The Christian in Overalls

In April of 1942, Westminster Theological Seminary hosted “The Christian World Order Conference,” just a few short months after the United States had officially entered World War II. It was a time of great uncertainty in the world. The goal of the conference was to contrast a biblical view of the world with fascism, communism, and nationalism, which had taken root in Europe, Asia, and beyond. It was a conference dedicated to applying the riches of the Reformed theological tradition to public societal issues.

The conference’s success was evidence of a need for wider distribution of this content. The Presbyterian Guardian, a newspaper founded by J. Gresham Machen, and loosely affiliated with Westminster and the OPC, published nine articles in a series under the heading “The Christian in the 20th Century World” with the same goal as the conference.

The content of these articles is striking and, in many ways, as relevant to the 21st Century world as it was for readers in the mid-20th century. Westminster Magazine will be republishing each article, in print and online, over the next year.

This, the fourth of the articles, is Joesph Gritter’s “The Christian in Overalls. Joseph Gritter was the secretary of the Christian Labor Association which was founded by members of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, a denomination which helped form the RPCNA alongside the OPC. In this article, Gritter draws our attention to the God-given inherent dignity of labor. He points out that labor is not a necessary evil or something to be avoided as much as possible. Rather, the creation mandate in Genesis 1 and 2 informs our lives as those who work to the glory of God. Gritter delineates the implications of this truth for daily life in a modern society.

There is an inherent dignity in labor that is not appreciated as it should be. Too many workers in our age look upon labor as something that cannot be avoided altogether, but of which one ought to do as little as possible. That attitude is found among city workers more than among the  rural laborers—and for good reasons—Our age of invention, of mass industries and production lines has created many jobs that have a ruinous, degrading effect upon the worker, physically and mentally. When a person is hardly more than an automaton, only a cog in a machine that is mass industry, labor is apt to become drudgery. Then to retain consciousness of the divinely-given dignity inherent in labor is difficult indeed. 

       The rural worker has not that problem. His work is varied. It changes constantly. It requires mental as well as physical application at all times. And, what is very fundamental, it is more directly and closely related to the institution of labor by the Creator immediately after the creation of man. It is recorded in Genesis 1:28 that God charged man to “replenish the earth and  subdue it”, and repeated in Genesis 2:15 in the words, “God took the man and put him into the  garden, to dress it and keep it”. Adam and his descendants for several generations were farmers, tillers of the soil and keepers of herds. The labor of the rural worker of today is still the same as  that given to Adam at the creation of the world. It is of first importance among all labor. Without the fruit of the field, men cannot live. The visual evidence of that fact, and the fruitful result of such labor which is always apparent, lends to rural labor an interest and joy that keeps such workers ever mindful of the dignity of their work. 

       It is true that the same cannot be said concerning the work of millions of laborers who are occupied in large industries. Nevertheless, their work too has an inherent dignity about it. All honest labor has. The brief charge to "replenish the earth and subdue it” contains everything in principle that can be said in regard to the value of all labor in the sight of God. But, it takes a Christian to appreciate it! The all-wise Creator placed in the earth all that was needed not only for the daily necessities but also all that was necessary to develop the conveniences, comforts  and luxuries which we enjoy in this twentieth century. God gave to man the physical and mental ability to bring the wonders of creation to fruition. His is the glorious task of developing the  potentials! But—and this is too often overlooked—God wrought it all! We are only instruments in His hand, stewards to whom His property has been entrusted. The worker who is conscious of that, who realizes that he is a co-laborer with God in the development of God's wonderful creation, can appreciate the dignity inherent in his labor, however arduous his task may be. 

       In this connection, we may not fail to point to the effect that sin has had upon labor. Through its effects, man’s labor has in many cases become toilsome. Thorns and thistles, plagues and calamities, have made labor hard and difficult. The fruit of man's work is often meager. On the other hand, it is equally true that God upheld man in his position above the material creation, so that in spite of adversities he can still, by the grace of God, subdue the earth, replenish it and develop it to an extent that labor can still be a joy and life bearable. That is a blessing that God  has given to mankind in general. But, again, it is only the Christian who can fully appreciate it,  who can see the greatness of his task under God, who can, observing the marvels of the earth and its beauty in spite of sin, conscious of his place in it, exclaim as David did in Psalm 8: "O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!… What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?… Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all  things under his feet:...O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” That laborer who can thus praise his Creator is a Christian. He has caught a vision of the dignity of his work, of the gloriousness of his task as underlord. He understands that all labor, however menial or arduous it may be, if performed in the spirit of service to his God—that the Creator of all may be glorified—is noble, dignified and sanctified! 

