Working in Difficult Places

One of my Christian friends works for a large media corporation. His company produces various radio programs, magazines and television shows, generally of a wholesome kind. But one year his corporation acquired “The Jerry Springer Show.” The acquisition occurred before Springer became the impresario of high sleaze, but he was hardly a friend of virtue, even then. My friend had no contact with Springer or his program, but as the chief financial officer of the corporation, he could not claim to be entirely disengaged from its immorality and folly. Some of my friend’s fellow believers thought he should quit, perhaps in protest, perhaps to avoid the pollution of even incidental involvement with debasing entertainments. Of course, some of them already wondered why any Christian would ever work for a public media company. But my friend stayed on, and the problem resolved itself when the corporation sold the Springer show a few months later. Still, did he make a mistake? Did he compromise his integrity, or did he wisely retain his ability to lead faithfully from a strategic position?

If we think seriously about work, we encounter a steady stream of questions like these. If we engage the challenge of exercising the faith at work, hard questions will inevitably surface. Here are a few that I have heard:

A man who has worked in the marketing department for a beer company for fifteen years becomes a Christian. Does he have to quit and find a new job?

A software engineer is appointed to a work group assigned to write a program for the more efficient, hence more profitable, generation and distribution of lottery tickets. She will work solely on the technical issues and will never be directly involved in sales. Can she work on the project, or should she petition for reassignment?

A plant manager manufactures a good industrial product, but his chief competitor has found an effective way to distort key data to make his product look better, though it is actually inferior. Some of his customers believe the competitor’s claims, and he is starting to lose them. Should he counterattack and match distortion for distortion?

A pharmacist has begun to see prescriptions for RU 486, the so-called abortion pill. RU 486 also has a beneficial effect on high blood pressure, and that’s what the prescriptions say. But when the patient is a young woman, the pharmacist wonders what to do.

A morning radio talk show host becomes a Christian. His radio “personality” is a witty guy who uses a lot of sexual humor. His audience and his manager expect it. If he tries to change, he will probably lose his job. What should he do?

A managing partner in a financial company is well respected, well paid and influential. His boss is brilliant but tyrannical. He wonders, “Should I take a position in another company? Or should I stay on and endure some misery to shield others from the boss’s excesses?”

So we ask, “For whom can I work, and under what circumstances? Am I betraying my faith when I get entangled in secular affairs? Can I work for a company that makes a few questionable products? What if I have to work on those products? What if I do not?” May a Christian work for a government that denies or even assaults Christian values? For a government that supports abortion rights? For a government that promotes abortion and vetoes pro-life initiatives? Must we leave a position if we may have to soil our hands a little?

First Principles
Whenever we encounter difficult questions, it is beneficial to state our first principles. These are stakes in the ground, marking the boundaries of our answers, just as stakes in the ground mark the four corners of a building. Whatever else we may say—whatever turrets, alcoves or verandas we decide to erect—the building stays within the parameters set by the four corners of the building. Likewise, whatever ideas we explore, we must never take a position that contradicts our first principles.

The first principle is this: While a man is responsible to provide for his family, he neither pleases God nor serves his family if he does so through sinful activity. Believers may never take work that requires them to sin. Christians may not be hit-men, drug-runners or prostitutes. If we must choose between unemployment and a job that requires immorality, then we choose unemployment. Working for a misguided government is one thing; working for a criminal state is another.

But is it wrong to work in a wholesome branch of a large corporation that also has unwholesome divisions? Today, the sources and delivery systems for entertainment are changing rapidly so that companies constantly enter new alliances as they pursue growth and profits. At this moment, the media giants of North America produce both the best and the worst in the arts, entertainment and information. The most conservative news outlet champions the most degrading television dramas. The source of the best children’s programming also produces salacious and blasphemous movies. Another creates some of the most ennobling and some of the most degrading programming. Might a Christian report on politics for the first, produce children’s programs for the second or write scripts for the third?

Some say, “Obviously not. If someone wants to report, produce or write, he should do it for an enterprise he can fully support.” But others reply, “Do you really want all Christians to leave the largest media companies in Amer-ica? Do we want to abandon all of the most influential enterprises? If we object to their products now, what could we expect if every Christian influence were removed?”

Disciples need to know how to conduct themselves with integrity, to remain holy in unholy places. Unfortunately, the Bible never declares, in so many words, whether we can work in dubious companies or governments. The Bible is the story of redemption, not a package of judgments answering our individual ethical quandaries followed by decrees on the proper implementation of the aforementioned judgments.

The Bible defines holiness at work through stories as much as laws and legal cases. Fortunately, the stories describe godly men and women who faced our very questions. Those stories form a pattern consistent enough that we can see a way of life that God blesses. The stories describe believers involved in government, starting with two Israelites in Pharaoh’s court.

(On obtaining guidance from narrative, see Daniel Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001), 189-212.)

Case #1: To Work or Not To Work for Pharaoh
The Pharaohs of Egypt were as autocratic as any rulers of antiquity. Whatever we think of power hungry or corrupt businesspeople and politicians, none match the Pharaohs, who claimed to be deities, claimed the right to be worshiped and claimed to own all the land of Egypt. (Of course, they let farmers use most of it, if they rendered a tribute from the fruit of the land.)

But when one Pharaoh dreamt of seven lean cows eating seven fat cows, God’s servant Joseph was willing to serve that Pharaoh by interpreting his dream, as God revealed it to him. He told Pharaoh the cows represented seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He urged Pharaoh to make the surplus in the years of abundance his store for the years of poverty. Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph his second-in-command. In that role, Joseph preserved the lives of many Egyptians and rescued his own family during the famine. By serving a ruler whose political system rested on blasphemous, megalomaniacal claims, Joseph kept the covenant family alive during a life-threatening famine.

It seems, therefore, that believers may work for anyone. But wait. Four hundred years later, another Israelite, Moses, refused to serve another Pharaoh. Moses was born a Jew, of course, but Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him into the monarch’s family. Hebrews describes it this way:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible (Heb 11:24-27).
So Moses refused to work for a second Pharaoh. We can see why. First, Moses had another calling—to lead Israel out of Egypt. Second, he could not serve his Pharaoh. Egypt’s leaders had turned murderous. One planned to exterminate God’s people by ordering the death of all their male infants. The current Pharaoh enslaved the nation of Israel, imposing impossible burdens, threatening to work them to the death.

The stories of Joseph and Moses suggest that believers may or may not work for evil masters, depending on the circumstances. A number of additional Bible narratives point in the same direction, beginning with the account of Ahab, Elijah and Obadiah.

Case #2: To Work or Not To Work for Ahab
Ahab was one of the most wicked kings of Israel. Perhaps you recall that after the death of Solomon, Israel divided into northern and southern “kingdoms.” The southern kingdom, centered in Jerusalem, was generally more faithful. The southern kings typically used the temple in Jerusalem that God had ordained for worship. But the northern kings spurned the temple God had ordained as the place of worship and sacrifice. They established new centers of worship in the cities of Dan and Bethel and ordained their own priests and prophets. At first, they still meant to worship God, but through golden calves they fashioned. (They thought they could break the second commandment while keeping the first.) But then King Ahab came along. The Bible says, “Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.” He considered it trivial to worship at the golden calves. So, after he took a pagan wife, Jezebel, he began to serve other gods. “He set up an altar for Baal in the temple…he built in Samaria.” Thus Ahab “did more to provoke the LORD to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kgs 16:30-34).

Ahab lived out this “faith” in various ways. His wife, Jezebel, gave herself the task of killing the Lord’s prophets, and Ahab did nothing to stop her. Ahab had contempt for the law and the social system of Israel; he ruled like an oriental potentate. He took whatever he wanted and killed those who stood in his way (1 Kgs 21).

