Examples of Integrating Work into The Regular Seminary Curriculum

Seminary Curriculum / Produced by TOW Project

Integrating modules related to work and the economy in core seminary courses is an ongoing challenge, but it can be done. This article gives real-world examples.

Curricular Integration Workshops

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In March of 2018, Alistair Mackenzie and Will Messenger of the Theology of Work Project met individually with 15 faculty on the campuses of three Oikonomia Network schools: Asbury, Assemblies of God and Western. These meetings represented a joint effort by the ON, the Theology of Work Project and the three schools to take curricular integration of faith and work to the next level. The insights from this initiative can serve to inspire and inform future curricular thinking by educators everywhere.

Our meetings covered a variety of different disciplines including New Testament and Old Testament, systematic theology, preaching, church history, ethics, missional formation and social entrepreneurship. The agenda for each meeting was to identify appropriate biblical/theological materials and think together about how these elements might be applied and integrated into courses.

Participating faculty forwarded selected syllabi to us a month in advance of the visit, to enable us to come up with specific ideas about integration. Each faculty member then met individually with us on two successive days, for 90 minutes each day. Our goal was to work out concrete changes that could be made to each class. Faculty will report on these changes in future issues of the ON newsletter, after teaching revised classes in coming semesters.

Prior to each seminary visit, we invited each faculty member to join us in an individual Skype call. Most took advantage of this opportunity. This helped considerably to clarify expectations and to enable us to come prepared with specific suggestions about relevant ideas for courses.

A number of faculty approached our visit with suspicion. They suspected we had a predetermined package of resources to sell, a particular view of capitalism to champion, or were involved in some sort of evaluation process. Once we clarified that our goal was to help them incorporate biblical materials about work into their classes according to their own perspectives, suspicions faded, but it did make for an awkward start in some cases.

In every case, we enjoyed mutually stimulating conversations. It is unusual for most academics to open up in-depth discussions about courses they are teaching. This requires openness and vulnerability. We were grateful for that trust. Many participants said they had never engaged in such a deep conversation about their course content, and certainly not as it related to integrating faith and work.

Integrating modules related to work and the economy in core seminary courses remains a long-term challenge. We had hoped that in each class, faculty might find half a dozen places where significant interaction with theology of work-related concerns might be introduced, but the reality was that most limited their anticipated changes to one or two minor additions. Often, they felt their syllabi were already too crowded. Yet all faculty expressed appreciation for our conversations and suggestions, saying in most cases that otherwise they couldn’t have taken the time necessary to go looking for this sort of material for themselves.

We realized from these comments that looking for applications to faith and work feels like trying to learn a new discipline. We didn’t experience resistance to the topics we were talking about in theory. It was the practical pressure of crowded syllabi and multiple expectations that faculty identified as the limiting factors.

Two big takeaways for us:

  1. Course curricula are so full that in order to be considered, new elements must be small and directly relevant bite-sized modules or short videos that can be creatively integrated within present topics and assignments.
  2. We were confirmed in our perception that most theological coursework doesn’t train students to equip congregants for their work outside the church. It is rare to find specific ways in which course content is designed to ensure that pastors are trained to equip people to live as Christians in their workplaces.

Only a few participants were previously aware of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary and associated faith at work resources that are available free online. Only one person had used this previously in coursework. Most said they needed assistance to appreciate how much source material is there, how it is organized and how it can be accessed online. In addition, most participants said that they would have still been unlikely to incorporate use of this Bible commentary in their teaching if they had not received the sort of specific examples relevant to their particular syllabus that we provided in the workshops. At two seminaries, we also made larger group presentations about resources available at the TOW website at faculty meetings, which proved very helpful.

We ended up producing numerous lists of possible pieces for classroom input, student readings and videos in different subject areas, to be presented in future articles.

Conversations with New Testament Professors

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Alistair Mackenzie reports on his meetings with seminary professors teaching New Testament, as part of the Curricular Integration partnership between the Oikonomia Network, the Theology of Work Project, and Asbury, Assemblies of God, and Western Seminary.

Our conversations with New Testament professors quickly highlighted the fact that, although they share some common concerns, they also cultivate their own distinctive specialised perspectives.

