This the latest in a series of articles sharing insights from a joint curricular development initiative of the ON, the Theology of Work Project and three ON schools (Asbury, Assemblies of God and Western).
Although theology and ethics are inseparable in the Bible, conversations with systematic theology and ethics faculty highlighted the way these have become separate disciplines now. Systematics courses rarely address the theology of work. Christian ethics courses in seminaries usually do not address practical work dilemmas either, although they sometimes include a comparison of macro-economic systems (capitalism versus socialism). Some theological schools associated with Christian business schools may go further, although using different textbooks. The emergence of the popular creation-fall-redemption-new creation categories for theologies of work have tended to come out of biblical theology and Christian worldview courses.
Systematics, the Theology of Work and Marketplace Ethics
Systematic theologians could see how some of the popular creation-fall-redemption-new creation perspectives might be useful along lines I have identified in previous articles on the creation and fall accounts and the new creation. There are now many different sources for this.
Frequently, however, systematic theologians find these too simplistic to be satisfying. This is not to suggest that systematic explorations of the theology of work are easy to find. I have personally traced developments in theologies of work produced by a number of prominent theologians from 1945 until 1998, although this neglects the later contributions of Armand Larive and others. I think Darrell Cosden’s academic monograph, A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation:2004, and his more popular The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work:2006 provide excellent examples of a systematic theologian exploring theology and work connections both academically and popularly.
Two other useful, but also very different, contributions to the exploration of faith and work themes through systematic theology lenses are offered by Australian Gordon Preece and Englishman Richard Higginson. Preece observes that theologians tend to play favorites with different members of the Trinity. He pleads for a more balanced approach in which each person – the Father, Son and Spirit – is seen to call the others to fulfill their varied vocations in the story of creation and the economy of salvation. Like the Trinity, in our creaturely ways, we should all bless each one’s work if we are to have a properly balanced view of God’s Trinitarian work in creation, reconciliation and transformation.
Higginson advocates a credal approach to theology and ethics by taking major themes from the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed to explore the theological and ethical implications of these to the business world. In his book Called to Account, Higginson devotes chapters to the Trinity, creation, managing planet earth, the reality of sin, the law, the Incarnation, the cross, resurrection, the Spirit and the end time. An abbreviated version of Higginson’s theology of business appears in Atkinson’s Pastoral Ethics (p. 153-164) and another brief introduction in the last section of this paper.
Another attempt to bridge the gap between theology and ethics for the marketplace can be found in The Cape Town Commitment (2011) from the Third Lausanne Congress. The faculty I talked to said that they would welcome introductions to other, more recent publications that do this.
There was also a significant difference in the approaches of those theologians who want to start with systematic theology categories and explore the implications of these for work, versus those who want to start with immediate national and community issues and explore a more action-reflection method of doing theology contextually. The latter were in the minority, but did take ethical issues very seriously and also enjoyed inviting students to interact with relevant biblical narratives (such as those identified below).
Teaching Workplace Ethics
We talked with faculty involved with teaching general Christian ethics, pastoral ethics and marketplace ethics for business school students. We discovered it is easy for the first two to ignore practical work dilemmas. All faculty agreed that students need help to be convinced about the relevance of the Bible for addressing contemporary work issues. Three previous articles in this series (NT, OT Part 1 and OT Part 2) have suggested a number of biblical resources that are useful for discussing workplace ethics. As we talked about these, the Ruth discussion was a favorite because it resonates with so many contemporary issues.
The Theology of Work Project’s Systematic Presentation of Ethics article identifies very specific ways different Christians use the Bible in the process of seeking to promote Christian ethics for the marketplace. It categorizes these under the headings command, consequences and character, corresponding roughly to the classical deontological, teleological and virtue approaches in ethics. It concludes by suggesting ways in which a combination of approaches is helpful. A parallel article adopts these approaches to address a specific case study.
Other resources that gave rise to interesting discussion with faculty were:
- A brief summary article, based on the original research of Robin Gill and others, that demonstrates how churchgoing distinctively shapes the ethics of Christians – but only in a limited way.
- Laura Nash’s helpful identification, in Believers in Business, of seven ethical tensions in the marketplace that Christians can learn to live with creatively. This research is summarized here and then expanded on, with the addition of numerous stories and case studies, in the book Just Decisions: Christian Ethics Go to Work which can be read online or downloaded free.
- Use of papers and videos for class discussion. A good example is Scott Rae’s use of Truth Honesty and Deception in the Workplace; he talks about how he used the paper in this video. Scott is the author of two very helpful ethics texts: Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics and Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics, co-authored with Kenman Wong. Readings and cases from Beyond Integrity are useful for class discussion, as is the Faith&Co. video series that Kenman Wong has helped to produce at Seattle Pacific University. The cases, essays, interviews and videos offered on Al Erisman’s Ethix Journal website also address a wide variety of ethical issues, as do the small group study materials on the Theology of Work website.