Christian Schools and Industrial Relations


In 2005, in a speech titled “Christianity and Work: Why Christians Care about Industrial Relations” to the Now We the People Conference, Rev Elenie Poulos of UnitingJustice Australia made the following comment:

“Human labour is not a commodity and people should never be exploited in the drive for profit.  People will always be most productive at work when that work enables them to meet their basic needs: when they are treated with respect and afforded a sense of dignity; when they are treated fairly and feel valued and secure; and when they work in an environment of trust and cooperation where they know they can make a positive difference”.[i]

She also cites Pope Leo XIII (1891)

 “Let it be granted then that worker and employer may enter freely into agreements and, in particular, concerning the amount of the wages; yet there is always underlying such agreements an element of natural justice, and one greater and more ancient than the free consent of contracting parties, namely, that the wage shall not be less than enough to support a worker who is thrifty and upright.  If, compelled by necessity or moved by fear of a worse evil a, a worker accepts a harder condition, which although against his will he must accept because the employer or contractor imposes it, he certainly submits to force, against which justice cries out in protest.”

In her following comments she states:  “UnitingJustice is proud to stand in a long Christian tradition of concern for just employment.”

Everyone should stand for just employment.  But does Rev. Poulos mean fair, or does she mean equal.  The two terms are not synonymous.

The Biblical Job, who probably lived in Abraham’s day, demonstrates the importance of being a just employer:

 If I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves when they filed a complaint against me, what then could I do when God arises? And when He calls me to account, what will I answer Him?  Did not He who made me in the womb, make him, and the same one fashion us in the the womb…..Have the men of my tent not said, “who can find one who has not been satisifed with his meat (Job 31:13-15,31)

You can see that Pope Leo may well have taken his inspiration from Job.

 The employer has a stewardship obligation to effectively govern the organisation on behalf of key stakeholders.  Who are the stakeholders in a Christian school?  The regular list includes the auspicing church or members, the parents, the students, the staff.  Is Jesus Christ a stakeholder in your school?  If not, He should be.   One of the key learnings from my doctoral thesis was that if you trade on God’s name (and every school with “Christian” in it, does so) and you don’t do God (i.e. honour God) in the way in which you do business (not just in the classroom, but also in the boardroom), then you are effectively taking God’s name in vain.  And from memory, that’s No. 3 on His top ten list (Exodus 20:7).

For those who think the Old Testament is passé, there are New Testatment references which support that the terms and conditions must be fair:

  • James 5:4
  • Romans 4:4
  • Matthew 20
  • 1 Corinthians 3:8 (although that is talking about our eternal reward)

The principle theme of the Old and New Testament teaching is to promote the goldy use of power.  The honest treatment of workers is not a favour to them, but and obligation[ii].  Perhaps the New Testament workplace can be best summed up in Colossians 3:22 – 4:1. Good exegesis means you take the principles expounded and then apply those principles to today’s society.

Bond-servants (read employees), obey you masters (read employers) according to the flesh (in the workplace) and not with eye-service, as men-please, bu in sincerity of heart, fearing God.  And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance for you serve the Lord Christ.  But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.  Master (read employers) give you bond servants (read employees) what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master (read God) in heaven.

Not only is it an obligation to be fair, but it is also good business.  The Mary Poppins’ School of Management prescribes, if you find the fun, then snap the job’s a game, and every task you undertake, becomes a piece of cake.   And I am quite serious, if you are having fun at work, you are far more productive. 

So, the fair treatment of workers is our Biblical obligation. But who decides what is fair?

Perhaps, the parable of the workers in the vineyard as reported in Matthew 20 provides a template.

He hired five sets of workers to tend his vineyard and negotiated their pay.

  • Early in the morning – a denarius
  • About 9am – whatever is right
  • Midday – whatever is right
  • 3pm – whatever is right
  • 5pm – whatever is right

Every group got the same wage.  And didn’t the union cause a hue and cry about that one, claiming it was grossly unfair.  One thing this passage does tell me, is that pay should be for work done, not for tenure.  But let’s not talk about the wages table in the Teachers’ Awards.

The clincher comes in verse 15 – the landowner says  “is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things”.  Now the landowner in the parable is God.  The employer is only His steward: not only do we have an obligation to our workers to be fair, but we also have an obligation to Him, to make sure the work gets done.

 Part of that work for a Christian school, is for the teaching staff to teach the curriculum from a Christian worldview, for the maintenance crew to be diligent in the upkeep of the grounds, to be competent and thorough when repairing doorways, or setting up sporting fields. Or in other words, Colossians 3:23 Whatever you do, do it hearily, as to the Lord and not to me.

How then, as God’s stewards, does a Board oversee the spiritual governance of the college.

Is Spiritual Governance even on the risk matrix for your Board? 

When undertaking a risk assessment, there are two major question which need to be asked:

1. What is the likelihood of the event occurring;

2. If the event does occur, what is the likely impact.

In order to effectively deliver a curriculum from a Christian world-view, most schools will agree that it is necessary to employ Christian teaching staff.  We have an opportunity, during the recruitment stage to ensure the person is a Christian.  The potential recruit is invited to share their Christian walk, how they would teach from a Christian worldview as well as to provide a reference from the pastor of the church they are attending.

