Justice and Fairness in the Workplace

Now let’s turn to the big picture of “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).  We have a big problem in this country with income inequality.  We have all seen the statistics that compare executive pay to the lowly wages of the worker bees.  And I will not belabor the point except to summarize that the low end of the economic food chain in this country is grossly underpaid compared to what they contribute.  Free-market capitalism in our wage structure – that is, paying the lowest wage possible that the market will support to hire my workers – is one of the principle drivers of this inequality.

But the biblical position is not free-market capitalism in the wage structure, it is treating workers with justice and fairness.  As believers, we should be supporting wage scales that people can live on.  Wages that can support a family.  Wages that reflect workers sharing in the harvest.

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10, “It is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.”

Today’s workers are not sharing in the harvest.  Instead they are captive to a market-driven pay scale.  What do I mean by market-driven pay?  Let me give you a story from my own work experience.

Several years ago, in the days of top secret salaries, a new coworker of mine who had just joined the company leaked the fact that he was making about $10,000 per year more than I was.  His work experience was actually a little less than mine, so it caused some angst on my part.  I approached my boss about the income disparity.  My supervisor was very straight-forward, “Jay, we can pay you less because you are already here.  We have to pay the other guy more to get him to leave his former employer.”

This is market-driven wages.  There was no thought for fairness.  There was no concern for loyalty.  There was no consideration for the fact that I had discovered millions of dollars of oil and gas for the company without sharing in the harvest.  Now, I am not sharing this story for your sympathy.  I am well-paid and we have been blessed to raise a family of five children on my salary.  I am sharing this to illustrate the concept.  And its implementation is more painful the farther we go down the wage scale.

I have also observed this corollary to market-driven wages in the workplace.  A market downturn causes a company to lay off workers.  The remaining employees start working 50 and 60 hour weeks to keep the company afloat.  The message from management to the overworked staff is “just be grateful you still have a job.”  Then, when things turn around and the market improves, the company realizes that they can maximize their profits in the rising market by not hiring the new workers they need but just keep riding their current employees to keep working harder.  It is not a picture of justice and fairness.

Or how about the current minimum wage discussion.  When I was in college, I worked a minimum wage job as a groundskeeper.  By my last year in school, the minimum wage was $2.65/hr.  It sounds pretty small now.  But by comparison, my college costs (tuition and room and board) were around $2500/year.  Now the comparable college cost in 2015 at a four-year public school like I attended is about $19,000/year, a 660% increase.  So maybe we should increase the current minimum wage to a 660% of the $2.65 that I was making then so that college students could actually afford to pay for their education.  Oh by the way, that would be a minimum wage of $20.14/hr, a far cry above the current and dismal wage of $7.25/hr.

Because of our marriage of American-style capitalism with American-style Christianity, I think we sometimes fear association with the liberal camp if we support increased wages for workers.  But this is not a liberal vs. conservative issue.  This is a justice and fairness issue.  And the Bible makes it quite clear where we are to land.

With Justice and Fairness

“Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).  Our last post covered the responsibility of workers to do their work heartily.  Today, we look at the flip side; the responsibility of employers to treat their employees with justice and fairness.

In our rush to join American-style capitalism with American-style Christianity, we are quick to defend a business’s right to maximize their profit.  We are quick to point out the requirement that “he who doesn’t work, shouldn’t eat”, highlighting the need for a diligent workforce.  But the responsibility to treat the workforce with justice and fairness may be one of the most overlooked teachings in the New Testament.  There is a big picture aspect to this question that we will tackle later.  But for now, let’s focus on the individual application.

We all are employers on some level.  You may own a business with a large staff.  You may be a homemaker who hires house-cleaning help or a lawn service.  Or it may be as simple as paying someone to cut your hair or babysit your kids.  The point is that we all have opportunity to treat those who serve us with justice and fairness.

Somewhere along that line, we have gotten the idea that the Christian goal is to pay as little as possible for these services.  But does that really fit the justice and fairness admonition?  I am not saying we should overpay for poor service or inferior products.  But there is also no reason to think that we always have to “win” the bargaining game.  It is somewhat of a zero-sum situation.  If I always have to “win”, then someone else is most likely “losing”.

