The worker deserves his wages: the Bible and remuneration

by Charlee New, Thursday 20th June 2019

The systems and practices of paying workers (or, as it is formally known, ‘remuneration’) affect the lives of all employed adults, and by extension, their families and households. Yet, how often would you hear a sermon on the subject? It might come as some surprise to realise that the Bible has a great deal to say about paying workers for their labour. Some of the best-known verses include: ‘the worker deserves his wages’ (Luke 10:7), ‘do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight’ (Lev. 19:13), ‘treat your servants justly and fairly’ (Col. 1:4) and ‘do not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ (Deut 25:4)

But what deeper concerns and principles lie behind these specific commands around work and employment? And can they help us today? Our new research report, Just Pay: a biblical perspective on the ethics of remuneration, describes some of the biblical themes underlying specific verses about remuneration: justice (the fair amount of pay), dignity (the right kind of work) and reward (working for the right reasons and the common good). These three concepts offer a biblical framework for remuneration practices in the contemporary world. We don’t have space in this blog to unpack all its ideas, but here are few highlights from the report to start the conversation:

Right now, pay inequalities are fuelling public indignation

In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, high executive compensation and pay ratios have frequently been the subject of public protest. For 2018 in the UK, the ratio between the average FTSE-100 CEO pay (£3.9 million) and average UK pay (£28,200) was about 140:1. [i] In the USA, the pay ratio is well above 300:1. [ii] And the outcry isn’t simply about rising executive pay, it’s also about the stagnation in real-wage earnings for many workers.

We need deeper, holistic answers

Although many acknowledge the need for reform in how we remunerate employees (whether it’s changing the amount, type or method of pay), we need more holistic answers. The proposed solutions – from total pay caps, to ‘long-term’ incentives – ‘don’t fit together in a coherent way and they cannot solve the bigger problems on their own. Remuneration solutions to date are not wrong in seeking certain outcomes such as fairness, equality and consistency, but are perhaps wrong where they are directed at symptoms rather than causes.’ We need a biblical perspective on the more fundamental questions of why and how workers should be remunerated.

Three biblical themes

The Bible is deeply concerned with remuneration, especially where it concerns relationships between and among the people giving and receiving a wage.

  • The biblical principle of justice mandates that workers should be paid enough to keep them from destitution, which involves both fair amounts (distributive justice) and fair timing (procedural justice).
  • The principle of dignity is also central in the Bible and speaks to the treatment of people in all areas of work. No matter if someone finds themselves in the position of master, servant or independent labourer, the Bible protects their agency to fulfil their role with honour and to ensure the agency of the other parties involved.
  • Finally, the principle of reward cultivates a sense of purpose within workers by charting a long-term trajectory (eternally directed) and also strengthens relationships by encouraging behaviour that benefits the entire group (corporately directed).

Implications for today

Applying the principles of justice, dignity and reward to remuneration today can lead to many (often creative) ideas for reform. Here are just a few:

Since the biblical idea of reward is not individualistic, but rather corporate, rewards can be given in such a way to foster a responsible, generous spirit in employees. For example, if a single employee creates a brilliant advertisement that makes the company £10 million in profits, what should they receive? If the employee was given £1 million reward, while shareholders received a £9 million windfall, it would seem that shareholders received a disproportionate bonus for simply having the employee on payroll. But what if the employees and shareholders weren’t rewarded as individuals, but as members of the company? Then all stakeholders would receive some (proportionate) share of the reward. It’s a question of ‘cascaded rewards’: the distribution of rewards across all levels rather than the concentration of rewards at the position of ‘highest common manager’.

Biblically, dignity in work encourages dynamic engagement between people in different levels of positional power, whilst also insisting on genuine agency at all levels. Writing policies is a good start, but it needs a constant feedback loop and intentional listening, so that the company’s intentions to create dignity actually match employees’ experiences. Many employees never have time to read about company ‘vision’, ‘atmosphere’ or ‘ethos’ because they are under pressure to meet targets or deadlines. But a policy that creates space for dialogue could say: ‘Because we care about the dignity and agency of all employees, we sincerely and actively seek feedback and criticism from any position. In order not to impinge on personal time, we allot one hour every first Friday of the month for teams to discuss this together and additional time to allow managers to pass these comments on to senior management.’

Biblical justice often highlights the case of the poorest. Although the UK government has a national living wage, this still trails behind the amount needed for basic living expenses and the ability to do more than simply ‘scrape by’ (see the Real Living Wage, as proposed by the Living Wage Foundation). The Bible does not differentiate so much between families and individuals in this regard, but mostly assumes that workers will have dependent family members (whether elderly parents, children, siblings or otherwise). Although legislating this concept would be difficult, one could potentially review not just the age of an employee but also their family situation and how many people are financially dependent upon them, in order to ensure just remuneration.

Just Pay: A biblical perspective on the ethics of remuneration is our new 56-page research booklet, available to order now or read online.

‘Pay and bonuses can be highly emotive. For Christians and those who place a high value on relationships in society, extremes in pay represent fault lines that demand attention. So full marks to Calum Samuelson for a balanced and scriptural review of the issues. He combines rich learning with compelling insights to offer practical considerations for decision-makers.’
Clive Mathers, Chair, Church of England Pension Board, and former Chairman, Shell UK limited


[i] CIPD and High Pay Centre.org. The ratio is about 120:1 if the median FTSE-100 CEO is used. This ratio has been dropping steadily in the past few years. See http://highpaycentre.org/blog/reality-bites-average-ftse100-ceo-pay-package-down-17-on-previous-year.

[ii] 312:1 for the average CEO to their average workers (Economic Policy Institute); 361 for the average American CEO and worker in general (AFL-CIO).

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Category: Blogs

June, 2019

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