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Issues Facing Missions Today 31: Post-Christian Culture and Changes in the Workplace

Issues Facing Missions Today 31: Post-Christian Culture and Changes in the Workplace

In this post, I would like to compare the challenges facing Christians in the workplace around AD 200 and today.  Both contexts involve Christians living as a minority group within a larger society.  The former period is represented in the writings of Tertullian, who advised Christians how to live in a pre-Christian society.  Does Tertullian give us some food for thought as we increasingly realize in the West that we live in a post-Christian society?

The Christian author, Tertullian, addressed the issue of how the minority Christian group should maintain its convictions in the pagan workplace.  He wrote in an era of idolatry and persecution.  In On Idolatry, Tertullian discussed certain types of work that he believed Christians could not do because they involved a compromise of their faith.  While some occupations were acceptable to Christians, others were clearly not.

Obviously, Christians were not to participate in idolatry.  Yet certain areas of work not directly a matter of idolatry would nevertheless involve supporting idolatry.  Christians were not to make idols, and any new believer insisting he or she had no other means by which to live was to be dismissed from Christian community for being complicit with idolaters (ch. 5).  Tertullian lists other examples of work that persons should not do.  The builder should not construct an idol’s house.  Painters, marble masons, bronze workers, engravers, carvers, and gilders all had jobs that potentially involved complicity with idolatry (ch. 8).  Imagine a builder building a house and being asked to construct an area in the house for the household god, let alone being asked to build a public shrine to a god or goddess.  Another example of a ‘minister of idolatry’ for Tertuallian was a person handing wine to another sacrificing to some god (ch. 17).  Persons can, he argued, engage in work that could in theory expose someone to idolatry if in fact they take care to avoid this.  One might, for example, avoid procuring animals for idol sacrifices or avoid assigning persons to clean temples or oversee tributes given at the temples.  And a person might avoid putting on entertainment related to idolatry.

Tertullian also examined whether a Christian might have anything to do with the military.  While a soldier might be involved in idolatry through oaths and sacrifices--and therefore Christians should have no part in this--he also ruled out any Christian’s involvement in the military because it involved killing (ch. 19).  In another work, On the Crown, Tertullian stated that Christians could not be soldiers because the Lord proclaims that all who use the sword will perish by the sword (ch. 11).  This was not the belief of Tertullian alone in the first three centuries—before the Emperor Constantine encouraged Christian participation in the military.  In fact, the early Church was decided pacifist (see George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service).  Once the Church was accepted and approved, even becoming a majority force within the government’s activities, concerns such as Tertullian’s faded.  Thus began the long era known as Christendom in Europe and the Americas.  Another area where Tertullian found Christians facing a compromise of their faith was in taking loans.  Christians, Tertullian stated, should not borrow money from non-Christians because pledges were made in the name of the pagan gods (On Idolatry, ch. 23).

During the period of Christendom, when the West imagined (it regularly failed) that it lived by Christian rules of justice, Christians took on some activities that no Christian of the first three centuries would have considered options for believers, such as military service.  In the present period of post-Christianity, believers and unbelievers are having to work out new lines and ways of disagreement.  The rules are presently focused on Christian ethics more than Christian faith.  Christians are not being forced to deny Christ and sacrifice a chicken to the Emperor!  But they are finding direct challenges to their moral convictions, including challenges from state and federal governments.

All this is happening at a time when the primary moral virtue championed by the Enlightenment, freedom, is subtly being replaced with a postmodern ethic of tolerance and non-discrimination.  The progression is logical, but also antithetical.  One might, for example, argue that protecting a person’s freedom goes hand in hand with being a tolerant society that discriminates against no one.  That logic existed up until the recent past because of the Enlightenment.  In a postmodern context, however, an ethic of tolerance trumps personal freedom.

So, for example, a ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act’ became federal law in the United States in 1993.  The law restricts laws that ‘substantially burden’ a person’s freedom to act according to his or her religion.  Because the Supreme Court restricted the act to laws that the federal government made, not states,[1] a number of states have passed their own ‘RFRA’ laws.  This week, the state of Indiana became one of a number of states to pass such a law.[2]  The law in Indiana intends to extend the federal law to the state's law (although some have tried to argue that it is different--I do not believe that it is).  The federal law in 1993 was virtually unanimously approved by all parties, but the present Indiana law has been vigorously opposed.  The reason for this opposition is that the Indiana law has been seen as a way in which persons or businesses might refuse services to homosexuals.  So, people might argue, because I do not want to, in Tertullian's words, put on entertainment for a celebration I disapprove of because of my religious convictions, I should not be compelled to do so.