Some scholars love delving into the historical background to the text. We spent time talking with these professors about:

I can’t help recalling (having received his permission to recall it here) my three conversations with Fredrick J. Long at Asbury. His enthusiasm for these topics was contagious, as he described what he had discovered in the course of writing some New Testament reflections for a book (forthcoming June 2018) on Entrepreneurial Church Planting: Engaging Business and Mission for Marketplace Transformation. Thinking about themes of entrepreneurship and business in the lives and ministries of Jesus, his disciples, Paul and the early Christian community in Acts had clearly become an absorbing study for Fred. He has now condensed his research findings into three short chapters that can provide a very useful starting point for anyone else embarking on this study.

Fred’s journey exemplified for me the excitement and new perspectives that can be gained when we look at familiar texts through different lenses.

Other scholars were primarily concerned with exegesis and taking the text very seriously. What does it say and what did it originally mean? And where are the New Testament passages that talk about work?

  • We noticed that when John the Baptist talks in Luke 3:8-14 about “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he identifies workplace ethics issues (see also the short Rev. Lyle Mook video on this passage).
  • We discussed how the majority of Jesus’ parables (24 out of 37 according to Fred) describe business settings, and talk about the proper use of wealth and resources. Yet they seldom offer simple interpretations, and frequently raise as many questions as they answer. For example, what did Jesus mean when he said “Are you envious because I am generous?” in his Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).
  • We conversed about how we can understand the words of Paul about slavery when he talks about Mutuality in Working for the Lord in Ephesians 5:21-6:9, or “Stay Where Your Are!”in I Corinthians 7:20-24, or Slaves and Masters in Colossians 3:18-4:1, or Philemon and Work.

And then there were conversations with those who were eager to discern much more immediate applications of NT teachings:

These were invigorating and fruitful discussions. Yet I am left thinking that, in spite of the work that has already been done about How to Read the Bible with Workplace Eyes, we can still do a lot more to help bring the New Testament to life for workplace Christians.

Example - Work in Ethics at Western Seminary

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Josh Mathews, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, reports on the recent curricular integration workshop at Western Seminary. As part of a joint initiative between the Oikonomia Network, the Theology of Work Project, and three ON schools, Will Messenger and Alistair Mackenzie helpedJosh Mathews integrate modules related to work and the economy into a course on Ministerial Ethics.

Tell us about the class you examined in the curricular workshop.

The class Will, Alistair, and I worked on is called Ministerial Ethics. It is a summer semester course that runs from late April through early August. The class met for a three-day intensive June 20-22. Students do reading and writing assignments leading up to and following after class time.

The goal of the course is to introduce ethical systems and concepts and help students develop an ethical approach that incorporates scripture and can be applied to the complexities of pastoral ministry and other ministry leadership.

What specific changes did you make to this class?

Using Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor and his talk “Four Ways the Gospel Transforms Work” as a jumping-off point, I added a teaching module on the integration of faith and work. This included a point on their own future ministry, impressing upon them that a robust vision of ministry and work will enhance their vocation, whether in church ministry or elsewhere. Another point highlighted the role of the pastor as an equipper of the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). Students are assigned a final synthesis paper for the course, the topic of which they may choose. Some have indicated that they would like to research and write on topics related work and church ministry, which I encouraged them to do.

I also shared the following list of a few additional resources:

What was your goal in making these changes – what did you want students to gain?

My goal was to expose students to the concepts and impress upon them the importance of this perspective for their ministry preparation. One of the key aims is for students, most of whom are preparing for church ministry, to appreciate the different ways those in their congregations are seeking to live out the Christian life in their workplaces.

What was easier to do, or harder to do, than you had expected?

It is always difficult to find adequate time to develop these thoughts well. There is a lot of material to cover in this class and a limited time in which to cover it.

How did it go with your students – what did they experience and what did they take away from the changed part of the class?

Their engagement in discussion after the teaching module was positive. It seems they understood its importance and were considering ways to implement it into their thinking and ministry. I believe at least one or two students are planning to write papers on related topics.

What new questions were raised, either for you yourself or by your students in class?

