Living out our faith in the public square includes the world of work: business, services and professions. Work is part of the way we contribute to the health and formation of human society and culture, and thus fulfil the creational mandate of God, and, if this is the case, then all of our work should be considered through the lenses of our Christian worldview.
Our work is meant to be about serving God by contributing to the common good of humanity. There are two basic ways in which we do this: first, God is on a mission of the redemption of all creation – undoing the destructive work of sin, a project that includes our work. So the first way we serve the common good is to resist and redeem the effects of sin in our sphere of work. Second, despite the ravages of sin, we have been created to develop and shape human culture, and this mandate is still ongoing even after the fall! So, we serve the common good by contributing to the development of society. When we see both these dynamics, then we can start to grasp how our labour fits into our discipleship; how our work (both redemptive and creative) becomes part of the expression of our faith and love of God.
Often when I talk with people about work and faith, they assume that working for churches, charities and public services is ‘meaningful’ and virtuous, whereas working in the corporate world, or in industry, is somehow more secular or less ‘Christian’. But this is not the case at all! So what I want to do in this article is flesh out how we may evaluate our work from a Christian perspective.
How does my work contribute to the common good?
This is perhaps the most important question for all of us to be able to answer, as this is what gives work its dignity and purpose. This is nothing to do with whether we work in explicitly ‘helping’ professions. To take some random examples, stacking supermarket shelves, repairing vehicles, creating furniture – all of these make a contribution to the wellbeing of others.
Let’s be clear, there are some jobs that Christians simply should not do. For example, we know that gambling exploits and oppresses the poor, trapping humanity in cycles of addiction and self-destruction. Such labour is impossible to reconcile with the worldview that our work (in every sphere) should be directed towards the redemption of humanity and the creation of positive culture.
In most cases, though, the question is more about what we are trying to achieve.
I’m not aware of anyone in our church who sells bathrooms, so I’m going to use that job as an extended example: bathrooms are a valuable contribution to the common good (providing people with restful and restorative places to live, allowing lives of health and cleanliness, etc). Selling good products (good quality of workmanship, the expression of human creativity, show good stewardship of the earth), made in ways that respect and value humans, sold in integrity and with relational respect – this advances the cause of human culture and is dignified and meaningful work. In the midst of this work is also the chance to be salt and light, to work with integrity, to oppose business practices that undermine the common good (mis-selling products, profiteering, tax avoidance, treating people badly, etc) and to be a genuinely virtuous salesperson.
If we could all work out the contribution we can make to the common good in our sphere of work, this will surely help us to value, enjoy and be self-consciously honouring God in our labour.
Of course, it may be that the question of what we are working for is more uncomfortable or difficult than that. Take this example from my life:
For four years I served as a governor of our local secondary school in Nottingham. It took a while to get used to the role, but I ended up carrying quite a bit of responsibility, chairing the group that dealt with standards (results, data, quality of teaching, etc). Over time I felt we made a lot of ‘progress’ in helping the school to become accountable, more aware of what needed changing, establishing a strategy to do that, and so on. And we started to deliver on the plan. Our quality of teaching was improving, results were beginning to follow – ofsted were pleased! But I became increasingly uncomfortable until I realised what was going on: I was throwing my labour into improving a system whose goal was… creating efficient economic units who could pass exams well. The whole goal of our education system has now totally departed from forming healthy human beings to serve as virtuous citizens (the classical conception of education) and has become about our GDP. My areas of responsibility were those most focussed on this new ‘vision’, and I realised I was labouring for a goal that (I felt) was not in line with my Christian worldview.
Now I’m not saying that Christians cannot serve in education, but I am pushing the question that we need to ask: what goals am I serving?
The other professions desperately need to ask this question with proper self-criticism. Is our legal work serving the common good and real justice, or the interests of oligarchic elites? Is our medical practice still tied to a vision of human flourishing that we can defend, or has it become, in places, about the extension of life at all costs? Furthermore, are we increasingly seduced into working with standards and behaviours that are taken from liberalism, from ‘necessity’, from some ‘authority’, rather than the virtues and character of Jesus?
Whatever our work, we all face these questions that come from, and point to, our Christian worldview – a worldview that both dignifies work and asks us some hard questions about the work we do. If we can find the courage to ask (and answer) them, this may enable us to become more fully Christian in the public square.
– Tim Murray