One thing I’ve noticed about most Christian teaching on work is that it is pretty thin. It essentially boils down to “work hard” and “be honest.” Those are very important things. But, to be frank, they aren’t very interesting. And, they don’t give guidance to the wide range of issues that the modern worker truly has to deal with.
Even more, they don’t address the fundamental issue that most people struggle with in their work: finding meaning and loving what they do. Many workers, including Christians, lead work lives of quiet desperation because they don’t know how their faith truly connects to their work. And one big reason for this is that much Christian teaching on work is just too thin and undeveloped.
So as I’ve been reading on management and work over the last few years, and developing philosophies and systems of management for where I work, I sought to develop a more robust theology of vocation in the workplace. There is much to learn from common grace and the really incredible research that has been articulated so well by people like Marcus Buckingham and Daniel Pink. But there are also incredible things in the biblical text itself that teach us about what it means to be an employee and manager — things which many people are not drawing out, but which are right there.
Some of the secular thinking (the good stuff — there’s also lots of bad management thinking out there) gives helpful words to what Paul is articulating in places like Ephesians 6:5-9; other aspects of the (good) secular thinking are consistent with biblical teaching, even though they may not be the only biblical way to do things (the Bible gives freedom within a framework, though some practices are more helpful than others, and ought to be pursued for that reason).
Tonight in our small group I sought to bring together a more robust set of thinking on work from a biblical perspective. Below are my notes for what I taught. I don’t say everything that could be said, I don’t draw out exactly how we should think about the interaction of correct secular thinking and the Bible (though it is important here and I have much to say on that), and I didn’t flesh everything out as fully in these notes as I did in our group discussion. (And, alternatively, we didn’t cover everything that is included here!) So if anything seems unclear or in need of expansion, remember that these are just my notes, and as such were primarily intended for myself. But I think they might also be more broadly helpful as well, and it makes more sense to post these notes now rather than wait until I have the time to turn them in to a set of more polished blog posts.
So, here they are, for any who are interested in a more robust Christian theology of work. I’d like to expand on some of these things at some point, and maybe delve even more deeply into this subject in my second book. But for now, here are some of my main thoughts on a more robust Christian doctrine of work. (You can also see my article “Management in Light of the Supremacy of God” for greater detail on many things touched on here.)
Two Core Truths from the Text
1. Eph 6:9: “Masters, … give up threatening.”
Here’s what this means: don’t motivate primarily by fear. In fact, don’t even motivate primarily by carrots and sticks—extrinsic factors. Cue in to the fact that in the verses right before, Paul exhorts slaves (= workers) to be intrinsically motivated (“doing the will of God from the heart,” etc.). Consequently, manage in a way that syncs with that. This means create the conditions that foster intrinsic motivation, rather than relying on detailed rules and telling people what to do. What does this look like? We will talk about that in the application section.
A corollary text here: 1 Peter 5:3: “Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Peter is addressing this to elders, but the principle applies to all leadership positions. It would be strange if elders were to lead this way, but everyone else is justified in being domineering to their people.
2. Eph 6:9: “Masters, do the same to them.”
This means: View your workers with respect and treat them as real people in the image of God who are more than just a pair of hands, but are also creative and resourceful and a source of ideas.
In other words, workers aren’t just to be ordered around. Manage to the whole person. Treat employees with respect, as valuable individuals in the image of God. No one likes to be ordered around or micromanaged. And that’s not just because it’s annoying. It’s because it’s out of sync with the way we have been created. We have been created in the image of God and thus people are creative and responsible, seeking to do good work and make a contribution. If you believe that about people, most will live up to it. And don’t let the few bad apples that don’t spoil it for everyone.
Underlying this is also the truth that employers ought to seek the good of their employees. For workers had just been commanded to “obey your earthly masters” — that is, workers should seek the good of their employer, should seek to make a contribution and put their employer before themselves, and should accomplish the objectives and tasks given them (but not only those tasks — workers are to be self-motivated, as the command to work from the heart and “render service with a good will” shows, and this means taking proactive initiative). So “obey your earthly masters” doesn’t just mean “be compliant and do the minimum necessary,” because that’s not how we would want to be treated — in the home, for example, we don’t want our kids to begrudgingly obey, but eagerly obey. It’s the same with the workplace (and, of course, Paul says this explicitly, as we saw, when he says to obey from the heart). “Obeying” your employer implies taking initiative, showing creativity, and at root being for the good of your organization.
