I occasionally work with a man who once labored as the chief financial officer of a sizable media corporation. His company produced radio programs, magazines, and television shows that generally focused on news and lifestyle programming. One year, however, his corporation first acquired a syndicated television program that focused on sexual themes and then bought a small video company that produced some pornography. My friend had no contact with these enterprises, but as CFO, he wasn’t entirely disengaged from them either. Some fellow believers thought he should resign to avoid the pollution of these debasing entertainments. Some had already wondered why a Christian would work for a public media company. They told him, “We knew this would happen. It’s time for you to get out.”

But my friend thinks believers should work throughout God’s creation. Since he is no fool, and since Scripture informs all his thoughts and deeds, he wasn’t surprised when a sinful desire for profit at any cost touched his work. He wasn’t ready to quit; he was ready to do battle. So he argued, in corporate meetings, that his company was violating its principles and its charter and that it was both right and necessary to divest themselves of both properties. He prevailed and, within less than a year, his corporation sold both.

Still, was he wrong to stay on as CFO? Did he compromise his integrity, or did he wisely retain his ability to lead faithfully from a strategic position?

To Remain Holy in Unholy Places

Christians often face this sort of question. A man who works for a marketing department is put on the team for a local brewery that makes cheap beer. Their prime customers drink six or seven beers per night. He suspects that a successful campaign won’t just promote beer, it will promote drunkenness. Does he need to find a new account, even a new job? Again, a software engineer is assigned to write a program for the more efficient distribution of lottery tickets. She is excited about the technical challenge and thinks she can create a superior system. She will never directly touch lottery sales. But lotteries prey on the poor and desperate. Can she work on the project, or should she petition for reassignment?

Work that pleases God must be honest and lawful. Believers cannot take jobs that require sin. We cannot be hit-men, drug-runners, or prostitutes. But is it wrong to work in a wholesome branch of a large corporation that also has dubious divisions? Media giants produce both the best and the worst in the arts and entertainment. Disney produces children’s programming and blasphemous movies.

Some say disciples should take jobs only if they promote enterprises they can fully support. Besides the difficulty of defining “fully support,” we wonder if a Christian could endorse all the work of any large and diverse company, in the media or elsewhere. Do we really want all Christians to leave the largest petroleum, agriculture, technology, and media corporations? If we object to their products now, what can we expect if every Christian influence were removed?

Disciples need to know how to act with integrity, to remain holy in unholy places. But the story of redemption includes instructive stories.

To Work or Not to Work for Pharaoh

The pharaohs of Egypt were autocrats who ruled in a system that gave them semi-divine status, including the right to something akin to worship. Still, when one pharaoh dreamt of seven lean cows eating seven fat cows, Joseph first interpreted the dream—seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine—then gave pharaoh a plan to survive the years of want. Pharaoh was so impressed that he put Joseph in charge of the project. Joseph saved many lives and rescued the covenant family during the famine (Gen. 41-42). Without a hint of the Lord’s reproach, Joseph served a godless ruler. So it seems that a believer may work for anyone.

Four hundred years later, though, Moses refused to serve a different pharaoh. Moses was born a Jew, but pharaoh’s daughter adopted him. Hebrews 11:24-27 comments, “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin. . . . He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt.”

So Moses refused to work for that second pharaoh. We can see why. Moses had another calling—to lead Israel out of Egypt. Besides, he couldn’t serve that pharaoh, for that pharaoh planned to enslave and crush Israel (Ex. 2-5).

The twin stories of Joseph and Moses suggest that believers may judge it right to work or not work for an evil master, depending on the circumstances: can he do justice and preserve life or not?

In an even more striking case, 1 Kings shows God’s servants on opposite sides of the singularly wicked king Ahab. We know that Elijah stood outside, denouncing sin. We forget that Ahab’s palace manager, Obadiah, was God’s servant, too. While Elijah served God by standing against the king’s court, Obadiah served God by staying within the king’s court, working quietly to hide and feed the prophets Ahab would slay (1 Kgs. 8:1-18).

Elijah shouted judgment outside; Obadiah kept silent inside and organized a relief effort for the prophets. The two men of God had opposite callings, one protesting evil from the outside and the other mitigating evil from the inside. Each man respected the other’s calling. Obadiah honored Elijah’s role as a prophet against Ahab’s house. But Elijah accepted Obadiah as a manager within Ahab’s house. Neither man questioned the other. Each knew his role.

The lesson is clear. If Obadiah could work for Ahab, believers may work for almost anyone, if we can limit evil and promote justice there.

To Stay and Serve in the World

So, yes, we may work for an advertising agency with diverse accounts and for a defense contractor that defends some lives by threatening others. If we want to avoid all contact with immoral people, we have to leave the world, which both Jesus and Paul forbid (John 17, 1 Cor. 5). Still, if we taste success, the pressure to compromise will mount. To prevent that, we need to question ourselves: Am I serving my King, or fitting in to promote my career or livelihood? When potential conflicts between business and kingdom goals arise, do I stand on principle, or do I do whatever it takes to keep my job? What motivates me? Fear of human opinion? Greed? Love for God and neighbor?

When we stay engaged with a tainted workplace, we line up with God’s plan revealed in the incarnation. Jesus plunged into God’s world in all its brokenness and sin in order to redeem it. We cannot redeem as Jesus did—he alone can offer himself as a ransom for our sins—but we can engage in restorative activities. He is Immanuel, principally to save his people from their sins, but also, to be with us, directing and strengthening us, to the end of the age, as we work to achieve his goals in his creation (Matt. 1:21-23, 28:20).