork, a business incubator. Its aim is to create revenue-generating businesses that could offer dignified, meaningful work for people facing barriers to work. As of 2013, JustWork has created three such: JustRenos, a renovation firm; JustCatering, a catering service for meetings, conferences, weddings, parties, etc.; and JustPotters, which sells handcrafted pottery throughout North America. As of the end of 2013, the three JustWork enterprises employee 28 people.
Most churches have ministries to serve the communities around them, which often are called compassion, outreach or service ministries. Equipping churches include programs to equip those they serve to be successful in their own workplaces. Such ministries include business incubators, job transition or employment programs, economic, community and social development programs, trade schools, women’s business cooperatives, re-entry programs for former prisoners, and banks and finance corporations, to name just a few. Often churches draw on the expertise their members have developed in these areas through their occupations. In the USA, the Christian Community Development Association is a network of about 1000 churches and other organizations with development ministries. Churches with such ministries include:
Christians in every kind of legitimate work are called to work according to God’s vision for the world. Doing so requires training, support, and encouragement. Most Christians have no place besides their church to be equipped for this work. Many churches do a great job of equipping people for other aspects of the life of faith, and this is vitally important. However, most churches are not yet capable of equipping their people for the workplace.
There is no single way for a church to become an equipping church. We have provided a glimpse of some methods, techniques, programs and ideas that have been pioneered at churches and workplaces around the world. Hopefully, some of these might be useful at your church too. However, becoming an equipping church does not happen by slapping on a few methods and programs. Instead it takes a deep belief that the daily work of people in all occupations is — or could be — service to God. It takes a commitment to keep trying, practicing, and adapting ways to prepare and support the work of every member. We hope that the resources on the Theology of Work Project website can be of use to churches and workplace Christians in this regard, and we welcome people to send us materials and evaluations of resources they have tried.
The Meaning and Value of Work
Research has not yet begun on this topic.
References may be added below:
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (see 1 Corinthians and Work)
Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly.
Virtually everyone knows that the people of God are supposed to tell the truth. Even though we recognize there are exceptions—protecting the innocent, guarding national security, and a few others—we remember how Jesus described himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and we understand that truth is the way of life God calls us to.
But our commitment to truth is often stretched thin in the workplace. Sometimes it seems that it is impossible to succeed at work by telling only the truth. Sometimes it even seems that the workplace is a different realm from the world Jesus inhabited, and that truth is actually out of place at work. Consider the case of Philippe Kahn.
Philippe Kahn was the head of startup software company Borland International, and needed a break to launch his company. His software was field-tested and ready to market and distribute, and all he needed was an opportunity. But Kahn had no employees (beyond his assistant) and no money to mount an expensive advertising campaign. What he really needed was an ad in the niche magazine Byte. But the ad cost $20,000 that he didn’t have, and he had insufficient collateral for a loan that size. He needed 100% credit for the ad. The only way he knew to get credit like that was to attempt an elaborate bluff, to convince the sales person for Byte that his company was much more of a going concern that it actually was. So he rented office space for the day, hired temporary employees to answer non-existent phone calls, left a folder open that indicated that Byte was far down the list of potential advertisers, and told the salesperson that he didn’t think Byte was the right forum to advertise his product. His intention, as he admitted in a later interview in Inc. magazine, was to make the salesperson believe that his company was strong enough to generate the sales from the ad to repay the loan. And in fact, that is precisely what occurred. The ad sold roughly $150,000 worth of software, Byte got paid, and Borland International was on its way. Clearly, everyone benefitted and no one got hurt.
Kahn’s strategy raises important questions about truthtelling and deception. It seems clear that Kahn’s intention was to deceive the Byte salesperson. Many in the business community assess actions such as Kahn’s as clever, and would blame the salesperson for not doing his homework on the company before extending the credit. But this scenario strikes many others as unethical. This illustrates some of the nuances that must be explored in coming to a well-reasoned view of truthtelling and disclosure and its application to work.
In this article, we will first lay a Biblical foundation for truthtelling, establishing it as the prima facie norm for interactions between human beings. Then we will look at exceptions to this norm. We will emphasize why truthtelling is important, both for the believer and for the culture at large. Then we will apply the notion of truthtelling to the workplace and suggest that though truthtelling is a very strong norm, there are times when it is not necessarily required. We will address puffery, white lies, bluffing and occasions when the other party has no right to the truth. Although the vast majority of the believer’s life is spent in pursuing truth, describing the exceptions takes many words, and much of the text of this article is spent in developing their proper limits. The balance of text in an article on truth and deception does not reflect the proper balance of truth and deception in a believer’s life.
As is apparent by simply listing key biblical passages that speak to this subject, honesty and telling the truth are highly valued by God and are considered an integral part of a life of integrity and faithfulness to him. The Mosaic law commands that God’s people do not lie or deceive each other (Leviticus 19:11) or give false testimony about another (Exodus 20:16). The Psalmist describes the person whose walk is blameless and righteous as speaking the truth from the heart (Psalm 15:2). The New Testament echoes this when it connects honesty and truthfulness with the believer’s new life in Christ (Colossians 3:9). One of the first manifestations of the believer putting off the old self and putting on the new self in Christ is a commitment to honesty (Ephesians 4:24-25).
The virtue of honesty is grounded ultimately in the character of God—that is, we are to be truthful because God is truthful. God never lies the Bible informs us (Titus 1:2), and both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are referred to as the truth (John 14:6, 16:13; 1 John 5:6). Similarly, God’s word is called the truth (Psalm 119:142, John 17:17). Theologically, honesty is a virtue because, like all the virtues, it is rooted in God’s nature. Truthtelling is a moral principle to be followed because God is truthful, and we are called to emulate his character.
God also commands people to tell the truth, most notably in the Ten Commandments, given in Exodus as “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16) and restated in Leviticus 19:11 as “You shall not lie to one another.” Proverbs informs us that telling the truth leads to the best long-term outcomes for us: “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment” (Proverbs 12:19). In other words, truthtelling is the biblical norm under all three approaches to ethics, virtues, commands and consequences. (See the article Ethics at Work at www.theologyofwork.org for more on biblical approaches to ethics in the context of work.)
No matter how we look at it, then, the biblical expectation is that we tell the truth. Above all, honesty is a virtue because, like all virtues, it is rooted in God’s nature. Truthtelling is a moral principle to be followed because God is truth, and we want to be in a close relationship with God. The only way to draw close to the truth is to be truthful. In other words, God’s Law is not only prescriptive—God tells us to tell the truth— it is also descriptive—God describes himself as truth. If God’s laws for us are considered descriptive of how we were created to be in relationship with him and with one another, then deception denies our very humanity, reduces us to less than who God created us to be, and damages ourselves and others. In short, the basic attitude of the human faith is “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8).
God holds truth and love together in a perfect marriage. When they are married, there is no conflict. When they are sundered, we face dilemmas; for example, when love requires deception (e.g., Corrie Ten Boom lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews in her house) or when truth causes harm (e.g., telling a child a truth he or she is not prepared to understand). This is not because there is something wrong with God, but because of the fallen nature of our world. Until God’s kingdom is fulfilled, those who would follow God will experience periodic conflicts as they try to love in truth and tell the truth in love.
In other words, the fact that truthtelling is a biblical principle does not necessarily mean that it is an absolute to be always followed in every circumstance. There are at least two occasions in the bible in which deception seems to be allowed, if not praised. For example, the midwives who were charged with caring for the infant Moses carried out an elaborate deception in order to safeguard the life and well-being of Moses, hiding his Hebrew origins and leading the Pharaoh to believe that he was actually one of his own sons (Exodus 2:1-10). In addition, Rahab deceived the soldiers of Jericho in order to safeguard the lives of the Israelite spies who came to serve as advance scouts of the promised land (Joshua 2:1-24). She actually ends up in God’s Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 on account of her faith, exercised in protecting the lives of the spies (of which the deception was an integral part).
One classic example of this kind of exception to the general principle of truthtelling occurred during World War II in the well-publicized story of Corrie Ten Boom, later written in The Hiding Place. For some time, she and her sister hid Jews and enabled them to escape from the Nazis and certain trips to concentration camps. Repeatedly she was asked point-blank by the Gestapo if she was hiding Jews, and she routinely lied to the authorities in order to protect their lives.
This was a genuine moral conflict, one in which two or more moral values and virtues come into conflict, and the Ten Booms were in the difficult position of having to weight competing values. They correctly weighted the obligation to protect the lives of Jews more heavily than the obligation to tell the truth, especially to those who had no right to it.
These conflicts are not common, nor do they suggest that God’s commands are intrinsically contradictory. Rather they reflect our fallen world in which these demands of morality work themselves out, sometimes in conflicting ways. In addition, God’s commands are given through human concepts and language, and thus the way we comprehend God’s commands is subject to the limitations of human conception. Human language is not capable of covering all situations without mutual contradiction, so even things expressed as absolutes have exceptions. We should expect that at times we should have to weigh competing values and we should also expect that God would direct us in doing so. Thus, rather than saying that truthtelling is inviolable, it is more accurate to suggest that it is a general rule that admits periodic exceptions when in conflict with other important moral values.
In fact, even God is described as working in ways that border on deception in the fallen world. There are some examples, particularly in the Old Testament, where God uses deception, and they seem to be a puzzling contradiction to the notion that God does not lie (see for example, 1 Kings 22:23; Jeremiah 4:10, 20:7). But in all these cases, the people of Israel are firmly entrenched in idolatry and awaiting God’s judgment in the coming exile. God has already made the truth clear to the people and they have rejected it and their judgment is forthcoming. It is clear that God is not deceiving the people as a means of instruction but as a means of judgment. When people reject truth, even God’s character becomes a deception to them. However, in deceiving the self-deceived, God’s actions do not contradict his character of truth.
A New Testament parallel occurs in Paul’s teaching in 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but delighted in wickedness.” Here, Paul describes how at the end times the “man of lawlessness” sets himself up to be God. To counter this self-deception, God uses deception not to mislead the people, but to judge those who have abandoned the truth. Thus, when Paul speaks of the “God, who never lies” (Titus 1:2), he is stating the character of God, yet recognizing that in a fallen world, the deepest truth at times must be cloaked in deception for the sake of love. Corrie ten Boom is not a justifiable exception to the truthful character of God’s image in humanity, but a fulfillment of a deeper truth in love.
Viewing truthtelling as a prima facie moral principle also appeals to our common sense intuitions about certain professions that make regular use of deception. Take for example, intelligence gathering. There is little doubt that the intelligence apparatus of most countries uses deceit in order to gain critical intelligence information about one’s enemies. In addition, undercover police work requires that officers disguise their identity and create entirely new personas in order to infiltrate organizations effectively. Few questions are raised about the necessary use of deception in these occupations. And, of course, virtually no one questions the validity of bluffing in poker games or the use of elaborate faking in sports, because they are considered part of the game—acceptable within the rules of the game.
However, none of the above scenarios are entirely analogous to business and other arenas in which most work occurs. We will discuss later whether ends-justifies-the-means exceptions exist beyond national security and public safety. And situations in which truth is not expected, such as in poker, are very rare and can hardly serve as the norm for conduct in work. This raises important questions about what criteria should guide us when it comes to truthtelling in our work.
Besides emulating the character of God, truthtelling is critical for a flourishing society. Therefore, except in rare circumstances, God mandates it. Though God’s command would be a sufficient motivation, theologians and philosophers have identified other reasons as well.
