Social Justice Begins at Work

vintage_scales_of_justice_labor_and_management_postcard-r63c95bbe41e04c22a256420915ac7ca9_vgbaq_8byvr_512Why do so many Christian employers fail to treat their workers justly?

by Laura Coulter

Amy spent much of her life working for a variety of Christian employers. Although her experiences with those employers had been mixed, she felt confident and excited about her new position as an administrative assistant for a prominent businessman in Birmingham, Ala.—a man who proclaimed he was a Christian.

At first she thought that the 10- to 12-hour days her new boss required were just part of the price of working in a busy office. But when she was not financially compensated for her overtime and was forced to work through her lunch break, the situation began to grow intolerable. Then her boss began asking her to do things she knew to be unethical: duplicating copyrighted tapes, making telephone calls posing as his wife, paying his personal bills through the business account. When Amy refused to comply with his requests, he became angry and even more demanding. Although she was hopeful that the situation would change once her employer recognized where she drew the line, after several months she realized her optimism was unfounded. She eventually quit her job.

"Part of my problem,"Amy said,"was that I had expectations because he proclaimed to be a Christian and served on missions boards and charitable organizations in the city and had a name connected with a testimony. It didn't take me long to discover that what was on the surface was not matched underneath."

Asked how this experience has changed her, Amy said, "Honestly? I know this sounds awful, but I would almost rather work for a non-Christian than a Christian. A non-Christian generally recognizes hard work and has some version of integrity. Christians are tightfisted."

Christian Employers: An Overview

In its May 2004 issue, Christianity Today published the results of a study the magazine had commissioned from the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, an organization devoted to helping Christian workplaces fulfill their God-given mission.The study polled more than 10,000 employees at 107 Christian organizations to rank the 50 best Christian workplaces within the United States. The common factors within those ranked at the top included a climate of trust between employer and employee; a sympathy on the part of managers and employers for the specific circumstances of their employees' life and a willingness to accommodate individual needs; payment of a market-value wage; and an atmosphere where employees felt free to take the initiative. Providing for family needs was also a factor: 12 percent of the finalists offered on-site daycare,compared with only 2 percent of the non-finalists.

All of the top-ranked organizations reflected a deeper interest in the activities of their employees than the activity of their gross profit and went beyond a shallow veneer of religiosity to a deeper understanding of how Christ has instructed us to live together as believers. Before his death, Jesus told his apostles that the world would recognize his followers by the love they showed to each other. With this in mind, how are we as Christian employers (and employees) doing overall?

As the study in Christianity Today demonstrates, many Christian organizations (as well as non-Christian organizations piloted by Christians) do a commendable job by any standard, religious or secular. It would be a powerful symbol to the rest of the world if these organizations were representative of the entire Christian business community. However, there also exist far too frequent instances of employer betrayal and abuse of a mutual relationship in Christ.  Some employees of Christian organizations are told they can't be paid a market wage, receive benefits, or have input in company business because "we're all supposed to suffer for Christ."Others observe in their Christian employers ethical lapses that make them indistinguishable from those in the secular marketplace.

Sean, who works for a large international evangelical association, shared this story: Several members of his association were told that they would be transferred from the company headquarters in the Midwest to a new location in the Southeast, with the promise that the association would be responsible for the expenses of the move. These members were given the go-ahead to start house-hunting near their new location. The employees moving to the Southeast proceeded to purchase homes, move their families, and enroll their children in new schools. Suddenly,without any warning, the majority of the employees involved in the move were fired.The reason given was a shortfall in funds. No reparations were offered.

A Double Standard

The Bible is clear about how employers should behave toward their employees.The book of Deuteronomy (24:14-15) offers explicit instructions to the Israelites about the obligations of employers: "You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt."After Jesus' death and resurrection, the mandate for fair treatment took on a new force because of the essential equality of all believers under Christ: "For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink" (1 Cor. 12:13). The writings of Paul dealt with this topic many times. "For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman," he writes: "Similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men…Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to" (1 Cor. 7:22-24, italics added).

Employers in the secular workplace are required to obey the laws of the land, to pay their employees a market wage, and to comply with workplace regulations.Christian employers operate under all of the same constraints but with the additional requirement of being responsible to God in all of their dealings, both public and private. Unfortunately, the same Christian beliefs that require employers to be accountable are often used as a reason to escape responsibility.

