Vocational Stewardship

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Temptations of Pathway One

The Temptations of Pathway 1

The temptations in this pathway are two (at least). One might be called pietism; the other, triumphalism. The pietistic temptation emerges when congregants mistakenly define the mission of faith/work integration too narrowly. That is, they seek to be people of integrity on the job, and perhaps attempt to evangelize co-workers, but they do not muse deeply over the work itself. They don’t invest time considering how their work images God in his ongoing providence in creation, or how their work participates in God’s redemptive purposes. They fail to discern how one can bear witness to the missio Dei through one’s work in ways other than placing Christian plaques on the wall or leading Bible studies.

Steve Garber, President of The Washington Institute, tells of bringing some Christians onsite to visit a hamburger restaurant owned by a friend of his. This friend has thought very deeply about how to serve God through his business. He has chosen to adopt some specific policies. Seeking to promote the Kingdom virtue of wholeness, this businessman avoids commercial, grain-fed beef that contains added antibiotics that may have negative health effects. Seeking to promote the Kingdom virtue of creation care, he purchases all his produce locally. The visiting Christians that Steve brought to the restaurant were unable to see this. They could not discern “what was Christian” about this hamburger joint, since the owner wasn’t talking about converting his employees and he didn’t have any Christian literature prominently displayed.

A second temptation in Pathway 1 is triumphalism. This can occur when Christians in their secular workplaces forget the doctrine of common grace—the notion that God has granted degrees of wisdom and insight to nonbelievers and that he can advance his purposes through non-Christian institutions. Triumphalism rears its head when Christians assert that only they can perceive the true, the good, and the beautiful. It surfaces when Christians carelessly use language about “taking” their institution or vocational sector “for Christ.” Such language can cause great consternation among secular colleagues. Triumphalism is revealed when believers fail to be good listeners to people of good will who do not share their Christian faith; when believers are inhospitable towards others’ views.

Academician Kim Phipps, now President of Messiah College, offers practical advice to Christians in her profession on how to avoid triumphalism. She urges scholars to practice “intellectual hospitality.” This involves:

[C]are and concern for the person, and it also necessitates inviting others into conversation, listening without prejudging, and affirming the value of others and their perspectives even when legitimate disagreement exists. Most important, intellectual hospitality involves the virtue of epistemological humility, which roots our openness to the views of others in the recognition that our own mental powers are limited and that the cognitive, experiential, and affective insights of others, especially when they are different from our own, can truly deepen and extend our understanding of others and the world that surrounds us.

This hospitality is not mere relativism and it does not require accepting every scholarly opinion. In fact, Phipps notes, intellectual hospitality requires acknowledgement of legitimate conflict. Christians can and should make rigorous arguments based on a Biblical worldview. The point is to avoid labeling opponents unfairly; breeching civility; refusing to see the image of God in the people who disagree; and lacking the humility to realize that one can learn from others whose views are different. Phipps’ advice for Christian scholars in the often-unfriendly environment of secular academia is, I believe, applicable to Christians in any secular workplace.

Church leaders equip their flock to resist the temptations of pietism and triumphalism when they teach a robust view of faith/work integration and remind their members of God’s common grace. As they celebrate members who are living out vocational stewardship along Pathway 1, they need to affirm a wide range of examples. They need to showcase members who start bible studies at work and those who achieve workplace reforms that advance justice, those who promote employee care, and those who convince their firms to act more “green.” As they exhort congregants to positively influence their fields, they should employ the language of servanthood, not conquest. The idea is to encourage parishioners to be salt, to be seed-sowers, to be secret givers, re-weavers of social fabrics that are torn—to be, in James Davison Hunter’s words, a “faithful presence:”

If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate.

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Pathway 1 Profiles

Mayor Don DeGraff stewards his vocational power in Holland, IL to promote the Kingdom value of unity.

Geoscientist Richard Alley promotes the kingdom value of creation care.