Doing Work with a Good Conscience Before God and Men
AS JEHOVAH’S devoted servants we should be an industrious people, ‘doing with our hands what is good work, that we may have something to distribute to someone in need.’ (Eph. 4:28) While engaging in productive labor, we should want to be sure that our employment does not conflict with Bible principles. Otherwise we would be unable to heed the inspired admonition: “Whatever you are doing, work at it whole-souled as to Jehovah.”—Col. 3:23.
Though concerned primarily with being pleasing in God’s eyes, we should also be thoughtful of our fellow humans. We want to avoid that which would cause these to be unnecessarily offended or which would give rise to reproachful criticism of the “good news.”—Compare 2 Corinthians 4:2.
Along with this, we must be realistic about employment. As in other activities of life, we cannot avoid all contact or relations with this world’s greedy persons, extortioners, idolaters and fornicators. Otherwise, as the inspired apostle wrote, “you would actually have to get out of the world.”—1 Cor. 5:9, 10.
A Christian may work for an employer who is not fully honest. But, as long as the Christian does not personally share in or promote wrong ways, he does not thereby become responsible. A secretary, for example, could not reasonably be expected to pass judgment on every statement that her employer dictates to her for transcribing into letters. She must let him bear the responsibility for any lack of truthfulness or fairness in what he dictates. But if his dishonesty becomes sufficiently extreme, so that his business comes into serious disrepute, her conscience may move her to seek other employment.
Actually, everything connected with this sinful world has some undesirable features. This, then, calls for our using discernment to determine what is truly objectionable for the Christian worker and what is—even though in some respects not fully desirable—nevertheless allowable from the Scriptural standpoint.
God’s Own Example
To guide us in taking a balanced view toward employment, we have the example that Jehovah God sets in his attitude toward mankind. “He makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45) God has not limited the wicked to the barest essentials of life. He has even been generous in allowing them to benefit from his provisions.—Acts 14:17.
By not discriminating between the righteous and the wicked in their receiving the benefit of his provisions, is God guilty of approving or condoning the idolatry, fornication, thievery and the like that the wicked practice? Obviously not, as he has shown in his acts at the Flood and at other times of divine judgment. Nor is he thereby encouraging them to keep on in lawless practices. There is no clear connection or direct link between their benefiting from the sun, rain, wind and other provisions and their sinful practices. Really, by his undeserved kindness to the wicked, Jehovah God is patiently maintaining an appealing basis on which to exhort the unrighteous to abandon their wrong ways and turn to him.—Rom. 2:4-6; Ezek. 33:11.
God’s servants, therefore, can conscientiously render many human services to worldly persons without discrimination. Such humans are, after all, the property of God and Christ, having all been purchased with the precious blood of the Son of God. (Matt. 20:28; 1 Tim. 2:5, 6) Though not all respond, God’s desire is for all to repent and gain salvation, not to perish. (2 Pet. 3:9) So we rightly treat our neighbors among mankind in harmony with that fact. We are also governed by the principle: “All things . . . that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matt. 7:12) We appreciate it when people do not discriminate against us in supplying food, clothing, shelter, transportation and other essentials in the form of goods and services. In turn, we should be willing to render common services to others.—Rom. 13:8-10.
The Major Questions
Clearly there is a difference between doing work that benefits people just as fellow humans and work that directly fosters or directly gives support to wrong practices. The principal question is: “Does the work or activity to be performed in itself constitute an act condemned by God’s Word? Or, if it does not, is it nevertheless so directly linked to such condemned practices that it would make those doing such work actual accomplices or promoters of the wrong practice?” In such cases Christian conscience should surely cause them to reject such employment.
To illustrate, we do not want others to commit violence against us, poison our bodies, seduce us into immorality or into idolatrous worship. Certainly, then, we could not engage in the manufacture, sale or promotion of things specifically designed for such purposes, such as harmfully addictive drugs, pornographic material, idol images and similar things. How could we teach others that the use of such things is Scripturally wrong and at the same time work in directly producing them or promoting their use? Such work would be wrong in itself.
