Until a decade ago, I was a medic struggling through the NHS quagmire. So, when I had the opportunity to join the CMF Junior Doctors Conference back in November 2023, I prepared myself to meet lots of doctors now near drowning in the thickening muck.
In the end, although I did hear of struggles, I was encouraged to find nearly 200 doctors still rejoicing in and doing their best to follow Christ’s call to be his followers in healthcare.
Throughout the weekend, in between the usual slightly bonkers ‘medic chat’ one inevitable, unavoidable topic kept raising its head: doctors’ strikes.
We’re now a couple of months on. We have just had the longest strike in NHS history. I know many of those I met that weekend who were on strike this month. I also know some who weren’t.
I wonder if any made a different decision after the weekend’s discussions…?
I had the chance to share some thoughts on strike action during a Q+A at the conference. It now seems that we’re at another new juncture. The consultants have just rejected the latest government offer. What next for consultants and juniors as strike action looks likely to continue?
One conversation from that weekend away has been haunting me. I had suggested that an important step for someone considering strike decisions might be to chat with their pastor. But two or three juniors came to me afterwards saying, ‘I tried, but my pastor didn’t feel they knew enough.’
Fair enough. We pastors aren’t called to know everything about everything. But as a former medic and now pastor, my longing is to see that Christian doctors are equipped to make godly decisions. So, I offer you my effort to help.
First, an important caveat:
This isn’t a once-made decision.
I suspect it is quite easy to forget this.
The decision to strike or not is a repeated one. Each day brings a new decision. When strikes are called based on union ballots, we might think we have to stick with whatever we voted for, or whatever we did last time, and even (in the middle of a set of strike days) whatever we did yesterday.
That isn’t true.
Each round follows a fresh wave of public rhetoric and adjustments to the articulation and receipt of arguments. Each also comes with new circumstances. What seemed the right decision before the Lord yesterday might not be the same today – and in the context of something like strike action, that is OK!
In fact, discovering new things about yourself and your situation is part of being human. Responding rightly before the Lord to those discoveries is, then, part of growing as a Christian.
So, you may think your decision is made until others change their minds. But whether or not you change your mind tomorrow or next time, this isn’t a one-off decision.
This prompts the big question of how to decide?! For what they’re worth, here are six principles that I offer to work into your decision-making.
1: As Christians, our reasons for acting either way flow from our allegiance to our Lord
To put it as a question: can you articulate a thought-through Christian basis for your decision (whether to strike or not)? You may find yourself standing alongside colleagues who do not share your allegiance to your Lord, which means that even if you are acting in a similar manner, your reasons for doing what you do will look starkly different to theirs at the deepest level.
‘You were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:20) –including whether you use those bodies to work or withhold your work.
So, Q1: How does your allegiance to Christ inform your decision?
2. As Christians, we need to be able to display and declare that allegiance to our Lord
Next, can you articulate your reasons in a way that means they can be heard?
Christians standing alongside non-Christians on any issue (which happens very frequently, of course) need to take care. Hundreds of apparently good stances are taken for terrible reasons. If we’re willing to simply stand alongside those hollering their arguments to the rooftops because we think their conclusions are OK but fail to pay attention to their reasons, we could be in trouble. That’s especially true if we’re wearing the same uniform, standing beneath the same banners, and shouting the same slogans. We need to be careful not to compromise our ability (or the ability of our brothers and sisters in Christ) to declare and display our love for the One we say we serve.
It is clear that some doctors have thought very deeply and can articulate their arguments in terms which reflect their love for Christ.
My question is, can those reasons be heard, or are they swallowed in the herd?
So, here’s Q2: As you take this course of action (to strike, or not) are you able to make your reasons heard as you serve Christ?
3. Christian values have historically driven industrial action but are too easily forgotten
Many of the values driving early industrial action had Christian roots.
