Christian Conscience and the Secular Workplace

I had the following question from a reader [edited to make the person less identifiable, and posted with permission]:

I've been following your blog for a few months now, and I've found your posts thoughtful and gracious. Thanks for the time you put into it.

I wanted to take a minute and ask you for a line or two of your advice. I was a teacher myself for many years and realize how precious free time can be, so however brief of a response you can afford is appreciated.

Several years ago I made the transition from a more explicit ministry role to a role in the technology/media industry. I had been teaching computing for some time, was starting a family, and the financial penny eventually dropped. So I took a conversion course and made the change. My current job I view primarily as a way of supporting my role in theological education and as a part-time pastor.

The trouble is, along with the secular workplace come certain ethical grays that I hadn't been accustomed to dealing with. Seeing as you work in a secular university, I wondered if you had any thoughts on this.

For example, the net ethical consequences of the technology I work on is still TBD.  [...]  More immediately, our company provides access to an array of films, some of which are of some value, others of which are in direct opposition to the Christian values I espouse and preach.

I do have a degree of influence in the company, and have been able to steer the direction in certain positive ways during my time there. But the fact remains that impacting the nature of the entertainment industry, or influencing the ultimate societal impact of certain technologies is beyond the scope of my influence. So I will inevitably find myself earning a paycheck resulting from the promotion of certain materials that have to do with darkness rather than light.

Do I leave and protect my conscience, or remain and seek to be a light, however dimmed by the surroundings?


[I wrote back something like the following:]

Peace of Christ to you as well.

It's good that you're carefully thinking through the moral consequences of your job.  I'm not going to pretend that there are always easy answers to these questions.  But maybe I can say a few things that will encourage you in your present circumstances.

1.  Jesus said we were to be "in the world, but not of the world".  It's sounds to me like you're wrestling here more with the "in" part than the "of" part.

Obviously, Christians should not directly endorse or commit acts which they think are sinful.  But when it comes to more indirect forms of enablement, I think that the Spirit of God actually leads different people to adopt different strategies, depending on the individual person.  Some Christians are called to serve God within explicitly Christian sub-communities with a relatively high degree of autonomy from secular culture, while others are called to immerse themselves within a secular culture and be salt and light there.

This isn't moral relativism.  The reason different Christians are called to different positions in society, is that it's a question of different talents and tactics; not a question of who you stand for, which always stays the same.  (There are a variety of gifts, but just one Spirit.)

2.  And sometimes, God moves people from one of these lifestyles to the other one; in other words he can call you to take different strategies at different times in your life.  St. Paul the Apostle was no stranger to this feeling of disorientation.  As he described his experience in 1 Cor 9:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

There may be some shock of transition, in that if you started off with the "Christian sub-culture" approach, you might feel like you are compromising yourself by being involved with people or things that seem unclean to you.  (Like Peter's reaction to the sheet from heaven.)  And perhaps several of these things really are unclean, and you can't endorse them in your mind; but sometimes it's hard to separate yourself (in an external sense) from those things, without also rejecting the people involved.  That's why it's a judgement call.

The important thing is that you remain faithful to him in whatever situation he's called you to.  If you have heart-righteousness, you can't be compromised by any amount of indecency around you.  This is what St. Paul the apostle called having a "strong" faith in Romans 14-15.

No seriously, you can't be compromised by it if your heart is right.  Not if you have the kind of "innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents" character that Jesus is calling you to have.  And if you don't have that character yet, ask him for it.  He might allow you to make some mistakes along the way that are part of the learning process, but he will be faithful to you in whatever situation he's placed you into, if you place your trust in him.

3.  When I was about 6 years old, I was attending a Baptist school in Los Angeles, and I recall that they had a kids concert where my older sister helped to perform the following "Input / Output" song:

It's cute and catchy, but I think it fundamentally contradicts Jesus teaching in Matthew 15:10-20.  Jesus says that it isn't the inputs into our life that cause us to sin, but rather the outputs (which come from our heart).  Human beings are not robots, who are mechanically controlled by our programming and data.  Attempts by Christian parents and leaders to create a "safe" environment that prevents children from ever being exposed to evil, can ironically be motivated by an almost Marxist view, where the spirit of a person is controlled by their material circumstances.  So they think that, in order to change people, you have to control them externally, rather than inspiring them from within.