Other work may be proper in itself but nevertheless wrong because it is an integral part of a wrong operation or activity. Being a cashier is in itself proper employment. But what if one served as a cashier in a gambling establishment? The practice of gambling is out of harmony with God’s Word, which condemns greediness and commands doing honest, productive work. (1 Cor. 6:9, 10; Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11, 12) Though the cashier might not actually do any gambling, in the way that a card dealer does, would not his (or her) work involve the selling of the gambling chips that form an essential part of the operation? Would this not also be true of the individual whose work consists of repairing and maintaining the gambling equipment, such as slot machines, roulette wheels and similar things? There is clearly a direct link between the work done and the wrong activity itself.
Seeking Balance in Our View of Employment
But if the employment consists of work that is not of itself Scripturally wrong and is not directly linked to wrong practices, there may be other factors that the Christian will need to weigh when making a conscientious decision.
For example, working as a cook in a restaurant is an honest employment, food being something that all humans use and need in common. But what if one worked for a chain of restaurants, one of which was located within the grounds of a racetrack? Serving as a schoolteacher is proper employment. But what if the school is one owned by a religious organization that is not genuinely Christian? Serving as a housemaid is also proper employment. But what if the maid’s duties require her to work in a home in an area set aside for purposes contrary to the principles stated at Isaiah 2:4?
Gambling at a racetrack is not dependent upon food. The school owned by the religious organization may not require the teacher to teach false religion; it may use textbooks provided by the government and may even be under government supervision. The maid’s work may be simply cleaning, laundering and cooking. Would such work then place a Christian in the position of being subject to disfellowshiping from the congregation? Let us consider some Scriptural examples.
In the cases mentioned the individual is working on property owned by organizations carrying on unscriptural practices. But does this of itself mean that such work is to be condemned? One might call to mind the exhortation to “get out from among them, and separate yourselves . . . and quit touching the unclean thing.” (2 Cor. 6:17) Are we to understand this as meaning that the ground itself or the buildings owned by such organizations are contaminating? Or is it not really the practices themselves that are “unclean” in God’s sight?
Outward appearances are not always the determining factors. The Syrian Naaman, for example, determined that he would “no more render up a burnt offering or a sacrifice to any other gods but to Jehovah.” Yet, in his position as a servant to the king of Syria, part of Naaman’s work consisted of entering the temple of a false god, Rimmon, with the king and supporting the king (evidently somewhat feeble) as he bowed down to the idol. Naaman appears to have performed this service with some degree of regularity. Yet, when he expressed conscientious concern about this matter, God’s prophet Elisha replied: “Go in peace.” (2 Ki. 5:15-19) True, an observer might assume by what he saw that Naaman was a worshiper of the false god Rimmon. But if he talked with the man he would find out otherwise.
Consider, too, the example of Jesus Christ. In his preaching and teaching activity he aided those who were known sinners. Did he restrict such association to public places, refusing to go into the sinners’ homes to eat with them lest he thereby appear to be condoning their sinful life? No. However, some, such as the Pharisees, who were extremely scrupulous in such matters but lacking in mercy and compassion, attributed a wrong meaning to this association of Jesus with such persons, making it appear that he was condoning the wrongs the sinners committed. (Luke 15:1, 2; 19:7) But Jesus let his teaching and his course of life demonstrate the falseness of such wrong assumptions. In keeping with Jesus’ example, we should be careful not to judge others simply on the basis of surface appearances, assuming that their being employed in certain places constitutes of necessity a condoning of wrongdoing.—Rom. 14:4.
Serious Concern for Effect on Others
Does this mean that the Christian need give no consideration whatever to such factors as the location of his employment, the type of organization that employs him and the appearance that this produces in the eyes of others? No, for such lack of concern would be another extreme to be avoided.
The apostle Paul’s inspired counsel to Christians at Corinth aids us to see the balanced viewpoint in this regard. Though not discussing employment, Paul presents principles that apply there as well. In the Corinthian meat markets there was sold meat that came from animals offered up in sacrifice to idols. By buying such meat would the Christian be failing to “flee from idolatry” and would his paying for the meat cause him to become guilty of supporting such idolatry? Would his eating such meat make him unclean? Paul pointed out that this was not the case, since “to Jehovah belong the earth and that which fills it.” Looking upon the meat as actually from Jehovah and thanking him for it, the Christian would show he did not view the idol as being actually a god, nor did he worship such. He could eat with a clear conscience. At the same time Paul counseled the Corinthians not to use their freedom in such a way that someone else’s conscience could be wounded.—1 Cor. 10:14, 18-33.
