The Theology of Work
Adapted from excerpts by Hugh Whelchel
“There is not a square inch over the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” – Abraham Kuyper
As we go through our lives in the world, we must realize we are on a mission from God. Our mission goes beyond evangelizing far-off places or teaching a Sunday school class. It defines the meaning and purpose of our entire lives, which includes our vocational work. Anything less falls short of what God intended, and results in a compartmentalized life and fragmented identity.
Many Christians view work as simply a “means to an end,” and have bought into the pagan notion that leisure is good and work is bad. They have also been misled by the sacred/secular distinction which teaches that only working in the church is “real” full-time Christian service. This has not always been the case. If we look back through history, we see work has been understood quite differently at other times.
The Greek and Hebrew Worlds Collide
In the Greek world, work was considered a curse, and they believed society was organized so that a few could enjoy the blessing of “leisure” while work was done by those in lower social-economic positions and slaves. Everyday work was demeaning and something one should try to avoid, and there was certainly nothing spiritually meaningful about it.
Jews valued contemplation, yet the Old Testament placed a high value on work; therefore, the Jews saw work as part of God’s purpose in creation. Theological reflection was employed by people who were engaged in everyday life in the world. Unlike the Greeks of their day, Jewish teachers were not expected to live off the contributions of their students but were expected to have a trade through which they could support themselves.
In the New Testament, Jesus certainly gave no general call for all Christians to give up everyday work, and much of His teaching drew on themes from everyday work. Paul also emphasizes a positive view of work, commanding all Christians to continue in their work and do it well. It is apparent from his own writings that Paul continued in his trade as a tentmaker, even after his “call to full-time ministry.” This would seem to be the primary pattern for the New Testament church. We see Christians giving glory to God in and through their occupations, doing the same jobs as unbelievers but performing them in a distinctly Christian way. These early believers lived the entirety of their lives differently and, in so doing, invited their pagan neighbors, by word and witness, to consider the truth of the faith they proclaimed. They were truly salt and light in their culture, which radically changed their world in the first few centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ.
By the end of the third century, the church Fathers began to be influenced by Greek thought and the positive view of all work being God’s work began to slowly change. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the distinction between clergy and commoners was fairly well established, with the later relegated to second-class status in the church. The division of calling into sacred and secular categories marginalized the New Testament view of the priesthood of all believers, a point not lost on Martin Luther.
Through Luther’s work, 16th-century reformers began to recover the Biblical doctrine of work acknowledging that all of life, including daily work, could be understood as a calling from God. According to Luther, we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work. This work includes domestic and civic duties as well as our employment. In fact, Luther said we can only truly serve God in the midst of everyday circumstances and all attempts to elevate the significance of the contemplative life are false. Martin Luther recognized that ministry was not only the world of those who served within the holy offices of the church, but that everyday work is filled with spiritual significance.
… the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks … all works are measured before God by faith alone. – Martin Luther
Thirty years later, John Calvin refined this further by teaching theology offered a framework for engaging with public life, explaining: “According to the Scriptural perspective, work becomes a way-station of spiritual witness and service, a daily traveled bridge between theology and social ethics. In other words, work for the believer is a sacred stewardship, and in fulfilling his job he will either accredit or violate the Christian witness.”
With that view, the platform of business can become a primary place where our faith becomes action. Each time we perform a task or make a decision, it’s an opportunity to show customers, partners, and employees something different. We can model the love of Christ through the sacrifice of self in the service of another. We can show in tangible ways that we care more about people than profit. Our faith should inform the quality of the product or service we provide, how we deal with customers, the price we charge, how we grow employees, how we handle conflict, and every other aspect of our business.
A Sacred and Secular World
This “theology of work” has fallen on hard times in the postmodern world. The church has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the marketplace has turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and most of the world’s intelligent workers have become uninterested in religion. How can anyone remain interested in a religion that seems to have no concern with the majority of their lives?
All evangelical Christians would acknowledge that all of life is to be lived under the comprehensive Lordship of Christ. Few, however, understand that even in our everyday work, the Scripture teaches no separation between sacred and secular. No church-related work or mission is more spiritual than any other profession such as law, business, education, journalism, or politics. The Kingdom of God bears on every dimension of life, and agents of the Kingdom serve as salt and light wherever the Spirit leads them.
The Bible has much to say about “work” which in its different forms is mentioned more than 800 times, more than all the words used to express worship, music, praise, and singing combined. Eugene Peterson explains, “The Bible begins with the announcement, ‘In the beginning God created…’ not sat majestic in the heavens. He created. He did something. He made something. He fashioned heaven and earth. The week of creation was a week of work.” From the very beginning of the scriptures we are faced with the inescapable conclusion that God himself is a worker. It is part of His character and nature. The opening two chapters of Genesis provide a foundation for God’s view of work, culture, and man’s responsibility.
In Genesis 2:15 we read, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Man was created by God to work, to cultivate and keep God’s creation, to prepare and protect it. We were created to be stewards of God’s creation through our work. God assigned Adam and Eve important work prior to the Fall. Paradise wasn’t a vacation – it was a vocation! Work is a gift from God and by it we employ useful skills to glorify God and love our neighbors. The Fall did not create work, but it did make it inevitable that work would sometimes be frustrating or seemingly meaningless.