Surely, no believer could work for Ahab, not for one so dedicated to the perversion, even the destruction, of true religion. Elijah appeared to think not. He burst into Ahab’s court and declared God’s judgment on Ahab’s regime: “As the LORD God of Israel lives, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kgs 17:1). Then, without another word, he disappeared.

After three years of drought, Elijah returned to confront Ahab. Yet he did not initially appear to Ahab but to a man named Obadiah, the manager of his palace. The book of 1 Kings introduces him this way: “Obadiah was a devout believer in the LORD. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water” (1 Kgs 18:3-4).

This is astonishing. A godly man holds a position as the palace governor for the most wicked king that Israel has ever seen. How this transpired, we do not know. (Was his father a palace manager? Had he come to faith mid-career?) But Obadiah understood that God had providentially placed him in a terrible but strategic place—the court of a wicked monarch. In that very place he found a singular opportunity to undermine Ahab’s evil regime. And he did so, at great personal risk. Three times Obadiah said Ahab might kill him simply for giving an erroneous report about Elijah’s location (18:9-14). What then would Ahab do if he knew his palace manager worked for the Lord’s underground, feeding the very prophets that he and his queen wanted to kill?

But Ahab did not know of Obadiah’s courageous deeds. He trusted Obadiah and summoned him to seek water. As Obadiah searched for the liquid of life, Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him and bowed down to the ground to honor the prophet (18:7).

Elijah told Obadiah, “Go tell your master, ‘Elijah is here’” (18:8).

To paraphrase, Obadiah replied, “You don’t know my master. If I tell Ahab you are here and he doesn’t find you, he will kill me. Yet I have worshiped the Lord since my youth. I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets in two caves and supplied them with food and water” (18:12-14).

But Elijah assured Obadiah, “I will surely present myself to Ahab today” (18:15).

The Lessons of Obadiah and Elijah
When we read the Bible, we typically hurry past the meeting between Obadiah and Elijah, since, so it seems, it merely sets up the dramatic encounter between Elijah and the Baal prophets on Mount Carmel. But if we pause to compare Elijah and Obadiah, important points emerge.

Elijah serves God by standing against the king’s court.
Obadiah serves God by staying within the king’s court.
Elijah shouts judgment from outside and criticizes the regime of the king.
Obadiah keeps silent inside and organizes a relief effort for the prophets.
Thus two men of God have callings to opposite places, one protesting evil from outside, one mitigating evil from the inside. Yet each man respects the other’s calling. Obadiah honors Elijah’s role as a prophet against Ahab’s house, and Elijah accepts Obadiah’s role as a manager within Ahab’s house. So far as we know, Obadiah worked for Ahab without compromise. He did not participate in Jezebel’s program of murder, but undermined it from within. Thus neither man questioned the other. Each knew his own calling and believed God worked through another calling for his brother.

The implication is clear. If Obadiah could serve God by working for Ahab, a murderous oriental potentate, then believers may work for almost anyone, if they can obey God and accomplish his purposes there. Obadiah’s vocation shows that believers can serve God, even if at great risk, in hard places. If Obadiah can work within a corrupt establishment, then we can work within one too, if we resist compromise, limit evil and promote justice.

Jesus preached what Obadiah practiced. When he sent the Twelve on their first preaching mission, he said, “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings…When they arrest you, do not worry” for the Holy Spirit will speak through you (Mt 10:18-20). Of course, we do not court danger. Sometimes, Jesus said, when we are persecuted in one place, we should “flee to another” (Mt 10:23). That is, sometimes we handle hostility by getting out of its way, by seeking safety. But other times we stand our ground despite the danger. Jesus modeled this. He occasionally fled an angry crowd, but at the right time he stood his ground, though it cost him his life.

