At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Tradition, Business, and Culture

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Last week, I taught a graduate level course called Christian Traditions as part of Wheaton College’s M.A. Biblical Studies program. The course covered a range of Christian traditions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, Wesleyan, Dispensational, and Pentecostal. Reflecting on the past week, it occurred to me that the range of Christian traditions may lead to different approaches to questions of business and cultural engagement.

Two examples will help us see how our association with particular traditions within the Christian faith can lead to differences in our beliefs and attitudes regarding issues of faith and work.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Among the traditions studied in the course I taught, Eastern Orthodoxy was perhaps the most foreign tradition to my Protestant evangelical students.

A prominent feature of Eastern Orthodoxy is the emphasis on the participation in the liturgy, an experience that can be literally described as a trip to heaven. Those who encounter this liturgy for the first time find it an experience of sensory overload in sound, sight, and smell.

As expressed by books like Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, the Eastern Orthodox church service is a heavenly encounter where we go before our truly awesome and mysterious God and then go back out into the world for the week.

What difference might this make for those Christians who are Eastern Orthodox and engaged in the realm of business? Eastern Orthodoxy places less of an emphasis on “proclamation” and more on “mystery.” This means that there is considerably less input, even indirectly from sermons, into how those in business should go about their task apart from a commitment to a fundamental morality.

It would be a mistake to say that Eastern Orthodoxy says nothing about business and cultural engagement. However, the priority given to a mystical liturgical encounter each week would seem to encourage attention to our life in God’s creation, flowing from submission to God in his overwhelming immensity, rather than attention to our practical role in the business world.

Wesleyan/Holiness Tradition

We can observe a stark contrast to Eastern Orthodoxy with the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition found among denominations like the Nazarene, Church of God, and Wesleyan denominations. A prominent feature of this tradition is the doctrine of entire sanctification, also known as “Christian perfection.”

With this doctrine, it is important to indicate that “perfection” in this tradition does not mean sinlessness. It means a spiritual state whereby one does not sin intentionally (but might do so by ignorance or mistaken judgment). Is this state only the domain of “super Christians?”

Texts like John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection or The Scripture Way of Salvation indicate that Wesley believed in a two-stage view of the Christian life. All Christians are justified at conversion and enter a gradual process of sanctification, but it is possible for all Christians to attain entire sanctification as a result of consecration to God.

This tradition treats texts such 1 John 1:9, with its emphasis on the words “purify us from all unrighteousness,” and I Thessalonians 5:23, with its emphasis on the phrase “sanctify you through and through,” with great seriousness, and as indicators of what is possible for Christians. Therefore, this tradition maintains that entire sanctification should not be exceptional.

In this tradition, the emphasis on holiness has more explicit implications for a Christian who is engaged in the realm of business. This tradition could lead those in business to only participate in certain industries, develop certain kinds of products, and enter a more limited range of business partnerships, for example. As a matter of cultural influence, it makes for an interesting thought experiment to ask “What kinds of cultural goods emerge from the products and practices of those who take holiness as seriously as they take business?”

Concluding Thoughts

These are only two traditions, but we can ask more questions like:

  • Does the distinction between law and gospel lead to uniquely Lutheran emphases in business?
  • Does the Baptist emphasis on individual competency facilitate a more open/indeterminate approach to the business world?
  • Do Pentecostal believers have expectations for business tied to their deep beliefs in God’s powerful action in the world today?

The answers to these questions have the potential to result in distinct cultural contributions, even if the individuals formed by these and other traditions are immediately aware of it.

How has your Christian tradition formed your approach to life and culture? Leave your comments here.

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