Truthtelling is essential for authentic communication to occur, and makes genuine interaction between people possible. That is, if truth were not expected, it would not be long before communication would entirely break down. Imagine what it would be like living in a society in which no one expected the truth. How could a person discern what is accurate and what is a falsehood? On what basis could a person make important decisions if there was no expectation of the truth? Life would be chaotic without the norm of honesty.
This is essentially the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and the principle of universalizability of truthtelling (though he would not support the notion given here that there are exceptions to the universal norm). Kant argued that this principle was the test of a valid moral principle, and used truthtelling as one of his primary illustrations. He insisted that for a norm to be legitimate, it must be universalizable—applicable to everyone. One of his illustrations envisioned what might happen if no one accepted the norm in question. He correctly argued that without a universal norm of truthtelling, the basis for communication would be in jeopardy, and a society in which this was not a norm would not be functional. This is recognized by the fact that virtually every civilization has some kind of norm that promotes truthtelling and prohibits deception.
Truthtelling builds trust and civil cooperation among human beings. Trust is critical for a prosperous society, and being a person of one’s word establishes trust and trustworthiness. The Mosaic Law underscored this in Deuteronomy 25:15, connecting honest dealings with Israel’s prosperity in the land. “You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (also see Leviticus 19:36). Similarly Proverbs brings out the connection between trustworthiness and social harmony. Proverbs 3:29 emphasizes that trust among neighbors is what enables them to live in peace, not fearing harm from one’s neighbor. Further, Proverbs emphasize that trustworthiness brings healing to both relationships and communities (Prov. 13:17, 25:13). Adam Smith was very clear that honest dealings and trustworthiness were critical for a properly functioning market system. Cultures that are given to corruption are often in the most impoverished parts of the world, since it is more difficult and risky to do business in cultures in which the level of trust is low. Similarly, companies in which there is a culture of distrust typically have higher costs of doing business, since they require costly regimens of oversight. They also have intangible costs, as employees tend to be more reluctant to “go the extra mile” for their employer and tend to be less eager to embrace change and less committed to their work.
Truthtelling treats people with dignity. To tell someone the truth is a measure of respect that is missing when someone is lied to.
The Scriptures illustrate this with the Genesis account of Jacob and his service to Laban (Genesis 29-30). Jacob works seven years for the right to marry Rachel and after the years of service are complete, Laban deceives Jacob and substitutes his less desirable daughter Leah as Jacob’s bride. Jacob is justifiably outraged at being deceived and treated with such disrespect (Gen. 29:25). Jacob returns the disrespect to Laban in Genesis 30 when he deceives Laban with respect to the flocks that Jacob is tending for Laban, separating out the stronger flocks for himself and leaving the weaker ones for Laban (Gen. 30:42).
Similarly in 2 Kings 12, when it came to the money for the repair of the temple, there were certain workmen who were so trustworthy that the overseers of the repairs did not need an accounting of the money they spent for the repairs. Because they were honest, they were treated with dignity and trust by the king and by the priests in charge of temple repair (also 2 Kings 22:7). This is also borne out by the proverb that warns a person, “Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6). The enemy who multiplies kisses is the one who showers a person with false flattery, deceiving the person into the illusion of friendship and trust, when in reality, he is the enemy. Here, deception treats the person being deceived as a pawn to be manipulated for the deceiver’s own selfish purposes, not as someone with dignity who is deserving of respect. Disrespect also comes through in, “A lying tongue hates its victims; and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Prov. 26:28; also Prov. 26:18-19, 24, 26).
The right of a person to make his or her own autonomous decisions is based on having accurate information, so much so that people often and understandably feel violated and disrespected when they are deceived. A person’s autonomy is weakened when they are deceived. This is evident in the example of Jacob and Laban. Jacob’s autonomy to marry the woman of his choice was completely undermined by Laban’s deception, since Jacob would never have married Leah if left entirely to his own choice (Genesis 29:17-20). It is further evident in Jacob’s reciprocal deception of Laban, since Laban would not have managed the flocks to his obvious financial disadvantage had he not been deceived so effectively by Jacob (Gen. 30:42-43).
A prime example of the role of truthtelling in the workplace is the preparation of financial statements by businesses, governments, churches, non-profit organizations, and individuals. All of these entities are required under certain conditions to prepare financial statements for the purpose of giving others an accurate depiction of their financial condition.
Often this requires disclosing information that is not favorable, including reduced profitability, diminished cash reserves, controversial levels of executive compensation, spiraling debt obligations and the like. Although organizations and individuals might prefer to hide such information, they have a legal and moral obligation to provide accurate information.
Most financial statements are crafted according to rules governing how to define, calculate, estimate and verify various aspects of the statements. Following these rules helps make financial statements accurate and comparable across different entities. But rules alone are not enough. Entities must make judgments about factors such as the likelihood of a contract being completed on time, the lifetime of equipment, the future interest rates, a wide variety of future risks, and a host of others. Leaders are often tempted to adjust their judgments about these factors in a way that paints the entity in the most favorable light—rather than giving the most accurate picture of its true financial position. In fact, some leaders may even believe they have a duty to “manage earnings”—to make profits appear stable from quarter to quarter—by making pessimistic adjustments during prosperous times and switching to optimistic adjustments during lean years.
The Bible, social expectations and laws and regulations in free and open countries prohibit such manipulations. The only acceptable criterion for financial statements is whether they “present fairly, in all material respects, an entity’s financial position, results of operations, and cash flows in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles." That is, they must convey the truth. It is not enough that they follow the rules, or that they refrain from containing false statements. They have a higher duty, which is to convey an accurate picture of the true situation. This is the standard by which all of our statements should be judged. Do they give the listener or reader an accurate picture of the situation? If not, they are not telling the truth.
Though it is clear that the default position is to tell the truth, even in Scripture, that is not considered a total absolute—there are some exceptions to the general principle. Of course, what the law allows for does not determine the standard for truthtelling. Another way to say this is that the law is the moral minimum, the moral floor, not the ceiling. What a person can get away with and yet not violate the law is not the standard.
Here are some of the categories of acceptable exceptions to the norm of truthtelling.
Much of contemporary advertising falls into the category of what may be referred to as “harmless puffery.” This may apply both to the text of an advertisement as well as to the image created and associated with a company’s product. For example, the TCBY Yogurt chain calls itself “The Country’s Best Yogurt.” However, there is likely widespread disagreement about whether their product is really the country’s best yogurt. As far as is known, the company has not taken surveys to accumulate evidence to back up their claim, nor do they provide any substantiation to what is basically a matter of opinion and an immeasurable claim. This is no doubt an exaggeration, an example of puffery that few people take seriously as a demonstrable claim. Yet most people would not regard the company's name as a lie. The reasonable consumer takes the claim for what it is—public relations fluff.
To hold advertising to strict truthtelling standards that would put puffery off the table would reduce advertising to mere statements of verifiable facts and would cause most advertising to lose its appeal. “The city’s best pizza” is understood to be a slogan, not a fact. To a large degree, any statement of unverifiable opinion could be considered a violation of truthtelling, unless perhaps it includes an explicit statement of “It is my opinion that….” Yet we can usually tell when someone is expressing an opinion, and we recognize that advertising is generally a mercenary kind of opinion, not a claim of objective truth. We don’t need to be told, “The city’s best pizza—in the opinion of the owner.” Opinions are valuable to society—even when they are wrong—and advertising has value too, even if it amounts to harmless puffery. Do we really want a world where sports fans chant, "We're number 14, or at best 13," or where lovers croon, "I love you with 93% of my heart?"
But take the example of a car dealership that advertises, “Credit problems? No application refused.” Most people would not take an ad like this literally because we recognize it as commercial puffery. We wouldn’t really believe that a person with very poor credit, or who has just filed for bankruptcy, would actually be granted credit. Because we take it with a grain of salt, we might think the ad is unlikely to harm anyone. Yet because it makes a specific claim—“no application refused”—it does have more potential to mislead than a vague opinion statement does. Unless the advertising conveys to the average person the actual reality of the situation, the ad should explain what it really means. In this case, the company should include a disclaimer that makes it clear that all credit applications are subject to review. Or, to minimize the possibility of being misunderstood, they should delete the portion of the ad that claims, “no application refused.” The difference here is that the claim is not merely an opinion, but a claims to be a fact, "No application refused." If it is not a fact, it is an unacceptable violation of truthtelling.
Advertisers may also make implicit claims, not by the direct text of their ads, but by the images that are associated with their products. Men’s shaving products are often accompanied by beautiful women being attracted to the men who have just finished using a company’s razors, shaving cream or after shave lotions. The suggestion is that if you use this product, you will be surrounded by beautiful women who find you irresistible. Or at least that you’ll feel more like an attractive man. Or it may be that the ad simply uses the beautiful woman to grab your attention, and you know perfectly well that using it won’t make you more attractive.
Regardless of the psychological workings of the ad, most reasonable consumers see through this puffery and don’t expect an entirely accurate portrayal of the appeal of the product. In fact, most people, when they think about it rationally, recognize that their hygiene products have little to do with their sexual attractiveness. Yet the image associated with such products remains a popular one for advertisers, which is the reason that this form of puffery continues. It is hard to work up too much outrage at this type of puffery, to the degree it doesn't really mislead anyone. (Whether this type of advertising reinforces harmful gender stereotypes, demeans women or men, or promotes unhealthy body images is a worthy question, although one beyond the scope of this discussion.)
Of course, when advertisers make measurable claims, they are presenting themselves as telling the truth, fulfilling the moral demands of truthtelling, as well as the laws requiring truth in advertising, apply. For example, when toothpaste manufacturers make the claim that “4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recommend Crest,” that must be verified by the surveys themselves.
Truth is also expected when verifiable claims are made outside of an advertising context. Exaggerating non-advertising claims is usually intended to be misleading, to present the person or situation as better than he/she/it actually is. If the truth were plainly told, it would clearly not leave as positive an impression as the exaggeration. For example, embellishing your work experience or educational background on a resume is unethical, since the recipient of the resume expects the truth and makes decisions based on receiving the truth in those documents. Saying, “I’m the best person for this job,” is allowable because everyone understands it’s not based on an objective assessment of all candidates. Saying, “I graduated from Oxford,” when you did not, is not allowable.
Even when giving opinions that cannot be verified, you should still be wary of exaggerating, since the person who requests your opinion may be depending on an accurate assessment. If you are asked your opinion about a former student or co-worker, for example, any specific claims you make are expected to be true. Even a statement as vague as “one of my best students” should only be made if the student was indeed better than most other students.
Of course, hyperbole (the use of exaggerated emphasis to make a true point) is a common figure of speech employed in contemporary language. It is also used in the Bible, particularly the poetic sections. Psalm 6:6 reads, “Every night, I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” as a hyperbolic way of saying, “I am in deep sorrow.” We don't expect the Psalmist's couch to actually be saturated or the bed to float away. Jesus’ statements, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off . . . If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off . . . And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out” (Mark 9:43, 45, 47) are often regarded as hyperbole. We would be horrified if someone amputated their foot in the hope it would prevent him or her from robbing banks again. But hyperbole is not expected in situations where someone is soliciting your opinion and, if it is offered, it is normally followed with an explanation that more clearly specifies one’s actual opinion.
One example where this is difficult to sort out is when it comes to letters of recommendation. This is particularly troublesome when it comes to recommending employees whom you have terminated and who, without your endorsement, will have trouble securing other work. One of the common solutions to this, often recommended by a company’s lawyers, is to say nothing, except to confirm that the person in question worked at your company during the stated period. But this can be very problematic in the case of a dangerous ex-employee, since it does not protect future employers from potential harm through incompetence, lack of character, or violent personality. Yet most companies do not want to risk being sued for slander. In court, the truth is an absolute defense, but most companies will want to avoid litigation in the first place.