Earlier in his letter the apostle had pointed out that not all persons would see this matter so clearly. (1 Cor. 8:4-8) To those whose consciences did allow them to eat such meat, Paul therefore said: “Keep watching that this authority of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone should see you, the one having knowledge, reclining at a meal in an idol temple, will not the conscience of that one who is weak be built up to the point of eating foods offered to idols?”—1 Cor. 8:9, 10.
The apostle does not say that the eating of the meat on the idol temple grounds was of itself a sin meriting disfellowshiping. But there was an inherent danger in such act. If seen by another who viewed it as implying a condoning of the false worship, that one’s conscience might be emboldened to return to practices of false worship. So, while the act of itself was not wrong, to ignore the consciences of others to the point of actually stumbling them from the way of life would be “sinning against Christ,” who died as a ransom for such ones.—1 Cor. 8:11-13.
Applying these same principles to employment, we can see that while certain work of itself may not be wrong, nor such as can be clearly defined as making one an accomplice to the actual practice of wrongdoing, the Christian will still be concerned to avoid becoming a cause of stumbling to others. To illustrate, a Christian may have worked in a restaurant that operated across the street from a racetrack. Perhaps the majority of the customers were persons frequenting the racetrack. Later, an opportunity might open up for the restaurant to lease facilities on the track grounds themselves, and it might transfer its operations there. The Christian’s work would continue to be the same, simply the honest labor of providing food, and the customers of the restaurant might be very much the same. Yet in some persons’ minds there might now be a linkage between his employment and the practice of gambling. As another example, a gambling house might operate a restaurant on its premises, providing meals at low cost to attract gamblers. So the Christian would want to consider any such connection and weigh the matter conscientiously. He would not want to embolden the consciences of some to engage in gambling, and if he found that such was the result of his work, no doubt his conscience would move him to seek other employment. His concern, then, would be not to become a source of actual stumbling to others and this, of course, would depend to a considerable degree on how seriously the appearance of things affected them. Also, he should consider the effect upon himself from working in unsavory surroundings, faced by pressures to get involved in wrong practices.
But what if the kind of work done of itself is not connected with wrong practices, but the source of payment is an organization that is primarily occupied in unscriptural activities? Again the Christian’s conscience must weigh the matter and the effect of his or her being paid by such an organization. A restaurant, for example, might be located next door to a gambling house and in course of time the gambling house might buy the restaurant. Thereafter the employees might be paid by the gambling house, perhaps with its checks. True, but the operations of the restaurant may continue exactly as before. So, again a Christian employed there, while recognizing that his work in itself may not make him a condoner of gambling nor an accomplice therein, would want to weigh his situation and the effect thereof on others. His decision would be governed by the degree of seriousness of that effect. The same would be true of a schoolteacher who might teach some subject such as mathematics in a school owned by a religious organization of Christendom. Though not contributing to the spread of false worship in his teaching, he would consider the effect of his employment on others and be governed by what he found to be the results thereof.
It seems evident from the Scriptures that the payment of money by a Christian to a person or organization of the world for goods or services or, vice versa, the receipt of money by a Christian from such person or organization does not automatically imply that the Christian supports or condones any wrongdoing in which such person or organization may engage. As seen earlier, Christians could buy meat that proceeded from pagan temples. The pagan temples benefited monetarily. This was not by direct contribution but indirectly through the sale of meat.
While the source of the payment for honest labor rendered by a Christian would not of itself determine the rightness or wrongness of his employment, he should show the same concern and caution in this respect as in the examples given previously involving the location of one’s work. His desire would always be to advance the cause of the truth and the spread of the good news, not to hinder it unnecessarily. Also one must consider the effect upon himself, whether the circumstances of his employment may prove spiritually damaging to himself, perhaps constituting a spiritual risk or a serious temptation toward engaging in wrongdoing. He cannot afford to let his hatred of what is bad become weakened and softened, for this would lead to acts of compromise and the actual engaging in what is wrong.—Heb. 1:9.
“If He Has Doubts”
In many areas of life, including employment, we must allow our conscience, enlightened by God’s Word and his spirit, to guide us. Another member of the Christian congregation may have no qualms of conscience about the propriety of a certain type of employment. But our own conscience may cause us to have doubts. Should we ignore these doubts and let the other person’s conscience decide for us? The apostle Paul provides the inspired answer in his discussion concerning the eating of meat, saying: “If he has doubts, he is already condemned if he eats, because he does not eat out of faith. Indeed, everything that is not out of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23) Thus, when a person feels ill at ease about certain work and cannot justify it in his own conscience, he acts wisely to make a change. He thereby avoids sinning in the sense of going against his conscience, wounding it. At the same time, one’s uncertainty and “inward questionings” about the rightness of certain work should not cause him to become critical of others, making an issue of matters unnecessarily or judging them as violators of God’s law when there is no clear Scriptural evidence to that effect.—Rom. 14:1-5.