Perhaps they are not new questions, but the main things that come to mind had to do with practical application. Things like, “How, as a pastor, can I help individuals in my church see the significance of their work and bridge the gap between Sunday and Monday?”

Will you keep the change if you teach this class again? Modify it? Are there other changes you’re considering?

I will keep the change when I teach this again in the future. I might also try to think of a short writing assignment that gives students a chance to work out some implications and applications of the principles we cover briefly in class.

 

Example - Broad Themes of Work in The Old Testament from Curricular Workshops

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In this article, Alistair Mackenzie provides an overview of broad Old Testament themes that relate to faith and work issues. Read part two of his report on seminary curricular workshops to learn how his discussions with faculty identified particular Old Testament books and passages that relate to specific workplace issues.

[In the recent curricular workshops with Asbury, Assemblies of God and Western seminary,] Only two professors we talked with were teaching Old Testament courses as such, but discussion of OT texts and themes also came up frequently in our other discussions. Part of these discussions dealt with broad themes in the OT. Other discussions examined the implications of particular books and passages in more depth. This is the first of two articles with insights on teaching faith and work in the OT gleaned from our curricular workshops; this one deals with some of the broad OT themes, and the next one will deal with some particular texts.

“In the beginning…”

Because Genesis lays foundations for so much that follows, it is not surprising that this is often where discussion started. The most common contemporary approach for developing a theology of work is built around the themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption and New Creation. The first two categories usually lean heavily on the exegesis of Genesis chapters 1, 2 and 3.

Our discussions just skimmed over a few of the work-related themes that these chapters invite us to explore, including:

Countless volumes have already been written about these chapters, but even these short conversations made plain there is still so much more to be explored and explained.

Moving beyond the first three chapters of Genesis, our discussions connected with many other OT texts and themes. Among these broader OT perspectives, two emerged that seem especially interesting as a starting point for thinking about teaching modules.

Contradictory Messages or Fruitful Tension?

If Genesis 1 and 2 seem to offer a very positive view of the value and meaning of work, how do we deal with the much more mixed messages we find in other parts of the OT? For example, the seemingly conflicting messages we find in Ecclesiastes 2:

“My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour.” (2:10)

“I hated life, because the work that was done under the sun was grievous to me.” (2:17)

The faith at work movement is often criticised for developing a middle-class, white-collar theology of work that doesn’t speak to the struggles of many blue-collar workers and those who don’t have paid work, nor to the way western culture connects identity and worth to professional roles. Ecclesiastes offers a great hermeneutical challenge for students who would prefer the Bible to say just one thing straight up and down about work. We talked about how assignments might deal with this by holding a class debate or writing a sermon for people who struggle in their work.

Promised Land v. Sojourners or Exiles

Discussions highlighted how the OT describes the vocation and mission of the people of God being lived out in two quite different ways. There is work in the promised land, where God’s people are the dominant culture and their values shape that culture. And there is work as part of a foreign minority, living either as sojourners without a home of their own or as exiles from the promised land, in nations where the dominant culture is shaped by devotion to other gods.

In the promised land, the collections of laws found in the books of the Pentateuch include clear instructions from God to promote good relationships, good work, morality in the marketplace and to counter corruption and injustice (see for example Exodus 20:1-17 and 21:1-23:9, Leviticus 19:9-37 and 25:1-55 and Deuteronomy and Work). The Wisdom literature (e.g. Proverbs) expands on this with a lot of references to work and marketplace issues. Then in the historical and prophetic books we find recurring stories of whistleblowers God raises up to speak truth to power by naming injustices and immorality and calling God’s people to repent and mend their ways. They have been constituted as a distinctive “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) to be a people whose behaviour in the marketplace as well as the tabernacle and temple is shaped by the character of the God they worship.

The people of God end up in foreign lands at various points. Sometimes this happens by choice; for example, Abraham and Jacob and his sons, at different times, move to Egypt to combat famine. Naomi’s family move to Moab for the same reason. At other times, God’s people are not migrants but captives, taken into exile as the result of conquest. These are the experiences that lie behind the stories of Joseph in Egypt, Daniel and his friends in Babylon, Esther in Persia and Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon.

