Seeking a better theology of work

November 01, 2008

1. The dilemma and the challenge

How do you see work? An inconvenient separation of weekends? A way to earn money for life? Something you do when you can't be in 'full-time' ministry? A result of the curse that we need to endure? The means God has given me to change the world? A staging point in life and a means to earn income before going to Bible College?

In the Evangelical Church there has been a tendency to place such a high priority on full-time Christian ministry (I'll call this vocational ministry in this post) that all else is seen as of lesser importance. While I understand (and agree with) the desire to encourage more men and women to consider vocational ministry, I have witnessed some unfortunate consequences; for example:

(i) Sometimes people leave secular work to attend Bible College with a view to vocational ministry only to discover that they aren't equipped for the task.
(ii) There is a tendency for unhelpful status hierarchies to develop between vocational ministry, secular employment and unpaid work.
(iii) Often secular work is insufficiently thought through theologically and is seen as separate to gospel work - a false separation of the sacred from the secular.
(iv) Some areas of secular employment end up with less Christians than one would hope with unfortunate consequences for the gospel (e.g. teaching has been losing Christians). We end up arguing that there are some jobs where it is more strategic for Christians to be to the neglect of others. There is some truth here when considering missionary work in foreign countries or engagement in difficult communities, but it is unhelpful to draw up a list of 'good' secular jobs. This misses the point of how we are to see our work.
(v) The place of unpaid work (e.g. stay at home parents, carers, charity workers etc) is relegated to such a low level of importance that those who do this work feel discouraged and are not helped to see the value of their work as equally part of God's purposes.

2. Taylor on the need for a better theology of work

Justin Taylor wrote earlier this year about this topic and called for the recovery of a reformational understanding of vocation as all of life. He wrote:

"In my view, we are due for another reformation with regard to our view of work. Although it’s much more subtle, many of us can still perpetuate a sub-biblical view of work. I remember once hearing a student leader suggest that the norm was for Christians to consider themselves called to vocational ministry—and that a calling to a so-called “secular” vocation was the exception. In other words, the default for Christians should be to go into vocational ministry unless they feel compelled to do something else. But I don’t find that idea taught anywhere in Scripture. The result is that we sometimes have people in vocational ministry, not because it is where they have been called by their church, or equipped by God, but simply because they never prepared to do anything else.

We need to recover the reformational understanding of vocation: all of life—in every sphere and in every calling—should be lived to the glory of God and in obedience to his Word. Abraham Kuyper wrote, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” If that’s true (and it is!), isn’t it worth our time and effort to think through how to glorify God in the area of work to which he has called you?"

3. Piper on work

John Piper, also has some helpful advice on this topic in his book Don’t Waste Your Life on glorifying Christ in work. Before addressing how we can use our secular work for to the glory of God Piper makes three fundamental general points:

  • First, "you don't waste your life by where you work, but how and why" you work. Secular work (i.e. work not structurally connected to the church) should be strategic. God's will is that his people should be scattered like salt and light across all of life, including the workplace.
  • Second, there is always "a partnership between goers and senders". We need some to go to the very ends of the earth, and we need some to stay behind and support them (e.g Titus 3:13; Romans 15:24).
  • Third, when you are called to be a Christian it is not (necessarily) a call to leave your secular employment. This teaching of Paul's in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 was very important to me when I was converted at the age of 31. We should not jump to the conclusion that God wants us to suddenly move from secular employment to vocational ministry as soon as we are converted. Of course, later you might well see that there is wisdom in such a change.

Piper stresses that the burning issue should be how I can make my life count for the glory of God in my secular vocation. He then offers six biblical answers to this question.

(i) Our work is to be a place and a time of fellowship with God – we should sense and enjoy God being with us in our work, talking to him and casting our burdens upon him. We are to constantly “…give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever” (Psalm 86:12). We are to be encouraged in the knowledge that all the promises of God apply at work just as they do elsewhere – “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

(ii) Our work is to be God honouring – we are to work hard and with creativity – to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:27-28). And through this work we are to honour God.

(iii) We are to do our work in such a way that the way we do it will increase the attractiveness of the Gospel we profess with our mouths – our work is not a replacement for telling people of Christ, but it should be an effective adornment. As Paul commends the slave in Titus 2:9-10, the way we work should”..adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour.

(iv) We should make enough money in our work to keep us from needing to depend on others – work is to provide for our basic needs, this was God’s plan from the beginning (Genesis 2:2). What changed after the fall was not that man must work, but that in our work there would be struggle and weariness, frustrations and difficulty. But even in the midst of struggle God can be glorified. Piper suggests that “..unproductive Christians contradict the creative, purposeful, powerful, merciful God we love. They waste their lives.”

(v) We should use our money “to make others glad in God” – as we work we should think about how we can use all our money wisely, but Piper’s point is that we should use any excess money beyond our basic needs to help others without the same resources. The Bible offers clear advice in this direction. For example, Paul speaks to Timothy of the need to care for aged widows (1 Timothy 5:8); he refers to his own labour and his desire to help the weak (Acts 20:35); then in Ephesians 4:28 he speaks of the thief not stealing but instead working “…so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”.

(vi) Work should provide us with relationships that allow us to share the Gospel – Speaking the words of the Gospel, not just living it, is as important at work as it is everywhere else in life. However, the workplace offers a special place for us to build relationships over longer periods of time, and to have regular and prolonged contact with people. Piper also reminds us that our secular occupations can also offer us entry to other countries where the Gospel needs to be heard.

John Piper concludes his chapter on work with these words:

“If you work like the world, you will waste your life, no matter how rich you get. But if your work creates a web of redemptive relationships and becomes an adornment for the Gospel of the glory of Christ, your satisfaction will last forever and God will be exalted in your joy.

4. Other things things to read

You can download Piper's book "Don't Waste Your Life" here.

Justin Taylor's two part article "Thank God for Work" can be downloaded here (Part 1) and here (Part 2)

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