When recommendations are given, it is not uncommon for them to be exaggerated, building up the person being recommended to be better or more qualified than he or she actually is. This is also the case when recommendations are given for employees who are going back to school to further their education. This common practice of exaggeration in references causes problems, because the recipient of the reference expects a forthright evaluation of the person so that it can be determined whether or not the person is a good fit for a particular position or organization. A poor fit serves neither the employee nor the organization well.
The commonplace nature of these exaggerations is why there is cynicism about recommendations and references, with some actually discounting them and questioning their overall value. This is a difficult area, since prudence under the law may prohibit material disclosure about a candidate for a position. Though you would not be violating the obligation to tell the truth, it’s not helpful at all for the person requesting the recommendation. To be fair, if you adopt this policy, it should apply to all requests for recommendations, since it would not be right for your non-disclosure to be interpreted as disapproval of the candidate. This would even be the case if someone asked you for more clarification “off the record.”
We may be tempted to engage in such exaggeration on our own behalf. We may want to say or imply something like, “I’ve been in the kind of situation you’re talking about many times, and here’s what I’ve found is the best way to handle it,” when in fact we have only faced the situation once or only heard about how others faced the situation. If, in fact, we have high confidence about what to do in such a situation, we may feel justified in portraying ourselves so confidently. But the claim to have done something we have not is, in fact, a lie told in a situation where the truth is expected. Rather than exaggerating how often you’ve encountered a specific scenario, simply tell the person how you would handle it. You can say that you’ve seen it (if you have) and spell out how you would deal with such a situation.
“White lies” are lies that are meant to smooth discourse or deflect minor conflict, supposedly without doing harm to anyone. For example, if you are late to a meeting, it is often tempting to manufacture a face-saving excuse, such as “Traffic was bad today,” or “I got a last minute call that I had to take.” Or take this very common scenario. You don’t want to talk to someone, so you ask a colleague to tell the person that you’re out of the office or in a meeting. Other kinds of white lies include statements like, “Let me introduce my dear friend” (of a colleague you don’t like very much), “I see you are a wise person” (to a customer who is obviously a fool), “I’ll call you” (when you have no intention of calling).
While it is difficult to take a strong stand against white lies, since they seem so harmless, there is usually a way to manage these cases without lying and still stay out of awkward situations. If you are late to a meeting you can simply admit that “I’m sorry I got hung up,” and let it go at that. The people with whom you are meeting don’t need to know what hung you up, and the ambiguity is better than a white lie, though both seem relatively harmless. Similarly, when you want to be unavailable, simply have the person representing you say you are unavailable. The person asking generally doesn’t need to know the precise reason you are not available to talk to them, and you are under no obligation to give full disclosure of the reasons. Or if you are dealing directly with the person, you can simply say, “I can’t talk about this now, but would be glad to get back to you later on that.” Again, you are under no obligation for full disclosure. Leaving some ambiguity is not necessarily the same thing as deception and less than full disclosure is not necessarily lying.
Some situations in which we are tempted to tell white lies are actually scenarios in which we ought to be truthful. Take, for example, when someone asks for your evaluation of a presentation made at the company. It would be easy and very efficient to say, “It was great, I liked it,” and leave it at that. But that may be missing an opportunity to give helpful, constructive feedback if, in reality, the presentation wasn’t good. You can praise the parts that were genuinely praiseworthy, but also point out the areas that are shortcomings so that the person can improve for the next presentation.
Likewise, we may try to convince ourselves that some types of deceit are acceptable because they are relatively minor. This includes misleading your employer about how you use your time or padding your expense account. We may be especially susceptible to this kind of deceit if we can convince ourselves that it’s common practice. Or we may try to justify deceit as compensation for a perceived injustice against us. “I deserve a bigger share of the tips, but I’m getting cheated out of it because I’m not sleeping with the boss, like Pat is, so I’ll make up for it by skimming a little out of the cash drawer.” These have clearly moved beyond anything like a white lie or harmless puffery. They are deceits against unsuspecting counterparties, having no other object than personal gain we know we could not achieve if the other party were not deceived. These have no place in Christian ethics.
One of the most common violations of truthtelling in the work world is bluffing or what some call, “mutual deceits.” Bluffing may be legitimate when all the parties understand that the truth is not necessarily expected, and the bluffing is considered part of the negotiation. It’s somewhat akin to a dance that’s expected where both parties know the music and the steps. Routine examples of bluffing that are generally considered legitimate include faking in sports, deception in poker, negotiating prices while shopping in many parts of the non-western world, and not-guilty pleas in trials. The bluff that Philippe Kahn put over on the salesperson from Byte magazine is another example. What makes bluffing seem acceptable is the assumption that everyone knows that bluffing may occur—that is, everyone knows the rules of the game. This is clearly the case in the above examples (though not as clear in the Kahn case), and it is difficult to claim that someone has been unjustifiably deceived in those cases.
Perhaps the classic defense of bluffing in business comes from Albert Carr, writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1968. Carr claimed that business is analogous to poker, and since everyone knows the rules of the game, bluffing is not deception and is therefore an acceptable practice. This is a part of what is often referred to as a caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") morality that is quite consistent with Carr’s view of truthtelling. Carr further argued that bluffing is a necessary component of shrewd and effective business practice. Speaking of business people he said,
In their office lives they cease to be private citizens; they become game players who must be guided by a somewhat different set of ethical standards.... Poker’s brand of ethics is different from the ethical ideals of civilized human relationships. The game calls for distrust of the other fellow. It ignores the claim of friendship. Cunning deception by concealment of one’s strength and intentions, not kindness and open-heartedness, are vital in poker. No one thinks any the worse of poker on that account. And no one should think any the worse of the game of business because its standards of right and wrong differ from the prevailing traditions of morality in our society.
Carr argues for a radical dual morality, in which the moral standards of private life cannot be applicable to business and still be competitive. Carr concludes that truthtelling must be abandoned as an ethical value in the workplace and be replaced by the bluffing and deception characterized by poker. In this Carr is at odds with economists such as Milton Friedman, who argued that business activities must conform "to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom."
From a biblical perspective, Carr’s vision of business morality as strictly dichotomized from the morality of private life cannot be considered legitimate business ethics. The Bible does not accept the division of life into separate moral spheres, some of which permit taking advantage of other people through unexpected deception. As suggested earlier in this paper, the poker analogy does not apply to business, since business is clearly not a game: not all participants are at the table by choice (and are not free to leave at their choice) and not everyone is aware of the rules of the game. This last element is especially important since the line between bluffing someone who knows what is happening and taking advantage of someone who does not, is not always clear.
Looking Out for the Other Side in Negotiations
Jack van Hartesvelt is vice president of a real estate development trust fund and former vice president of Westin Hotels. In both positions he has been responsible for negotiating multi-hundred million dollar deals. But he decided he wanted more transparency in the process of negotiations. He tells what happened the first time he tried it:
I have been involved in many contract negotiations. I am not a lawyer, but I am with them all the time, in this constructive confrontation. Here’s the way it typically works. If I want to get a 3 percent fee, I would tell the other side that I absolutely must have 4 percent, recognizing that they are going to have to drag me down to 3 percent to feel like they “won.” The whole negotiation is based on a lie.
This had been wearing on me for a long time and, in 1992, I decided I didn’t want to do negotiations the standard way anymore. Part of this came from a bad experience I had had, where I really took advantage of someone—completely legally. But I didn’t like the result. The second part came from my faith—there was this dissonance between what I believed in that part of my life, and what I did in the rest of my life….
Click here to continue reading this case study.
However, this is not necessarily to suggest that all bluffing is wrong. Nor does it imply that bluffing and negotiation are necessarily the same thing, since in negotiations the goal is a good and honest agreement on a fair price with mutual benefit. However, the reality is that bluffing is frequently a part of negotiations. There are some scenarios where it is clear that everyone does know the rules, such as negotiations for commercial real estate sales, or settlement agreements in lawsuits. In such situations, both parties expect a process of negotiation that progressively moves towards a final agreement. But progressive negotiation should not involve outright lying to the other parties in the process. Rather, it simply means not laying all your cards on the table at the beginning. For example, a lawyer representing his or her client in a settlement conference may have authority to settle the case for $100,000. Truthtelling does not require disclosing so initially, and the lawyer may legitimately make a first offer of $75,000. This gets more complicated if the lawyer is explicitly asked whether this is the highest amount he or she is authorized to offer. Rather than lying and saying “yes,” the lawyer can simply assert this is what is being offered at this time. Negotiations do not have to involve actually deceiving the other parties, even if they know the dance. But neither does truthtelling have to mean full disclosure up front, thereby losing any negotiating leverage.
An important limitation of bluffing in any situation is that material disclosure is required; that is, disclosure of factual information essential to understanding the transaction. For example, if I were selling my car and the transmission was about to fail, it would not be legitimate for me to mislead the buyer into thinking the transmission is in good shape. If I am unwilling or unable to disclose the car’s true condition, then at least I am bound to state that I am selling it “as is.” In fact, in many jurisdictions, sellers can be sued for fraud for failing to make material disclosures (this is particularly true in home sales).
In many negotiating scenarios, participants bluff by making up unverifiable pseudo-facts, such as, “I don’t know if I can get this past my boss,” or “This is my best and final offer,” or “I have x number of others interested in the deal.” Is making up false “facts” within the rules of the game that everyone understands? In some cases, it may be. “This is my final offer,” given at the beginning of a negotiation, would not be taken seriously by an experienced negotiator on the other side. Or if one party says, “I have five other people interested in this deal,” that claim would be discounted by others around the table. Nonetheless, these are questionable practices because making apparently factual statements may be regarded by the other parties as going beyond the rules of bluffing. We may not be able to say categorically that Christians should not engage in this particular kind of bluffing. But we would strongly encourage believers to ask, “Does this process honor God and respect the counterparty?”
At some point, all negotiations need to be anchored in the rules of normal reality, where factual statements are expected to be true. If you try to sell land you don’t own, for example, no one will regard that as a legitimate bluff. The best approach may be to regard bluffing as similar to advertising. Exaggerating (or understating) the parties’ attitudes about the price, terms, or other aspects understood to be a negotiating tactic is not deceitful. But making false statements of fact is deceitful. It is also unlikely to be believed except by the most credulous counterparties, meaning those most likely not to understand the rules of the game that make bluffing legitimate in the first place. Instead of making up false facts, why not make true statements about the counterparty’s lack of knowledge. Instead of saying, “I have three other buyers ready to make an offer, so consider yourself lucky to be offered this price,” how about saying, “For all you know, I could have three other buyers ready to make an offer, so do you really want to press your luck on this price?”
To be clear, having reservations about bluffing does not mean that a company or an individual cannot put its best foot forward. This is why people dress up for interviews and presentations, and why a company’s offices are attractive places to work and visit. But it is important that what represents us in the best light is our actual selves or products, not a fictional person or product. In the scenario with Philippe Kahn and Byte magazine, Kahn deliberately misrepresented his company to the sales person who didn’t know he was being bluffed. This case illustrates the danger of bluffing. Even if it’s conceded that bluffing can be acceptable when it’s clear that everyone knows the rules, the temptation to take advantage of someone who may not be clear on the rules is overwhelming, and often is the reason for the bluff in the first place. As Alexander Hill puts it, “The concept of mutual deceit. . . should be utilized only in carefully prescribed situations. . . where everyone clearly understands the rules and innocent outsiders cannot be negatively affected. Such sanitary procedures are nearly impossible to implement in the marketplace.”
In this light, the case of Philippe Kahn and Borland looks like an illegitimate deception. The fact that the ploy was successful does not make it right, any more than running a red light is okay if you don’t happen to get hit by a car in the intersection. If Borland had gone out of business and stiffed Byte $20,000, it would be clearer that the deception was illegitimate.
In fact, Kahn’s deception was very similar to the kinds of deception perpetrated in the recent global economic meltdown triggered by the collapse of the collateralized mortgage obligation market. Lenders made risky loans to home buyers without demonstrated ability to pay back the loans. Lenders then sold the loans to investors who were misled about the degree of risk involved. If housing prices had happened to continue rising—similar to the way Borland happened to sell a lot of software—then when borrowers defaulted, the lenders could have foreclosed and sold the houses at a high enough price to repay the loan, and the investors might never have known how much risk they had been exposed to. But the fact that the opposite happened—housing prices declined, the loans went bad, and the economy was thrown into a global recession—shows that just because a deception sometimes benefits from good luck, it is not true that everyone benefited and no one got hurt. Deceiving another person or party is a hurt all on its own.
In fact, it is often difficult to tell where bluffing ends and illicit deception begins. Imagine misleading a co-worker into thinking you will endorse her bid for a promotion, then painting her in a bad light in front of the boss so that you can get the promotion yourself. This is clearly a violation of truthtelling, a blatant abuse of the co-worker, and a dishonor to Christ. Yet you can almost convince yourself it is merely a form of bluffing. One of the problems about bluffing is that it opens the door to abuses while maintaining a veneer of legitimacy. We would do well to limit bluffing only to circumstances in which we are certain all parties understand that bluffing is occurring and what the rules and limits are. To repeat Alexander Hill’s warning, most people seldom or never encounter such situations in their work.
Another category of possible exceptions to the norm of truthtelling is when the person asking the questions has no right to the truth. For example, if a gun-wielding criminal comes into a convenience store for the purpose of robbing it, the employees are under no obligation to tell the truth about where the money is. Most people would accept that lying to the robber is justifiable. In fact, in some cases, explaining to the person that he has no right to the truth would be tantamount to giving him the information he is seeking. In those cases, it may be acceptable to deceive the person to the minimum degree necessary to prevent him from learning what he has no right to know.
Similarly, if you are in a position of keeping confidentiality, people who ask you to breach that duty have no right to the information they are seeking from you. However, in the case of confidentiality, the duty not to disclose information does not make lying justifiable. For example, if you work in the human resources office of your company and you have information about upcoming layoffs that you are to keep confidential and someone asks you for a “heads up” about their job security, you have a duty to maintain confidentiality.
It would be wrong to divulge the information, but it would be equally wrong to lie. The proper response is to point out that if you had any information about the topic, you would be unable to disclose it. This is the case even though the person may appeal to your friendship and may indicate that the reason they need this information is because of a pending purchase of a home or some other financial commitment they are making. In these cases, you must maintain confidentiality as a part of your loyalty to your company, telling the person that you can’t answer questions like those and you don’t appreciate being put in such a compromising position, one that could cost you your job if you disclosed that information.
The difference between the robbery example and the confidentiality example is that the human resources officer has another option besides outright lying. A store clerk cannot tell the robber, “If I knew where the money is, I couldn’t disclose that information to you”—at least not if the clerk hopes to survive the robbery attempt! But the human resources officer does have that option. This would also be the case if a customer inquired about your profit margin on the price of the product you’re negotiating. You don’t need to lie, but you can make the point that it is confidential information that you’re not authorized to disclose. This emphasizes the fact that the customer does not have the right to that information. The customer does have the right not to be lied to by you, however.
The situation is more ambiguous when the deception merely protects you from the consequences of your own actions. For example, your employer generally doesn’t have a right to know what you do when you are off the job. What if you choose to do something that would make you unpopular with your boss or co-workers or reveal deeply personal information? If someone mentions she saw you at a casino last weekend, would it be okay to lie in order to deny it? What about a civil rights march? A church service? A workshop for survivors of domestic violence? It is difficult to find a general rule in scripture or elsewhere for this kind of situation. Instead we can note that growing spiritual maturity tends to go hand-in-hand with greater ability to disclose truth in situations that seem to threaten personal difficulty. A new Christian might find it too difficult to admit to being at a church service if he fears it would diminish his co-workers’ esteem for him. More mature Christians might be willing to take the risk and might be capable of turning the situation into a positive experience for themselves and their co-workers. Yet even the most spiritually mature who convert to Christianity in a country where such a conversion is illegal might properly decide to deceive others to keep it hidden, at least until the time and place of God’s choosing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer advised his friends to give the Nazi salute (“Heil Hitler”) in order to hide their opposition to Hitler. Here again, notice that in order to find a clear example, we have resorted to a situation far beyond what most Christians face at work. For most Christians at most times in most places, growing in Christ means growing more willing to disclose ourselves openly and without deception.
There are situations in which deception is necessary to obtain information an organization has a right to know. This essentially takes an exception noted earlier, deception for national intelligence purposes and applies it to other workplaces. For example, imagine your job is to serve court orders to people who wish to avoid appearing in court. If you start by disclosing who you are and why you are attempting to contact them, they will probably never admit who they are. Yet your job is vital to the function of the system of laws.
Or consider the practice of mystery shopping. As a means of quality assessment, many retail, medical, hospitality and other customer service companies use mystery shoppers to visit their locations, pretend to be customers, and report on their experience. The information may be essential to assuring that customers are experiencing what the brand promises. In order to make sure they are being treated like ordinary customers, mystery shoppers must conceal the truth that they are reporting to the company on their experience. Mystery shoppers—at least in these situations—are trying to obtain information their organizations do have a right to know, but could not obtain without deception.
Just as it may be legitimate to use deceit to protect information that someone else does not have a right to know, it may also be legitimate to use deception to obtain information you do have a right to know. The same approach can be taken to learn about competitors' customer service, prices, etc., by sending a "competitive mystery shopper" into their locations. This is on shakier ethical ground. As long as the competitive mystery shopper simply observes publicly-visible prices, interactions, environments and the like, no deception is involved. But if competitive mystery shoppers are asked who they are or what they are doing, it would be unethical for them to give deceptive answers. Even worse would be calling competitors, misleading them about your identity, and asking questions they would not respond to if they had not been deceived.
Until now we have been discussing deception to obtain information you have a right to know. This is different from corporate espionage, which means using deception or other means to gain information that you do not have a right to know.The information is typically about the target company's products, strategies, finances, people or research and development. This is both unethical and illegal. Because the entity conducting the espionage has no right to know the information, it certainly has no right to use deceit to obtain it. For example, some companies attempt to gain inside information on competitors by having employees represent themselves as graduate students working on a thesis. They may say or imply that the information will be disguised or aggregated. Obviously, this is illegitimate. This fits the general model of corporate spying, using fraudulent means to gain access to information to which the competing company has no right.
A sidelight to corporate espionage is a situation in which you may un-deceitfully obtain information to which you have no right. For example, you are a sales representative staying overnight in a hotel in your prospect’s city. You discover that a sales representative of a competitor stayed in the same hotel room the night before and left a copy of the competitor’s bid in the drawer. All you have to do is leaf through the bid and you will learn the competitor’s prices, terms, and recommended products. From this you will gain a decisive competitive advantage. You have no right to the information, and in fact (in most cases) the bid will be clearly marked “confidential.” Yet you have not deceived anyone to obtain the information. Should you consider it a lucky break, or the due consequences of the competitor’s blunder in leaving a bid in a hotel room?
Because the principle we have been following is the one of "right to know," the only consistent answer is that you must not leaf through the bid or otherwise allow yourself or your company to learn its contents. Most reputable companies have a policy against using—or even becoming aware of, if possible—competitors’ confidential information. Managers and executives—if they are ethical—will enforce these policies and rigorously prevent the use of information to which the company has no right.
Though the majority of the discussion in this paper has been on the exceptions to the norm of truthtelling, this should not be interpreted to mean that truthtelling is not the moral norm. The basic biblical perspective on honesty and deception is to tell the truth and let the consequences fall where they may. The ambiguities enter in when it comes to the exceptions to the norm. The exceptions occur when there is no expectation of the truth (as in puffery and poker), when (in the rare cases) it is clear that everyone knows the rules (as in bluffing), when someone has no right to the information (as in protecting confidential information) and when truthtelling conflicts with other important moral values (as with Corrie Ten Boom and the Nazis). Exceptions to the norm are just that—exceptions that are unusual occurrences. They do not set the pattern for the application of truthtelling in the marketplace.
Best-selling author James Stewart, in his recently released book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America, has argued for the restoration of truthtelling as an important moral value in society. His point—that honesty is crucial for social cohesion—applies to the marketplace as much as to any element of society. He chronicles the damage done by deception, which, in the case of many of its victims, is ruined lives and financial disaster.
Truthtelling is a critical moral value for a Christian worldview as well, because Christian identity is in Jesus—the way, the truth and the life. Christians may practice clear exceptions to truthtelling in the ways we have outlined, and at times it may even be our duty to do so. But let us hope that our love of the truth leads us to reduce the territory of exceptions, rather than expand it. People motivated by self-gain will prefer to exploit the advantage they can gain by exaggerating, bluffing, or misleading when the other party expects the truth. People motivated by the coming of the kingdom of God on earth will prefer to serve others by speaking the truth, even when it is not expected. Our favorite question will not be “Is this justifiable,” but “Is this how things will be done when God’s kingdom comes?”
Gen. 3:13 The serpent tricked me.
Gen. 29:25 Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?
Gen. 31:20, 26 Jacob deceived Laban . . . “You have deceived me.”
Lev. 19:11 You shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.
Job 11:11 Surely he recognizes deceivers . . . (NIV)
Psalm 32:2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit is no deceit.
Psalm 101:7 No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house.
Psalm 120:2 Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.
Prov. 14:5 A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.
Isa. 53:9 Although he had done no violence, and there was there any deceit in his mouth.
Mark 7:21-22 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit. . .
Rom. 1:29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness . . . full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness. . .
Rom. 16:18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.
1 Peter 2:1 Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile.
Gen. 42:16 . . . in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you.
Psalm 15:1-3 O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.
Prov. 12:17 Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully.
Prov. 12:19 Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Prov. 14:25 A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer.
Prov. 22:21 . . . to show you what is right and true, so that you may give a true answer.
John 14:6 I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.
John 17:17 Your word is truth.
1 John 5:6 And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
Ex. 20:16/Deut. 5:20 You shall not bear false testimony against your neighbor.
Psalm 52:3 You love lying more than speaking the truth.
Prov. 30:8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying.
Eph. 4:25 So then, putting off falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.
Job 27:4 My lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit.
Psalm 10:7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
Col. 3:9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off your old self with its practices.
Titus 1:2 . . . God, who never lies . . .
Prov. 20:17 Bread gained by deceit is sweet, but afterward the mouth will be full of gravel.
Gen. 30:33 My honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you.
Lev. 19:36 You shall have honest scales, honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (see also Deut. 25:15, Prov. 16:11).
2 Kings 12:15 They did not ask an accounting from those into whose hand they delivered the money to pay out to the workers, for they dealt honestly.
Prov. 16:13 Righteous lips are the delight of a king.
Prov. 24:26 One who gives an honest answer gives a kiss on the lips.
Matthew 5:37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly.
Does finance contribute to the flourishing of society and to serving fellow people? The chairman of the United Kingdom Financial Services Administration argues that significant parts of banking are “socially useless”. Laura Newland, a recent Duke University graduate, in the New York Times bemoans graduates going to work in finance, when they could instead be working to benefit society. Young people wonder whether studying or working in finance is an honorable occupation.
In this article we will assess the value of finance by drawing from Christian theology—especially the Bible—and from the financial literature and practice. Our conclusion is that finance is not socially useless. In fact, our biblical and theological exploration reveals that God created the foundations of finance and commands us to use finance for social good, specifically for stewardship, justice, and love.
Stewardship, justice, and love can have many different meanings, so it is important to establish what we mean by them. Stewardship is obedience to God’s mandate to increase his creation from something like a garden to something like a city, all the while remembering it is his. We are to care for it and we will be held accountable as stewards. Justice is treating persons with due respect for their rights as humans, these rights based on the fact that every human is loved by God. Love is caring for another person by seeking to bring about their flourishing as an end in itself, and with due respect for that person as a human. Finance within this framework is an excellent place for a Christian to work and to seek societal renewal and transformation, despite the pervasive impact of sin in finance.
Our approach is to first reflect on what finance is, how its basic building blocks are created by God and how God enables humans to build the institutions of finance on the foundations he created. We will then consider the effects of the Fall on finance, and in particular whether market-rate finance has a positive role in a fallen world. Then we will weave the biblical themes into a redeemed vision of finance with specifics for finance professionals, borrowers and lenders.
Finance is that human activity whereby we allocate or exchange resources with respect to time. For the most part this article concerns external exchange—that is, borrowing, lending and investing—rather than allocation of resources within entities. The term “finance” will be used here as shorthand to refer to financial transactions among parties. Financial functions within households and institutions also concern the allocation of resources over time, and by analogy many of the same principles apply. Nonetheless internal finance—budgeting or project planning, for example—does have its own particular circumstances, which this article does not cover.
Finance occurs, then, when people who want to borrow some resources in a particular time period do so by entering into arrangements with people who have more resources than they currently need. The borrower is willing to pay a price (interest for example) to gain present access to the resources, and the lender wants to make a profit or return in the future from giving up access to the resources at present. Assuming all goes well, the lender benefits the borrower by providing resources at a time the borrower needs it (now), while the borrower benefits the lender by increasing the borrower’s resources in the future. If all goes well, the borrower uses the resources in such a way that both the borrower and lender are better off after the borrowed resources are returned to the lender.
To put it a bit more formally, finance is that human activity involved in the allocation and exchange of resources with respect to time. As a shorthand, we will use the term “lending” to refer to all forms of making resources available, including debt, equity, derivatives, etc. Thus lenders could be households with deposits at a bank, but could also be, for example, stock investors, private-equity investors, or employees contributing to a pension fund. Similarly, borrowers could be households with bank loans, but could also be, businesses selling stock, households borrowing to purchase a house, or government entities issuing bonds in open markets. In general, we are referring to market-based transactions undertaken in a mutually beneficial voluntary manner. We will not develop a theology regarding non-market types of resource allocation—for example governmental or non-voluntary allocation of resources—which are more properly called “subsidies.” Also, since by “finance” we mean the exchange of resources at one time with the expectation of a reverse exchange of resources later, we are excluding labor markets, markets for goods and services, and the like, which are more properly called “trade.”
The earliest example may have been lending a hunting instrument to a fellow clansman for a period of time with the understanding that it would be returned later along with part of the kill. Perhaps a somewhat later example would be borrowing seed from a neighbor with the understanding that that amount of seed plus a little extra would be returned at the end of the growing season. Later, when currency was developed, more complex borrowing and lending transactions could be handled more easily. A successful fisher might sell the catch and have a bit of money left afterwards. A farmer could borrow that money, buy seed, grow grain, sell some of the grain crop and repay the fisher’s original money plus some interest. The fisher helps make the farmer successful and vice versa. In this way people benefit each other in ways beyond their personal skills or capabilities. The history of finance is the history of human creativity and social cooperation applied to make the earth’s God-given resources more productive.
Over the centuries several types of institutions have developed which greatly facilitate this borrowing and lending of resources. Banks, investment banks, mutual funds, microfinance organizations, credit unions and many other organizations have emerged to help borrowers and lenders find each other and to exchange and re-exchange resources to fit the needs of the borrowers and lenders. For example, mutual funds make it possible for people to invest modest amounts of money in an array of stocks and bonds that would be too costly and complex to invest in individually. The contracts or instruments used in finance include debt and equity as well as many hybrids and derivatives designed to suit particular borrower or saver needs.
Finance has a role in God’s purposes for humanity. Three primary purposes of human work revealed in the Bible are to i) reveal God’s glory, ii) engage in stewardship, and iii) provide for justice and love. We will explore each of these shortly. But first, let us note that finance—like all human endeavor—suffers from the profound, devastating effects of sin. For example, greed and dishonesty infect finance in many situations, directly undermining the service of God’s glory, and human stewardship, justice and love. We will explore the effects of sin in detail a bit later. To begin with, let us explore finance according to God’s original purposes for the world, giving us a glimpse of what God intends and what might be possible through Christ’s redemption.
In the biblical narrative God creates everything for his glory and honor (Colossians 1:16, Revelation 4:11). The foundations of finance—like all of creation—reveal God’s unmatched creativity. God created time—seasons, years, and lifetimes. God knit us together so that we have the desire and ability to live and flourish in community with a rich fabric of social interactions, one of which involves sharing resources over time. When people share resources from one time to another in a network of social relationships, we partake of his bountiful creation and enliven it with the creativity and love he has given us in his image. Like great music and delicious foods, finance reveals God’s glory by displaying his omnipotence and creativity in his creation. We will develop a more detailed appreciation for God’s glory in the next section when we see that God created the eight specific foundations of finance.
Following Christ as a Financial Analyst
In an interview with The High Calling, Will Messenger discusses seeking Christ in the world of finance.
You asked, “How do you follow Christ as a financial analyst?” Do you have a working answer for yourself?
I worked one summer as a financial analyst in an investment bank. I got assigned to work on a project to see whether we could get private equity investors to buy power plants from electric utilities. If so, we could earn a big fee on every transaction. The way we approached it was this: I would build a financial model for each power plant to show how many megawatt hours it could generate, the price it could sell each megawatt hour for, the cost of coal, wages for employees, etc. Then I would crunch the numbers asking the maximum interest it could afford to pay on junk bonds that private equity investors would issue in order to raise cash to buy the power plant.
Unlike at IBM, I couldn't see what business problem it was going to solve. I believe that in all things Christ is working for the redemption of our world that is busted in all kinds of ways—not just in our worshiping the wrong things and running after false gods in a very literal way, but in economic things and in organization things that are wrong in our world. I think God is interested in power generation. I knew that the power generation industry was hampered with all kinds of problems at the time. But I didn't see how our exercise was addressing the real issue of the actual job of power generation.
So was there anything you did as an investment banker that you thought was redemptive—or meaningful from God's perspective?
Oh, yes! I helped another company recapitalize itself by issuing convertible preferred stock and using the proceeds to pay off debt. It gave them a more secure financial base, so they could focus on the growth of the business. Plus it made sense for investors. I don't want to overstate how redemptive a good financial transaction is. There's a clear distinction between someone's soul and financial structure in an organization, but I don't think God doesn't care about finance either. Financial structure makes it possible to research and produce useful goods and services, to employ people, and to provide investment income for retirees, college endowments, and the like. The picture of the final Kingdom, eternity if you will, is not one of us becoming disembodied spirits flitting off somewhere where there isn't anything. Instead we see a new heaven and a new earth, and the kingdoms of the world bring their treasure to the New Jerusalem. So we continue to have the spheres of life fully embodied—the stuff of creation is transformed, but not eliminated.
Stewardship is the fulfillment of God’s mandate to fill the earth, subdue (or govern) it, work it, and care for it (Genesis 1:28-30, Genesis 2:15). God’s original creation is shown in Genesis as a garden filled with plants and animals and people in perfect communion with God. The garden is good, but it is not meant to stay unchanged forever. When the Bible looks ahead to the fulfillment of God’s creation it shows us a world teeming with people from every nation praising God. They are no longer in a garden, but a city with foundations, walls, gates, tree-lined streets, iron, gold, domesticated animals and merchant ships (Isaiah 60, Revelation 21). This development of creation from a garden to a city filled with people and their cultural elements is the conclusion of God’s mandate to fill the earth, subdue it, work it and care for it. Even though God’s creation at the beginning was perfect and full of resources, it was not complete as God intended it to become. Mouw argues that “God intended from the beginning that human beings would fill the earth with the processes, patterns, and products of cultural formation”. We are God’s creative hands and continue his creative work, building by the grace of God on his perfect and abundant creation foundation. Van Duzer argues that God’s perfect, though incomplete, creation provides an excellent foundation for business.
Allocating resources well over time so that they grow is vital to fulfilling this creation mandate. Examples of how finance helps humans obey God’s creation mandate include saving money to buy seeds in the spring time, raising capital to purchase mining equipment which will produce ore in future years, a young family borrowing money to buy a house, and a community issuing bonds to build a school. Finance provides the future-oriented allocation of resources necessary for growth. It provides resources to those with the greatest opportunity to increase resources in the coming period of time, then shares the increase with those who lent the spare resources that otherwise would have been unproductive. Without finance, people would live each day with only the resources they could garner that day or that they personally had accumulated in prior days. The economic growth humanity has experienced over the centuries would not be possible without finance. It would be impossible for humanity to thrive without borrowing and lending.
God mandates us not only to work his creation, but also to care for it. Because borrowing and lending is inherently cross-time, finance encourages a long-term perspective on decision making. People who take out mortgages to buy homes tend to take care of them better than those who rent houses short-term. Conversely, unsustainable activities are hard to finance. Who would lend money to a lumber company that is cutting its forests so quickly that they will be depleted in a few years? Finance also makes possible capital improvements that reduce operational use of natural resources. For example a city can borrow money to expand its public transportation system, which will better use God’s carbon resources and also provide retirement income to the municipal bond investors.
Finance makes certain activities of justice and love possible. We are using Wolterstorff’s conception of justice wherein persons are to be treated with due respect for their rights as humans. Wolterstorff’s theistic account bases these human rights solely on the fact that every human is bestowed the honor of being loved by God. Thus “on account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.” This God-human relationship is what gives rise to human rights, which in turn forms our conception of justice. We are also using Wolterstorff’s “care” idea of love which he calls care-agapism—that is seeking to bring about the flourishing of another human as an end in itself, and with due respect for that person as a human. His argument is that love as care is the best way to understand biblical love (agape), because care incorporates justice into love. “Care includes seeking that the beloved be treated justly. And care is the sort of love that is typical of love for oneself, that Jesus attributes to God for us, and that Jesus enjoins on us for God and for our neighbor. Understanding love as care gives us a unified understanding of these four manifestations of love.” Care includes action, probably involving some risk or sacrifice on the part of the lover.
Love manifested in care is consistent with other Christian conceptions of justice and love. For example, Chris Wright shows that the major biblical themes of righteousness and justice are closely related concepts meaning “what needs to be done in a particular circumstance or relationship” to restore things to what they ought to be. Wright goes on to argue that God chose Abraham specifically as a way to advance his mission of blessing the nations with justice and righteousness. It follows that the reason God chose us was to bless those around us with justice and righteousness. Wright’s argument gives us the reason to actually practice this love. We are mandated by God to bless those around us by showing love, that is by bringing about their flourishing in a way that respects them as people loved by God.