Which means Christian arguments for strike action can be made. Usually, they’re rooted in the fundamental worth of every human as God’s image-bearers. At its best, though, Christian theology drives people not to focus on self but on others. Truly Christian industrial action has always been about the rights and treatment of others – ‘myself’ coming only as a secondary part of that whole.
There is one place in the New Testament where we might recognise someone taking a stand on his rights. On a few occasions, Paul avoids a flogging by pointing out his Roman citizenship.
But if he were ‘standing up for his rights’ (at least in the sense we tend to hear that phrase used), he would do so every time. In fact, more often than not, he receives the beating without a word.
Rather, Paul asserts his ‘rights’ as a Roman only when it benefits others eg in Philippi (Acts 16), a Roman colony where the new church will inevitably contain numerous Roman Citizens. After all, this is the same Paul who wrote of his rejoicing ‘in what I am suffering for you’ (Colossians 1:24). By God’s grace, Paul’s focus on others was almost unerring.
Contrast this with so much modern rhetoric about injustice that begins and ends with self.
The justice God repeatedly calls us to is for the better-off to speak up for and act on behalf of the less-well-treated. There’s a huge difference between arguing ‘I should be treated like them’ and advocating that ‘they should be treated like me’. But both can be employed to seek something we then call ‘justice.’
The thing is, one is Christlike, the other is not.
Q3: In what way is my decision exhibiting a stance for others rather than myself?
4. As Christians, our value is rooted in an entirely different world to that of money and work
I am not right inside the medical world anymore, but I have heard some of the debate on various Social Media forums and the like. I know every doctor has varied reasons for taking action.
However, outside the medical echo chamber, one justification for strike action above all has become deafening: because we’re worth it.
What does that convey? That you’re worth the number on your payslip?
As a pastor, as a Christian brother, I urge you: don’t lower yourself to that. You are made in the image of God, created to represent and reflect the uncreated One who dwells in unimaginable glory. As you trust in Christ, you have been bought at the price of his death and are being restored according to his image.
I know you wouldn’t stand for the lives of your patients being reduced to a monetary value. Don’t allow it to happen to you!
Q4: As I make my decision, am I avoiding a sub-Christian way of understanding my value?
5. As Christians, we know that the only thing more deceitful than money is our hearts
I haven’t spoken to a single Christian doctor who agrees that the strikes are about money. I’m glad about that! But I suspect the most honest are those who’ve said, ‘well, it’s not only about money.’
It is uncomfortable but unmissable: Money seems to be Jesus’ favourite topic. And he is clear: the love of money blinds us. One way it can do that is by dressing up as a noble cause.
But as money goes to work on our hearts, it resets our expectations, alters our hopes, and distorts our sense of self and value.
So, we must be as honest with ourselves as our deceived hearts allow. We’re quick to recognise the twisted love of money masquerading as more noble ambitions in others (especially those we would call ‘rich’). Why believe ourselves to be any different?
Q5: Have I reflected deeply on the ways my heart (and bank account) may be deceiving me?
6. As Christians, the One who saves us also leaves us an example to follow
My final theological principle for these decisions actually lies behind all the others: look to Jesus!
‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life…Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ (Luke 9:22-23)
Being a Christian means following after the one who died and rose for us. Daily. The way you live each moment – including the moment you choose to strike or not – adds up to the way you live the Christian life.
Doctors are urged to lay down so much at the feet of ‘medicine’ and ‘patient care’. A Christian doctor, though, doesn’t lay anything down there. Instead, they lay their whole selves down for their Lord, who trod that path before them.
Why does Jesus call us to follow him like that? Because the way followers live puts their Lord on display. That’s what we’re called to: put Jesus on display as we declare him as Lord.
Do we ever see Jesus standing up for his rights? Or do we see him – to whom infinite glory and wealth and honour and value belongs – making himself nothing for our sake?
Q6: In my decision to strike or not, how am I following the example of Christ who rescued me?
Matt Lillicrap is pastor of Hope Community Church, Cambridge and a tutor for Crosslands Seminary. He is a former medical registrar in the NHS and CMF Staffworker.