Some years ago I met a member of a local atheist group. He introduced himself as a graduate of Taylor University College (TUC), the sister school of the seminary where I teach (TUC closed in 2009).
An atheist graduate of a Christian university? How’d that happen? The young man then explained that following graduation he had taken a position at a Christian organization. The experience was so demoralizing that after a year he left the church altogether. Six months after that, he was an atheist. (Well, at least it wasn’t the school’s fault…)
This is one example of the perils of working for a Christian organization, but I could list many more. Based on extensive anecdotal evidence that I’ve accumulated over the years, I conclude that on the whole jobs in government and private business offer better security and healthier work environments for than avowedly Christian organizations.
I suspect there are several reasons for this. In this article I’d like to consider one reason based on this case. I call it cross abuse.
Back when he was initially hired, this young university graduate was regularly pressured to work over-time for no extra pay. And he was discouraged from receiving proper remuneration for expenses based on the the notion that this would detract from the ability of the organization to help the poor. Not only was he exhausted and disheartened, but given his previous positive experiences working for secular organizations, he also became increasingly cynical.
So what gives rise to this notion that the organization can take advantage of its employees? In Luke 9:23 Jesus calls his disciples to take up their crosses daily. Thus, the Christian life is supposed to be characterized by self-denial for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.
Set against this backdrop, the organizational culture tacitly accepted the notion that shortchanging employees and eschewing professionalism in the workplace could be justified by this call of discipleship. What is taking up one’s cross daily if not working without over-time and not claiming your expenses?
This is what I call “cross abuse”: it’s an appeal to the cross to justify abusing or taking advantage of others. Secular organizations are susceptible to cross abuse as well, though they wouldn’t present it in explicitly religious terms. The fact is that any business may place unreasonable and even abusive expectations upon employees for the sake of the institutional mission.
Nonetheless, the centrality of the Christian teaching that discipleship involves suffering and self-denial provides for Christian organizations a uniquely powerful and tempting way to forgo their own obligations to their employees in a manner that undermines professionalism and cultivates a culture of abuse.