TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].
My job requires me to oversee and enforce the implementation of various regulations. Some of those regulations are good, some are impractical, and some are so poorly thought out they actually contradict one another. My boss has basically told us which regulations to follow and which to ignore. His choices make sense, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being dishonest by not following the letter of the law—even when the law seems wrongheaded. What should I do?
It’s right for you to wrestle with these questions. Wisdom in life means encountering situations where there is no single right answer (Prov. 26:4–5) and may even mean choosing between two bad options—like whether or not to enforce impractical or poorly-thought-out policies.
To begin, we need to back up a step and strive to understand why the rules were made in the first place. That way we won’t inadvertently introduce more problems, or miss whatever benefit the rules were meant to accomplish.
In a perfect world, policies and regulations would be flawlessly designed to maximize flourishing for those “on the ground.” The people and organizations determining policies, rules, norms, and laws would be perfectly informed and would have the same perfect objectives and incentives as those affected by the policies. There would never be a question of how to enforce these perfect policies.
Until Jesus returns, that’s not the world we live in. Policies, norms, and laws will be imperfect for many reasons.
Until Jesus returns, policies, norms, and laws will be imperfect for many reasons.
To start, the people at the top of any organization might be imperfectly informed, with misaligned incentives and organizational inertia that keep them from making the best policies. We shouldn’t be surprised if certain regulations just don’t make sense. Worse, as Ecclesiastes says, we should not be surprised if “in the place of justice—wickedness [is] there” (Eccles. 3:16, NIV) and laws and regulations reflect that.
But even in the best of cases, when policies are set by well-intentioned and well-informed people, we should expect occasional disconnects between the letter of the law—as it’s written or would be enforced—and the intentions behind it. That’s because it’s impossible to plan for every contingency or event. Any policy is necessarily “incomplete” in the sense that you cannot specify what should be done in every scenario. That leaves gaps and requires discretion. For example, how many churches had contingency plans in 2019 for a year filled with a global pandemic, social unrest, and political upheaval?
Layers of Authority
Your manager is granted the authority to determine how to manage you, and that might mean determining which laws or regulations to enforce and how. I’ve heard it said that some jobs are “responsible for running interference between the employees and the people setting policy.” That might sound absurd, but it starts to make sense if, for example, the state-wide policy doesn’t match the needs of a particular locality—because it’s more urban or more rural, or more diverse or less diverse, or for any number of other reasons—even if it might make sense for the state.
Think of it this way: In football, the coach calls the plays, but every so often the quarterback can call an audible, changing the play if he sees something on the field that the coach didn’t—perhaps he reads the defense and sees a blitz coming. The quarterback is granted the authority to occasionally override the coach’s decision if the situation warrants it. But a quarterback who calls an audible every play doesn’t understand his job or how the system works—there is something that the coach has planned or that the coach knows and the quarterback doesn’t. But a quarterback that never calls an audible probably doesn’t understand his job either.
Situations change. Policies that once made sense might not make sense when the world changes. Your manager might wisely and responsibly be doing the best he or she can to adapt. In an imperfect world, we should expect that employees and managers will be required to exercise discretion at times.
Policies that once made sense might not make sense when the world changes. Your manager might wisely and responsibly be doing the best he or she can to adapt.
The good news for you is that your manager is the one responsible for those decisions, not you—just like the quarterback, not just any player, is the one that can call an audible. He or she might make a bad decision, but you’re not necessarily responsible for that. You should still exercise discretion—perhaps you have your own ability to call audibles—but you should also submit to your manager’s authority. (Of course, if your boss’s decisions didn’t make sense, then this would be a different discussion.)
Christian View of Law
As Christians, we can embrace this need for discretion. Jesus did. In fact, Jesus enhanced the implementation of the law, going beyond the way it was commonly observed and enforced. He told the Pharisees, “Tithe your mint and cumin but also do justice” (Matt. 23:23) and he intensified the meaning of murder and adultery in ways that the current regulation completely missed (Matt. 5:17–48).
In other cases, without doing away with a jot or tittle of the law, Jesus clarified people’s understanding of the law. The Pharisees forbade healing or picking grain on the Sabbath, but Jesus pointed out that the way they implemented the law actually kept them from following the spirit of the Sabbath. By obeying man-made traditions, the Pharisees were actually disobeying God. There was a higher authority that overrode how laws were observed, and Jesus did not hesitate to intervene.
Your manager is not Jesus. But to the extent that your boss’s choices make sense, you can celebrate those decisions as God’s common grace, and you can have a clear conscience in doing your job.