Businesses are not in business to give their stuff away below cost.  Service providers are not in business to take home as little pay as possible.  As believers, we have a responsibility to pay what is fair.  Do you agree?  Or do you think that there is no moral imperative to how much we pay for our services?

Now this is not about being wasteful with your cash.  This is not an endorsement for spending above your income.  Each of us has a personal financial limitation and as we view our supply as being God’s gift and choice, we also hold it as God’s tool to be used to honor Him.

Ask yourself if God’s Word is giving you something new to consider.  Because in the area of paying those who serve us, there is a danger to let market forces – what is the absolute least I can pay in this market for this service – override our biblical responsibility to treat those who serve us with justice and fairness.

Do Your Work Heartily

Let’s look back for a minute on our tour through the book of Colossians.  We started in chapter 2 where the apostle Paul warns us “not to be taken captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col 2:8).  We learned that one of these deceptions is the “empty religion” of legalism where “self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body have the appearance of wisdom, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col 2:23).

Continuing into chapter 3, the apostle explains that living the Christian life, defeating the flesh, is all about living into our new identity in Christ.  It is seeing our old man crucified at the cross and putting on the new man who carries within him the attributes of “a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness…and above all love, the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:12-14).

Then Paul goes into specific examples of what living into a life of love looks like in our relationships; wives, husbands, children, and fathers.  Today, we come to what love looks like in the workplace.  “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col 3:22).

This verse is not a biblical support of slavery.  Rather, Paul was working within the parameters of his time.  Today, we take its principles to apply to our employment.  We are to work under our earthly authorities in a sincerity that pleases the Lord.  We are to work in a manner that would be acceptable to the Lord were He our immediate supervisor.  Paul expands on this idea in the next verse.

“Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.  It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:23-24).  What does our work life look like when we are working “heartily, as for the Lord”?

I can think of at least four principles that color our work with godliness.  First, we work to provide for our families.  “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (I Tim 5:8).  Second, we work to redirect wealth from the world’s system to God’s purposes.  Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.”  Third, we work to display excellence, as evidenced in today’s verses in Colossians chapter 3.  Fourth, we work to represent Jesus Christ to the world.  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:13-16).

I have written on these four principles before and you can explore them in much more detail in this set of previous posts.  As in all things related to the Christian life, our attitudes and actions in the workplace are to be a reflection of who we are in Christ.  May you approach your work today as an expression of the heart of Christ that indwells you.

Fathers and Exasperation

The final verse in our short passage from last time reads, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart” (Col 3:21).  The parallel passage in Ephesians 6 exhorts fathers, “Do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).

It is a sad observation that the role of fathers exasperating our children is an easy one to fall into.  I have been there myself.  It is also a sad fact of fatherhood that many of us dads park on the discipline and control part of parenting while we seem to overlook the “don’t exasperate your kids or provoke them to anger.”  How do we exasperate our children?

We exasperate our kids when…we punish for childish irresponsibility.  James Dobson, in his original The Strong-Willed Child, drew an important distinction between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance.  In short, we do not punish a child for leaving their baseball glove out in the rain or placing their glass of milk too close to the edge of the table.  These acts are simply part of being a child, part of the “not thinking ahead” of being a child.  We teach responsible action to children through various means, but punishment is not one of them.

Willful defiance is another story.  This is crossing the line when a child clearly knows it is wrong.  This is refusing to pick up their toys.  This is choosing to outright disobey when they know the rules or what is expected.  Willful defiance must be answered with discipline.  It breaks the will of a child without destroying the spirit.  It teaches children about self-control; about doing the right thing whether they feel like it or not.

We exasperate our kids when…we demand perfection.  When we require perfection, we send the message, whether intentional or not, that you must perform at some level of accomplishment to earn my love, my pat on the back, my acceptance.  Communicating an expectation of perfection is a relationship killer with your kids.  Do we want them to do their best?  Of course.  But just be aware of the wide gap that may exist between their best and our perfection expectations.

