The November 2017 issue of this magazine was themed “Bringing Christ to the Workplace” and featured articles by three young professional women and their approach to sharing their faith in three distinct work places – professional office, in the hospital and in the classroom. A common thread in all three accounts was that both “matter and manner” are important aspects of our conversations when it comes to sharing one’s faith with colleagues and students. The manner in which this is done will either support the witness or hinder it. The purpose of this article is to offer some further reflections but from a somewhat unique perspective that reflects the author’s former employment position.
For the past 15 years I have been employed by a group of non-denominational state-integrated Christian schools here in Christchurch with two main objectives. Firstly, to help the group of schools work more closely together and, secondly, to assist them to negotiate with the Crown’s representative in education, the Ministry of Education. In pursuing both objectives I needed to be faithful to the “matters” in terms of Christian belief but also just as important was the “manner” of my approach with them.
To helpfully understand what follows please bear with me as I describe the context. State-integrated schools are state schools and Crown-owned entities. Some of you may “pale” at such a thought knowing that successive governments in New Zealand which represent the Crown, have been essentially secular in nature and the issue of being “unequally yoked” looms large. To provide equality in the relationship state-integrated schools have a Deed of Integration, which is an agreement between the owner of a particular integrated school, the proprietor, and the Crown, which sets out the school’s unique special character. The applicable legislation lays out that this Deed “binds the Crown”. The Deed, which is specific to each school, grants the proprietor the absolute right to insist that the education delivered to students is Christian and that schools can legally discriminate in employment to only employ Christian teachers. Most of the Deeds have a Statement of Faith that is usually very close to the well-known Apostles Creed. The Statement of Faith is a key component of the school’s special character. So, the Crown recognises and expects that these particular schools will operate in a way that promotes and inculcates the Christian special character in all aspects of its operation.
However, in several other more practical areas state-integrated schools need to negotiate with the Ministry of Education [MOE] in such matters as property, finance and curriculum delivery. So how to do this?
As I was about to begin the work 15 years ago, our church had just begun a series of sermons on the book of Daniel. Most readers will be familiar with how, in the early chapters of the book of Daniel, 4 young Hebrew men had to handle the matter of food offered to idols which was out of bounds to them on religious grounds, and how Daniel had to negotiate with the chief eunuch, who was named Ashpenaz who was in charge of caring for the young men who had been handpicked from conquered lands and who were enrolled at the “University of Babylon”. And then there was the dream that troubled King Nebuchadnezzar, and the way Daniel negotiated with Arioch the chief executioner who was ordered by the king to execute all the wise men because they could not tell the king the content of his dream, let alone interpret the same. Daniel negotiated with Arioch to get an audience before the King – he would tell the king his dream and interpret it, which by God’s grace he did.
Now Arioch and Ashpenaz were public servants of the most powerful ruler that ever was. How did Daniel work with these men? Daniel 2:14 [NIV] tells us:
“and he [that is Daniel] dealt with them with wisdom and tact”.
The ESV renders the translation as “Daniel replied with prudence and discretion.”
This has been my modus operandi when interacting with public servants over the past 15 years and it has by and large borne fruit.
Now, importantly, we need to observe that Daniel did not always find an accommodating solution when it came to the critical issues of his faith … he and his friends had challenging journeys to the Fiery Furnace and the Lion’s Den because on matters of first order principle they stood their ground but also again noting that they did this in a humble manner leaving the outcome to the Lord.
The New Testament also instructs us on this balance. In Romans 13 we read …
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.”
So, we have important lessons here, namely that governing authorities are established by God and because of this must be shown respect and honour. That doesn’t mean we are a pushover, but we undertake the contest in a respectful manner, debating the issue and not the man. Of course, as with the Daniel episode there is another side to the coin.
In Acts 5 we read that when the Apostles appeared before the Sanhedrin, they made a stand stating:
“We must obey God rather than human beings!”
