Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Five reasons not to preach on workplace relations

30 Nov 2005

by Brian Edgar

Here are five reasons preachers give for avoiding any significant reference to the current Australian workplace relations proposals in their preaching.

1. ‘It’s too political and controversial. We should allow individuals to make up their own minds.

Some say that Jesus stressed spiritual rather than political matters (e.g. “My kingdom is not of this world,” John 18:36). But what he said and did has implications for the whole of life and for society. He was political and at times controversial (e.g. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” Luke 4:18).

Controversy is not to be sought for its own sake. It is better for preachers to avoid the polarised thinking and confrontational debate that characterises most public dialogue today. One of the most important aspects of a preacher’s contribution could be the way they model how to engage in a mature, biblical consideration of the issues. Engagement without polarity is not the same as indecision or going soft on fundamental matters of injustice. But it does mean refusing to unthinkingly adopt existing divisions.

2. ‘It’s too impersonal an issue and doesn’t relate to people’s real lives.

The present industrial relations debate in Australia draws together many fundamental dimensions of contemporary life. It is about the kind of society we want. It deals with the way people are treated, the nature of social relationships and the significance of family life. Any preacher can easily read a summary of the government proposals. A Christian view of the proposed legislation will require reflection on the biblical and theological principles, which relate to at least five broad areas of life:

· Money and economics: These deal with wages and what is fair and appropriate reward for work done, especially concerning the establishment of minimum levels of remuneration.

· Time and the relationship of work to other activities: There is a potentially significant shift in the social philosophy of the way special times and days (such as public holidays, Sundays and annual holidays) are treated. There is also a potential shift in the proportion of time spent in work compared to other activities.

· Relationships between people, families and other social groups: The legislation affects families and the ability of individuals to provide for dependants. The net amount earned is important but it is not the only issue. Security and tenure are equally important.

· Individual freedom, choice and power: This lies at the heart of the philosophical debate about the proposed legislation. There are significant differences of opinion about where power lies and ought to lie. The draft legislation proposes a shift towards a more individualised approach to relationships between employees and employers. This calls into question the nature of power individuals have and whether they will benefit or be disempowered by circumstance or lack of ability.

· The treatment of the weak, the less able and the disadvantaged: The proposed legislation must be able to deliver appropriate economic support and care for those who are disadvantaged, and advantage those who are less able to look for work or negotiate conditions. Even if it were not possible or desirable to give a final judgment on the value of the legislation, it would be good to help Christians discern some of the issues involved and begin to apply theological and biblical principles to the issue.

3. ‘It’s too negative and doesn’t build up individuals or the congregation.

There is a perception that preaching on social issues is a form of ‘prophetic’ preaching that involves critiquing social situations and being negative about the world. Some preachers only criticise society’s repudiation of family values; a few engage broader matters of social justice. But for many, ‘prophetic preaching’ is not helpful to the positive development of congregational life. This arises from an overly privatised view of the gospel. It is important to preach on matters of social and public concern not merely to critique what society does but to emphasise the responsibilities of God’s covenant people to demonstrate in their corporate life the way a society should live. Preaching about public issues should be positive and enhance the life of the church as well as of society.

4. ‘It’s too difficult and I’m not trained in economics or labour relations.

The role of the preacher can be to point in a direction rather than to define the destination. One does not need to understand the mechanics of a bus engine in order to decide whether to get on. All one needs to know is its direction. Similarly, one does not need to understand the full detail to understand the direction in which the legislation is going, the values it espouses and the techniques it will use to get there. What a preacher should understand are the basic values of the gospel and be able to relate them to relationships, the exercise of power, the value of economic development and the protection of the weak. Don’t underestimate the interest of the congregation or their ability to continue working it through after the preacher has finished preaching.

5. ‘It’s not relevant to the gospel and doesn’t appear in the Bible.

The dichotomy between social action and evangelism is a false one. The evangelical proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. It is always wrong to preach on issues such as industrial relations without speaking about Jesus. Even in the public realm we must not allow anyone to think that we act on our own behalf or in our own strength. It would be wrong to artificially conceal the reason for our involvement: the call of Jesus and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Whenever possible Christians should not speak about industrial relations without also speaking about Jesus.

Rev Dr Brian Edgar is Director of Public Theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance. The second part of his article, titled ‘What to preach about workplace relations,’ will appear in the next issue of Soundings. The full text is available at The Australian government promotes its legislative changes at

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

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