THE CHRISTIAN IN PRACTICE
An edited version of a Paper read at the ACPA Conference in Manchester
on 19 April 1997
Firstly because it is a creation ordinance, as the great cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28, 'Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it'. Because we are made in the image of a creator God. Then God said, 'Let us make man in our own image and in our own likeness and let them rule over...all the earth...' and 'God saw all that He had made and it was very good' (Gen. 1:26,31).
This is reflected in the fourth Commandment, 'Six days you shall labour and do all your work...' (Ex. 20:9).
Secondly in order to provide for ourselves and those dependent upon us. 'If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever' (1 Tim. 5:8).
Thirdly so that we may give. Ephesians 4:28, 'He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need'.
Fourthly to serve the community and be salt and light within it (Mt. 5:16).
Fifthly, to serve and worship God, encompassing all the other reasons. 'Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men' (Col. 3:23).
However, we do well to remember that we live in a world marred by the fall and, as the farmer sweats to remove thorns and thistles, we sweat with awkward local authority officials, difficult or impecunious clients, incompetent and claims-happy contractors, and a work flow with high peaks and deep troughs.
How are we to work?
We are to work wholeheartedly: 'whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might' (Eccles. 9:10). Paul says in his first letter to the Thessalonians, 'Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and that you will not be dependent on anybody' (1Thess. 1:11).
Sir Fred Catherwood writes,
'It would be fair to deduce that it is the duty of the Christian to use his abilities to the limit of his physical and mental capacity. He cannot relax as soon as he has enough money or as soon as he has mastered his job. He has a duty to train himself and develop his abilities, both academically and experimentally, to the limit that his other responsibilities allow. When he has mastered one job, he should go on to another. He should not be content to administer, but should try to improve and innovate. He should not stop until it is quite clear he has reached his ceiling'
The Protestant work ethic has very regularly been to the forefront of innovation. Recently I had a holiday in Ironbridge and there, in the 18th century, the Quaker Darbys led the world with technological innovation. In the 1820s Manchester was the world centre of industrial innovation and many of those involved, particularly the immigrant Scots, whilst not necessarily themselves Christians, had been much influenced by biblical teaching, not least in Scottish kirks schools, and they continued to work long after there was economic necessity for them to do so. It tended to be the second and third generations who, having inherited the businesses and money, retired to country seats in the south.
Why work at a particular job?
The Reformers gave great emphasis to the fact that each person's labour is a divine vocation or calling. Calvin said, '...to prevent universal confusion...he has appointed to all their particular duties in different spheres of life...every individual's line of life therefore is as it were a post assigned him by the Lord'.
How do we find our vocation?
By prayerfully considering the skills and aptitudes we have, the opportunities available, the needs there are, and by taking advice from family, Christian leaders, friends and professional career advisers. The Puritan Richard Baxter said that: 'All employments which contribute to the public good are lawful, but those which contribute most are the best'.
A word about working together
One of the concerns that motivated the conference at which this paper was read was that at a previous conference with a similar title a few years ago, almost all the participants appeared to be solo practitioners. Why was that so? Is it that we are not good at working with others? Is it that it is more 'comfy' on one's own - no need to bother what anybody else thinks? Is it that it is more profitable? In some niche markets it may be, but there are, I suggest, weaknesses in the one-man band from a Christian point of view, in that there are likely to be far less opportunities to be involved at the forefront of what is going on, with consequently less influence in the industry, the profession and the community.
It is not always easy to work with other people: not always easy to work with other Christians. We have huge differences in temperament; we differ politically from each other, from those whose views are very much to the left to those whose views are very much to the right; we differ in denominational affiliation, type of worship we prefer, and on issues such as the place of charismatic gifts in a 20th century church - but we have an underlying common faith in our Lord and, with the paramount example of the work of the Trinity in creation and redemption, we certainly should be able to work together.
A Christian Business?