It's a fear-based system (what will happen to the kids if they hear about this idea?) rather than a faith-based system.

4.  In the Old Covenant, when a ceremonially unclean object touched a clean thing, the clean thing became unclean (Haggai 2:10-14).  But in the New Covenant, there is something so perfectly clean, that when it touches an unclean thing, it is the unclean thing that becomes clean, without contaminating the clean thing (Matthew 8:1-4)!  In other words, in the Old Testament, uncleanness was contagious, but in the New Testament, cleanness is contagious, because Jesus has the power to make people clean.  And he lives inside of each Christian.  If you love as he loved, then you will be like that too.

That's why Jesus uses yeast (a reproducing organism) as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels.  (Even though in the Old Testament Passover ritual, yeast had previously been used as a metaphor for sin, again because of its contagiousness.)

The reason uncleanness was contagious in the Old Covenant was that there hadn't yet come into the world a powerful enough love and light and disinfectant to fully cleanse our sin.  So God gave Israel some quarantine rules, as a temporary measure, until Christ entered the world to save it.  But after Christ came, these quarantine rules were no longer so necessary.

That's why Jesus went to dinner parties with prostitutes and tax collectors.  You can be pretty sure that some stuff happened at those parties that you and I would not approve of.  But the Son of Man went to them anyways, to seek and save that which was lost.

Like I said, some people are called to live in Christian sub-cultures, and I'm not in any way trying to minimize or disrespect that choice, since it works well for many people.  But sometimes people conceive of such subcultures wrongly, as a place where we can go to avoid temptations.  But that's just not possible in this life!  A Christian sub-culture just exposes you to a different set of possible temptations.  (Such as the temptation to slap the word "Christian" on schools or music, and assume they've just been redeemed, even though nothing in people's hearts is any different than what happens outside in the "world".)

Don't get me wrong, an unclean thing can still infect you today, if you turn from Christ and your heart lusts after it.  Christians must keep themselves pure from worldly desires (James 4:4, Rev 18:4).  Yet Jesus taught his apostles that the dividing line of purity has to be in the heart, not in walls of separation from other people.  As the famous quotation from St. Solzhenitsyn goes:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.

If you work in a secular environment, there may be tendencies for it to look a little bit like Romans chapter 1.  But if you work in a churchy environment, there will be temptations for you to become like Romans chapter 2; and these temptations can sometimes be very subtle, difficult to avoid, and encouraged by the community.  Neither way looks very much like Romans chapter 8, which is where we ought to be living.  If so, we can triumphantly say:

"For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor [secular culture nor religious culture], shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

5. Your metaphor of "light dimmed by the surroundings" is not really sound.  Darkness is just the absence of light, and hence it has no inherent power of its own to overcome light (John 1:5).

This is certainly true for literal light.  Darkness is not a substance.  There is no such thing as a "dark flashlight" which can emit darkness the way a normal flashlight produces light.  Only if the light is concealed or blocked by an opaque object (so that the light doesn't reach whatever spot you are looking at) can there be darkness somewhere.  And even when the light is blocked by a solid object, it still shines on whatever object is blocking it, and illuminates it.

The light of God is truth.  Do you believe that truth is more powerful than lies?  Do you really believe it?

6.  Reread the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matt 13:24-30.

Part of the point of this story is that no person is smart enough to separate the wheat from the tares; at least, not right now at this stage in history.  (The separation is coming, but this has to wait for the final judgment, when both plants have reached their full maturity.)

You might think you know which movies are "wheat" and which ones are "tares", but art is a funny thing because it can speak to people's hearts in ways that aren't entirely predictable.  It is good that there exist stories of every possible sort, since they enlarge the range of our thinking about the world.

Most of the divines of St. William Shakespeare's day thought it was a sin to attend theatrical performances, because of their ribaldry and because it distracted people from more noble endeavors, but today he is considered "high culture".  Can you imagine where the English language would be, without Hamlet and his other plays?  We can all express our thoughts more vividly, because he existed.

One certainly cannot judge the spiritual value of a work by applying superficial "content filters" (e.g. if the movie depicts adultery or swearing or smoking or gang warfare or alternative sexualities, then it is bad; if it avoids all this stuff and also has an uplifting overall message, then it is good).

