Grace, Works, and Christian Employment

“This is a Christian organisation so we expect people to put in more than regular work hours. This isn’t just a normal workplace. We’re serving God together!”

Many employees have heard this kind of logic. They work for Christian organisations, charities, and churches, and so it is expected of them that they put extra time into the work beyond what they are technically employed to do.

For some that looks like a job contracted at part-time hours which fills most of the week, or a 40 hour per week job which actually demands 60 hours. Similarly, church ministry workers are often implicitly expected to work an intimidating and ill-defined number of hours which often bear little relationship to what was agreed to in their contract. But the situation may feel difficult to challenge without appearing ungodly. After all, it’s a Christian organisation or church, and we all agree that ministry is important, church is important, charity work is important, and that the gospel is important. So we easily accept the idea that Christian employment is fundamentally different to employment in any other job.

This is a problem. Expecting employees to work beyond what they are contracted to do is a breach of the agreed terms of employment. Furthermore, it’s a confusion of some truths that go to the heart of the gospel.

Grace and Works at Work

There is a fundamental difference between grace and works. Works is about being given what you are owed. It’s a transaction where both parties have a duty to one another, one to do the agreed work and the other to pay what is owed for that work. Grace is entirely different and is incompatible with the logic of work. It is about someone choosing to give what cannot and must not be demanded. Grace is giving freely and without compulsion. Employers can rightly demand the work they are owed from their employees, but they cannot demand that additional time and energy be given beyond an employee’s duties. That is to treat grace as though it were works.

Employment in a Christian organisation should be no different from working in any other organisation. In every case a Christian must engage in their work with integrity and to the full extent of their ability. They must capably fulfil their duties and work the full number of hours that they contractually agreed to. They must do this as people who live, speak and conduct themselves as Christians in all situations. But a Christian employee can still only be expected to fulfil the duties and hours that they were contracted to do. Nothing more can be demanded of them since they have no further obligations toward their employer.

(Let’s pause to admit that many secular employers make illegitimate demands of their employees too. But the only relevance of this is to point out that Christians should do better than the world around them).

A Wrong Response

A common reply to all this is that in a church (for example) unpaid volunteers contribute many hours of their own time to the ministry. Let’s say various church members are volunteering 10 hours a week on top of their own paid employment outside the church. It might seem to follow that a paid ministry worker who is employed to do two days per week of work should be expected to do a similar number of additional hours of church work on top of their normal employment hours. However that expectation undermines the entire notion of volunteering. By definition, volunteers choose to serve, or choose not to. They freely give what cannot and must not be demanded of them. They are free to vary the number of hours they volunteer. They are free to choose to volunteer their own time in their church or in another setting. There are a lot of good ways to fruitfully serve Jesus both inside and outside one’s local church!

Once an employee has fulfilled their job’s contractual duties they are free to serve however they want to. That might involve further time serving in their church or Christian workplace. But they might alternatively choose to spend it elsewhere. They don’t need to justify this decision to their employer since their time is theirs to volunteer when and where they think best. Their employer mustn’t try to smuggle additional obligations into their work in the name of grace. That transforms grace into works, sucks the joy out of serving, and will likely breed bitterness at illegitimate job expectations.

In 1 Corinthians 9:3-18 the Apostle Paul speaks of his own work in these kinds of terms. In his unique case, he was called by Jesus to be an Apostle and therefore had the obligation to preach the gospel. He also had the right to be paid for his work of preaching. This is what he was owed for his work. However Paul was eager to do what Christians do: to serve voluntarily. Therefore he chose not to exercise his right to be paid so that he was graciously volunteering something rather than merely carrying out the duties of his employment (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). This was a great joy to him. Volunteering to others what cannot be demanded is basic to Christian existence. Anything that can be demanded cannot be freely given.

Christian employers need to be clear on these issues. They should encourage their employees’ decisions to volunteer their own time as they see fit and not begrudge them for it. They should respect and encourage their employees to guard the boundaries of their work life. Life is far more than work, even and especially for those who work in Christian organisations. When work boundaries are rightly defined it provides a context for people to work hard, fulfill the duties of their employment, and to freely and joyfully volunteer beyond that as they see fit.