The Community of Grace at Work (Romans 12)
Romans 12 highlights the social and community aspects of salvation. Paul was not writing to an individual but to the community of Christians in Rome, and his constant concern is their life together—with a special emphasis on their work. As we saw in Romans 1–3, salvation in Christ comprises reconciliation, righteousness and justice, and faith and faithfulness. Each of these has a communal aspect—reconciliation with others, justice among people, faithfulness to others.
To bring the communal aspect of salvation to life means a reorientation of our minds and wills from self-serving to community-serving.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Rom. 12:2–3)
Let’s begin with the second half of this passage, where Paul makes the communal aspect explicit. “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” In other words, think less about yourself and more about others, more about the community. Later in chapter 12 Paul amplifies this by adding, “Love one another with mutual affection” (Rom. 12:10), “Contribute to the needs of the saints,” “Extend hospitality to strangers” (Rom. 12:13), “Live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:17), and “Live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).
Equipping others for success
By Don Flow, Owner and CEO, Flow Automotive
Living love for Christian leaders is defined by the life of Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served. Equipping others is the appropriate use of power by leaders because it directs the purpose of the use of power to the enabling of the other to flourish in service to the community. Power used in this manner is an expression of a profound love and an appreciation for the unique giftedness of all people. It is not power over but power in service to the other. Power used in this manner releases the gifts of others. This means Christian leaders must have a deep knowledge of the people with whom they work, what their gifts are, and they must help each person understand how important their gifts are for the entire organization. Christian leaders will be committed to the importance of every person in the organization and to all of the work done. For Christians, there are no little people (Schaeffer) and there is no ordinary work (Lewis).
Source: Talk given at KIROS, Seattle, 2008.
The first part of this passage reminds us that we are unable to put others first without God’s saving grace. As Paul points out in Romans 1, people are enslaved to a “debased mind” (Rom. 1:28), “futile in their thinking,” darkened by “senseless minds” (Rom. 1:21), which results in doing every kind of evil to one another (Rom. 1:22–32). Salvation is liberation from this slavery of the mind, “so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Only if our minds are transformed from self-centeredness to other-centeredness—imitating Christ, who sacrificed himself for others—can we put reconciliation, justice, and faithfulness ahead of self-serving aims.
With transformed minds, our purpose shifts from justifying our self-centered actions to bringing new life to others. For example, imagine that you are a shift supervisor at a restaurant and you become a candidate for promotion to manager. If your mind is not transformed, your chief goal will be to beat the other candidates. It will not seem hard to justify (to yourself) actions such as withholding information from the other candidates about supplier problems, ignoring sanitation issues that will become visible only in the others’ shifts, spreading dissent among their workers, or avoiding collaboration on improving customer service. This will harm not only the other candidates but also their shift workers, the restaurant as a whole, and its customers. On the other hand, if your mind is transformed to care first about others, then you will help the other candidates perform well, not only for their sake but also for the benefit of the restaurant and its workers and customers.
Needless to say, putting others ahead of ourselves requires sacrifice. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul exhorts (Rom. 12:1). The words bodies and living emphasize that Paul means practical actions in the world of daily life and work. All believers become living sacrifices by offering their time, talent, and energy in work that benefits other people and/or God’s entire creation.
We can offer a living sacrifice to God every waking moment of our lives. We do it when we forgive someone who transgresses against us in our workplace or when we take the risk to help heal a dispute between others. We offer a living sacrifice when we forego unsustainable use of the earth’s resources in pursuit of our own comfort. We offer a living sacrifice when we take on less-than-satisfying work because supporting our family matters more to us than finding the perfect job. We become a living sacrifice when we leave a rewarding position so our spouse can accept a dream job in another city. We become a living sacrifice when, as a boss, we take the blame for a mistake a subordinate makes in his or her work.
The transformation of the mind “so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2) comes hand in hand with involving the community of faith in our decisions. As those in the process of being saved, we bring others into our decision-making processes. The word Paul uses for “discern” is literally “to test” or “to approve” in Greek (dokimazein). Our decisions must be tested and approved by other believers before we can have confidence that we have discerned the will of God. Paul’s warning “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Rom. 12:3) applies to our decision-making capability. Don’t think you have the wisdom, the moral stature, the breadth of knowledge, or anything else needed to discern God’s will by yourself. “Do not claim to be wiser than you are” (Rom. 12:6). Only by involving other members of the faithful community, with its diversity of gifts and wisdom (Rom. 12:4–8) living in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16), can we develop, test, and approve reliable decisions.
Can we talk about the real issues?
As told by Al Erisman
When I was in Nepal I was asked to talk with a group of Christians about ethics. One person asked for advice in how to handle a difficult bribery situation. I asked if the group of Christians gathered there had ever come together to pray for wisdom about this concern. The person asking the question said no, they were ashamed of the issue and didn’t talk about it together.
I told them I could outline some principles from the Scripture to consider, but said the only specific advice I would offer was to commit to talking as community about how to handle such a difficult issue. I was from the outside and didn’t have all of the cultural and economic context. They needed to talk about their actual struggles, not just about safe topics with easy answers.
