Menu Home

A biblical context for workplace relations

In biblical times a distinction between work and life, and between workplace relationships and social relationships, was less apparent than it is for many workers today. In addition, scholars disagree on how to interpret and apply the social structures assumed by Scripture writers.

Further, contemporary models of the welfare state, and capitalist/socialist economic theory, while not imagined by the biblical writers, often influence (in subtle or explicit ways) Christian interpretation and application of Scripture. Bearing these qualifications in mind, Scripture clearly reveals a range of principles and guidelines applicable to workplace relationships today, three of which are outlined below.

Neighbour love

As Matthew tells it, a lawyer once asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22:35‐40; cf Mk 12:28‐34; Lk 10:25‐37).

When understood as the highest ethical good, this double command is called agapism, after the Greek word agapē (to love, value, esteem, feel or manifest genuine concern for, be faithful towards). Obedience, or faithfulness, to this command may be expressed as both duty (doing right) and virtue (being good). For Jesus, love of one’s neighbour necessarily flows out of love for God. Claims that one loves God are false when one does not demonstrate love for one’s neighbour.

In Luke’s account of the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer, Jesus relates the parable of the Good Samaritan to show that the neighbour might easily be a despised stranger (cf Lk 6:35). This was a radical notion for the lawyer, as perhaps it is for many people today. Love of this kind is also arguably the chief moral principle in Paul’s ethics (e.g. Gal 5:14; 1 Cor 13:1 ‐ 14:1; Rom 13:8).

Righteousness/justice

In English usage, ‘righteousness’ is often associated with the notion of moral rectitude, while ‘justice’ signifies a right social order evidenced by the proper distribution of goods, healthy relations between persons, and fair retribution for evil. In biblical usage, however, such a distinction is not apparent, although modern Bible translations continue to use both terms. Biblical righteousness/justice “is about the proper structure of relationships between God and people, and among human beings … [it] is not a virtue or quality which an individual can have in isolation.”[1]

By nature, God is righteous/just. He speaks and acts in accordance with righteousness/justice, and never shows partiality or favouritism. Unrighteousness/injustice abounds in the world as a result of human sin but, through Christ, God restores righteousness/justice and reconciles people to himself. Yet God’s salvation extends beyond individual redemption and reconciliation to include the restoration of righteousness/justice to personal relationships, communities, institutions, and the earth.

The people of God are called to live in accordance with the righteousness/justice of God, and to model the ideal in their relations with others; it is on this basis that their works will be judged.

Relationship

Christian faith is not fundamentally doctrinal but relational. God is revealed to us in three interrelating divine Persons. God relates personally to people and initiates covenant relationships, binding himself to people in love and grace. The incarnation of Christ demonstrates the strength of God’s commitment to relationship, and to reconciliation where a breach has occurred in the relationship. Jesus commanded his followers to love one another, to love one’s neighbour, and to love one’s enemies – that is, to take risks and do what may be counter‐cultural in practically expressing altruism.

The local church is intended to be a healthy relational community, and the people of God are expected to demonstrate a range of qualities that allow healthy relationships to prevail and flourish. For a Christian, workplace relationships should reflect the same convictions and qualities.

In the Old Testament, life in Israel was profoundly communal. In his familial paradigm, Waldemar Janzen shows how the modern Western polarities between the individual and the group, between personal blessing and the common good, and between personal and social ethics, find no basis in the Old Testament. God called individuals such as Abraham, Moses and David, but this election was for the purpose of calling and commissioning a people, the people of God, to bear his name and to bear witness to his nature, character and mission.

Each person in ancient Israel was an active member of complex webs of relationships, often deep and intergenerational, that – at their best – provided essential meaning, physical and psychological support, moral guidance and spiritual nurture.

The New Testament does not set aside the earlier divine revelation but focuses and enlarges its vision and mission. In the Gospels, Jesus did not view himself as a social revolutionary or political reformer, but he emphasised and exemplified Old Testament principles such as justice, mercy and faithfulness toward others (e.g. Mt 23:23; cf Micah 6:8).

These are central to Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God, and to the growth of positive relationships. They should be essential principles to apply as a basis for professional and ethical relationships between employers and employees today.

The later New Testament provides many examples of best practice in developing relational wholeness including conflict resolution, and the prescription or practice of Christian virtues as exemplified in the life of Jesus.

Conclusion

Other biblical principles could be expounded, or a list of proof‐texts assembled, but a brief outline of biblical teaching on the key themes of love, justice and relationship gives an indication of the Bible’s rich guidance on interpersonal relations.

Another fruitful approach may be to examine the seven cardinal virtues (humility, liberality, chastity, gentleness, temperance, brotherly love and diligence) as they relate to workplace challenges and opportunities.

A third approach is to consider the degree to which respect, trust and fairness (biblically defined) are present in workplace relationships. Where these qualities are present and reciprocated, there is justice – and this will deliver a healthy, productive and empowering work environment.

Anglican missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, said:

The Church is sent into the world to continue that which [Jesus] came to do, in the power of the same Spirit, reconciling people to God (John 20:19-23). This priesthood has to be exercised in the life of the world. It is in the ordinary secular business of the world that the sacrifices of love and obedience are to be offered to God. It is in the context of secular affairs that the mighty power released in the world through the work of Christ is to be manifested. The Church gathers every Sunday, the day of resurrection and of Pentecost, to renew its participation in Christ’s priesthood. But the exercise of this priesthood is not within the walls of the Church but in the daily business of the world. It is only in this way that the public life of the world, its accepted habits and assumptions, can be challenged by the gospel and brought under the searching light of truth as it has been revealed in Jesus.[2]

Food for thought and action.

[1] Duncan B. Forrester, Christian Justice and Public Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 208.

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Culture (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 230.

Categories: articles

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

1 reply

%d bloggers like this: