Should religion and business mingle?  American culture seems to be increasingly willing to say “yes.”  In the last fifteen years two major business periodicals, Business Week and Fortune, devoted cover stories to the growing interest to link spirituality with the workplace.  These articles, while a bit perplexed about what to make of the phenomenon, recognized that the office was indeed becoming a place more open to religion.  The stories noted the benefits this trend had for business, including bolstered morale and productivity.  While the articles did not make a definitive statement as to the helpfulness of this trend, they seemed overall approving of it, even if puzzled. 

This would make sense given sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s research on the subject of faith and work.  In God and Mammon, Wuthnow recognizes that religion affects the way workers think about work, yet it does so in decidedly therapeutic, subjective, and safe ways.  Religion does not challenge the broader systems and structures that comprise the workplace, it does not encourage whistle blowing, it does not seek to correct the greed that fuels many business enterprises, rather religion seems quite content to leave the workplace as is.  In this way, the faith at work movement is a fairly tame one that many workplaces seem content to tolerate and even assist with.  And they have done such.  Whether it is funding sessions and conferences seeking to enhance one’s spiritual life or bringing in spiritual gurus of all stripes to guide their workers through their workplace obstacles, businesses and corporations are realizing the importance of keeping a check on the spiritual state of their workers.

Yet there is a more controversial side to the movement.  While pleased with the idea of religion, broadly defined, there seems to be palpable anxiety concerning any attempts to share one’s faith at work with the goal of conversion.  This sentiment sprouted in the Business Week article.  Referencing the comments of USC business professor Ian I. Mitroff, the article noted that a majority of those polled believed the increase of religion at work was a good thing.  Yet this telling caveat was added, “so long as there’s no bully-pulpit promotion of traditional religion.”  Similarly, a Boston magazine article focusing on evangelicals and their efforts to bring Christ “to a cubicle near you” sparked nervousness.  One reader says, “The movement to bring Jesus into the workplace is appallingly intrusive.”  Also expressing uneasiness, Sarah Wunsch with the ACLU of Massachusetts says regarding evangelicals integrating their faith at work: “I think this stuff is screwy…If you know the boss is a born-again Christian and pushing this stuff and you are a Jew or a Muslim, it would almost be impossible not to have this affect your employment.”

These comments suggest uneasiness toward American evangelicals and their evangelistic impulse at work.  These articles indicate that while expressing one’s faith at work is a growing trend, there remain certain boundaries to the type of faith one is encouraged to practice at work.  The dogma that dominates workplace spirituality is not typically open to faiths that seek to convert others.  While the spiritualities finding warm welcome in the workplace seem broad and open they nonetheless appear to have boundaries that are rigorously patrolled.

But is evangelism the only goal for the Christian at work?  Are the non-Christians that appear so nervous correct to think that integrating the Christian faith at work means simply evangelism?  Is the Christian call in the workplace primarily an evangelistic one?  Too often perhaps it is, worries evangelical theologian John Stott who has said that Christians typically reduce the workplace to a “well-stocked lake to fish in.”  For the Christian, integrating faith and work are vital tasks that mean far more than simply evangelism.   Oklahoma Baptist University business professor, Rich Rudebock, believes that Christians must keep in mind that work is a “subduing the earth.”  Rudebock is referring to what has been called the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:28).  This mandate was given before the Fall which implies that work need not be considered a fallen activity.  Yes, work’s difficulty is due to the Fall, but work itself is part of the design of creation.  At work, humans are engaged in an activity that has been ordained by God.  Like Rudebock, Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, reminds that the“Christian message does not begin with ‘accept Christ as your Savior’; it begins with ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’  The Bible teaches that God is the sole source of the entire created order…Thus His word, or laws, or creation ordinances give the world its order and structure.” 