The Rights and Duties of the Laborer 

Speaking of rights and duties of labor in one breath is not in accordance with accepted  practices of present-day labor leaders. The position taken is this: There are two hostile forces,  one represented by capital, the employers, and the other by labor. It is labor's responsibility to fight for and defend its rights; insistence upon performance of its duties can be left to the other group. Likewise labor must emphasize the duties of the employer, leaving the defense of the  employer’s rights to him. Thus a certain balance is supposedly achieved. But the result has been  continuous warfare between the two groups. The class struggle is the result of that philosophy of  labor relations. 

       The Christian who is faced with the problem of what constitutes a proper relationship must consider his duties and the employer's rights as well as his own rights and the employer’s  duties. Thus only can he establish relationships that are based on justice. 

       In his search for principles that will guide him in the establishment of proper relationships, the Christian worker must turn to the Bible. And it is not surprising at all that some  of the most basic principles are found right in the first chapters of Genesis. Since there is found a record of laws and ordinances which God instituted before the fall of man, much may be deduced from them as a basis for Christian social action in the field of labor relations. The relationships and ordinances there established harmonize fully with the will of the Creator. Hence Christian principles based on them may be accepted as also in harmony with that will. 

       In Genesis 1:27 to 29, a basis for several of such principles was established. There is first of all the statement that God created man in His own image, after His likeness. That placed an  inherent value, dignity and honor upon man that may never be ignored. No one has the right to deal with men as if they were animals, pieces of machinery, or clods of earth. Man is never a part of the machinery of production; he stands much higher than that. He is a physical-spiritual personality, with needs for body and soul. As such he must be regarded. It is a right which the worker may demand of his employer. At the same time it involves also the duty to regard the  employer also as an image-bearer of the Creator. And it imposes upon the worker the duty towards himself of not misusing his body by too strenuously seeking the goods of this world while at the same time neglecting the needs of the soul. 

       A second principle that was laid down in the charge given to Adam is this: Man shall live by the fruit of his labor. That principle is taught throughout the Scriptures. It is an ordinance of God. It is not wrong to draw the conclusion that it is in accordance with the will of God that he  who labors well shall live well. And since the family was instituted by God Himself, and the responsibility of providing for daily needs was placed upon the head of the family, the man, it is entirely right to claim that it is God's will that the head of a family should earn enough to be able to provide for it properly. That means more than bread and clothing. God gave to all men the charge to develop His creation, and He gave a wide diversity of talents and abilities. All of them are necessary to bring the glory of the creation to full fruition. There must be opportunity therefore for education and proper training. The Christian worker has the right to seek such conditions of labor as will enable him to provide for his family all that is necessary for the care and training of those dependent upon him. The Christian indeed need not take a back seat for anyone when it comes to promoting the establishment of good labor conditions. However, there is a fundamental difference in the motive. The unbeliever has no purpose except the advancement of human interests and honor; the Christian has in mind the service and honor of his God. 

“The Christian worker has the right to seek such conditions of labor as will enable him to provide for his family all that is necessary for the care.”

       That it is the duty of the worker to render good service, to do good work, not to kill time, and so forth, is so obvious a truth that it should not be necessary to emphasize it. Yet it is! Especially at a time such as this, when there is a labor scarcity and workers are able to "get  away" with much, the temptation to.take it easy, to kill time, to stretch a job into overtime, and to slide the work, is very strong. Too many modern labor leaders encourage that attitude. No Christian has the right to do any of that. Even though it be true that the employer, under cost-plus production, does not lose anything (he may even gain by it, in fact), a Christian may not refuse or  connive to do less than a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. To do so is a sin against the eighth commandment. And it is equally true that an employer who tries to increase profits by boosting costs is guilty of theft. It is an undeniable fact that the cost-plus method of war material production has encouraged dishonesty, but that does not excuse the Christian who takes  advantage of it. 

        A third principle that we base on the charge given in Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:16 is this: Man was given authority over certain possessions. God gave His material creation to all men, to develop, to use, to possess as stewards. This principle would seem to justify a kind of Christian socialism. And in fact no objection to the consistent application of this principle is in  place so long as the ideas of authority and possession of property are subordinated to the fact that all men are stewards of God's possessions. Then too, it is very clearly taught throughout the Scriptures that men have not all been entrusted with equal authority. In the amount or degree, there is a difference that is not the result of sin but that is part of God’s creation order. Jesus taught in His parables that men will be responsible according to the possessions they have and the authority they exercise. 

       Those basic principles, in their practical application, establish certain rights and duties. The authority entrusted to the Christian laborer who has no material possessions in the form of means of production is limited, individually, to his ability as a human personality. He has his mental capacities, his skill, his physical strength, all that is necessary to do a job well. Those are his possessions first of all. No one, be it an employer or an organization or the state, has the right to take from him his right to the free exercise of those possessions so long as he does not make misuse of them. The recognition of that authority forms the basis for our democratic principles of  freedom. In this connection also, we must mention the authority of man to speak freely and to serve God without any interference. It is clear as crystal that the liberties at stake in the present war are of special interest to the Christian worker. Without them he cannot live as he should, as steward of what God has entrusted to him. 

