Michael Kruse: Business People 4

Michael Kruse: Business People 4 February 21, 2019

The Godfather movie trilogy has one of my favorites takes on ethics with business: (insert best Brando voice here), “It’s not personal. It’s business.” And then there is the infamous tell-all Mayflower Madam from the 1980s, Sydney Biddle Barrows, who said, “I ran the wrong kind of business, but I did it with integrity.” We chuckle at such rationalizations but it isn’t only mafiosos and madams that feel the need to compartmentalize. Many people in business feel the same pressure.

Have you ever experienced role strain in your work life? Have you ever caught yourself justifying questionable behavior by convincing yourself you were “playing by the rules?” Is there some sense in which ethics might play out differently in work environments versus other contexts?

What impact, for good or ill, has your work life had on shaping your identity?

We continue today with John Knapp’s How the Church Fails Business People (and what can be done about it),. The first two chapters looked at how both business and the church contribute to the faith and work divide. The third chapter looked at the church’s ambivalence about money. Chapter four, “Divided Worlds, Divided Lives,” rounds out the first part of the book where Knapp has been describing how faith and work became worlds apart. The final four chapters will explore ways we might move toward coherence. The challenge explored today is how to live as if Jesus is Lord in a compartmentalized world?

A central aspect of Modernism was faith that we can find unity in broadly shared values. The Christian narrative and the secular modernist narrative battled to gain preeminence. But now, faith in any broad narrative has collapsed. In postmodernism, there is no overarching narrative. Societal institutions have become independent, developing their own rules and norms. As Peter Baelz says, “… individuals and groups fashion their own ideals and society is held together by a minimal morality which is sufficient to make life in society possible.” (70)

Knapp says, writes:

“Where the self of modernity was vaunted as a locus of rationality, autonomy, and individual freedom, the de-centered and splintered self of postmodernity is described by Anthony C. Thiselton as no longer “regarding itself as an active agent carving out any possibility with the aid of natural and social sciences, but as an opaque product of variable roles and performances which have been imposed upon it by the constraints of society and by its own inner drives and conflicts.” (71)

While we may have many roles we tend to gravitate to the roles that give us the most status and satisfaction. For many, particularly for skilled professionals, the work role is often dominant. Absent any overarching ethic, we convince ourselves that as long as we are living within the rules for our role that we are behaving morally. Conforming to the rules begins to mold us so that our identity becomes integrated with the role. The role provides our meaning in the absence of a broader narrative. Adherence to the rules, a type of legalism, becomes our comfort and gives a sense of order. Conscious reflection on relationships and the greater purposes to which God has called us is crowded out.

But as Christians, we at least assent to the idea that Jesus is Lord of all and that God’s ethics apply to all of life. My sense is that much of what passes as ethical behavior in most businesses in most industries most of the time is not out of accord with ethical Christian living. The two worlds are not wholly antithetical. But what is our response in the significant number of cases where Christian ethics and the “rules and norms” of a business don’t mesh? What is our response when our career comes to define our very identity? We experience what is known in sociology as role strain. One response, Knapp writes, is:

“To avoid self-condemnation and to lessen role strain, we may allow ourselves to accept that what counts as moral or immoral, as important or unimportant, is relative to the situation or role in which the distinction is made.” (76)

He continues:

“The irony of this should not be lost on Christians. The more we wish to think of ourselves as faithful and moral people, the more prone we may be to rely on self-deception to maintain this preferred belief in the face of our own shortcomings. We may amplify anything that confirms a desired view of ourselves while giving little weight to evidence that we are falling short.” (76)

Knapp reminds us that at times the church has even unwittingly abetted role-based compartmentalization with things like misreadings of Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine. But surely the bigger challenge today is the church’s inability to articulate a narrative that shapes discipleship outside our private lives in a fragmented postmodern world. (Stay tuned.)

Finally, Knapp includes a quote in footnote 10, from Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character:

“Christians are forbidden to despair in the face of dividedness of the world. On the contrary, we are commanded to witness to others that there is a God that overcomes our differences by making them serve his Kingdom. The task of the Christian is not to defeat relativism by argument but to witness to a God who requires confrontation.” (73)

As I read this footnote, a couple of things occurred to me. I think there are many church leaders who have correctly seen an uncritical accommodation of the church to society. Too often the church’s mission has collapsed into being a provider of religiosity services focused on therapeutic self-improvement. Thinkers like Hauerwas have called us back to a robust witness of Christ’s reign and Lordship. No argument there. But just how does this witness manifest itself?

Here is what I think I see emerging in my Mainline Presbyterian world. I see a new generation of pastors who are committed to challenging accommodation and to being bold witnesses for Christ. If older generations have been accommodationist, then the new generation is going to work for social justice. The energy now is toward churches creating programs and networks devoted to any number of justice concerns.

Still lost in all of this is that a significant majority of us spend most of our waking hours in some type of business environment. Switching the church’s identity from being a religiosity market to a social justice outpost does nothing toward reintegrating daily life with the missio dei … the mission of God. Both are exercises in extracting people from the primary locus of their vocation and diverting them to other tasks. Both send the subtle message that “real ministry” is what happens apart from our daily life. Both effectively leave the church as something supplemental to our “real lives.” Hauerwas’ charge is left unheeded in precisely the area where individual Christians have the greatest opportunity to fulfill it.

I’m not dismissing collective efforts to work for justice. They are essential. But to elevate justice work to the detriment of faith and work integration, of equipping people for the practice of everyday living, of sending disciples forth into their work environments, strikes me as “supplying” a religiosity product “marketed” to a new generation that has a “demand” for social action. Daily work life remains neatly in its own compartment, untouched by the Kingdom of God.

This concludes the first part of the book. In the next post we will begin to examine some ideas Knapp has about how me can work toward coherence in our lives.


Have you ever experienced role strain in your work life? Have you ever caught yourself justifying questionable behavior by convincing yourself you were “playing by the rules?” Is there some sense in which ethics might play out differently in work environments versus other contexts?

What impact, for good or ill, has your work life had on shaping your identity?

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