This is more challenging than we might like to admit. We may gather to receive moral teaching as a community, but how often do we actually talk to one another when making moral decisions? Often decisions are made by the person in charge deliberating individually, perhaps after receiving input from a few advisors. We tend to operate this way because moral discussions are uncomfortable, or “hot” as Ronald Heifetz puts it. People don’t like to have heated conversations because “most people want to maintain the status quo, avoiding the tough issues.” In addition, we often feel that community decision making is a threat to whatever power we possess. But making decisions on our own usually just means following preconceived biases, in other words, being “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). This raises a difficulty in the sphere of work. What if we don’t work in a community of faith, but in a secular company, government, academic institution, or other setting? We could assess our actions communally with our co-workers, but they may not be attuned to the will of God. We could assess our actions communally with our small group or others from our church, but they probably will not understand our work very well. Either—or both—of these practices is better than nothing. But better still would be to gather a group of believers from our own workplace—or at least believers who work in similar situations— and reflect on our actions with them. If we want to assess how well our actions as programmers, fire fighters, civil servants, or school teachers (for example) implement reconciliation, justice, and faithfulness, who better to reflect with than other Christian programmers, fire fighters, civil servants, or school teachers? (See “Equipping Churches Encourage Everyone to Take Responsibility” in The Equipping Church at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this topic.)
Al Erisman, as told to the Theology of Work Project in Boston on January 29, 2014.
Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002), 114.
One essential practical application of walking in newness of life is to recognize how much we all depend on one another’s work. “For as in the body we have many members, and not all of the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom. 12:4–5). This interdependence is not a weakness, but a gift from God. As we are being saved by God, we become more integrated with one another.
Paul applies this to the work that each of us does in our particular role. “We have gifts that differ” (Rom. 12:6a) he notes, and when he names a few of them, we see that they are forms of work: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, and compassion. Each of them is a “grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6b) that enables us to work for the good of the community.
Don’t go it alone
Sherron Watkins, recognized by Time magazine as one of the persons of the year for her whistle blowing in the Enron scandal, reflected on what she learned about taking a stand. She said, “In hindsight, I also wish that some of my peers had gone with me to meet with Ken Lay. Jordan Mintz was an in-house lawyer who was very concerned about this. I did not know that he had already taken these things to another law firm, and they had said they are very problematic. I did not know that Vince Kaminski had protested these things. So if I had just Vince and Jordan with me, the outcome might have been different…. If someone is in the unfortunate position where I was, I say don’t go it alone. I should have found a few more people to go with me because then they could not have dismissed me as one lone person.” Ethix conversation, June 2007.
Paul develops this process in the context of a specific community—the church. This is fitting because the entire letter revolves around a problem in the church—the conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers. But the list is not particularly “churchy.” All of them are equally applicable to work outside the church. Prophecy—”to proclaim a divinely imparted message” or “to bring light to something that is hidden”—is the ability to apply God’s word to dark situations, something desperately needed in every workplace. Ministry—with its cognate “administration”—is the ability to organize work so that it does in fact serve those it’s supposed to serve, e.g., customers, citizens, or students. Another term for it is “management.” Teaching, exhortation (or “encouragement”), and leadership are obviously as applicable to secular settings as to church. So is generosity, when we remember that giving our time, our skills, our patience, or our expertise to assist others at work are all forms of generosity.
Compassion is a vastly underrated element of work. While we might be tempted to view compassion as a hindrance in the competitive world of work, it is actually essential for doing our work well. The value of our work comes not merely from putting in hours, but from caring about how our goods or services serve others—in other words, by compassion. Autoworkers who do not care whether their parts are put on properly are of no use to the company, customers, or co-workers, and will sooner or later be candidates for dismissal. Or if the auto company doesn’t care whether its workers care about its customers, the customers will soon enough switch to another brand. The exceptions to this are products and services that intentionally profit from customers’ weaknesses—addictive substances, pornography, products that play on fears about body image and the like. To make money in cases like this, it may be necessary not to have compassion for customers. The very fact that it’s possible to make money from harming customers in these fields suggests that Christians should try to avoid those workplaces in which compassion is not essential to success. Legitimate occupations make money from meeting people’s true needs, not from exploiting their weaknesses.
With all these gifts, the life-giving power of God is experienced in particular acts and ways of doing things. In other words, the power of God that enriches people’s lives comes through concrete actions taken by the followers of Jesus. God’s grace produces action in God’s people for the good of others.
Al Erisman, “Sherron Watkins: Did We Learn the Lessons From Enron?” (conversation with Sherron Watkins), Ethix 53, May/June 2007, http://ethix.org/2007/06/01/did-we-learn-the-lessons-from-enron.
Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 960.
Paul identifies specific guiding principles to help us serve as conduits overarching concern to let love be genuine—or, literally, “unhypocritical” (Rom. 12:9). The rest of Romans 12:9–13 elaborates on genuine love, including honor, patience in suffering, perseverance in prayer, generosity to those in need, and hospitality to everyone.
Of particular note is Romans 12:16–18, where Paul encourages the Romans to “live in harmony with one another.” Specifically, he says, this means associating with the least powerful in the community, resisting the urge to repay evil for evil, and, whenever possible, living peaceably with everyone.
If we have genuine love, then we care about the people we work for and among. By definition, when we work, we do so at least partly as a means to an end. But we can never treat the people we work among as a means to an end. Each is inherently valuable in his or her own right, so much so that Christ died for each one. This is genuine love, to treat each person as one for whom Christ died and rose again to bring new life.
We show genuine love when we honor the people with whom we work, calling everyone by name regardless of their status, and respecting their families, cultures, languages, aspirations, and the work they do. We show genuine love when we are patient with a subordinate who makes a mistake, a student who learns slowly, a co-worker whose disability makes us uncomfortable. We show genuine love through hospitality to the new employee, the late-night arrival, the disoriented patient, the stranded passenger, the just-promoted boss. Every day we face the possibility someone will do us some evil, small or great. But our protection is not to do evil to others in self-defense, nor to be worn down into despair, but to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). We cannot do this by our own power, but only by living in the Spirit of Christ.