We can learn from both Obadiah and Elijah. In a way, both of them point to Christ. Elijah resembles Christ in many ways: he healed lepers, multiplied food, raised the dead, announced God’s judgment on a corrupt generation and entered solo combat, to the death, against evil. Obadiah foreshadows the work of Christ too. Like Jesus, he got his hands dirty as he refused to separate himself from unsavory people. Like Jesus, he submitted himself to the government of unjust rulers. Like Jesus, he fought to protect his defenseless people. Obadiah understood the principle of the incarnation: We must accept the station God gives us and do the work he bestows, even if hands become dirty and a body is broken.

Other Servants, Other Lessons
When national or state politics produce a mass of reprehensible public policies and private peccadilloes, Christians wonder if it is still possible to serve in public. The cases of Joseph serving Pharaoh and Obadiah serving Ahab, both to save lives, suggest that the answer can still be yes. But Joseph and Obadiah are hardly the only Israelites to work for pagan kings. Many did so, and they received praise, not blame, in Scripture: Daniel was a trusted advisor in the houses of Nebuchad-nezzar and Belshazzar of Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah were both high officials in the administration of Artaxerxes of Persia; Esther served God’s people at great risk in Xerxes’ palace. Indeed, she won a beauty contest and so became a pagan king’s wife. From that role, she spoke to deliver her people.

Yet believers may not take every post. Moses refused to serve an oppressive Pharaoh. We reject both total withdrawal and groundless optimism. The accounts of Daniel and his friends show the risks of working for a pagan monarch. When required to bow to an idol or stop praying, they refused and risked everything for God’s sake (Dn 1:11-16; 3:1-30; 6:4-24). Of course, Daniel and his friends escaped the fire and the lions, but it can turn out differently. Some escape the edge of the sword, but others perish (Heb 11:34, 37). Jesus became the preeminent example of one who takes risks for a difficult vocation. He sacrificed the most and risked the most—if “risk” is the correct word when the outcome is certain.

If Joseph, Obadiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther could all serve faithfully, with divine approval, for wicked monarchs, then certainly Christians may work within governments and businesses that operate on secular, even godless principles. But believers do not have permission to “fit in” with every corporation or government. In some positions, a Christian can only work with integrity if he or she is willing to protest, to suggest alternatives and, if necessary, to refuse to follow orders.

So, may a believer work for a pro-choice government? For an advertising agency that has a few beer or cigarette accounts? For a defense contractor—that is, for a company dedicated to defending some lives, but threatening others? The answer has to be, yes, we may, if from our positions we can serve God, restrain evil and advance love, justice and mercy. Still, we cannot simply do whatever we are told. We must work in ways that prove our love for God and mankind.

Some may blanch at the thought of entanglement with weaponry or the world’s entertainment, but the alternative—isolation —is unbiblical and intolerable. If all believers refused to work for media corporations if even one arm produced something questionable, there would be no Christian influence in the largest media outlets. Then who would speak for biblical morality, for a biblical worldview, for a fair representation of Christianity? We could say the same thing of the armed forces. Consider the loss if all Christians avoided military service out of fear of sullying themselves. The military and the diplomatic corps need the sober realism that comes from a Christian concept of sin, which teaches us that improved communication will not solve every problem. Some people are evil—lying, grasping and vindictive—and no amount of diplomacy can change that. The military also needs just war theory, as it provides principles for defending civilians trapped by war and restrains, as far as possible, the death and destruction of war.

The apostle Paul affirmed the need for Christians to stay engaged in society in a side remark he made while discussing church discipline. Among other things, Paul said believers must separate from those who had not repented after the church disciplined them. That is, we must avoid ordinary fellowship with self-proclaimed Christians who live in rebellion against God. But some readers thought Paul meant they should separate from all non-Christians. Paul replied this way (1 Cor 5:9-11):

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people —not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. (emphasis mine)
So, if the Corinthians wanted to avoid all contact with immoral, irreligious people, they would have had to leave the world entirely. But Paul hardly wanted that! We must stay engaged with the world.