We do well to keep in mind that problems regarding what is acceptable employment are nothing new. The worldly systems and people generally are disregarding the same righteous principles today as they did centuries ago, in the apostles’ day and before. Yet the Bible does not provide a long list of rules as to what is acceptable or not in the way of work. Basically, the Bible provides us with three factors that should be taken into consideration: (1) Is the work itself definitely wrong, consisting of activity that is in itself sinful because it violates God’s moral laws or contributes directly to the violation of such laws? (2) Is it probable that observers will be given the definite impression that Christians are approving of what is wrong and will likely be stumbled, becoming themselves involved in wrongdoing? (3) Does the Christian personally have doubts about his employment?
The Congregation’s Responsibility
Where a brother engages in employment that clearly violates God’s law, the congregation and its elders rightly become concerned in the matter. Where work or a product thereof is condemned in the Scriptures, or is such as to make one an accomplice or promoter in wrongdoing, the elders should first endeavor to help the person see the wrongness of his course. In such cases where the connection is definite and evident, it should be possible to make what the Bible says clear to him and enable him to see why it does indeed apply to him. It may however, take a number of discussions, perhaps over a period of some weeks, to help him see the point and give prayerful consideration to what has been brought to his attention. If it is definitely established that his employment violates Christian principles and he, nevertheless, insists on continuing in it, he may be disfellowshiped from the congregation.
What of cases where the work is not of itself wrong but, because of the location of the employment, the source of payment, or similar factors, it might produce an undesirable impression on the minds of some observers? Here the elders must be careful not to let their own consciences dictate for others, as though they were ‘masters over their faith.’ (2 Cor. 1:24) The master of a house can tell others what work they can do and what work they cannot do. But elders recognize God and Christ as the masters over the Christian congregation and let their word determine. Where there is no clear precedent in the Scriptures, the elders let the individual Christian’s faith express itself as that one’s conscience dictates.
Where the work done by a member of the congregation, though not of itself an unscriptural activity, nevertheless, gives rise to questions, the elders can discuss this with the one involved. While not condemning him, they can point out any inherent dangers or risks involved; they can discuss any potential cause for stumbling of others that exists. They may point out the advantages of maintaining a healthful distance from what might be a “borderline” situation. And if the situation develops to the point of being of considerable disturbance within the congregation or a source of adverse comment by those on the outside, they may decide that such a one should not be used in an exemplary way in the congregation. For what is “lawful” at the same time may not be “advantageous,” as the apostle states. He therefore urges: “Let each one keep seeking, not his own advantage, but that of the other person.”—1 Cor. 10:23, 24.
Elders especially will need to study seriously God’s Word and seek the discernment and insight that result in good judgment. They will recognize that “the wisdom from above is first of all chaste” and so they will remain firm for pure worship and steadfastly uphold God’s laws. But they will recognize that this heavenly wisdom is also “reasonable” and hence they will avoid extremes in their application of Bible principles, not carrying them beyond what God’s own example and his spirit indicate.—Jas. 3:17.
We need not fear that our refraining from setting up a specific code of rules about employment will harm the congregation of God spiritually. When God canceled the Mosaic Law code it did not leave the new congregation of spiritual Israel floundering in uncertainty as to what they should do to please God. The power of God’s spirit operating on the minds and hearts of those whose consciences are trained and molded by the study of God’s Word constitutes a far stronger force for righteousness than the Law code did. This is true down to this day.
Yes, that fruitage of God’s spirit, love, will move the true Christian to reject work that God’s Word clearly condemns. In other cases, where individual conscience must determine, love will move him to avoid being a cause of fatal stumbling to others. Practical wisdom, also, will help him to decide whether he should seek other employment in the interests of maintaining his own spirituality and avoiding pitfalls. (Rom. 13:10; Prov. 3:21-23) Thus the Christian will demonstrate that he is “no part of the world,” and preserve a good conscience before God and men.—John 17:16; 1 Tim. 1:5, 19.