And to whom do we show this love and justice? Jesus said his most important teaching is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 10), which echoed Moses’ earlier teaching. Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan illustrates that our neighbor is anybody we can show love and justice to, even those with whom we do not have a prior relationship. Or as Wolterstorff says, “I take Jesus to be enjoining us to be alert to the obligation placed upon us by the needs to whomever we happen on.”
Wolterstorff’s concepts of justice and love are useful for understanding God’s intended purpose for finance for two reasons. First, finance can be useful for bringing about the flourishing of another human, with due respect for that person as a human. Finance provides access to resources. The resources that finance allows to be reallocated can help people flourish, and sharing resources in a mutually beneficial voluntary way is an excellent way, although not the only way, to show due respect for another human. This is the essence of justice. If you don’t have resources you need now in order to be productive, and if you are willing to share some of the increase with me later, then it is only just that we would lend, borrow and repay out of respect for each other. Second, finance can be a means to love neighbors—in the sense of caring about their flourishing—with whom we do not have a personal relationship or who do not live nearby. Well-constructed financial arrangements—along with a good legal system—make it possible for strangers to borrow and lend with confidence of a proper return. In this way, we can share resources for mutual benefit far beyond our personal circles. Not all financial arrangements embody justice and love in these ways, but they could and they should. Chaplin urges us to transform institutions, perhaps radically, so they “embody the central norm of love” and so they serve as “conduits” for love and justice.
It was God’s choice to make us in a particular way that enables finance. This is not to say that God created particular institutions or systems of finance, but that people are created in ways that give finance a role in God’s purposes. This concept is critical for our theology. If God did not create the foundations of finance, then finance is a purely human invention that might not have any role in God’s intentions for humanity. If however God did create the foundations of finance, then surely he did that for a purpose, and that purpose must align with his revealed will. We will explore eight foundations of finance to see whether they really do spring from God’s creation.
God created a world with time and where human time is limited. By God’s creation, we have days, seasons, generations and lifetimes (Genesis 1, Psalm 104). Further we need to be aware of time and will be held accountable for our time (Psalm 90:12, Ecclesiastes 3, Proverbs 6:6-11, Proverbs 20:4). Kana argues that time is God’s resource and we are stewards of time.
Allocating resources among people across different time periods is the underpinning of finance. Financial resources are needed for a few days because of production or shipping time, or a few months due to seasonal business, or a half year due to a growing season, or for several years for new product development and launch, or for decades to build a factory or buy a house, or for most of a life time for retirement savings. In a world where people’s needs, opportunities, and available resources vary over time, finance is the primary means of matching resources to needs across time.
People are created with a wide variety of skills, needs and desires. In the Bible, we see this in God’s creation in his endowment of people with a wide variety of skills to build the tabernacle (Exodus 35:30-36:5) and to rebuild Jerusalem upon the return of the remnant from the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 7:6-7; Nehemiah 1, 2). Paul emphasizes that we are each gifted differently (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). In addition, since we were not all born at the same time, human society has a rich variety of ages and life stages. Some people are young and not yet able to provide their own food and shelter, others are just beginning to be able to do so, others are in their prime productive years and have resources in excess of their current needs, and still others are older and need help in supporting themselves, or need to draw on resources accumulated during their earlier years.
This heterogeneity is a foundation of financial markets because at any given time some people will have excess resources while others will have need or opportunity to use resources beyond what they currently possess. For example, some of us will want to borrow money to pursue a business opportunity or build infrastructure to fulfill some unmet need in society. Others will be savers at some periods of their lives and will be able to lend to meet that borrowing need.
People were created to act on others’ behalf, to be stewards or agents. Prime examples are that God mandates us to steward his creation and steward his grace (1 Peter 4:10). We also see that God called Joseph to act as a steward for both Potiphar and Pharaoh (Genesis 39:2-6; 41:41-44). Jesus’ parable of the talents illustrates that we are his stewards, and will be held accountable for acting as he would want us to (Matthew 25:14-30).
Finance depends on people acting as agents or stewards on behalf of others. Executives act as agents for the shareholders of a corporation. Mutual fund managers act on behalf of investors to decide which stocks or bonds in which to invest. Lawyers apply their expertise to serve their clients’ interests in financial transactions. An entire branch of finance literature is devoted to better understanding the many agency relationships in finance. Finance can exist because God created people with an ability to act on behalf of others.
God is a God of promises and covenants. The biblical narrative is a story of God’s promises kept. Humans are created in his image, and thus we have biblical accounts of humans making promises to each other. The story of Ruth hinges on promises between people of different nationalities, for example (Ruth 1:16 -18). Paul references human promises in Galatians 3:15. Humans are created to be able to make and keep promises to each other.
Every financial instrument is a promise between two or more parties, and would not be possible if promises were not part of God’s creation. A mortgage loan is a promise to pay a certain amount each month. A share of stock is a promise for a portion of future dividends and a right to elect board members. In modern finance some of our promises tend to get quite complicated and detailed so it has become common practice to write them down. However, these written contracts simply reflect our created ability to make and keep promises. This ability is so central to finance that the Bible teaches us to not overpromise in our finances (Proverbs 22:26-27).
Humanity does not know everything, and individually each of us knows only a tiny fraction of what can be known. God created each of us with our own unique mind which takes in, processes and remembers things differently from anyone else. Human endeavor depends on each of us using our individual knowledge for mutual benefit, rather than on each of us learning everything needed for success.
Limited knowledge and asymmetric information are mediated by financial markets. This means that when a loan is entered into the borrower has more information about his or her ability to repay than does the lender. It means that when we buy a stock it is possible that the seller knows something about the stock that we do not. This asymmetry will impact our willingness to participate in financial markets and will impact financial prices. Finance is built on two obligations that turn asymmetric information from a hindrance into an opportunity. First, we use promises to convey our certainty about information we possess that other parties do not. My promise to repay the mortgage, under penalty of losing the house, gives you the confidence to deposit money in the bank that funds the mortgage, even though you do not know my likely future earnings. Secondly, we prohibit falsifying information in financial transactions. If your investment documents tell me that there is a $3 billion market for products like yours, this information must be accurate. Because of this, we can make use of information provided by others, even if we do not have personal knowledge of its accuracy.
God created risk, in that we do not know what the future holds (Ecclesiastes 8:7). But God created us with an ability to influence future events, in particular with the ability to create new things that come to fruition in the future. Miller outlines three conceptions of risk, the third being “opportunity creation” wherein human imagination and creativity make the future indeterminate because we might—or might not— be able to bring into existence what was not there before. Consistent with this, Buchanan and Vanberg (1991) argue that the markets are best understood as a creative process, as opposed to a discovery process or allocative process. By God’s design the future is not deterministic, but an unfolding process impacted by human choice.
This risk has a profound impact on financial decisions. Most financial instruments and the pricing of those instruments reflect this uncertainty. Loans get turned down due to uncertainty, or are priced higher to compensate for the percentage expected to fail. Stock prices rise and fall due to uncertainty. Debt contracts have reporting and collateral provisions because of uncertainty. Financial markets are greatly complicated by uncertainty, but also have a greater potential benefit to society due to the ability of risk to be managed and re-allocated via finance.
How does the gospel change a bank’s view of people and how they should be treated, especially those of modest means? Inspired by faith that sees the infinite worth of each person, Guardian Bank takes a different, more humane and hopeful view that also provides hope for everyday households and commercial customers.
God created us to be able to take risk and provides biblical support for taking risks (Genesis 1:28-30; 2:15; Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27; John 12:24). We are created in the image of a risk-taking God, who took “risks by making a distinct creation and a free humanity to rule it.” God created us so we feel risk, but we know God will provide. However we also have much biblical teaching to be prudent in our risk taking. Gregersen defines risk as the sum of natural events, social events and the meaning these hold for a person. Gregersen quotes Luhmann who argues that trust is a risk-willing position, creating a virtuous cycle between trust and risk. Gregersen argues that the Bible teaches “the world is created by a benevolent God in such a manner that invites a risk-taking attitude and rewards it in the long term.”
Human attitudes toward risks are crucial in finance. People are willing to take some risk but not too much, and the amount varies by individual and circumstance. This ability to take risk along with an aversion to taking risk unnecessarily is part of God’s creation design. God in his wisdom created us with an innate ability to balance the risks and rewards, and we see this reflected in financial prices. With this awareness we can recognize that a risk understood and managed is consistent with God’s creation design.
These eight aspects of creation—especially of the creation of human beings—form the foundation of finance. Finance bridges the gaps that would otherwise prevent people from making use of spare resources to grow and increase human productivity and from sharing resources socially for mutual benefit. In other words, finance turns the conditions of human existence into opportunities to bring glory to God, to serve as stewards of creation, and to care for each other with justice and love.
To complete our theological analysis of finance, we need to demonstrate exactly how people can develop financial institutions that bring glory, stewardship, and justice and love from God’s created foundations. By institutions we mean those structures and mechanisms which society uses to organize its activities. The four primary finance institutions are currency, intermediaries, instruments and prices. In this section we explore each of these four institutions, show how they are built on God’s foundations and are a way in which we obediently respond to God through stewardship, justice, and love. Along the way we address several questions which arise.
Van Duzer argues that institutions may be among the powers and principalities referred to in the Bible and that as such were created by God for good. He infers that Colossians 1:16-17 may be referring to institutions such as business or markets. He quotes Yoder who argues that God created institutions to provide “regularity, system, order” to his creation. Consistent with this we take an optimistic view of finance; a “what was intended by God” view of finance. Later we look at how God’s intentions for finance are impacted by a fallen humanity, and recognize that finance institutions can be, and are, used for great harm in society; exhibiting bad stewardship and lack of justice and love for fellow humans.
God enabled humans to represent material value in media that are durable, storable and transportable. In his original creation design God made some physical elements, such as gold, to be attractive, small, and relatively scarce. He also created in humans an ability to understand and impute value to such articles. Later, God allowed humans to establish governments which would use non-scarce resources, such as paper, to represent scarce resources, such as gold, which in turn could be exchanged for a wide variety of resources. We have money which is in modern times very easy to transport (and is almost costless to transport electronically) and which provides access to real resources such as food, housing, education and capital goods. Being able to easily allocate resources via currencies is an important part of fulfilling the creation stewardship mandate.
The Bible contains much teaching about money. Several famous teachings are that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) and, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). These teachings are not about money as a medium of exchange, but rather about human attitudes towards money and the power it represents to us. However, money as a medium of exchange is not the root of evil. Money as a medium of exchange is a blessing enabled by God.
Intermediaries are institutions that “remanufacture” lenders’ resources into a form that is useful to borrowers. A simple example is when a bank intermediates between several depositors and one business loan borrower. Intermediaries include all the various types of banks, but there are several other important types of intermediaries such as pension funds, life insurance companies, mutual funds, private equity funds, hedge funds and securitization vehicles. Even “disintermediated” financial transactions—when companies borrow money by issuing bonds to lenders, rather than borrowing from a bank, for example—typically go through some kind of intermediary, such as an investment bank. Any financial vehicle which aggregates on savers' money and invests it in borrower obligations is performing the function of financial intermediation. Intermediaries function because God created humans to be social and heterogeneous, to act as agents, to make promises, and to be prudent risk takers.