The development from 1993 to 2015 seems to be that freedom has, for many, been replaced by not only tolerance but an activist interpretation of what tolerance entails: persons must tolerate others (actually, certain others).  In such a world, Tertullian’s Christian builder would be required to build pagan temples, or the Christian metal worker or wood worker would be required to fashion idols if customers requested them to do so.  American society is presently asking whether the government should enforce a certain practice of ‘tolerance’ by compelling the baker to bake cakes, the photographer to take pictures, or the florist to prepare flowers for homosexual weddings.

The governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, asks in response to opponents of his state’s new law, ‘Is tolerance a two-way street or not?’  Another way to ask this question is whether individuals have freedom, particularly religious freedom, or whether society can compel persons to act against their convictions in order to ensure a particular practice of tolerance.  In antiquity, Christians were periodically required on pain of death to sacrifice to the emperor.  Many Christians were martyred. Christians also found themselves, as Tertullian explains, having to disengage from various types of jobs because of their Christian convictions.  The similarity today is that Christians are once again having to determine which jobs are not open to them in the wider society and are once again being persecuted for refusing to perform certain acts required by the government to which they are opposed because of their faith.  The difference is that pagan society was protecting its religious tradition against Christians, whereas today religion itself, of any sort and particularly Christian, is viewed as the enemy of the so-called tolerant society.

Another issue arises in the present debate in American society.  The understanding of religion is largely that it is a matter of private belief--like a philosophy--without implications for practice and activities.  The privitization of religion was largely what made the deistic version of American religion work in the public square: people could hold whatever thoughts they wished--even speak about them publicly (freedom of speech), but all that was just a private matter of belief.  This is not, of course, religion--not of any sort.  What Christians are being expected to do in the present climate is to keep their beliefs to themselves while engaging in all the activities of society at large.  However, beliefs are not convictions if they do not make a difference in one's actions and practices.

Just how Christians are to proceed in this climate is complicated.  Yet one thing is clear: compromising our faith is not an option, even if society will not protect our freedom to live according to our convictions and will insist that we perform certain acts against these convictions.  The challenge that we ourselves increasingly face is to begin to sort out what professions are no longer open to believers.  We have lived a cozy life with the larger society and governments for centuries.  In some cases, exceptions to our faith were allowed, even encouraged.  The pressure to make compromises is increasing quickly in a post-Christian society.  Now, the difference between the Christian life and the larger society is increasingly more obvious.  This will—it already has—led to rethinking what it means to be a Christian in such society.

Instead of asking in such a climate, ‘Would it not be better if the President were a Christian?’ we might now find ourselves asking if a president, a commander in chief, can ever be a Christian.  We might begin to discover that views of justice and morality sympathetic to the Christian faith will never receive majority approval in a democracy.  We might ask whether the mission of the minority Christian community is to take the Gospel rather than guns to the world.  We might need to ask whether our jobs are directly or indirectly supporting an agenda that actually opposes the commandments of God.  Can Christian colleges continue to take federal loans and have government work-study programmes if the government forces the colleges to act against their Christian values?  Should Christian counselors mute sharing their Christian convictions in the counseling context lest they be perceived to be abusing the authority they have as counselors?  Can faithful Christian pediatricians join pediatric practices that include doctors who perform abortions?  More and more, Christians are having to realize that their faith limits their options in business in a post-Christian world, and perhaps they will begin to see that what they had deemed acceptable in a pseudo-Christian world really never was an option for Christians in the first place.

Christians may find themselves disagreeing over some of the conclusions reached on these issues.  I, for one, tend to side with Tertullian.  Jesus prayed, 'I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one' (John 17:14-15).  Christians do need to ask how to live according to this prayer, to live in the world but not of the world.  This is particularly important in a climate where even the ethic of freedom championed in the Enlightenment—an ethic that brought some protection—is now undermined by a pro-active ethic of ‘tolerance’ that, ironically, excludes Christian convictions and practices while particular, non-Christian social agendas are advanced.

[1] The case stipulating this was City of Boerne vs. Flores in 1997.
[2] Indiana General Assembly Senate Bill 568.  Online (accessed 30 May, 2015):