Here is a troubling disconnect: I have rarely heard workplace conditions spoken of from a Christian perspective. Yet I have frequently heard of Christian workplaces and Christian bosses and colleagues who are acting in what I would consider sadly un-Christlike ways.
One of the reasons we as Christians should be weighing in on these matters is that the average Australian spends about a third of their waking hours at work. If our whole lives are given to Christ, then we need to thoughtfully reflect on how that time is used. Just suggesting we should be witnesses in our workplace ignores the complexity of our working lives.
Another reason is the Bible itself has quite a lot to say about the workplace. We often underestimate this, because our work environment is very different. There are no cubicles and kitchenettes. The Bible though speaks about servants and slaves, fields and vineyards, donkeys and oxen, merchants and moneylenders. All addressing the workplaces of the biblical context.
There is so much more that can be said on this issue than can be covered in one blog post. Perhaps we could have a conversation about work on Fixing Her Eyes. I would like to start this conversation by looking at three perspectives: that of the Christian workplace, the Christian boss and the Christian employee.
The Christian workplace
Most of my working life has been in Christian workplaces. I think we can all agree that as Christians we would expect a higher standard from Christian workplaces. Where we might start to disagree is when we talk about what the higher standard is. Yet the Bible gives us ample examples of what aspects of the workplace God is concerned about. For instance:
People in the Bible contexts didn’t necessarily spend as many hours away from the family to work as we do in our industrialised society. Work was often with the family, in the field, shop, house or trade. So we can’t just simply compare working hours. What we do know is that God worked rest into the very fabric of society, through the sabbath rest and the numerous feast days. This rest was not only for the well off or powerful, but also for servants, men and women, foreigners and even animals (Ex 20:10). I think there is an onus on Christian workplaces to be aware of the research into the best ways to preserve leisure and rest within our context, and to implement this research with compassion. Christian workplaces shouldn't be governed by what is good not just for productivity, but also for health, families and ministry. Christian workplaces should also be very careful not to excuse unhealthy and exploitative work practices as being “for God”. God is “for” families. God is “for” rest.
Christian organisations are known for paying less. Christians are often willing to accept less pay, because they have a heart for the mission of the organisation. There certainly is a place for voluntary sacrifice of earning potential for a greater good. But we should be wary of Christian organisations that have systemic lower pay rates. Firstly, we have a legal obligation to obey minimum wage and benefits legislation. Jesus and Paul also both argue that labourers (and they were arguing to the particular case of those working for the gospel) are worthy of their wages (Luke 10:7, 1 Tim 5:18). People should be paid a wage that is fair: consistent with their experience, training, responsibility , context and the legitimate expenses they have. Legitimate expenses should include expenses which while not strictly necessities are valuable uses of money: such as enabling both parents to work less when children are young, or to pay for private health insurance for the family or to live within a reasonable commute. I think we should also be aware that the discretionary pay of Christians goes in part to expenses that further the gospel: hospitality, charity, tithing, missions, paying for fair trade goods rather than the cheapest possible. But our greatest concern should be with those at the lowest end of the pay scale. Minimum wage often creates very stressful, family destroying environments. Minimum wages are often set on the basis of the needs of single workers, rather than those with dependants living in expensive cities. Christian workplaces should aim to be places where their employees can thrive rather just survive.
There are several factors which make it harder for Christian bosses to act with Christlikeness. Firstly they may be acting for an organisation which itself doesn’t have good practices. Secondly they themselves are human, and subject to the same weaknesses but with more power to give play to their sin. Thirdly they are often in a better situation than those who work under them, and so can lack understanding of the lives of those with less resources. All of these factors call for Christian bosses to be constantly challenging themselves to more thoughtful leadership. Jesus’ example of foot washing (John 13) is not just a message for the church. It applies to any Christian who finds themselves in a position of power. The prayer on the lips of the Christian boss as they travel to work must be “Lord, help me to love my staff today.”
I have probably heard most about the responsibilities of employees from Christian preaching and teaching, an emphasis that often overlooks power structures and systemic issues. It is true that, as with all parts of our lives, we should work as if for Christ (e.g. Eph 6:7). Does this mean though, that we put up with all conditions without grumbling? I think we need to be aware that accepting bad conditions does not just have ramifications for ourselves. It will impact our spouse, our families. It will also impact all people under those same conditions. In challenging bad conditions, we often bring good change for many others. One of the foundational stories of Salvation is the Exodus. We often focus on God’s people going TO the promised land. But of course they also went FROM a place of injustice. Moses had to flee because of his action against oppressive employment. He came back to Egypt not because he had given up on pursuing justice, but this time with God’s power and words. Our actions against injustice at work shouldn’t be vengeful or underhand, but undertaken prayerfully in the name of God and with his justice.
This brings me to one particular destructive workplace condition, bullying. A question about bullying was what occasioned this post. As you can tell from my words above, there should be no tolerance of bullying in Christian workplaces and under Christian bosses. If you experience bullying in either of these cases, you should be able to go to those with power to seek help. I would particular recommend in these cases if you can, of approaching the person with power who has proved to have the most integrity and Christ like character. What if you are in a non-Christian environment, or finding no help within a Christian one? You should follow a policy of justice seeking non-retaliation. Do not act out of frustration or revenge. Instead, follow the proper procedures with the confidence of the person of integrity. Remember that in stopping a bully you are acting to save many others. Ask for measures which protect yourself and others but also allow the bully a chance to change if possible. In this, you are acting with love for all involved. This then is the simple directive for all Christians at work: Bring Christ’s love to the workplace.
In alphabetical order, Megan du Toit is a daughter, friend, mother, pastor, teacher, twin and wife. These relationships and roles are central to her sense of self, all of the relationships informed by her relationship with God. She is currently doing a PhD in theology, and is wondering why she wasn't warned off by her experience of two previous honours theses (one in literature and another in theology). She longs to live a grace filled life and asks for your grace with her in her repeated failure. You could also call her fickle and unfocused in her pursuits but she would rather you call her a renaissance woman.