There are several different approaches to running a Christian-led business. I have tried to identify these, caricaturing them as
'Monastic or Covenant', owned and run by a Christian community for its members, possibly to provide jobs for community members who may not otherwise have them - the Jesus Fellowship businesses, including an architectural practice, fall into this category;
'Co-operative', owned and run by those who work there;
'Charitable', possibly set up to provide employment for those who might otherwise be unemployed, or to provide services to a specific community, club or disadvantaged group - but like that the description 'non-profit making' may be misleading as few architectural practices make much more than reasonable salaries;
'Pietistic', a totally Christian environment and tending to work for Christian clients;
'Reformed', with an emphasis on vocation and doing the job to a high standard, initially owned and controlled by Christians but staff appointed on ability and not necessarily Christians, thus growth often results in the need for Christians to share leadership with non-Christians, but maintaining a Christian ethos - the accountants Neville Russell with 19 UK offices are an outstanding example;
'Brethren', run to provide money and allow time for church work;
'Full Gospel', charismatic and possibly tending towards 'prosperity' teaching, probably a member of a Full Gospel Businessmen's Chapter;
'Missionary', working within the context of overseas mission - Hydroconsult, the hydroelectric consulting engineers in Nepal are an outstanding example;
'Incidental', where there are Christian directors or partners but there is little material difference from a secular practice of integrity, and faith is seen as personal, as opposed to giving a collective and directional Christian approach.
Many Christian-led businesses will not fall neatly into one of the above categories but will exhibit characteristics from several.
I do want to stress that I am not saying that one approach is necessarily the best on all or any occasions. There is, I believe, room for different approaches; it is where the Lord wants us at a particular time. Nor do I think that it is necessarily better to work in a Christian-led business than in secular-led business. Many Christians are partners and directors in secular practices. Many of those practices exhibit the highest integrity and produce work of the highest calibre. A Christian witness within them is very important and the opportunities for Christian influence are considerable, sometimes far more than in a small 'Christian' practice.
The Allocation of Time
In a leadership position in any profession, we are likely to face the intensely difficult matter of reconciling the competing claims for our time and energy. There is little doubt that if one is going to excel in one's chosen field, it is going to take an enormous amount of time and energy, not just in actually doing the work, but also in continuing education, research and playing a part in professional organisations.
To get to and continue at partner or director level in most practices is likely to involve a heavy commitment. This may not be compatible with a Christian lifestyle, Christian ministry or being a Christian homemaker - father or mother.
One of my heroes since student days has been Sir John Laing, who brought a provincial family business to be a major national contractor. He is said to have lived very modestly indeed, given away large sums of money, and given a great amount of time to church work. In running some businesses it may be possible to take a large amount of time out for church work, but I think this is the exception rather than the rule. The type of work that I am doing, which is mainly in the forensic field and trying to raise the profile of the practice, is immensely labour-intensive and very difficult to delegate. I have to say that there is no way that I could do the work that I am presently doing if I had a young family - and I do from time to time have to urge some of my younger colleagues to give more prime time to spouse and children. It is no use being so successful in business that it wrecks your home and family life.
We all have commitments to our church fellowships and we should be cautious that our business commitments do not mean that we are 'passengers' in our church. Whilst we believe in the priesthood of all believers, some further words from Catherwood are worth pondering:
'A Christian who is not called to the ministry should ask, what is God's purpose in life for individual members of the Christian Church? Is it to imitate on a smaller scale and part time the work of the minister, or is it something separate and different...if we have gifts as evangelists and teachers, why should we not use them full time?
The teaching of the Bible on the function of the laity would appear to be much more positive. The Church is here to glorify God before an unbelieving world while living the kind of life which God intended us to live. It must do what God intended everyone to do. It is clear from the passages quoted that we were intended to control and put to use the untamed resources of the world. To this end we were given powers of intellect and organisation. The Christian does not work to earn a living; he or she works because God intended that he or she should use the gifts He has given them for the fulfilment of a divine purpose'.
This view is directly opposite to that of the Chinese Christian leader, Watchman Nee, for whom I have a lot of respect, but whose teaching on vocation is not, I suggest, appropriate to most Christians in professional vocations:
'As soon as a medical doctor becomes a Christian, medicine recedes from being his vocation to being his avocation. So it will be for the engineer. The Lord's demand occupies the first priority; serving God becomes the major job. Should the Lord permit, I can do some medical or engineering work to maintain a living, but I will not be able to make either of them my life work.'