Intermediaries allow humans to fulfill God’s stewardship mandate in two key ways. First, intermediaries develop networks of borrowers and lenders, investing their own resources to identify and build trust between parties. You would probably never lend money to a stranger to buy a house, but you would deposit money at a bank that lends to the stranger. You trust the bank because you know the bank has a process to makes sure it lends soundly to appropriate borrowers. Second, intermediaries make resources scalable by enabling many savers’ resources to be aggregated. You can’t lend enough money for someone to buy a house, but a bank with thousands or millions of depositors can pool their funds to make large loans possible.
One way intermediaries enable justice is by allowing non-elite households and small businesses to gain access to resources. Without intermediaries a household’s access to resources would be limited to the social relationships of that household. Poor households would likely stay poor. With intermediaries a poor household can borrow the resources to buy a house, car, college education or start a small business. Likewise with small businesses that do not have the size or reputation to issue bonds directly to investors. This allows for a more just society.
Intermediaries allow borrowers and savers to care for each other, which as we have seen is an act of love. The intermediary enables the borrower to obtain the needed funds more easily and more cheaply than if the borrower relies only on family and friends. Intermediaries also enable savers to save for the future in lower risk and higher return ways compared to hiding money under mattresses or lending only to acquaintances. Although the saver and borrower never meet, they are caring for each other by sharing resources in this way.
Faith & Co.: Banking on Hope
How does the gospel change a bank’s view of people and how they should be treated, especially those of modest means? Inspired by faith that sees the infinite worth of each person, Guardian Bank takes a different, more humane and hopeful view that also provides hope for everyday households and commercial customers.
If finance is a means of care and love, doing finance through intermediaries raises a question. Can we love someone we do not even know?
We can indeed show love for people whom we do not know. Most of us are familiar with institutions in society that enable humans to show love to each other across distance and time. For example, employees and donors of NGOs such as Oxfam, World Vision and Red Cross, to name a few, are acting out of love for needy people around the world, even though they do not actually know the persons they are loving. Indeed even the work of developing those organizations is an act of love for our fellow humans. Similarly, although we do not usually think of this, savers who make bank deposits which allow borrowers to use those resources for a period of time can be acting out of love for the borrowers even if their exact identity is unknown to the savers.
This suggests a possible tension between stewardship and love, however. It seems that larger intermediaries should allow for better stewardship because they have opportunities to borrow and lend in many markets around the world. But smaller local intermediaries with more local relationships might be better at enabling love because they may know their customers more intimately. A big national bank might allow for more optimal stewardship and a small local bank might allow more intimate love. Our theology would urge banks and customers to consider this potential tradeoff when making decisions regarding the scale of their banks. If a bank chooses to be large, it should be with an explicit goal of excellent geographical and scale stewardship. If a bank chooses to remain small it should do so with an explicit mission to be excellent at love. Depositors should consider the same tradeoffs when deciding where to do their banking.
Financial instruments are promises between two or more parties with differing resource needs which are tailored to allow both parties to be prudent risk takers when the future is unknown. As argued above, God created humans to be a promise keeping people. That element of creation along with the fact that God created humans social, heterogeneous, time bound, and to be prudent risk takers in a world of uncertainty, gives rise to financial instruments. Financial instruments are the products “manufactured” by intermediaries to meet the needs of savers and borrowers and allow humans to obey God’s creation mandate and to show justice and love in significant ways.
Financial instruments enable good stewardship because they can be tailored to fit the risk, return, and time profile of the particular stewardship opportunity. Thus, if a borrower company has a particular project whose outcome is quite contingent on an uncertain future (i.e., it is risky), then a financial instrument can be crafted which anticipates this risk and thus helps the saver and borrower mutually agree on how exactly to share the requisite resources, very likely with an equity-type instrument.
Financial instruments also allow for a more just society. Instruments can be tailored for the needs of those members of society whose needs are the greatest. Small business loans are instruments that have provided countless opportunities for entrepreneurs to serve society. Student loans are an instrument which has provided great opportunity for young people whose families have not been able to save enough for education. The special tailored instruments used in micro-lending also enable justice. Specialized housing loans with smaller down payments and government insurance have enabled countless low income families to gain the benefits of home ownership. Financial instruments allow those members of society with ample resources one way to show justice to poorer members of society.
A mortgage loan is an example of love enabled by financial instruments. The saver helps the borrower obtain a physical place in which she and her family can flourish. In turn, the borrower helps the saver prepare for later in life when he is old and no longer productive enough to support himself. Through God’s creation design he anticipated that we would develop financial instruments which would enable humans to love each other in such meaningful and useful ways. Of course, the borrower and saver do not specifically know each other but they do know of the other's existence and can thus love each other in this way.
Prices in financial markets are expressed as expected rates of return on financial instruments, which in debt instrument are quoted as interest rates. Why exactly would the borrower and saver agree to pay or receive a rate of return or interest? Is that part of God’s creation design? We argue yes, as follows.
First consider this from the borrower’s perspective. Ideally, the borrower will be willing and able to pay interest because he or she can use the borrowed resources to produce greater resources in future. These productive opportunities have been created by God and include things like shelter so the borrower can stay healthy, planting seeds to grow a crop, gaining skills through education, building a road or factory, or buying a machine that can make something useful. Time periods and productive opportunities are both parts of God’s created order. This is one-half of the important foundation of interest rates.
For the second half of the foundation, consider this from the lender’s perspective. The lender is willing to give up access to some resources until some future period for two reasons. At present he or she has more resources than needed. But later, there is likely to be a future period during which he or she will need additional resources, in retirement for example. It makes sense to let the borrower use the resources for a period of time and return them later. To give up control of the resources for a while the lender will want compensation at least equal to the next-best use for the resources. The lender’s diminishing appetite for current consumption and knowledge of likely future time periods in life are direct results of God’s creation of humans as finite and time-bound.
Thus, the productive opportunities and human consumption needs created by God, along with the above eight foundation of finance, form the basis for interest rates. Interest rates are not some aberrant human idea; rather interest rates are an institution which flow directly from God’s creation design. Furthermore, a well-priced interest rate can benefit both the borrower and lender, and will be the result of a voluntary mutually beneficial exchange.
Interest rates are a key part of stewardship. This price mechanism allows for clarity in resource allocation decision making. If you are paying interest, you have an incentive to borrow only if it helps increase your future productivity. Interest discourages you from borrowing simply to live above your means because you have to pay back more tomorrow than you consume today. The interest rate mechanism encourages good stewardship of financial resources over time. However, we caution against assuming that this mechanism will automatically lead to the “care” part of God’s creation mandate. Not every project with a positive financial return will lead to creation care. It will take thoughtful finance participants to work within the context of interest rates to care for God’s creation.
Interest rates facilitate and stimulate a just re-allocation of resources. Interest rates provide a way for those members of society without resources to gain access to resources simply by agreeing to fairly compensate the lenders for the temporary use of the resources. Interest rates allow sharing of resources to be voluntarily agreed and mutually beneficial. Interest rates allow a financial transaction to be good for both parties. Without interest rates (i.e. a zero interest rate) financial activity would be a gift from lenders to borrowers. Without interest rates borrowers would be attempting to gain free access to lenders’ resources. This would look a lot like begging, which is perhaps not the best way for justice to work. However, God in his creative genius arranged that one way justice can occur is via sustainable voluntary mutually beneficial activities among humans, one of which is what we call interest rates.
The question of prices raised two questions about finance as a form of love. First, can love be expressed in a market value-exchange relationship? Put another way, if both borrower and lender expect to gain from the relationship, is either one really doing it out of love? Second, since most financial transactions are at arm’s length, can one love another human even if there is no personal relationship?
Can one person love another through selling something at a price? Recall that our idea of love is seeking to bring about the flourishing of another human as an end in itself, and with due respect for that person as a human. The answer is yes. People bring about others’ human flourishing all the time through providing goods and services at a price. When farmers provide wholesome food, they help consumers to flourish, even though consumers pay for the food. We don’t regard good teachers as mere mercenaries simply because they get paid. The majority of work in modern economies is paid, and the goods and services produced by work are sold at a price. If charging a price negates the possibility of love, then virtually no work could show love.
Why is it that market-rate finance somehow seems less capable of showing love? Perhaps it is because money—unlike teaching or farm produce—seems like an undifferentiated product. A farmer shows love by selling good produce. Can a lender show love by lending good money? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. The money itself is not better or worse than any other money, of course. But the circumstances, conditions, and terms of lending are all opportunities for borrowers and lenders to care for one another. The duration of the loan, its payback provisions, collateral requirements, default penalties, insurance, inflation protections, and countless other terms can make a loan better suited to enable the borrower and the lender to flourish. Income verification, property assessment, due diligence, understandability of loan documents, availability of unbiased information, and other factors related to initiating the loan can also show care and respect. The location and convenience of bank locations, loan officers, rate comparisons, community engagement, advertising, and other factors can help reach underserved communities. Credit counseling, respectful dialogue about the use of proceeds—whether for consumption or investment in productivity, product education, and other factors can show love by helping people avoid borrowing if it is likely to harm them. For equity transactions, the openness of markets, the accuracy of financial statements, the integrity of people with inside information also care for and respect investors. Even though the money itself is the same from one lender to another, the love—that is, the care and respect—can vary widely.
For example, a mortgage lender may help a low-income family buy a house instead of renting. If the house, the interest rate, the loan period, the income verification, and all the other factors are handled properly, this can be a tremendous benefit for the family as they begin to build equity. It also benefits all those who lend the money involved, typically bank depositors or pension funds. Similarly, an investment bank that helps an entrepreneur issue an initial public offering to raise capital to grow the business brings a kind of love to the entrepreneurs future customers, employees, suppliers, and community, in addition to the shareholders who purchase the stock. All of these are market-rate transactions that bring love to bear for both borrowers and lenders.
Finally, love can be shown by honoring and fulfilling the promises made in the transaction. Of course much of this is required by law, but here we are arguing that love is shown in market transactions by going above and beyond the law by acting in the other party’s best interest even if it is not required or deserved and even if there is no expectation of a future benefit of doing do so. This means seeking the flourishing of the other party as an end in itself. Again, markets for other goods and services routinely do this—think of health care, for example—and there is no reason finance cannot do the same. Most if not all market transactions could feature this kind of love, and many do.
Another question is whether financial prices—interest in particular—are prohibited by the Bible. For centuries Christians have debated the applicability of the biblical texts which seem to prohibit interest or the taking of collateral as for example in this passage:
You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.(Deuteronomy 23:19-20)
To explore this and other relevant passages, see “Employing Assets for the Common Good (Deuteronomy 23:1-24:13)”, “Lending and Collateral (Exodus 22:25-27)”, "The Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25)”, “The Righteous Man Does Not Take Advance or Accrued Interest (Ezekiel 18.8a)”, “The Righteous Man Does Not Oppress, But Restores to the Debtor his Pledge (Ezekiel 18:5,7)”.
For the most part, Christians have concluded that interest is not inherently prohibited in modern societies, but that lending practices— including interest rates and collateral—must not take advantage of vulnerable people or make people destitute. This is in fact what we are advocating here—that finance is meant as a means of stewardship, care, and respect.
To sum up our theology, we have argued that the purposes of finance are to bring glory to God, to enable humans to be creation stewards, and to allow justice and love. We argued this by showing that God created the foundations of finance and then showing how these foundations enable humans to build four specific institutions on those foundations. These institutions enable humans to obey God’s creation stewardship mandate and God’s justice and love mandates. Below we provide several examples of how in this framework Christ’s redemption can enable stewardship, justice, and love.
Up to this point we have considered finance as God originally intended. But, we know that the Fall of humanity has marred every aspect of creation. Until Christ’s redemption of the world is accomplished, we live in a world shaped by both the good of God’s creation and the evil of the Fall. Sin has severely damaged the ability and propensity of humans to be stewards and to show justice and love through financial markets.
