March 18, 2012 - A pastor once asked a professor for advice on how to handle a controversy in his church. The largest financial supporter of a Baptist church was nominated to the board of deacons. He happened to be the owner of a busy liquor store.
No one ever complained about his large donations to the church, but his nomination to the deacon board aroused a furor.
That's one of the scenarios addressed in a new book by Samford University professor John C. Knapp, founding director of Samford's Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership.
"Money is such a defining part of our everyday life; why aren't we learning to think biblically and theologically about money in our everyday lives?" Knapp said. "What constitutes good work? Are there some occupations where it's just not possible to live out one's Christian discipleship? How do we draw that line? Can one be a Christian pornographer? What about if it is an executive at Time Warner, that carries pornography through the cable division? Somehow we're more comfortable about it then. Can we say for certain which occupations are for Christians and which are not?"
Knapp explores the relationship between church and work in a new book, "How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can be Done About It)," published by Eerdman's (192 pp., $15).
"We don't all have the option of choosing the work we do," Knapp said. "Some have more choices. I don't think that means someone who has less choices is less important to God."
Churches often solicit donations without asking questions about how the money was made, but offer little in the way of moral theology for the workplace, he said.
"Many people have a great desire for their work to connect with their faith," Knapp said. "We don't speak so often about someone being called to be a barber, accountant or to work for the county government. That conveys a message of what's most important to God. It demeans daily work. The work of so many is never mentioned, never held up as obeying God's call."
Many times there is an implied devaluation of any work that is not Christian ministry, he said.
"We will go to great lengths to set aside time to pray for people going to do a short-term mission project in Mexico; this is seen as doing the Lord's work," Knapp said. "Do we take time to pray for a person who is starting a new job? Do we pray for new college students looking for a career? Do we commission them for discipleship in those contexts?"
Charles Sheldon, who wrote the novel "In His Steps" and coined the phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" in the 1890s, was known for visiting people at work and even working alongside them, Knapp said.
"Many of the burdens people bring to church are burdens they bring from their work," he said. "There's a need for clergy to become more familiar with what members do for a living, even visiting people at work. Their work is how they express their God-given gifts in the world. It's where they find meaning and purpose in life."
There are numerous examples of high-profile Christians who have led unethical lives in the business world. "Clergy should be encouraging ethical and moral approaches to work from the pulpit," Knapp said.
There is reasonable caution about blatant evangelism in the workplace, he said.
"It's not about evangelizing the workplace," Knapp said. "It's about how do you find meaning in your work."
Historically Christians have struggled with how to teach about money.
"The traditional Christian position, and the Old Testament position, is that a desire for wealth is a danger," he said. "It is symptomatic of a desire to make oneself self-sufficient, and takes us further away from our rightful dependence on God."
The church needs a doctrine of vocation -- calling to be disciples in whatever their line of work -- and a moral theology of work, Knapp said.
"When we think about the work we do, we should think about being an instrument of God's love in the world," Knapp said. "We haven't developed a very good doctrine of money. We range from prosperity gospel -- God wants to make you rich -- to the monastic traditions of renunciation of wealth on the other extreme."
As churches become larger, with megachurches turning into conglomeratesized, corporation entities, the lines between church and business blur.
"We think of church and the world of business as separate worlds, but the church is engaged in business itself," Knapp said. "Do we make business decisions in the church with any more theological thought than in the business world? The church needs to be a model in hiring practices, transparent with budgets, exemplary in its moral practices."
The Mann Center was started at Samford in 2008 with a gift from alumnus Marvin Mann, retired chairman of Lexmark International, who wanted to encourage the teaching of ethical values in all disciplines.
"We can help all of our students think of their own future roles in the world as opportunities for discipleship," Knapp said. "Younger Christians are looking for more integration of faith in life, and that includes faith at work."