My view is that different Christians are called to different ministries, and for some it is entirely right to see one's 'tent making' as a means of financing a ministry with the primary tasks being evangelism and ministry. I am sure that some people are called to that type of work. I know a solicitor who turned down an invitation to become a partner in a good practice, partly on the grounds of the unequal yoke with someone who was not a Christian, but, more particularly, on the grounds of not wishing to undertake the heavy commitments that a partnership would involve, as these would impinge on his Bible-teaching ministry. I very much respect that view but I am less enthusiastic about a partner in a national practice who resigned in order to work from home as a solo practitioner, in order to avoid the pressures of the big practice. It may be that his quality of life is better - I am sure it is - but it also seems to me that he may have gone down a backwater.
I am also slightly concerned about Christian principals who see their practices as primarily providers of the money needed to allow them to get on with 'Christian' work. Whilst there is no doubt that the Lord often blesses this approach by bringing in the type of work that produces good money easily, and the work is almost always done competently, these are not always practices which would be considered outstanding by fellow professionals. This approach also views involvement in professional bodies as a waste of time. There are more important things than the professional bodies whose dinners are often noted for coarse humour, but this will continue to be so long as Christian professionals do not get involved. There is one professional body known to me which specifically instructs speakers at its dinners that it will not accept coarse humour, and that has come about through Christian influence - a triviality, but society is changed through millions of apparently trivial grains of salt.
Having made these points it is for each of us to find our own vocation and to seek that balance between commitment to work, church and family which is right for us at a particular moment in time, and this is something which is likely to change over the years.
The Christian Sabbath
There is however one aspect which I believe should be universally observed by Christians and that is to keep Sunday entirely separate from work. I think there is little doubt that but for the decision made as a young Christian not to work on Sunday, I would have ended up being a seven day a week worker, which I really do believe is injurious to health. If we cannot fit our work into six days we really are trying to do too much.
What factors undermine a Christian practice?
I suggest four, the first three of which are also common to any secular practice:
1. Greed. It is difficult to plough money into people and equipment if partners are looking for short-term profit. Another consequence of greed is that there is little incentive to bring in new partners because this only cuts the cake into smaller slices. The Bible says, 'If riches increase, set not your heart on them' (Ps. 62:10). 'Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions' (Lk. 12:15).What should be the marks of a Christian business?
2. Lack of Succession. If you have several people coming to retiring age at the same time, you are in difficulties. They want to take their money out and it isn't there, so they are looking for new partners to bring it in, and no one is interested. Succession needs planning and it needs generosity to assist able young people into leadership roles. I have seen top flight practices disappear because greed did not allow succession to be properly considered, because the partners wanted thick slices of cream cake. How short-sighted some of them were!
3. Lack of vision. We all know that 'where there is no vision the people perish' (Prov. 29:18 AV). It is equally true of a practice that where there is no vision the practice will perish. I can think of what was a respected Christian practice which has all but dwindled to nothing because of lack of vision and succession. Vision statements and business plans are vital, but with the proviso that one must always be ready for the providential opportunity, for the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
4. An unbalanced reliance on prayer and providence. Of course we believe in prayer and in providence. We pray as though it all depended on our prayers, and so in one sense it does. We go about our business believing that it is all within the providence of God, and so it is. But this reliance on prayer and providence must be coupled with the diligence and professionalism, the commitment and slog, as if it all depended on us, which in another sense it does. Here is yet one more of the antinomies of the Christian life, apparent contradictions which we hold in tension, the divinity and the humanity of Jesus, evangelism and the sovereignty of God, prayer and providence on the one hand and hard work on the other.
I suggest the following:
1. A business pervaded by prayer and a sense of God's providence.Running a business is rarely easy. As was explained at the conference at which this paper was originally read, anyone who embarks on running a business is likely to be in for sweat and tears, and a successful Christian business is also likely to attract Satan's interest, but if the Lord calls you to run a practice set your sights high and 'Go for it'.
2. A positive influence for good within the industry, profession and community.
3. The provision of a quality, value for money, service.
4. A concern for excellence and innovation.
5. Reliability and fair to do business with.
6. A good place to work, where everyone is encouraged to develop their potential.
7. The ability to be tough when required to be so. One of the strongest industrial clients that I have worked for, and yet one who was invariably gracious and fair, was a Christian. It is important to remember both the goodness and severity of God and to be able, when it is necessary to do so, to say, 'No, we will not do that'; or 'This work will not do'; or 'It is not appropriate that you work here', and yet to balance this with mercy and compassion.
From ACPA Newsletter No. 29, Summer 1997
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