At Work & Theology 101

The Challenge of Conscience and Compromise in the Workplace

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Christians in the workplace often face difficult issues relating to the tension between faith and the public square.

We don’t leave our beliefs outside when we enter the workplace, and most of us work alongside non-believers on a regular basis.

But what happens when those in authority over you require you to do something in conflict with your conscience?

There exists a rich history of Christians who have dealt with this very question, from the early Christian martyr, Polycarp, to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Here are a few famous examples of Christians wrestling with conscience in the public square.

Classic Passages Regarding Conscience and Compromise

There have often been conflicts between secular and religious parties with demands that conscience be compromised. In the Bible the classic passages are in the book of Daniel.

  • In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down before the image of gold made by King Nebuchadnezzar. The king proclaimed that anyone who refused to bow down would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Shadrach Meshach, and Abednego say to the king “If it be so our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if he does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18). The story is well known. They were thrown into the fiery furnace but came out unharmed.
  • Later, in Daniel 6, King Darius was induced by his advisors to make a law (directed at Daniel) that anyone who prayed to anyone but the king would be thrown into the lion’s den. Daniel, knowing this decree, knelt by his window three times a day and was consequently thrown into the lion’s den. Again his deliverance is well known.

Protestant ethicists have derived from these passages (and others) that authority must be resisted in two cases. If the authority commands what God forbids (i.e. worship of idols), or forbids what God commands (i.e. prayer to God) it must be disobeyed no matter what the cost.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, put his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. These theses were meant to stimulate academic discussion, but soon translated into the common language, and using the relatively recent invention of the printing press they were spread throughout Germany in two weeks. Rather than open a detailed discussion of the issues raised, the opposition response was to appeal to the necessity of obedience to the authority of the church.

This controversy led to a series of debates with leading theologians of that time, such as Johann Eck and Thomas Cajetan, and led to Luther being released from his monastic order. At Augsburg Luther indicated openness to correction and willingness to be persuaded that he was wrong. Luther said:

I have sought after truth in my public disputations, and everything that I have said I still consider as right true and Christian. Yet I am but a man and may be deceived. I am therefore willing to receive instruction and correction in those things wherein I may have erred.

At a meeting in Worms in 1521 with Emperor Charles the V present, Luther was asked whether he would recant part or all of his books. He asked for a day to consider this proposition. The next day, when repeatedly pressed to recant, Luther firmly responded with these words:

Unless convinced by scripture and evident reason I will not, I cannot recant. My conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.

This above statement is the most famous statement on freedom of conscience or, more precisely, the unwillingness to go against conscience in Protestant history.

Notice that it is said that “my conscience is captive to the word of God.” Conscience cannot be captive to anything else such as public opinion or a government edict. If there is a conflict with Scripture then the decision is clear.

Also note that Luther was not just recalcitrant or unreasonably dogmatic on these issues. He was open to discussion and persuasion, but realized that to go against conscience was neither right nor safe (spiritually speaking).

Hopefully you can draw encouragement from these examples when you face situations in the workplace demanding you compromise your conscience.

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