But we do not merely stay. We are God’s ambassadors, representing his standards and goals. We engage the culture and accept the pressures that arise. Opposition is one danger, but fitting in too well is another. After all, western culture still esteems many Christian values. Thus, if we have talent and work hard, we are more prone to promotion than to persecution.

But, as we taste success, the pressure to fit in mounts. The desire to attain or retain affluence can lead to compromises. To prevent compromises, we can ask ourselves a few questions:

Am I working as a servant of the kingdom, an agent of righteousness and reform? Or am I merely fitting in, doing a job, making a living?

When potential conflicts between business and kingdom goals arise, do I stand on principle or do I do “whatever it takes” to keep my job?

What motivates me? What guides my decisions? Fear of the opinions of others? Greed for wealth? The insights of other believers in my field? Love for God and neighbor?

If you work with any fellow believers, put it corporately: Are we striving to see our work and careers as God sees them? Do we consult as we should? Do we work together to achieve positive goals and to defeat temptations?

Is there someone in my life who can correct my self-deceptions? Someone who can stop me from excess hours when work is alluring, or from quitting too early when work is taxing?

Working in Unpopular Occupations
Every year a polling organization publishes its list of America’s most and least respected occupations. The hero list is familiar. Nurses and doctors top the list, followed closely by teachers, veterinarians, pharmacists and even the clergy. The villain list is familiar, too. Last year’s poll placed telemarketers next to last. Real estate agents were tenth from the bottom, with lawyers ninth and gun dealers eighth. Sadly, members of Congress were sixth, insurance agents fifth and used car dealers dead last.

These rankings can hurt. Many lawyers and Congressmen, to name just two occupations, have great expertise and skill. They care deeply about justice and have sacrificed much for good causes. They work in potentially noble professions where something has gone wrong. Law and government need ordinary Christians who will work in them, with integrity, every day. They also need visionaries who will work to reform the structures that allow abuses in law and government. They need men and women of God who know how justice and mercy can flourish again. Precisely because something has gone wrong, disciples should not flee those fields, but remain in them to bring the light of the gospel and the will of God to bear on them.

But we dare not forget less promising spheres such as telemarketing and used car sales. Consider the benefits if every telemarketer were honest, gentle and considerate. And we certainly need more used car dealers who live by biblical principles.

Not long ago, I reluctantly concluded it was time to purchase a used car for the two teenage drivers in my home. Taking my oldest daughter with me, I went to a dealer with a reputation for honesty. The first salesman I met sold new cars, so he recommended a friend. “Look for John on the back lot. He’s our best man.” In a few minutes I found John, speaking enthusiastically to a customer. When he was free, I started to describe our needs. John listened intently for a few moments, then lit up. “You know,” he said, finger now stabbing the air, “I’ve got a car I positively stole from a family just yesterday. Got it on a trade-in. They got a lot of money from an insurance settlement and wanted to get something new. I stole it from them, so I can give you quite a deal.”

The salesman launched into his description, but I could hardly listen. I was marveling, “The first thing this man tells me is that he robbed a customer just yesterday. Why would he want to start a sales relationship that way?”

I decided to speak up, if only to instruct my daughter, “So you’re telling me you stole this car from a customer yesterday, so you can offer me a really good deal?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“But if you stole it from yesterday’s customer, what does that say about what you may want to do to me today?”

He looked utterly baffled, so I tried again, “If you say you stole the car from a careless customer yesterday, doesn’t that imply you might try something similar to another customer—maybe even me—today?” Again, blank incomprehension ruled his face. I tried one more time, then gave up. Afterwards, my daughter and I concluded that we apparently met a man so accustomed to lying and manipulative braggadocio that he could not even hear himself. And this was their “best man!” How I longed for an honest used car salesman that day.

A believer might say, “I don’t want a job in used car sales. It is too disreputable. There is too much dishonesty.” But it would be better to say, “Society needs honest used car salesmen. I love cars and have skill in sales. Therefore I want to take that job and shed God’s light in a dark place.” The world would be a slightly better place if more honest people sold used cars.