But what happens for ongoing staff in subsequent years, when, depending upon your world-view, they either backslide or lose their salvation. I have probably upset both the Calvinists and the Arminians with that comment, and I apologise if there is another world-view in the mix which I have missed. This is perhaps the main point of contention with the spiritual governance issue – how do schools, as an employer,  ascertain/confirm that their staff are continuing to walk with the Lord.

Are Statements of Faith efficacious?

Generally we can handle the philosophical aspects through a Statement of Faith. The Moreton Bay College decisions shows the importance of including values, religious or otherwise, in your constituent documents.  But, that is if the matter goes to court.

 Persons, legal or natural, have status within our legal framework.  We all know, that Jesus Christ is a real person who is alive today.  Its just that He is not tangibly located in the country. 

Why is it, that people believe that incorporating His principles into Enterprise Agreements boosts, or enhances His ability to ensure that a Christian school remains true to Him.  The short answer is: to constrain, restrain or reduce Jesus Christ to having to operate within a legal framework which is not God honouring (1 Sam 2:30) is to attempt to neuter Him.  If you want to tell the Almighty that He must restrict the use of His power, you go right ahead.  But for me and my house, I’m not that game.  Of course, God may choose to restrain His power – but that’s different. 

What right has the creature to tell God that this is the way You must operate.  Having Jesus Christ as an effective party to an Enterprise Agreement (and we do this by purporting to bring Christian principles into the agreement) is, in my view, dishonouring to God.

Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration.

The Enterprise Agreement is an instrument of a court.  We are called to avoid taking our brother to court.  1 Corinthians 6:1-11 identifies that going to court is the last resort:

Instead, believers goes to court against believer, and that before unbelievers! Therefore, to have legal disputes against one another is already a moral failure for you, (1 Cor 6:6-7a).

Amos 3:3 poses the question “Do two men walk together unless they have made an agreement.”  So there is every reason to have agreement.  But agreement does not mean equality.  And equally, obedience, does not means obsequiousness (Philippians 2).   Jesus, God the Son, is co-equal with God the Father, yet He (Jesus) was obedient unto death, and only taught the things which the Father had told him.  He did not have a separate plan or agenda.

The system of conciliation and arbitration is counter-productive.  The current system, is by its very nature adversarial.  Instead of this approach, the Biblical response is to sort it out amongst ourselves (as per Matthew 18).  Or in the absence of resolution under this methodology, the use of a private mediator (see Job 9:33), 1 Time 2:5, Heb 9:15)

Does fair mean equal?

In Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v CG Berbatis Holding Pt Ltd [2003] HCA 18 at 11 Chief Justice Gleeson said:

a “person is not in a position of relevant disadvantage, constitutional, situational or otherwise simply because of inequality in bargaining power”

Indeed the passage from Colossians backs this up.  Notwithstanding the power differential between the employer and the employee, the employer is commanded to be fair.

In one respect, the employer has the position of elder (within the New Testament context) to the staff. 

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.  Let them [the leaders] do this with joy and not with groaning for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17 ESV

Yes, but before the endorphins kick in from the power surge; is our way of life, worthy of imitation (Heb 13:7).

So what should the pear-shaped clause look like?

When things go wrong, the Fair Work Act prescribes a model grievance clause

Every modern award contains a dispute resolution clause. Generally, the clause will provide for a process with the following stages:

  • employee/s meet with their direct supervisor to discuss the grievance
  • failing resolution, the matter is discussed further with more senior management
  • failing resolution of the matter, the employer refers the dispute to a more senior level of management or more senior national officer within the organisation
  • where the dispute remains unresolved, the parties may jointly or individually refer the matter to the Fair Work Commission
  • the employer or employee may appoint another person, organisation or association to represent them during this process.[iii]

How does this stack up with Matthew 18?

Fairwork Matthew 18 1 Corinthians
employee/s meet with their direct supervisor to discuss the grievance If your brother sins against you,go and rebuke him in private.  If he listen to you, you have won a brother.  But if he won’t listen take one or two more with you. V15-16  
failing resolution, the matter is discussed further with more senior management V15-16  
failing resolution of the matter, the employer refers the dispute to a more senior level of management or more senior national officer within the organisation v.17a But if he pays no attention to them, tell the church.  
where the dispute remains unresolved, the parties may jointly or individually refer the matter to the Fair Work Commission   1 Corinthians 6:6 says we shouldn’t go to court.  Which is why we have an independent arbitrator in ours
v.17b But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever.bjoyWhat  

[i]       Poulos, E. (2005) “Christianity and Work: Why Christians Care about Industrial Relations”, speech to NOW WE THE PEOPLE Conference 30 July 2005.

[ii]      Rushdoony, R J (1973) The Institutes of Biblical Law, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company

[iii] referenced 16th July 2014 2. Jun, 2018

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