At Work & Theology 101

What Are the Historical Practices of Christians in the Workplace?

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Editor’s Note: Today we introduce Dr. Timothy Ewest, a new contributor to the IFWE blog. Dr. Ewest is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Wartburg College, and a Visiting Research Contributor at Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative. He will blog periodically about the history of integrating faith within the workplace. 

I spent a summer fishing on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota with Ed Smed, a guy who devoted his life to serving the Ojibwa.

To me Ed was eccentric, incorporating his Ojibwa heritage with practices from “the outside” (as he would say). We spent the days on his farm cutting wood, drying fish, and working in a small church he pastored.

When late afternoon came, we would head out to the lake and fish.

Three of us would crowd his boat with our graphite fishing rods and monofilament line. Ed would fish with a very old bait casting reel, braided line, and dated lures.

Looking at his fishing equipment, we had our doubts about his abilities to bring fish into the boat. What none of us realized was that Ed knew the lake, understood the fish, and knew where they lived.

After a few hours of watching Ed reel in fish after fish after fish, I finally asked Ed, “What are we missing”?

Ed said that to be successful, “you don’t need something new, what you need is to remember the lessons the lake teaches you.”

Remembering the Lessons from the Workplace

Today, America faces a crisis of overwhelming proportions. As workers in the workplace, we have never been so stressed out – ever.

Some research suggests 26% of workers are very stressed out. Others have the number closer to 40%.  And, in an attempt to successfully cope, we try the newest technique or advice, while what we really need most times is simply to remember the lessons we have learned.

We have forgotten the sacred rhythms of work, going back to and beyond the founding of this nation. Sacred work rhythms which Christians have long embraced and have passed along down through the centuries.

Do you remember why you go to work? Do you remember lessons from the waters of work? They have been fished many, many times before and lessons have been learned. It may be time to remember the sacred rhythms of work.

Five Historical Themes from Christians in the Workplace

Over the last few years my research colleague, Dr. David Miller at Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative, and I have found five themes which have been historically present in the lives of God’s people as they seek to live out their biblically-based faith in the workplace:

  • Personal purpose, or calling in daily life. Whatever your position in life, you are called to fulfill God’s purposes while here on earth.
  • Stewardship, related to what some call “co-regency.” We are co-creators with God, and have a responsibility to use wisely and responsibly the gifts and opportunities we are given.
  • Economic justice and business ethics. We as Christians have a concern for the impact of our economic actions on others, in particular the weak, i.e. “the widow, the orphan, the alien” (Deuteronomy 10:18).
  • Lifestyle modesty, complemented by generosity. Christians, and Protestants in particular, believe that good Christian behavior and belief in business lead to positive commercial results, even financial success, and that success is demonstrated in modesty, moderation in consuming, and a generous giving. Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).
  • Finally, Christians believe they are Christ’s representatives through evangelism and service. Many are verbally expressive about their faith, but others seek ways to serve the world around them. In either case, Christians feel called to bring a message or service to those they see as in need.

A Long Tradition

While this list is not exhaustive, it should capture the central historical practices and beliefs of Christians as they have sought to live out their faith in the workplace. Modern researchers have labeled these practices the “Protest Work Ethic” and can trace these behaviors all the way back to the Reformation.

While you and I may think success in being people of faith in the workplace is won through graphite rods and monofilament line, the truth is that we need to remember the lessons of the lake, those lessons from generations of Christians who have lived out their faith in the workplace.

Over the next five weeks I will explore each of the five historical ways Christians have integrated their faith into the workplace and provide some simple steps for you to carry on our heritage, as we are being cheered on by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrew 12:1).

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