       There are, however, responsibilities and duties—the responsibilities toward the Creator first of all. It is not necessary to enumerate them again. There are responsibilities also toward  others, the worker's family and fellow-laborers. There is no such thing as absolute individualism. Man is a social being. Hence there are duties toward the family and other members of society. However, in our discussion we are more concerned at present about the duties toward employers. The employer has the same right to exercise authority over: individual possessions as the employee. That is well understood. But he also has the right to exercise authority over material goods in the form of means of production. The Christian worker will honor that right, because it is demanded of him in the Word of God. And he will not destroy or seize the employer's property in order thereby to force the employer to give in to his demands. The Scriptures forbid such practices. 

       That does not mean that the Christian worker must justify whatever the employer does with his property. Not at all. The employer, too, is a steward, responsible to God and with very definite obligations toward his fellowmen. Whatever he controls must be used in the interest of the welfare of society as well as his own. If he exploits whatever he controls, to enrich himself and to the detriment of his employees, the Christian worker may also use legitimate means to correct such an evil condition.  

Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively 

The right to organize is really more than a right: it is a duty, from the Christian viewpoint.  It is not surprising that many conscientious Christians shunned labor organizations when they  observed their practices. And they are right in their stand that to organize for the purpose of  establishing a labor dictatorship and to use all kinds of unlawful and unchristian methods to gain  certain objectives cannot be justified. We do not contend that it is the duty of Christian workers to join the so-called neutral unions. Instead of that, we take the position that Christian workers  should not join any union whose interest is selfishly centered upon the material welfare of its  members, that does not respect the interests and rights of others—employers and workers—and  that engages in practices that conflict with Christian ethical principles based on the Word of God.  That is a Biblical stand that ought to be greatly emphasized among Christian workers of our  nation. 

        Nevertheless the duty to organize remains, albeit in organizations that are based on Christian social principles as laid down in the Scriptures. Christians do not believe in selfish individualism. They are conscious of their responsibilities toward their fellowmen. Not only that, but there is a spiritual tie that binds them. That is why they are organized in churches, as members of one body. And that is why they organize in the social realm, in various kinds of organizations, labor, civic, and so forth, in order to seek the application of Christian principles in those fields of human endeavor. Such organizations see in every injustice a violation of the laws of God. They seek correction first of all because God demands it of them. The promotion of better labor conditions, protection of the rights of the worker and recognition of rights of the  employer are part of that greater purpose that seeks recognition of the sovereignty of God over  all of life. 

        The Christian labor union must be unique in many respects. Its purpose already indicates that. In its practical activities, too, it must be different. Its organizational set-up may not differ much from that of other unions. But it does not seek power in order to be able to dictate.or to force its demands, just or unjust, upon employers and society as a whole, by any and all means, fair or foul. It seeks power in order to enthrone justice for all! It may not ignore individual rights, hence it cannot force workers to join an organization against their will or conviction. Instead of that, it honors the right of all workers to join the organization of their free choice and offers cooperation to other unions in that which is in harmony with Christian principles of life. The Christian organization insists upon observance of the Lord's day. It will not use the strike weapon  except as a very last resort, after all means to correct an injustice by conferences and arbitration have failed and the employer persists in imposing injustice. 

        And what about collective bargaining? Christians can do that. But in their demands and discussions, they must be guided by Christian principles. Unfair demands may not be made. The interests of the employer must be given proper consideration. That is collective bargaining in the true sense of the term. If the representatives of labor and capital meet in conference, mindful of one an. other's rights and interests and with a mutual understanding, to seek a solution that is fair to all in a peaceful manner, collective bargaining can be placed on a high plane. Too much collective bargaining, so-called, is actually no more than the exertion of collective pressure upon  one another. Industrial-labor conflicts are the result. 

       Finally, Christian workers can and should exercise influence upon legislative bodies for the enactment of laws that will eliminate evils and establish relationships that are fair to the worker and the employer and withal protect the interests of the public. Christian workers have done very little in that direction. It can be done only through organization. 

       In the application of Christian principles lies the solution, insofar as a solution can be accomplished in this dispensation, of the problems and conflicts in the social-industrial realm. Christian workers of our nation must propagate them. It is their duty to do so, individually and  collectively. A beginning has been made. There is, a Christian Labor Association already established. Whether or not it will be able to carry out what it seeks to accomplish depends upon the Christians of America. 

(November 25th, 1943) 

Joseph Gritter was the secretary of the Christian Labor Association which was founded by members of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, a denomination which helped form the RPCNA alongside the OPC.

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 


Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.