There are some deeply spiritual and moral works of literature which portray people committing crimes or serious sins, but they are still wholesome precisely because they shine a light on how this actually affects real people.  As a result of seeing these consequences more clearly, people can be inspired to turn away from destructive actions before they ruin their lives.  Indeed, in some ways it's especially important to have stories portraying sinful deeds, since that's the only possible way for us to learn about sin, without having to actually commit it.

Then there are films and novels that are deeply anti-Christian in their outlook (I'm not talking about straight up XXX pornography here, but rather works which have some artistic merits, but also glorify ungodly values).   Even so, that doesn't automatically imply that it is only bad for the world that they exist.  It could well be that some of these stories help the discerning to see something new about the world, and some might even be the instrument of somebody's conversion to Christ!  After all, I don't think any work can have much artistic value if it doesn't resonate with some important truth about the world (even if that truth might be mixed with lies, in a way that is a trap for the unwary).  And to the extent a work of fiction resonates with any truth, it reveals something about God who is the Truth—even if the person who wrote it is an atheist and never intended for that to happen.

Conversely, a studio which makes a film that is "clean" and "Christian" might still be creating a work with very little artistic value.  Because artistic value is closely connected to truth, this implies that it is (to some degree) telling lies about what humans are like, and what real virtue and vice look like.  Such fiction specializes in equipping people to see the world in an immature and unrealistic manner.  There's a whole Christian film industry which specializes in this type of glop.  (Of course there are also some great Christian films like Chariots of Fire.)

So maybe some of the works which seem to us like "wheat" are actually "tares", or vice versa!  It's not really our place to judge.  (Of course it is fine to judge for yourself what seems spiritually/artistically good, for purposes of deciding what you will watch, or make, or recommend to your friends!  What I mean by "not judging" is more that if somebody else makes something on your platform, and then somebody else enjoys it, you aren't necessarily in a good position to know whether it will have been good or bad for them, in the long run.)

7.  Suppose now that you are a creator of technology.  You can foresee that this technology will be used to produce both good things and bad things.  Some will use it to become more virtuous, while others will use it to sin.  What should you do?

It seems to me you have a pretty obvious role-model here.  I'm talking about God himself.  He created a world, and he could have turned on content filters that made it so bad things weren't possible.  But in his wisdom, he didn't do that.  Instead he put all sorts of things in the world that humans can use both for good purposes and for bad purposes, and he gives us the freedom and space to pick what we will do with them.  Most of the time, he lets people make their own mistakes and learn from them, so we can learn the consequences for ourselves.  Of course, he's provided us with lots of direction and guidance in the Bible, and yet he doesn't even force people to believe he exists, if they don't want to do that!  Yet even so he still provides the same sunshine and rain for the wicked, just as much as to the righteous (Matt 5:45).

As my Dad said in an interview once about the philosophy that motivated him to make the Perl programming language:

The philosophy of TMTOWTDI ("There's more than one way to do it.") is a direct result of observing that the Author of the universe is humble, and chooses to exercise control in subtle rather than in heavy-handed ways. The universe doesn't come with enforced style guidelines. Creative people will develop style on their own. Those are the sort of people that will make heaven a nice place.

8.  New technology often has unforeseen consequences, and can drive social change.  But once again the character of the heart matters more than the nature of the particular medium.

Historically you can find alarmists whenever any new communications media appears (e.g. people freaked out about the printing press, and about radio, and about TV, and about the internet, and about smart phones).  And there have always been people who consumed each of these products in an unhealthy and addicted manner, or were led astray by lies.  But when the dust settles, we've usually found that the essentials of human life are still the same under new technological conditions.

Even in the days of Twitter, print books still exist, and a lot of people still read them.  Or if, someday in the future, Virtual Reality reaches the mass market, it will just be one more thing in the media ecosystem.  People will still meet in person and talk to each other (once the pandemic ends, anyway!)

9.  Before Jesus preached the gospel, he made furniture.  A skilled craftsman has to judge whether they are making good, solid, reliable work.  Whether it is useful to others.  Some people might have used his furniture in morally questionable ways, but a craftsman can't prevent that.  He can only make the best product he can, and leave the rest to the customer.

So if you think whatever you make personally is good in and of itself, and that it will be mostly used in good ways, then I think your job is morally justifiable.  Even if some folks take advantage of the opportunity to sin.  If, however, you think that the evil predominates (e.g. if you were making your money as a loan-shark exploiting poor people) then you'd need to find another line of work.