Now, that’s cool and amazing (it’s a lot more enjoyable and interesting to be engaged in your work than merely compliant!). But here’s the really incredible thing: since Paul says to masters “do the same to them,” it follows that managers (and entire companies) are to be about the good of their employees as well. They should not see their employees simply as cogs in a machine, or workers to be maximized for company profits, but as valuable individuals worthy of respect and appreciation. And that respect and appreciation ought to be tangibly demonstrated through positive, empowering policies and a mindset of supplying employees with what they need to do their jobs well, and so forth. This isn’t a country club mentality, as we should have high expectations for our employees (which also serves them, because it challenges them to stretch and give their best selves). But when employees are treated well in this way, it is not only better for them; it is also better for the organization, because it produces greater performance. It is also less costly, because it reduces turnover (Chick Fil A example: their business model is underpinned by the Sermon on the Mount, and their retention rate is a stunning 97%).
Last point (though many more could be made): note the stunning implication here: “Do the same to them” ultimately implies treating your workers as you would Christ himself, for workers had just been exhorted to render their service “as to the Lord and not to men” (v. 7). Since masters (managers) are to do the same, it follows that they should treat their employees as they would Christ himself.
So, what does it look like to create a culture that fosters intrinsic motivation in people — a culture of engagement rather than compliance?
1. Trust people and have high expectations for them. Trust is at the heart of a healthy culture. Most people want to do a good job and want greater responsibility. If you trust them and have high expectations, people will generally live up to that. (Likewise, if you have low expectations and don’t trust people, people will typically live down to those.)
2. Make the vision, values, and top priorities clear, then allow people to find their own way to accomplish the objectives. This is most consistent with trust and creates space for initiative and autonomy, which are at the heart of motivation.
3. Lead from values, not rules. This, again, is most consistent with trusting people. Detailed rules say “you are not competent, and therefore we need to control you.” People will live down to that and not apply their extra initiative. But leading from values says “we trust you” and allows people to use their judgment and creativity. It also gives purpose, which is another of the core components of motivation.
4. Seek to extend people’s autonomy to the greatest possible extent. Managers should keep expectations clear, but within that framework people are to manage themselves. The manager becomes not a boss, but a source of help.
5. You see the implication of self management right in the text: Paul exhorts workers to be self managing when he says don’t obey by way of eye service or as people pleasers. In other words, do what you do because it is right, not just because you are told or to score points. And, doing this “from the heart” implies: take initiative. For that is what we do when we are doing something from the heart.
6. Individualize. If workers are in the image of God and thus to be respected, we should not seek to mold them to fit a highly standardized version of the role. The role is to be flexible, not primarily the person. Highly standardized versions of a role not only run over the individuality that each person brings and is a potential source of incredible contribution; they are also impersonal. People are personal beings by nature; there is no virtue in regarding “impersonal” as essential to the meaning of being a professional.
7. By the way, what is management? It is unleashing the talents of the individual for the performance of the organization. Individualizing and unleashing the potential of the person are not just good practices, but are intrinsic to the nature of management itself.
The results of this will be:
1. Motivation, because this syncs with the three components of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
2. People will grow because they are required to be responsible and exercise judgment. And this is critical because management is not only about getting things done through others, but developing people through tasks. Management is a matter of serving.
3. Greater efficiency, believe it or not. Trying to control people doesn’t scale. It also results in higher turnover, and kills the initiative that leads to great results.
4. Initiative and innovation. Again, this unleashes greater initiative and the best ideas of your people.
5. Employee engagement.
6. A strong workplace. (That’s not just a throw-away phrase; there’s great and specific meaning in what a “strong workplace” is that would be great to go in to sometime.)
7. An exciting workplace — a place where people want to work and enjoy their work.
8. Your people will be served and built up, and the organization will be served more effectively as well.
9. Failure to manage this way is why so many people want to retire, by the way. So many workplaces treat people merely as cogs in a machine. It’s no wonder people want to escape at 65. What a waste! I’m not saying retirement is bad — it can be a great thing to transition to a different type of contribution after a lifetime in the workplace. But far better to also manage our workplaces in such a way that people don’t want to retire to get away from the job, but rather retire because of the potential for a different type of contribution later in life.