Several sins are especially damaging to finance. Since finance is fundamentally about allocating resources, the sin of greed has a major impact on finance. Since God did not create us to be omniscient, and since information is important in finance, the sin of lying also causes huge problems in finance. In fact, this greed and lying can seriously impair the ability of finance institutions to do the good they are intended for, and begs the question whether these institutions are so corrupted by sin that they cannot be redeemed.
In recent history, nothing has been more demonstrative of the fallen nature of finance than the economic recession of 2008. What went wrong? Is there a future for capitalism? How do society and governments move forward? In an interview with Ethix's Al and Nancy Erisman, Lord Brian Griffiths provides a compassionate, hopeful and insightful response to these questions.
Many authors have explored the problems in finance and their underlying causes. Shiller reminds us that Keynes argued we have a spontaneous urge to action, which he called animal spirits, which causes financial markets to have problems. Stiglitz outlines many of the problems with investment banks (the wholesale financial intermediaries), with a special focus on compensation structures. He argues that “the financial system failed to perform its key roles: managing risk, allocating capital, and keeping transaction cost low.” Terrill argues that a moral breakdown has occurred in investment banking and with consumers, and that we need a soul change to pursue what is “good and right. ”  Van Duzer has a chapter detailing how sin impacts markets, including finance. He shows how broken relationships among humans and with God cause many problems in the marketplace. Davis argues that over the past three decades some elements of finance—particularly institutional investing and securitization—have contributed to the waning of organizations which contribute to society and to the rise of a trader mentality which has a shorter term view and can damage society.
Given the work of these and other writers, we will not expand on the evils that people intentionally commit in finance, such as fraud, deception, violence, racial, ethnic, gender and other biases, and the like. These are much the same as ethical lapses in other fields of work. The article Ethics at Work Overview at www.theologyofwork.org gives a framework for ethical reasoning in biblical perspective.
We are more interested here in how the Fall may limit the ability of finance—in the sense of voluntary, market-rate transactions—to bring stewardship, justice, and love to both borrowers and lenders. Are there situations in which finance must be replaced with some other form of exchange—private or governmental charity in particular—and if so, how extensive are they? In a fallen world is there still scope for finance to fulfill the purposes God intended?
Ideally, market-rate finance is a blessing to both borrowers and lenders. This is similar to all kinds of commerce. Producing and selling all kinds or products and services is meant to benefit both buyers and sellers. But, there are times when people need the product or service but cannot afford to buy it. This is as true with finance as with food, shelter, electricity, health care, or any other good. People may need access to money who may not qualify for credit or who may be offered only unaffordably high interest rates. As with any other product, when this happens it is no longer a commercial transaction, but a subsidy, transfer, or gift. We don’t usually expect that producers will sell their goods and services at a loss or give them away for free. Instead we depend on donors, aid organizations, or governments to subsidize or purchase and donate items to those in need. Yet at the same time, we do expect, or at least hope, that those who have in abundance will be generous.
Finance is similar to any other sector in this respect. The Bible commends generosity in finance—
If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them. (Leviticus 25:35-36)
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
—much as it commends generosity in goods,
In reply he [John the Baptist] said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)
Generosity is important. But, markets with prices are likely not the best way to show generosity to family members (“kin” in Leviticus 25:35) and needy people. If we consider the grain market we see that God created the foundation for grain markets in that we are social, not everybody is equally skilled to grow grain, grain does not grow equally well everywhere, grain cannot be harvested every day of the year, grain is nutritious and our bodies cannot ingest enough grain at the time of harvest to last until the next harvest. The Bible does not contain a general prohibition on buying and selling grain. However, the Bible does encourage us to not hoard grain and to give grain away to the poor, the widow, and fatherless (Leviticus 19; Luke 12:16-21). The Bible has similar teaching about financial resources as we have seen above. There is no biblical dissonance between allocating most financial resources via markets with a price (interest rates) as intended by God in his creation design, and also sharing some financial resources freely (zero interest rates) with family or the poor. Both cases can show love to others. To those who have productive opportunities for money, lending with interest can be love. Lending interest-free to family and the poor who have not other access to funds can also be love.
In general, the fact that finance deals in money, rather than goods and services, does not give lenders a greater obligation to do charity than other businesses and institutions. In fact, any business that ceases to operate profitably is actually destroying the value it is meant to bring to society. As we have seen, the foundations of finance include its benefit to lenders as well as to borrowers. Whenever a financial institution gives away money, it deprives its own investors of some of their anticipated return. Given that the largest investors today are pension funds, charity to borrowers comes largely at the expense of retirement income to pensioners. So, as in other industries, large-scale charity is not the role of finance.
Financiers have a duty to lend profitably, but they are not to profit from the vulnerability of borrowers.
You shall not lend them [people in difficulty] your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. (Leviticus 25:37)
In other words, a lender should not exploit the “difficulty” faced by a potential borrower in order to gain profit or force onerous terms such as collecting interest in advance. The passage as a whole speaks specifically to the requirement to lend to kin (Leviticus 25:35), but once a decision has been made to lend for whatever reason, the obligation not to exploit the borrower’s difficulty applies to everyone.
The moral issue arises from the imbalance in power between the lender and borrower. The lender has plenty of money, but the borrower is in a desperate situation. Even in many market-rate situations today, the lender is more powerful than the borrower. For example, a bank generally has far greater resources, information, legal knowledge, legislative influence, and geographic presence than a customer taking out a loan. Sometimes laws prevent certain kinds of exploitation in lending, but even when exploitative lending is legal, it is wrong. In any case, no industry can thrive over the long term by exploiting its customers. One contribution Christians can make in finance is to use whatever influence we have as depositors, employees, investors, directors, agents, and voters to reduce the exploitation of vulnerable people.
God’s intent is that finance be a form of sharing, over time, among borrowers and lenders. There is only something to share if the loan makes increased productivity possible. So borrowers and lenders both have a responsibility for the use of borrowed money. A mortgage may increase the borrower’s productivity by reducing housing costs. A car lease may make it possible for the borrower to get to work efficiently. A business loan may be used to finance equipment, inventory, receivables or other assets for growth. On the other hand, a mortgage made on speculative property or without income verification or without sufficient equity may damage both the borrower and lender. A car lease with teaser rates or a back-end balloon payment of more than the car is worth may encourage the borrower to buy a car he or she can’t afford. A business loan made without due diligence may be squandered on unproductive assets.
These examples reinforce the biblical view that finance is a shared obligation of borrower and lender. Borrowers are obligated to limit themselves to loans that will make them productive and that they can be reasonably expected to repay. Lenders are obligated to assist borrowers in this task and to decline to lend in unsuitable circumstances. In practice, this can be quite difficult to accomplish. Borrowers may lack the knowledge to gauge the suitability of loans, or they may simply be short-sighted or impulsive. Lenders may also mis-gauge the suitability of a loan, or they may be greedy, unscrupulous, or short-sighted.
For example, the global financial crisis of 2008 began with defaults on mortgages that were based more on speculation—by both borrowers and lenders—than on good housing opportunities. Lenders were aware that repayment would depend on housing prices continuing to appreciate from their already rapidly-growing levels. But because they generally sold the mortgages on to institutional investors and recouped their money quickly, they had little incentive to exercise care for borrowers’ long-term interests. Ultimately all three kinds of participants—borrowers, mortgage originators, and investors in collateralized mortgage obligations—paid little attention to the time-bound nature of finance and the importance of relationships in which all parties share in the risks and gains. By contrast, lending according to biblical principles requires that all parties care whether the loan—the borrower’s use of proceeds—is truly productive.
As these situations show, in a fallen world, there are situations in which market-rate finance does not meet the needs of some potential borrowers while also benefiting lenders. Just because God created the foundations for markets and prices, does not mean finance is always capable of bringing complete stewardship, justice and love to resource allocation. We must be careful not to worship the market or justify something because it is an outcome of a market transaction. Financial markets are a blessing from God, but they are not the only blessing and will not be a blessing in every circumstance. Governments and nonprofit organizations are also blessings from God. Further, in a fallen world, markets and financial institutions can cause great harm to society and to individuals. The market needs to be balanced with other institutions in society and always evaluated against God’s will for us as revealed in his word. There is still a scope for finance to fulfill God’s purposes, but only through God’s redemption can finance be restored to his original design.
In this interview at the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, banker John Gage discusses how while attending theological seminary he realized that God uses all of us in our various vocations for His mission in the world, and developed a renewed sense of calling to live out a faithful life in the banking industry.
What would it look like for finance to participate in God’s redemption of the world? God in his grace offered his Son so to that we can be reconciled to him and that his entire creation can be freed from the effects of sin. God’s redeeming grace, operating through people in financial institutions, can redeem finance’s ability to honor God, foster good stewardship, and show justice and love to people. A reminder of what these terms mean may be useful here. Stewardship is obedience to God’s mandate to increase his creation from something like a garden to something like a city, remembering that resources ultimately belong to him. Justice is treating persons with due respect for their rights, which are based on the fact that every human is loved by God. Love is caring for other people by seeking to bring about their flourishing as an end in itself. Using this framework, let us consider some brief examples of redeemed finance in operation.
Bank workers are at the front lines of financial services. Their first step in acting as means of redemption is to work out how their particular function within a financial intermediary is connected to justice and love for savers or borrowers, and then focus their efforts at being especially good at that kind of justice and love.
For example, a member of a bank loan resolution department could advocate for paying attention to the particular situations of borrowers. The uproar over “robo-signers” in the U.S. mortgage crisis shows that too many borrowers felt that the relational aspect of finance had been lost, and that their needs were not being taken into account. This does not necessarily mean a bank worker should oppose all foreclosures. But, it does suggest advocating for personal attention to distressed borrowers.
A human resource professional at a bank could give special attention to a job applicant’s passion for justice and love as a factor in hiring. If finance workers cannot, over time, figure out how their work promotes justice and love for savers and borrowers or cannot transform the organization in that direction, perhaps they are not a good fit for the organization.
Finance professionals need to pay attention to their own practice of two of the biblical foundations of finance. First, finance professionals are usually acting as their customers’ agents or stewards. This gives them an obligation to put customers’ good ahead of personal gain. Second, finance professionals are frequently negotiating and entering into contracts, or promises. This gives them an obligation to assess carefully their organizations’ ability and willingness to perform what they are agreeing to. Stewardship and promise keeping are literally the sacred foundations of finance and finance professionals must thus act before God.
How does our finance theology inform whether to make a loan to a particular customer and at what interest rate? Several of the foundations of biblical finance come to the fore here. First bankers are not omniscient, so they need to work diligently to understand potential borrowers’ situations and needs. They have an important role in helping borrowers evaluate whether a loan is truly beneficial to them, and how to use the proceeds productively.
Second, neither party knows the future, so both parties should be prudent and conservative in thinking about future scenarios. Both are well-advised to discuss what could potentially go wrong over the course of the loan and how to recover from potential difficulties.
Third, bankers can guide lenders towards loans that best show justice and love to the borrower. A loan that the borrower can repay without hardship is a just and loving loan. A loan that does not tease the borrower with a low interest rate that increases later is more likely to be a just and loving loan. Conversely a loan—in many cases a credit card—that is likely to lead to more accrued debt in the future is not a good way to show justice and love.
Interests rates vary with the riskiness of a loan as is necessary for the borrower to share in the risk-adjusted return on the loan. But, an interest rate so high that it prevents the borrower from flourishing is contr