One of the clearest and most influential communicators in the business world today is a heretic. More than that, his ambition is to inspire a tribe of heretics.
Seth Godin, author of numerous “New York Times” bestsellers, writes, “Heretics are the new leaders. The ones who challenge the status quo, who get out in front of their tribes, who create movements . . . Heretics are engaged, passionate, and more powerful and passionate than anyone else.” Heretics, Godin’s heroes, are those who embrace an opinion, doctrine or practice contrary to generally accepted beliefs or standards. He describes them using the language of faith:
"Challenging the status quo requires a commitment, both public and private. It involves reaching out to others and putting your ideas on the line. (Or pinning your Ninety-Five Theses to the church door.) Heretics must believe. More than anyone else in an organization, it’s the person who’s challenging the status quo, the one who is daring to be great, who is truly present and not just punching a clock who must have confidence in her beliefs."
For orthodox Christians, the repentance of faith always involves the joyful embrace of good news that is foolishness to the world. It forms the new starting point, with a radically new set of assumptions about the nature and destiny of human persons that must -- if it is truly believed -- transform every aspect of life. To be a Christian is to be Godin’s sort of heretic: one at odds with every human society governed by other assumptions.
As Christians, we are by our very identity called to live in the world in a way that manifests a new reality. We are not simply led by gospel motivation into the public sphere where, for the sake of collaboration toward the common good, we abandon our most fundamental beliefs. The Christian testimony that human beings are made in the image of God, that we are fallen and corrupt, and that we are all called to repent of our false loyalties and to be reconciled to God through Christ’s death on the cross is heresy to every other way of thinking and being in the world. This proclamation knows no limit in its scope, and calls for public innovation in commerce and civil society just as much as proclamation.
For Christian employees (who work not for themselves but for others), gospel assumptions should manifest in “heretical” action.
For example, a close friend of mine named Joshua went into pharmaceutical sales. In his visits with physicians, he listened attentively, and would often say, “I don’t think that you should write my drug for those particular conditions; it is only recommended for this particular one.” Despite not “selling” as hard as any of his peers, Joshua consistently led his teams and regions in sales. Why? He knew that he stands before a God who judges the heart, and that it honors God to speak truth. His heretical honesty in the world of sales builds trust, and is a sign of the rule of Christ.
Christian employers, including entrepreneurs and those hired later to lead companies, have yet greater influence and responsibility to embody the great realities of the gospel.
Another friend of mine, Harry, is a young entrepreneur who employs about 30 people. One of those employees is a single mother who has a history of mistakes that have been costly to the business. Though he had ample business justification for firing her, Harry has invested extra time, energy and resources in equipping her to do her job well. In his actions, his employees experience “heretical” assumptions that value people above profit and relationships ahead of revenue. Not unlike Joshua in sales, Harry’s heretical approach has been the foundation of his rapidly growing business, and the occasion of witness in words.
Heretics must believe. Christians must believe. It requires a commitment both public and private that frequently calls us to work for and with people who regard us as heretics, or to employ others to whom our confidence is utter folly. In these actions the reign of Christ is present and presented to the world.
Graham Scharf is the co-founder of Tumblon.com, and the author of the forthcoming book The Apprenticeship of Being Human .