The Faith and Work Movement Stops Short of Class

The faith and work movement in the United States is an important expression of evangelical attempts to reconcile the demands of the modern workplace with the values of the Christian faith. In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, “What Would Jesus Do About Inequality,” Molly Worthen argues that in “today’s evangelicalism, this [movement] is where the theological action is.” The subtitle of her piece asserts that “The faith and work movement wants to bend the gospel back toward economic justice.” But how can a movement that ignores class, power in the workplace, labor ethics, and worker solidarity achieve economic justice?

For many Christians on the left, the gospel simply can’t “bend toward economic justice” if the poor and oppressed are excluded. As the gospel of Luke reminds us, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18, NIV). Any “gospel” that fails to prioritize the poor and oppressed is a false one. But evangelicals, particularly in the United States, have traditionally focused on individuals and the need for salvation from sin through faith, not works. The good news of the gospel is for those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. There is no mention of the poor and oppressed.

But Worthen argues that a “different cast of evangelicals” including pastors, academics, and small-scale entrepreneurs “have built a network of businesses, ministries, media organizations, conference programs, websites, and more than a dozen research centers” to take more seriously “all the ways the Bible challenges the exploitations of our new Gilded Age.” She points to principles laid out by the Denver Institute for Faith & Work, which aim to integrate faith and work. According to the Denver Institute, when this integration occurs, work becomes “good work” through which one can gain a sense of what God’s coming Kingdom will look like. Until that Kingdom arrives, the Institute suggests, the faithful must embrace the call to costly discipleship and justice in which one sacrificially serves “the needs of the poor and marginalized in our work and communities.” Service to others seems to be a welcome reminder of one’s general ethical responsibility. Yet the call to discipleship and justice does not address class-based sources for poverty and marginalization. Without recognizing such structural causes, how can the faith and work movement contain what Worthen calls “important seeds” that have the possibility of “transforming conservative evangelicalism”?

Worthen also highlights the work of Tim Keller, pastor of what she identifies as the headquarters for the movement, New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church and its Center for Faith and Work. She finds Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor (2012) to be a touchstone of the movement. But a closer look reveals that this book is more like kryptonite than a touchstone for workers who might try to use it in their workplaces. In the chapter “A New Compass for Work,” Keller refers to Ephesians 6 to explain how Paul argues that all work should be done “as if you were serving the Lord.” In Ephesians 6:5-7, Paul urges that “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey, them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Keller acknowledges that Paul also teaches that masters should treat slaves in the same way. His disclaimer that slavery in Paul’s time was not race-based and seldom lifelong in character but rather similar to indentured servitude is hardly reassuring. Keller uses Paul’s teaching to suggest that workers should be wholehearted in their work. They should not perform just the minimum work necessary or work hard only when supervisors are around to watch. Since Christians work for the Lord and not men, Keller explains, their reward is an inheritance from God. As such, work “does not have to be unduly tied to the amount of reward that they get from their masters.” Thus, he argues, Christians “have been set free to enjoy working.”

This claim shows the naivete of Keller and other adherents of the faith and work movement. Enjoying one’s work while subject to wage theft, safety violations, speed ups, and threats of outsourcing is impossible. Such power inequality on the job is a class matter. The absence of workers’ voices in the faith and work movement renders it irrelevant, because it does not account for what workers actually endure on a daily basis. A reckoning with the experiences of actual workers would help the movement unpack a term like “inequality” into identifiable issues that they could then address with specificity. Inequality on the job is not only about pay but includes all the ways that workers are diminished and marginalized.

Keller’s uncritical advocacy of the work ethic is problematic enough. But the union of workplace authority and divine authority that reinforces this work ethic also undercuts the possibility for class-based resistance. Based on this “touchstone” of the faith and work movement, it is hard to imagine an alternative labor ethic that would advocate the authority of workers themselves to create the conditions that shape their day-to-day work life.  Indeed, the faith and work movement stops short of its promise and offers no tools to bend the gospel back toward economic justice. The movement features a number of nation-wide networks that convene conferences, offer seminars, host webinars, and provide resources to pastors and lay leaders. But it is disconnected from actual worker struggles and labor advocacy. It prioritizes “faith” and has a deracinated view of work.

One has to wonder whether movement leaders wish to tie the gospel ever more tightly to its capitalist masters and throw justice overboard as just so much flotsam. The movement in its current incarnation, as well as its earlier ones, is simply unable to free itself from its mooring in neoliberal economic practices.

It is hardly a consolation that Keller was one of the few white evangelical leaders who did not support Trump. After all, even Mark Galli’s valiant editorial in Christianity Today that “Trump Should be Removed from Office” was not based on essential ideological differences with the direction the President wishes to take. In a follow-up article, “The Flag in the Whirlwind: An Update from CT’s President,” Timothy Dalrymple defended Galli and the clarified the magazine’s position in the ensuing controversy. He emphasizes that the magazine is theologically conservative, pro-life, pro-family, and “firm supporters” of religious liberties. He also writes that it supports “economic opportunity for men and women to exercise their gifts and create value in the world.” Phrases like “economic opportunity” and “creating value” reflect a free market ideology.

In sum, the faith and work movement has other work to do, including addressing the deeper questions that its younger adherents are asking about issues such as immigration, LGBTQ rights, and climate change, as Worthen rightly notes. Such issues profoundly shape the workplace and what occurs in a workday. The movement would do well to incorporate these concerns to address a new generation of evangelicals. But it cannot even hope to contemplate solving its core issue of inequality if it ignores essential questions about class and the voices of workers.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College


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