For myself for the most part the balance between these two imperatives has usually been easy to manage … virtually all issues have been of a Romans 13 nature. But there are clouds looming on the horizon which may change this. The issues of gender diversity and Maori spirituality are two such areas and will become a litmus test of what schools believe to be the biblical teaching on these matters and will need to be traversed with care and sensitivity without compromising clear biblical teaching. As an aside, sadly, the theological diversity within the wider realm of Christian education looks like it may be as challenging as the diversity that the Crown would like schools to deliver on with regard to these important moral and spiritual issues.
A good friend recently drew my attention to a very helpful article by Dr Albert Mohler, entitled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”. Mohler uses the emergency room process of Triage as a metaphor for deciding which issues are worth standing ground on (first order conditions) and which ones need good debate (second order conditions) and which ones we as Christians might have differences on and still remain in close fellowship (third order conditions). I mention this because it helps us to think through “what are the important issues” both between Christians and then also in the context of this article, what are the first order issues where a stand needs to be taken in education and again noting that even in these areas the need to get the manner right is vital so that the matter is not potentially obscured by poor manners.
The Apostle Paul’s address to the Athenians at the Areopagus is a helpful example to learn from. Herewith his opening lines from Acts 17.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So, you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you … .”
We note that Paul begins in a winsome and respectful manner … he has done his homework, he understands their position and finds an “entrance point” into the conversation that “engages the audience” where they are at and then faithfully introduces the gospel, balancing hope and judgement.
So, I made it my business to get to know at least a few people in the MOE in a personal and genuine way … who they are, where they live, their personal circumstance, what makes them tick … but also where they fit in the organisation where they are employed. On a higher level I try to understand the “who’s who” in the MOE’s hierarchy and then beyond this who the current Minister of Education is and what may be the Minster’s “current itch”.
Showing acts of kindness above what is normally expected builds a relationship and provides opportunity. When those I knew well left the MOE for another employment opportunity to thank them in a personal way such as cards and flowers showed them and their colleagues that you are genuinely interested in them as people. A specific example of this is that after the Christchurch earthquakes the MOE had to make some tough yet necessary decisions so that education to the young people of the city could continue. Many of the decisions were not popular and because of time pressure many decisions were implemented without community consultation. Sadly, the MOE had to endure severe and often unfounded criticism. As a group of Christian schools, we decided to provide the MOE in the Christchurch office, consisting of several hundred employees, a morning tea shout. We were able to thank them for their hard work in difficult and trying circumstances. Toward the end of the event I was asked by the MOE’s regional director to publicly pray for them which was gladly done. The specific witness flowed out of showing kindness, understanding and respect.
The other important angle here is to remember that many Christians work within the public sector. As Christian schools we needed to show proper respect and appropriate behaviour otherwise we ran the risk of undermining the witness of fellow Christians within the MOE. My behaviour and approach on behalf of the schools would either support their witness or undermine it. As well as this, getting to know who some of the Christians within the MOE were allowed for opportunity to encourage them in their work and to pray for and with them.
This all reminds us that we don’t live our lives in an isolated cocoon. While the apostle Peter tells us that we are aliens and strangers in this world we can also learn from the prophet Jeremiah where in chapter 29 we read …
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
The words of the prophet are reinforced by these words from the Apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”.
I admit that at times it is not easy to remember to keep one’s composure under pressure, but we need to work hard at these things remembering that as Christians the fruits of the Spirit are our new way of behaviour, but even more, constantly reminding ourselves of the warnings from James 3 about the tongue and how its use can bring blessing or catastrophe. Let our communications with both believer and unbeliever be marked with wisdom and gentleness.
If people are to be saved, we need to be engaged in our society in such a way that we have opportunity to be a good witness of the Lord Jesus and we do this most helpfully when our conduct and speech is marked by gentleness, kindness and respect.
I end as I started and refer again to Issue November 2017 of this magazine and quote from it:
“All the world’s a stage and you’re an actor that plays the part of Christian. All the world’s a stage and there’s people watching you. You need to understand your world. You need to understand how people think. You need to understand the world of your work”.
Mr Andy van Ameyde is a member of the Reformed Church in Dovedale, Christchurch.
See issue 46/11, December 2019 for more articles on this subject.
Image: Photo by Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash