Religion & Liberty Online

What exactly is Christian about the Christian’s work?

There is no shortage of Christian books about work and vocation. Indeed, there are entire movements centered on faith and work, or faith at work. These movements are now old enough that their history has become a subject of academic study. A couple of years ago the NIV Faith & Work Bible put the entire Bible into a faith-and-work frame. And, for the sake of full disclosure, the Acton Institute itself has contributed to the stream of publications about work and vocation. It seems that Christians—particularly American evangelical Christians—have a lot to say about work. Thus whenever I see a new Christian book on faith and work, I’m reminded of the opening line of a commentary on the Gospel of John that was published some years ago: “Anyone who dares to write yet another a commentary on the Gospel of John must give reasons for doing so.”

Daniel M. Doriani, author of the recent book Work: Its Purposes, Dignity, and Transformation, does have reasons for writing yet another book on faith and work. Simply put, work is what most people (including Christians) spend most of their time doing, and so most people at some point ask questions about the significance and purpose of their jobs and vocations. As Doriani frames it, some of those people just want to know whether their work matters. Others want, or even expect, their work to change the world. Both groups, we should note, consist of people from all walks of life and from all religious or non-religious backgrounds. The desire for meaning, purpose, and significance in work is a human reality, not merely a Christian one. This points to a recurring question that came to mind as I read Doriani’s book: If work and the desire for meaning in work is a human reality, what exactly is Christian about the Christian’s work?

Doriani believes that there is a Christian view of work and that one’s Christian faith ought to have an impact on one’s work. His book is guided by twelve biblical and theological principles of God-centered work. Among these are the recognition that God himself works, God created humans for work, human work is marred by sin, and Jesus’s hard work of redemption means that we should also work hard. Doriani also argues against the sacred-secular distinction and affirms that all work can please God if it follows his law and is motivated by love.

And yet when Doriani articulates principles for bringing about reform in the workplace, and when he advises leaders on how to put their faith into practice, the Christian distinctiveness seems to fade. For instance, he proposes that “experiential wisdom, combined with love, justice, and faithfulness, should allow leaders to discern the primary principles for faithful action in every sphere of life.” Are love, justice, and faithfulness the mark of distinctively Christian action? Additionally, among his examples of leaders who have sought to reform the workplace, Doriani includes the story of the Czech anti-Communist Václav Havel as a positive example. But Havel, as Doriani notes, “was no Christian.” Further complicating the picture is the way the author encourages Christian leaders and reformers to find allies among non-Christians who share common ground and goals.

Another feature of Christian work in this book is the Christian’s obligation to apply God’s law, the Ten Commandments. But this also is not necessarily a Christian distinctive. For one thing, a Jewish person might affirm this as well. And if, as Christian theology has traditionally held, the Ten Commandments are a summary of the natural moral law written on the heart of every human being, then we might expect that even non-religious people could do their work in a manner that follows the moral law inscribed in their hearts.

Is there anything about the Christian’s work in and of itself that is distinctively Christian? Doriani has wrestled with this question. At several points in his book he mentions the somewhat silly Christian debates about things like “Christian lightbulbs”—that is, debates about whether a lightbulb (or any other product) produced by a Christian is significantly different from one produced by a non-Christian. Doriani wisely answers the question in the negative. There is no such thing as a Christian lightbulb. Christians, just as non-Christians, ought to pursue mastery of their craft, diligence in their labor, and virtue in the workplace. But such pursuits are not distinctively Christian. One could argue that the pursuit of love, justice, and faithfulness in one’s business are not distinctively Christian either. Much of what a good Christian worker does can also be done by a virtuous worker.

The difference between the Christian’s work and the non-Christian’s work seems to lie more in the worker than in the work. The distinctiveness is found primarily in the Christian worker’s understanding of (1) who God is, (2) the nature of work as created, fallen, and redeemed, (3) the way God uses his or her work to serve others, and (4) the ultimate goal of his or her work—namely, the glory of God. This may not produce a distinctively Christian kind of work, product, or business, but it will contribute to the development and sanctification of a distinctively Christian person.

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Andrew McGinnis

(Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is editorial director and a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he also serves as the book reviews editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is co–general editor of the second series of CLP Academic’s Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law. He has written and lectured on topics in the fields of Reformed and Presbyterian theology, history, and social thought, and he is coeditor of Abraham Kuyper’s On the Church (Lexham Press, 2016), editor of Franciscus Junius’ The Mosaic Polity (CLP Academic, 2015), and author of The Son of God Beyond the Flesh (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).