A better theology of work

Some of us could do with a better theology of work, couldn’t we? If you want that to sound less poncey than reading it back sounds, we need to have a better view of secular work.

All too often, the message comes through that work is fine, but it is is a necessity mainly for the purpose of looking after your family and give to the church. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a nuisance really, taking you away from gospel work; that is to say, real work. We are grateful for the giving from our members in work, but we have little patience for those who come home tired from work and don’t feel able to give themselves to the ministry of the church six nights of the week and they can thank themselves lucky that we give them a night off.

Then there are the hifalutin comments about calling. Work is all well and good, but it is treated like some sort of lesser calling. If somebody is being sent into full time pastoral ministry, or mission work, we wheel them out to the front of church and let them explain how they are leaving secular work behind because they have now received a higher calling. They have left the world of work to do more important work; gospel work.

Personally, I think all that is really unhelpful and, frankly, a bit light on theology and biblical warrant. Adam was given, to all intents and purposes, a fairly secular job to do. Most of the dudes in the Bible had some sort of ordinary job to do and weren’t viewed as unspiritual for doing it. For a lot of them, it was just herding animals. But you’ve also got your Daniels and Nehemiahs who were employed by the state to do some sort of civil service job. When you get to the New Testament, quite a few dudes were running fairly ordinary jobs and nobody was suggesting they had chosen some sort of low road. And let’s not forget Jesus was working a normal job for most of his life too.

Of course, someone will turn round and say, yes, but he wasn’t doing that job in the last 3 years of his life, when he was getting on with his real ministry. And the disciples who all worked normal jobs as fisherman and tax collectors also sacked those things off once Jesus came calling. That overlooks Paul, though, who did the opposite. He went from religious scholar-cum-mob ring-leader to church worker and Apostle and, in doing so, picked up tent making to make ends meet. But none of the Apostles were billed as doing the real work while all the elders and others in the church who were working normal jobs were somehow doing things with a lesser calling.

But we are quick to focus on ministry as real work whilst denigrating, often in subtle ways but occasionally overtly, secular employment. We happily take the cheques from those making bank but then we roll our eyes when they’re not always available for the works of ministry that we deem more important. Or, we suggest theirs isn’t quite as important in the eyes of God as ours.

No doubt some of it stems from the emphasis we put on the Word in reformed churches. We rightly value Bible teaching and think it is very important. We take seriously Paul’s comment about those labouring in the preaching of the Word being worthy of double honour. But we take that idea and we suggest that other things are, therefore, less honourable. One is called to preach the Word whereas others merely are whatever their occupation happens to be.

Frankly, I think we overstate the idea of calling and give it undue weight. If we believe in a sovereign God, we are all called to things because we wouldn’t be doing them if God hadn’t ordained them. And the scripture is clear that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we are to do it all to the glory of God. That includes whatever our work happens to be. Indeed, there are reasons why the Lord gives instructions to those who are employed in occupations outside the church. Not only does the Bible expect that is what most people are likely to be doing, it sees it as entirely right and proper for us to glorify God fully in our doing them.

Martin Luther said this in Freedom of the Christian:

Man, however, needs none of these things [good works] for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbour.

For Luther, then, church vocation was not necessarily a higher calling but a different one. Church ministry was a good calling in that people need ministers of the gospel who will faithfully teach God’s Word. But, at the same time, people need good shoes, so being a cobbler is a good calling too. People need food, so being a grocer is a godly calling. Wherever there is need being met and neighbourly love is expressed through an occupation, Luther viewed it as a godly calling. Luther’s view of good works meant any work done in faith was an chance to reflect his Creator and love his neighbour. This radically altered the understanding of vocation and calling. Anything that serves our neighbour becomes a godly vocation done to the glory of God.

I think we would do well to take a look at Luther’s doctrine of vocation again. Luther argued that it was through the occupation of a baker (for example) that God provides for his people and this, in turn, meant that every occupation serving our neighbour has inherent value. It is not only the pastor or evangelists bringing God’s Word who provides for people’s needs, but any occupation that serves our neighbour. If everyone were a pastor giving out spiritual food, nobody would be a baker providing physical food. If everyone were an evangelist seeking to clothe everyone in spiritual garments, nobody would be a tailor clothing anybody in actual garments. These are all God-glorifying vocations that have real worth and value because they love and serve our neighbours.

We need to be careful that we don’t suggest the only work of real value is spiritual whilst more ordinary occupations are somehow less God-honouring. It is not true. One of the means God uses to provide for his creation is the secular occupations he gives his people (and others). Spiritual food is important, but physical food is too, as are a whole host of other ostensibly secular things. We should view those in secular work as more than people with a lesser calling there to support the real work of ministry. We are all called to something and such as what we do serves our neighbour it is a God-honouring vocation which we are to do to the glory of God.