We exasperate our kids when…our first answer is always “No”.  This was a challenge for me in the early days of our child training.  And what I realized is that I usually said “No” because it was the easy answer.  No thinking or evaluating was required on my part.  It was the response of a lazy father.  I have also found that it is easy to say “No” when we don’t have a plan.  When you approach your parenting with a godly well thought out plan, it becomes easier to respond with thoughtfulness and grace rather than a natural knee-jerk reaction of “No”.

At our house, Rhonda and I put a new plan into action.  We tried to make our first answer “Yes” if at all possible.  If there was a glimmer of hope as to this working out, if there was a possibility of this moving forward, if there was some idea of this building up our relationship, we said “Yes”.  You will have to ask our kids how this turned out.

We exasperate our kids when…we fail to lead with love.  In pursuing the goal of being a loving father, I must convey two messages to my children.  First, “I love you.  I love you more than you can know.  You can never lose my love.  You can’t do anything to cause me to withhold my love.  I would choose you over all the other eight-year-olds in the world.  I love you.”  Second, “I am in charge.  I am in control.  I demonstrate my love by taking charge.  God has put me in charge.  I am in charge because I am the mature one.  I love you and I am in charge.”

In summary, we exasperate our kids when…we have no plan.  We fly off the handle with anger or unwarranted punishment because someone upsets us and we have no thought out plan that distinguishes between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance.  We have no plan for the evening or weekend, but we answer their suggestions with “No” out of convenience or laziness.  We have no plan to develop a relationship with our children, so we keep our words of encouragement to ourselves.  After all, we would not want our kids to get a big head.  Oh really?

I’m sorry, but I want my kids to have a giant head filled with compliments, encouragement, instruction, and great memories of the relationship we have built.  The world will do a fine job of tearing them down.  They need to know that we are in their corner.  They need us there spurring them on to love and good deeds; spurring them on in the “training and instruction of the Lord.”  And in the end we will find a close relationship built on love rather than an emotional separation built by our exasperating approach to being a father.

At Home with a Life of Love

Continuing our Colossians chapter 3 theme of a life of love, we come now to what love looks like in family relationships.  “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives, and do not be embittered against them.  Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord.  Fathers, do not exasperated your children, that they may not lose heart” (Col 3:18-21).

These instructions are not a random list of one-off ideas assigned to four groups of people.  They are designed to work together, to work in unison to provide balance in a healthy family.  For example, a focus on “wives be subject to…” without the balance of “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25) leads to a distorted view of headship.  It leads to using the Bible to support an ugly, domineering, version of male authority.  Male headship without unconditional love has no support in Scripture.

Wives practice a life of love when they show, in tangible ways, respect toward their husbands.  When they encourage their husband.  When they speak highly of their husband.  When they honor their husband.

Likewise, husbands practice a life of love when they love, lead, and protect just as Christ does with His bride, the church.  It is a love that is unlimited and unconditional.  Husbands, there is no competition between loving your wife and loving God.  We show in a very practical way that we love God by how we love our wives.  Loving God and loving our wives are not two separate circles that we are always having to figure out how to prioritize.  Loving our wives lies in the big circle of loving God.

Moving to children and parents, our goal in child-training is to motivate our children to obey us out of a love relationship and see our kids transfer that into obeying God out of a love relationship as they mature.  When our kids are young, we teach them to obey the rules because that is what is required.  We enforce the rules with threats of punishment for bad behavior and the promise of rewards for good conduct.

But as our children grow up, our interaction over the rules becomes more influenced by our love relationship with them.  When we see that developing a relationship with our child is just as important as rules of control,  we set the stage for a healthy transition to obedience out of love.  After all, this is the eventual goal for the adult believer.  Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15).

Our proper obedience to our Lord is based on a love relationship, not rules of control.  God did not say, “If you know all the rules, you will obey.  If the rules are clear, you will obey.  If you work harder, you will obey.  If the threat of punishment is strong enough, you will obey.”  No, He said, “If you love me, you will obey.”  And this obedience on our part, just like the child obedience described in our Colossians 3 passage, “is well-pleasing to the Lord.”

Well, we have run out of time with one verse to go.  Since fathers and exasperation is a connection that needs some explanation and understanding, we will try to give it the time and space it is due next post.