For someone like me, from New Zealand, understanding the experience of the people of God in exile has long been very important for shaping our participation in the mission of God in a context of increasing secularization and pluralism. But now I also hear these voices raised in North America.

This picture of God at work in partnership with his people in so many different contexts, through the rise and fall of numerous empires, and over such a long period, would seem to be very timely and reassuring for a generation living in the midst of disorienting cultural upheaval and the confusion and anxiety that accompanies this. Our work, which often seems so mundane and insignificant, takes on new meaning when we see it as our participation in the work of God that is played out on such a grand scale in the Old Testament.

Example - Insights on Teaching Old Testament from Curricular Workshops

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My previous article provided an overview of the relevance of some broad Old Testament themes for exploring faith and work issues. This article, part two, describes how our discussions with faculty moved beyond these broad themes to identify ways that particular OT books and passages might help to address specific issues.

Reading the Bible with Workplace Eyes Is Not Our Default Setting

It was surprising how often our discussions were about seeing new things in old, familiar texts, or at least viewing these texts from a different angle. For example, we discussed how the Song of Songs is one of the books in which the significance of work has largely been ignored by commentators, even though a lot of themes developed there are derived from the experience of a couple who are working to establish a family vineyard business. I have to admit that even as a regular preacher and Bible teacher myself, I was ignorant about this until I worked on the Theology of Work Bible Commentary, looking at the Song of Songs and more than 800 other Bible passages that have something to say about work and the way we approach it. Students need help to address this hermeneutical challenge.

Immigration, Border Crossings, Work and Welfare, Sexual Harassment…

The book of Ruth is a wonderful example of an OT book that addresses a variety of issues that are still contemporary challenges. Where else in the Bible do you find, in just four short chapters, stories of all these important issues?

  • Border crossings to escape famine
  • Cross-cultural marriages and inter-religious relationships
  • Vulnerable widows struggling with life and faith in the face of death
  • An immigrant among God’s people
  • A solution to poverty that transcends welfare
  • Protection against workplace sexual harassment
  • Love, marriage and the astute management of complex family relationships and delicate business negotiations

Some very condensed examples of how these themes might be developed, including assignment possibilities, can be found here, and also in the two-part article I co-wrote for the ON newsletter. Further observations about Ruth and work can also be found in the paper on women and work that is introduced under the next heading.

Women and Work in the OT

The work of women in the OT – just like the work of men – includes paid and unpaid work, work in the home and work in the marketplace, the work of slaves and national leaders, admired work and despised work. The article Women Workers in the OT looks at the examples of ten women whose experiences at work express this diversity. These women include Eve, Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Abigail, Huldah, Esther and Lady Wisdom of Proberbs. Fuller Seminary’s De Pree Center has recently published a leading resource on this topic.

Leadership and Wisdom at Work

Hours could be spent discussing what we can learn from the examples of the OT kings and judges about effective and ineffective leadership (David, for example). And about how leadership so often is corrupting and how leaders need to be held accountable (see the roles Nathan and Abigail played in confronting David).

What does it mean to be a wise leader, or for that matter a wise worker, today? What does wisdom mean at work? How does OT wisdom relate to NT wisdom?

Work and Rest

There is a lot of talk about the importance of work-life balance today. In our discussions, theological educators expressed some discomfort about talking as if work and life fit into different categories. In general, we are trying to see work as an integrated part of life and recognise the importance of the various dimensions of our whole life’s work (including paid and unpaid responsibilities). But understanding the importance of biblical rhythms of work and rest remains a challenge for a generation in which identity and status have become so closely tied to professional roles, and busyness and productivity have become virtues we so admire that we almost feel guilty even thinking about resting. Any exploration of these themes inevitably draws heavily on the Genesis account of creation and the discussions in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 of the fourth commandment (see also the paper Balancing Rhythms of Work and Rest).

What is the Ultimate Meaning of Work?