10.  If I had interpreted 2 Cor 6:14 with excessive rigor, I could never have become a physicist working in my area of interest (my PhD advisor isn't a Christian, and virtually all of the top universities are secular in practice, if not always in theory).  But the rest of St. Paul's writings make it abundantly clear that he never meant that we shouldn't interact with non-Christians socially or in the marketplace.

I don't think working in a secular workplace contradicts this passage, as long as you keep open the option to leave, in the event that you would otherwise be forced to cross a line which violates your own conscience.

I think it is of enormous importance that this line of conscience exists (that it is clear in your own mind, and that your coworkers know there are some things you would never do).  But it is actually not very important for all Christians to draw this line in exactly the same place as each other.  And it's also not wrong to think strategically—in light of your specific circumstances and culture—when you decide exactly where this boundary should be, based on the truths that you think are the most important to witness to.

Refusing to do specific things for specific moral reasons, seems like a far more compelling testimony to outsiders, then simply refusing to associate with them from the outset would be.  Even non-believers often respect and admire people with a strong internal moral compass, as long as they don't come across as judgemental.

(Of course if God makes it clear to you that he's drawing a line you for you in some particular place, then obviously follow the Spirit's prompting, however difficult it may be.  But in such cases there's no need for my advice.)

I can't make this judgement call for you.  But I don't think the situation you've outlined for me is necessarily an ungodly compromise.  Maybe it's exactly where God wants you to be, and you just need to approach the situation with faith, rather than doubting.


About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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4 Responses to Christian Conscience and the Secular Workplace

  1. Mactoul says:

    There are secular institutions and there are diabolic institutions such as NICE of The Hideous strength. Quit nice!

    For example. universities they are working with aborted fetus parts, where they are creating aninal-human chimeras, where they are creating organoids.

  2. Mactoul says:

    Is it permissible to work in an abortion clinic but refuse to do specific things for specific reasons?
    Perhaps a bolder approach is required. Wisdom books are pretty clear on the need for clean break from scoffers and evildoers. One who is perfect can overcome all temptations but are we perfect?

    An Evelyn Waugh quote is pertinent :
    The better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christians for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh uncooked in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their Bishop.

  3. Aron Wall says:

    I agree that a Christian should not work at an abortion clinic. But there's a huge difference between working for an organization whose raison d'etre or main activity is something inherently immoral; versus working for an institution whose inherent rationale is good, but where someone, somewhere is doing something immoral.

    To mention "universities" as though they were a single entity in this respect is really quite ridiculously overbroad. I have never, in my entire academic career, been asked to do anything involving fetus parts, nor have I worked in a Department where any person was working with fetal tissue, nor have I ever met anyone else (to the best of my knowledge) who was working on such things. That's not really what we do in Mathematics or Physics Departments.

    At Cambridge, each Department has its own budget, and the University doesn't really have much power to tell individual Departments how to spend their money or what to do. It's not like a business corporation where the Board of Directors appoints a CEO who can order everyone else around. (There's a reason why St. Lewis had the villains of That Hideous Strength start a new instutute where they could call the shots, rather than trying to work under the auspices of the fictional University of Edgestow.)

    Anyway, the approach of extreme separation, even from those who don't separate fast enough from others, isn't at all a new approach. It's already been tried many times, from the time of the Pharisees to the time of the 20 century Fundamentalist movement. It leads to some pretty silly places, where people end up in their own tiny denomination with just a few hundred people in it that are "pure" enough for them, and who view all the rest of Christianity as apostates. But I don't think that's God's vision for the Church.

  4. Tim Isbell says:

    Thanks for your post, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

    I made the same calculus early in my electrical engineering career in the semiconductor industry, which made some products that I ruled out. Eventually, a boss came to me who noticed that I avoided projects in certain market segments and wanted to know why. I told him my reasons were moral and connected to my understanding of Christian faith. He was as secular as they come, but he paused a few seconds and said something to the effect, "Ok, I can work with that. I'll steer those to groups that you do not manage.'

    Most of our designs were building blocks for larger systems. Some applications were in the same areas where I refused to work directly; many more were in systems that did good things - some even saved lives, reduced emissions, and such.

    Without having reading fine post decades ago, I stumbled on a very similar approach, used it, and passed it on to others as you are doing. Way to go! I hold you in high regard. Raucous applause! (And I'm proud to have been your pastor for 18 years.)


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