The field of politics also needs godly influences. Politicians need honesty and integrity to resist pressures for corruption. Today, temptation comes in the form of campaign contributions. Tomorrow, it will take another shape. The powerful always have ways to promote themselves through the exchange of favors. God ordained government, but power, mixed with sin, always invites sin. Therefore, God blesses government but regulates it (Dt 17:14-20). Scripture calls it an instrument of God’s justice in Romans 13, but an instrument of Satanic oppression in Revelation 13. Since it can become either one, we need Christians in government.

The less honored the profession, perhaps, the greater the need of Christian influences. Of course, some occupations are intrinsically immoral or degrading; no one is called to reform them. But some honest callings have been corrupted and are ripe for restoration. If we enter with hope, prayer, skill and co-workers with an agenda for reform, we can make a difference. We must be prepared for resistance. But if we stand together, we see that “a cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Eccl 4:12). More than that, we have reason to hope that reforms will work, for God designed the world to work best when we do things his way.

Perhaps Jesus summarized it best when he concluded his overture to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. When disciples live out their faith, he said, four things can happen. First, the world may be so offended it resorts to persecution (5:11). Second, we may function as the salt of the earth (5:13). Salt retards decay; to be salt is to slow down the corruption caused by sin. Third, we can be light for the world (5:14). Light does more than lessen sin; it gives positive direction to the world. Finally, at best, our righteousness can so shine that men will praise our Father in heaven (5:16). That is, they do not merely admire us, but they see that there is something—Someone—behind us, granting the wisdom and strength we display in our work. May we who work in politics and the media and used car sales and all the rest make this our prayer: That our presence should restrain evil and cast light in dark places, that men and women might see our good works and praise the Father for them.

Daniel M. Doriani holds a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary and is Senior Pastor at Central Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, MO. © Daniel M. Doriani 2002. Reprinted by permission from Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review (12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141) 28/1 (Spring 2002): 1-11.


1. At the beginning of his article, Dr. Doriani lists case studies in which Christians in the marketplace found themselves in “difficult places.” What was your initial response to each one? Did reading the article cause you to think differently about any of them? Why or why not? Can you think of other case studies that could be added to the list?

2. What ethical issues are involved in your vocation? What issues of justice? Of truth? How have you addressed them as a Christian? Are you convinced your response has been satisfactory? Why or why not? Does this article shed any light on your situation?

3. “Disciples need to know how to conduct themselves with integrity,” Dr. Doriani says, “to remain holy in unholy places.” Do you have the knowledge you need? How do you know? What does Doriani mean by “integrity?” Reflect on Doriani’s use of Scripture to identify principles by which we are to live. Did you identify the same principles when you read these texts in the past? Why or why not?

4. Doriani mentions “calling” several times in the course of the article. How vital is calling to his argument? To what extent do you know your calling? How has that knowledge affected your decisions and life?

5. Elijah had a very different working relationship with King Ahab compared to Obadiah. Yet, Doriani says, “neither man questioned the other. Each knew his own calling and believed God worked through another calling for his brother.” To what extent are you comfortable with this level of diversity within the Christian community? To what extent would it be tolerated in your church? Why is conformity so highly prized in such matters?

6 .Using Doriani’s own words, list the specific principles he extracts from the Scriptures concerning believers working in difficult places. What is your response to them? To what extent do they seem new or radical? Why do you think that is? Do Christians today know, believe, and follow them? Why or why not?

7. To prevent compromise, Doriani lists a series of questions we should ask ourselves. Do so. Are there any that give you pause?

8. “The less honored the profession,” Doriani argues in his conclusion, “the greater the need of Christian influences.” What difficulties will believers face in those vocations? In the church as they enter those vocations? How should the church provide for support and encouragement? If you know of believers in such vocations, what plans should you make?