This Christian understanding of work as good gift from God struggled to gain traction during Christianity’s first millennium and a half.  In part, this was due to the pervasive Greek view of work.  For the Greeks, work was a necessary evil.  The more important activity, the Greeks believed, was the contemplative life.  This Greek view of work lingered in early Christian thought, producing an interesting interpretation of the famous story of busy Martha and worshipful Mary.  In this story Jesus enters the home of sisters, Mary and Martha, and while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, Martha busily plays host by making the appropriate preparations.  Jesus corrects Martha by telling her to stop her activity and consider Mary’s choice to listen. 

This story was critical to medieval Christianity and monasticism because it became the starting point of a two-tiered system that distinguished between those that chose the contemplative life like Mary and those that chose the active life like Martha.  According to this view, the contemplative life was most honoring to God.  With such a view, the spiritually zealous felt compelled to retreat to the monastery and live the life of a monk.  

The Protestant Reformers disagreed with this medieval perspective on work.  John Calvin challenged the far-reaching interpretation of the Mary and Martha story by refuting its universal application.  Commenting on Calvin’s thought, Lee Hardy says, “In commending Mary over Martha Jesus was not commending a whole way of life over another—for certainly at times Mary also worked just as Martha also listened.  Rather, he was addressing himself to the relative merits of their responses to his presence and message at that particular time.” 

If work is good in and of itself, why is it deemed a worthy activity?  Martin Luther stressed work as a way that individuals serve neighbor and contribute to God’s means of provision.  For Luther, humans through their work actually sustain creation.  While the individual is thanking God for food, asking for good health, and safety from the severe weather that looms, there are other people that have devoted their working lives to making those things happen.  The food on the table arrives through a series of vocations, including farmers, delivery people, and grocers—all vocations drawing upon other work as well.  Good health typically arrives through the work of a variety of doctors.  These doctors, of course, received training from those that have devoted themselves to research and higher education.  Not only does good health need doctors but good health must be anticipated with diet and exercise, both issues relying on a number of vocations.  Finally, safety from severe weather might come from a well-built home—the work of a number of workers—and the warnings from the meteorologist. 

Certainly God could drop bread from heaven, miraculously heal the sick, and turn the storm to solace but this is not the way he has created the world, many of the Reformers and their followers believed.   Being created in the image of the Trinitarian God means, in part, that humans are social beings and humanity’s social nature is realized, in part, through work as one relates to and serves one’s neighbor.  Moreover, the individual Christian’s sanctification occurs through this service of neighbor.

But at an even more general level, Rudebock believes, the Christian worker’s purpose is to glorify God.  Glorifying God broadens the Christian’s task at work.  Evangelism becomes but one facet of the Christian’s goal at work.  Other ways the worker brings glory to God include doing work with excellence, honesty, and in a way that is ethical and humane.  It also means that a praise and worship accompanies the Christian at work as they lovingly serve God and his creation.

This more comprehensive Christian vision of work emerges when the Christian considers the full spectrum of God’s unfolding action in the world, an action that began at creation.  According to Nancy Pearcey, “The Christian message does not begin with ‘accept Christ as your Savior’; it begins with ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’  The Bible teaches that God is the sole source of the entire created order…Thus His word, or laws, or creation ordinances give the world its order and structure.”  When work is rooted in creation the scope of work’s purpose begins to fall into place.        

Back to the question at hand, is Christianity good for the workplace?  To put it differently, is the Christian impact upon the “cubicle” a good one?  It would seem the Christian vision of work would be a warm welcome amidst the corporate greed and scandals that have beset the global economy.  Rather than acting out of self-interest, Christians, casting their gaze to others, might be exemplars for the type of work that brings about flourishing.  Workers would begin to consider not what job would provide the biggest salary or prestige, but where they could best serve their neighbor with the gifts God has given them.  Business decisions would orbit around what practices produce flourishing for humanity, not what boosts the bottom-line.  Far from ruining the workplace, the view of work that the Christian worldview provides precisely the kind of vision that the working world needs. 

Casey Shutt (PhD, Durham University) is headmaster at Morning Star Academy, a classical Christian school in Bettendorf, Iowa.

Publication date: June 27, 2012