The beginnings of human work are unfolded in Genesis 1 and 2. The mixture of our fulfilling, frustrating and futile post-fall experiences at work are described in Ecclesiastes 2 and 3. But we also find in the OT a glimpse of the ultimate meaning of work in the visions that conclude the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah chapters 60-66, Israel’s future hope as the New Creation is pictured as that time when people will actually receive the things they work for, because “they shall not labor in vain” (Isaiah 65:23).  Israel’s sorrow will be turned into joy. One of the dominant motifs of this coming joy is the enjoyment of the work of their own hands. Here is a glimpse of the end of history as something connected to our daily work and our deepest longings that is much richer and better than those more common, but I think much less satisfying, conceptions of our end either as passive eternal spectators or in an exhausting eternal worship service. Isaiah’s vision provides us with the glimpse of a hope that is worth looking forward to – and working towards.

Example - Insights on Systematics & Ethics from Curricular Workshops

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Although theology and ethics are inseparable in the Bible, conversations with systematic theology and ethics faculty highlighted the way these have become separate disciplines now. Systematics courses rarely address the theology of work. Christian ethics courses in seminaries usually do not address practical work dilemmas either, although they sometimes include a comparison of macro-economic systems (capitalism versus socialism). Some theological schools associated with Christian business schools may go further, although using different textbooks. The emergence of the popular creation-fall-redemption-new creation categories for theologies of work have tended to come out of biblical theology and Christian worldview courses.

Systematics, the Theology of Work and Marketplace Ethics

Systematic theologians could see how some of the popular creation-fall-redemption-new creation perspectives might be useful along lines I have identified in previous articles on the creation and fall accounts and the new creation. There are now many different sources for this.

Frequently, however, systematic theologians find these too simplistic to be satisfying. This is not to suggest that systematic explorations of the theology of work are easy to find. I have personally traced developments in theologies of work produced by a number of prominent theologians from 1945 until 1998, although this neglects the later contributions of Armand Larive and others. I think Darrell Cosden’s academic monograph, A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation:2004, and his more popular The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work:2006 provide excellent examples of a systematic theologian exploring theology and work connections both academically and popularly.

Two other useful, but also very different, contributions to the exploration of faith and work themes through systematic theology lenses are offered by Australian Gordon Preece and Englishman Richard Higginson. Preece observes that theologians tend to play favorites with different members of the Trinity. He pleads for a more balanced approach in which each person – the Father, Son and Spirit – is seen to call the others to fulfill their varied vocations in the story of creation and the economy of salvation. Like the Trinity, in our creaturely ways, we should all bless each one’s work if we are to have a properly balanced view of God’s Trinitarian work in creation, reconciliation and transformation.

Higginson advocates a credal approach to theology and ethics by taking major themes from the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed to explore the theological and ethical implications of these to the business world. In his book Called to Account, Higginson devotes chapters to the Trinity, creation, managing planet earth, the reality of sin, the law, the Incarnation, the cross, resurrection, the Spirit and the end time. An abbreviated version of Higginson’s theology of business appears in Atkinson’s Pastoral Ethics (p. 153-164) and another brief introduction in the last section of this paper.

Another attempt to bridge the gap between theology and ethics for the marketplace can be found in The Cape Town Commitment (2011) from the Third Lausanne Congress. The faculty I talked to said that they would welcome introductions to other, more recent publications that do this.

There was also a significant difference in the approaches of those theologians who want to start with systematic theology categories and explore the implications of these  for work, versus those who want to start with immediate national and community issues and explore a more action-reflection method of doing theology contextually. The latter were in the minority, but did take ethical issues very seriously and also enjoyed inviting students to interact with relevant biblical narratives (such as those identified below).  

Teaching Workplace Ethics

We talked with faculty involved with teaching general Christian ethics, pastoral ethics and marketplace ethics for business school students. We discovered it is easy for the first two to ignore practical work dilemmas. All faculty agreed that students need help to be convinced about the relevance of the Bible for addressing contemporary work issues. Three previous articles in this series (NT, OT Part 1 and OT Part 2) have suggested a number of biblical resources that are useful for discussing workplace ethics. As we talked about these, the Ruth discussion was a favorite because it resonates with so many contemporary issues.

The Theology of Work Project’s Systematic Presentation of Ethics article identifies very specific ways different Christians use the Bible in the process of seeking to promote Christian ethics for the marketplace. It categorizes these under the headings command, consequences and character, corresponding roughly to the classical deontological, teleological and virtue approaches in ethics. It concludes by suggesting ways in which a combination of approaches is helpful. A parallel article adopts these approaches to address a specific case study.

