Should Christians ever come out on strike?
I’ve never had to give thought to the question of whether or not to go on strike. I am a church minister now, and we don’t strike – perhaps we might in future, but that’s another thought altogether – but when I was a soldier, it was always understood that the armed forces never took industrial action. We were there to defend the nation and to serve its interests, in war and peace. We worked 24/7.
Strike action was just not on the cards for us. Others could go on strike and withdraw their labour, but we could not. The emergency services seemed to be able to strike, if the need was felt to arise, but this was never anything that soldiers did or could ever understand. My view was that of every other soldier, to my knowledge, which was that strike action might be a legitimate course of action for some, or even most, but it was not for us.
But it is, from time to time, a real issue for many workers, and I want to share just a few thoughts on that subject because on Sunday night I was asked to do so, after the evening service had come to a close.
The question I was asked was what should Christians do when others in their work place decide to go on strike? It’s a good question. Should Christians ever strike? Is that a proper course of action for Christians to take, and ought they to observe the inviolability of a picket line, or cross it if conscience tells them to?
As with every area of life, Christians look to the Bible to see if there is any obvious advice to be found there, and if not, is it possible to find any helpful principles there which might be applied to a difficult or confusing moral and practical issue. The Bible does not offer explicit guidance about strike action and the Christian’s conscience. Unsurprisingly.
But a number of passages in which slaves are given workplace advice offer us some principles to apply to our own circumstances.
When he wrote to the Colossian Christians, Paul the Apostle instructed slaves to ‘obey your earthly masters in everything’, and to do their work ‘as working for the Lord, not for men’ (Colossians 3.22-24). Paul’s advice to them was that they should be extraordinarily faithful in working for their masters, and to regard their work as a form of service to Lord himself.
But Paul would never have meant that Christian slaves were to obey their masters when their masters gave them an instruction or a command to do something fundamentally at odds with their loyalty to Jesus Christ and to his ways.
When faced with a clash of loyalties, Christians are meant to put Christ first and to face the consequences, whatever they might be.
Peter, writing in 1 Peter 2.13-18 agrees but pushes things a bit further. He, too, urges Christian slaves to be submissive to their masters, but he went on to say that their obedience should be a very patient and long-suffering one. They are to submit not only to those ‘who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.’
Both Paul and Peter advised Christians to be respectful and submissive to their masters, in good times and in bad. Neither would have counseled Christian slaves to obey their masters when given an instruction that conflicted with loyalty to God. But both would urge Christian slaves to show patience in the place of work, even when the employer or master was harsh.
Paul also gave advice to the Roman Christians. In Romans 13.1-7 Paul wrote about the respect and obedience that Christians ought to show those in authority and in positions of power and influence. Authorities, wrote Paul, are established by God, and have a God-given purpose to bring order and to maintain the law.
He wrote: ‘Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.’ Christian employees are supposed to give their employers respect and honour, and everything that an employer has a right to expect. But God must be given what is owed to God, as well.
So, should a Christian ever come out on strike? In my view, a Christian should take strike action only ever as a last possible resort. All other courses of action and avenues of reconciliation must have come to naught and proven themselves fruitless. In the end, strike action is a form of confrontation and conflict. It is an expression of disagreement and disunity.
It is industrial aggression, and followers of the Prince of Peace cannot be part of it without having seen every other peaceful possibility exhausted.
What I would say, then, is that strike action is a last resort for Christian workers. But I do think that it is a possible resort, and in some cases it may be an inevitable resort. The Bible shows in innumerable places that God is deeply interested in seeing that people are treated with justice and fairness.
Workers are precious to God. The wellbeing of their families is a paramount concern of his. Employers ignore this to their peril. Christian workers may find themselves facing an unresolved industrial injustice that is of such a size and nature that no other course of action is left open but that of strike action. In cases like this, Christians will have to consider the biblical instruction to respect masters and authorities on the one hand, and to consider the demands of a loving and just God and Father on the other.
There is no clash of conscience. We must always place obedience to God before duty to others, especially when others, in this case employers, are behaving in an ungodly and unloving way.
But before ever getting to that uncomfortable and difficult place, there are a number of things that Christians can and probably ought to do. There is nothing to prevent Christians from getting involved in union affairs and matters, and trying to be voices of peacemaking and common sense. Union representatives often have to make tough decisions and grapple with conflicting demands and complex issues.
Christian workers can play an important role in supporting union representatives. We can pray for them, and encourage them, as well as employers and decision-makers. Christians can play a positive part in matters by urging union and management representatives to stay at the table, negotiating and talking.
We can be involved in whatever steps are being taken to encourage mediation and discussion.
There are just a couple of additional thoughts for Christians to bear in mind when faced with the possibility of taking strike action. An important question to ask is about what the effects of strike action might be on innocent and uninvolved third parties.
How might strike action affect small businesses, those whose work and livelihoods depend upon the business in which I am employed and involved? How might children, the elderly, the vulnerable, for instance, be affected if strike action goes ahead?
Having thought it through, Christians might feel that the issue is clear-cut. But conscience and obedience to Christ might mean that Christians stay working whilst others go ahead and strike. That would be a desperately uncomfortable position to be in, but it may be the authentic Christian way of taking up the cross and following Christ.
There may be a price to be paid, but there is also a God and Father of unlimited grace and goodness who can be trusted with all of our concerns in difficult circumstances.
One final thought, Jesus himself went into the Temple and turned the moneychangers’ tables upside down. He brought commerce and ‘banking’ to a grinding halt on that day. As aggressive as his action was, he felt that it was a justifiable response to the greed and shameless avarice of the moneychangers. His wish to defend the honour of God’s house and the needs of the poor who came to pray there trumped any other considerations.
Christians will need to work this one out for themselves on each occasion. Strike action ought always to be a last resort, but it is not an impermissible one, when obedience to God allows us no other way to respond to perceived injustices.
Soli Deo Gloria