Adam’s work in the garden can be seen as a metaphor for all of work. In the story of Creation, we see God bringing order out of chaos. A gardener does the same thing by creatively using the materials at his disposal and rearranging them to produce additional usable resources for mankind. A gardener is not a park ranger; he does not leave things the way they are. Tim Keller offers this simple definition for work: “Rearranging the raw materials of a particular domain to draw out its potential for the flourishing of everyone.” That is what Adam was called to do in the garden, which is what we are called to do in our work today.
We love to offer a product or service that is so compelling and valuable that people are happy to pay for it, and there is enough left over to provide for everyone involved and a profit to sow into the future. It’s through that engine that a business can financially support other ministries, AND also be a self-sustaining ministry itself. It can operate without the need for outside support, or governmental support and tax benefits. We can follow the model of Paul from 1 Thessalonians 2:9, “Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.”
Can You Really Make a Profit and Be in Ministry?
Some Christians struggle to reconcile the concept of ministry and making a profit. After all, money is the root of all evil, right? That often-misquoted scripture from 1 Timothy 6 actually says “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Money or profit in itself is not evil, but can, like other things, become an idol that separates us from God if we allow it to consume our focus inappropriately. Jesus warns us about storing up treasure and serving two masters in Matthew 6, but He is always intentional to speak to how those related to the condition of the heart. Jesus is warning us against finding our security in temporary wealth or giving our devotion to something other than God.
But God does expect a return. The Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19 and a similar parable in Matthew 25 make that abundantly clear. In those, a man went away on a trip and while he was gone, he entrusted resources to his servants, telling them “Put this money to work, until I come back.” When he returned, he sent for the servants to whom he’d given the money to ask, “what they had gained by doing business.” The servants who were able to show a good profit were praised and entrusted with more, but the one who showed no return was harshly reprimanded and cast out.
Martin Luther didn’t preach against making a profit, but instead taught that we should be honest in our work and make a profit that is “right and fair.” Luther viewed business as a way to fulfill the second greatest command to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” so he concluded, “Because your selling is an act performed toward your neighbor, it should be so governed by law and conscience that you do it without harm and injury to him, your concern being more directed toward doing him no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself.”16 In other words, people should have a higher priority than profit!
We believe this is God’s business, and our role is to be His stewards. We’re doing our best to steward what our Master has entrusted us with, and when He comes back, we want to show a return. Once we’ve made a profit, we still see that as God’s property that we should steward for the expansion of His Kingdom and eternal ROI, which could be inside or outside of our walls. We could choose to give all of that away, and during one year God led us to give over 85% of our net profit to other ministries. Other times, God has led us to reinvest it in His business of homebuilding or other Kingdom-minded businesses. While 501c3 non-profits are heavily regulated and required to give a certain amount towards what the government deems as “program expenses,” the Lord is free to use our profits however He sees fit. He is not artificially limited in what He could do with it. He may choose to store it up for a time, reinvest it, or share it with our employees, customers, partners, other Kingdom-minded businesses, or ministries outside of our walls.
Bringing It All Together
But, the work of believers holds a significance that goes far beyond the tangible results of that work. The significance to God comes from the person working, as much as the results of the work. There is no distinction between spiritual and temporal, sacred and secular work. All human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God. Work is, quite simply, an act of praise – a potentially productive act of praise.
The Ancient Hebrews had a deep understanding of how faith and work came together in their lives. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that they used the same word for work and worship. The Hebrew word avodah jointly means work, worship, and service. The various usages of this Hebrew word show us that God’s original design and desire is that our work and our worship would be a seamless way of living. In some verses the word avodah means work, meaning performing labor in the field, and in other verses it means worshipping the Most High God. Avodah is a picture of an integrated faith, a life where work and worship come from the same root, the same foundation.
Our work matters profoundly to God. Through the faithful development of God-given talents, we mature as Christians and become more useful in the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Through our faithful labor we imitate God’s own creativity, order, and appreciation for beauty and excellence.
The Reformers clearly understood this and as a result the Protestant church during the Reformation enjoyed its greatest cultural influence, seen in art, literature, music, as well as in the social institutions of their day. Recovering this doctrine may well open the way for contemporary Christians to influence their cultures once again.
The idea that we express our Christian discipleship through our employment is an important part of life, but we must also understand the tension present in the scriptures regarding work. You will not have a meaningful life without work, but you must not make your work the meaning of your life. As Christians we must find our identity in Christ, not in our work. Yet, work is the major way we respond to God’s call in our life by being salt and light in a tasteless and dark world. This view of work must also appreciate the place of leisure and the contemplative dimensions of life and how they are integrated into our working lives. God rested from His labors on the seventh day, and so should we.
Finally, we must realize that through the Christian doctrine of work, God changes the culture. Christians cannot simply rest satisfied with individual conversions or separated enclaves. We are called to be holy and set-apart, but also called to be actively engaged in all aspects of our society as agents of expanding God’s Kingdom.
“God has been calling out from the world a people for Himself, and sending His people back into the world to be His servants and His witnesses, for the extension of His kingdom, the building up of Christ’s body, and the glory of His name.” – Lausanne Covenant