Other resources that gave rise to interesting discussion with faculty were:

  1. A brief summary article, based on the original research of Robin Gill and others, that demonstrates how churchgoing distinctively shapes the ethics of Christians – but only in a limited way.
  2. Laura Nash’s helpful identification, in Believers in Business, of seven ethical tensions in the marketplace that Christians can learn to live with creatively. This research is summarized here and then expanded on, with the addition of numerous stories and case studies, in the book Just Decisions: Christian Ethics Go to Work which can be read online or downloaded free.
  3. Use of papers and videos for class discussion. A good example is Scott Rae’s use of Truth Honesty and Deception in the Workplace; he talks about how he used the paper in this video. Scott is the author of two very helpful ethics texts: Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics and Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics, co-authored with Kenman Wong. Readings and cases from Beyond Integrity are useful for class discussion, as is the Faith&Co. video series that Kenman Wong has helped to produce at Seattle Pacific University. The cases, essays, interviews and videos offered on Al Erisman’s Ethix Journal website also address a wide variety of ethical issues, as do the small group study materials on the Theology of Work website.

Example - Insights on Teaching New Testament from Curricular Workshops

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In March of 2018, Alistair Mackenzie and Will Messenger of the Theology of Work Project met individually with 15 faculty on the campuses of three Oikonomia Network schools: Asbury, Assemblies of God and Western. The overall report on these curriculum integration workshops is here. These meetings represented a joint effort by the ON, the Theology of Work Project and the three schools to take curricular integration of faith and work to the next level. The insights from this initiative can serve to inspire and inform future curricular thinking by educators everywhere.

The May ON newsletter included an overall report on three curriculum integration workshops held in March, from the point of view of Will Messenger and myself. In addition to reports from individual seminary faculty who participated, which will come when the courses have been taught, I’m following up with a parallel series about insights and resources that Will and I thought were worth sharing following our conversations with faculty in specific subject areas.

Our conversations with New Testament professors quickly highlighted the fact that, although they share some common concerns, they also cultivate their own distinctive specialised perspectives.

Some scholars love delving into the historical background to the text. We spent time talking with these professors about:

I can’t help recalling (having received his permission to recall it here) my three conversations with Fredrick J. Long at Asbury. His enthusiasm for these topics was contagious, as he described what he had discovered in the course of writing some New Testament reflections for a book on Entrepreneurial Church Planting: Engaging Business and Mission for Marketplace Transformation. Thinking about themes of entrepreneurship and business in the lives and ministries of Jesus, his disciples, Paul and the early Christian community in Acts had clearly become an absorbing study for Fred. He has now condensed his research findings into three short chapters that can provide a very useful starting point for anyone else embarking on this study.

Fred’s journey exemplified for me the excitement and new perspectives that can be gained when we look at familiar texts through different lenses.

Other scholars were primarily concerned with exegesis and taking the text very seriously. What does it say and what did it originally mean? And where are the New Testament passages that talk about work?

  • We noticed that when John the Baptist talks in Luke 3:8-14 about “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he identifies workplace ethics issues (see also the short Rev. Lyle Mook video on this passage).
  • We discussed how the majority of Jesus’ parables (24 out of 37 according to Fred) describe business settings, and talk about the proper use of wealth and resources. Yet they seldom offer simple interpretations, and frequently raise as many questions as they answer. For example, what did Jesus mean when he said “Are you envious because I am generous?” in his Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).
  • We conversed about how we can understand the words of Paul about slavery when he talks about Mutuality in Working for the Lord in Ephesians 5:21-6:9, or “Stay Where Your Are!”in I Corinthians 7:20-24, or Slaves and Masters in Colossians 3:18-4:1, or Philemon and Work.

And then there were conversations with those who were eager to discern much more immediate applications of NT teachings:

These were invigorating and fruitful discussions. Yet I am left thinking that, in spite of the work that has already been done about How to Read the Bible with Workplace Eyes, we can still do a lot more to help bring the New Testament to life for workplace Christians.