John was a young history professor at a Christian university; he had a promising career ahead of him and a supportive wife and children at home.Within his first few years at the university, he had won several teaching awards and was popular with his students. Although still short of the time allotted for tenure consideration, he was astonished when he was suddenly fired.After some investigation John discovered that one of the governing members of the faculty had been having an affair with his wife and that his abrupt firing had been to prevent him taking action against the school. In the throes of difficult divorce proceedings and a custody dispute (John was unsuccessful at reconciliation attempts with his wife), he found himself "blacklisted" and unable to find a job. Deeply hurt by these experiences, for a few years he felt unable even to attend church, but he says he's recently begun going to worship services again, hoping that Christ will heal his wounds over time.

Jason once served as the youth minister at a mainline Episcopal church in Louisiana.After completing a continuing education class at a seminary at the church's request, he shared the insights he had gained in the class with the senior pastor. Jason voiced concern that the primary reason their church was growing was because of its location and not because it was preaching the gospel.Within a few weeks, Jason was in trouble. He began to receive accusatory phone calls from the parents of the youths he pastored, angry because he had supposedly told the kids in his group that their non-Christian friends were going to hell. A miscellany of poorly founded accusations escalated, and although Jason repeatedly asked for the source of these complaints, no one would identify it. Then, despite the fact that his wife was pregnant and due to deliver in a short time, he was suddenly fired. Hurt and confused, Jason asked the senior pastor why he had been fired but was rebuffed.

Finally, a few members from the church came forward and showed him a letter that had been circulating throughout the congregation. The letter claimed that Jason had numerous psychological problems and might be a threat to the youth. Some people who cautiously (and without success) supported Jason informed him that the pastor had control problems and that his days had been numbered ever since he had confronted the pastor with his concerns about the church. No one in the organization of the church intervened; Jason now works for a Presbyterian church in another part of the country. The Louisiana church has gone through two other youth ministers since Jason's firing; similar complaints have been cited. Talking to his former employer after the worst of this episode, Jason reports that the senior pastor said to him,"Surely you as a Christian wouldn't sue me."

The Bottom Line

The above examples show extreme manifestations of Christian employers failing to adhere to Christian principles, but hundreds of employers ignore biblical admonishment in ways both large and small every day. Creating an authoritarian working environment; refusing to pay a market wage or forcing unpaid overtime; ignoring the specific circumstances of the lives of their employees; subjecting employees to sexual and political harassment; violating copyright, tax law, and workplace regulations—these are all ways in which some so-called Christian employers trample the rights, and the faith, of those that work for them.

So what makes the difference?

Almost everyone who shared a story with us offered the same response when asked to identify the main cause of the problem: Once a Christian employer begins to adopt the values and principles of the secular business world, the faith relationship begins to collapse. Amy, whose story opened this article, distilled the dilemma to one word: greed.

Christ himself offered an emphatic warning about the pursuit of wealth for its own sake, a warning that two millennia later we should still take to heart:"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt. 6:24).

The followers of Christ who penned the New Testament understood the powerful pull that the world and its values would continue to have over believers. For this reason Paul exhorts the Corinthian church not to be "yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14). A fundamental tension exists between the values that Christ preaches (equality, servanthood, and compassion) and the values that the secular business world enshrines (profit, materialism, hierarchical growth). The teachings of Christ require perpetual humility, while the world often encourages and rewards hard-nosed, egocentric, and controlling individuals, seeing them as possessing the toughness required to meet the bottom line. As soon as the focus shifts from God's purposes to the purposes of any individual, problems are bound to multiply. A building cannot be sound  if the foundation has been yanked from beneath it.

This should give all Christians cause for concern, even if we are not directly affected by unfair treatment or policies. It is especially cause for alarm when we consider that the rest of the world is watching us—as neighbors, as citizens, as employees and employers. Their knowledge of Christ is filtered through the dirty lens of our behavior. When they look at us, will they see us loving one another, in all circumstances, as Jesus commanded? Or will they only see a fish by the company logo and a shallow, pompous religiosity? The decision is ours to make.

A regular contributor to PRISM, Laura Coulter is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala. Her first novel, The Least, was published in 2002.

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