A recent article on the Powerblog celebrating the work of delivery drivers, who never seem to be included in the definition of an “essential worker,” reminded me that we do not spend enough time thinking about work from an economic or theological point of view. This series will present a biblical theology of work in three parts over the coming weeks, reflecting on both the spiritual and economic significance of work.
I begin with three brief anecdotes that illustrate why this series is necessary.
First, around 2010, someone whom I did not know sat next to me in church. The sermon was terrible – an attack on business, banking, and the market economy whose message was based on deep ignorance. After service, I chatted with the individual. I remember his words when I asked him what his work was: He simply replied, “I am hated … but hated most of all by the church. I’m a banker.”
The second illustration involved a lawyer friend of mine who worked for a major firm in the City of London. He told me that he was viewed by his church leadership as a cash machine to employ more ministry assistants. Such a viewpoint is highly destructive of human purpose and human dignity.
The third example occurred when I had lunch a few years back with a city trader who attended a well-known church. He told me, quite openly, that he deeply appreciated the teaching he had received in his church over 30 years, but nothing – literally nothing – he heard ever helped him understand his place in the economy and his role in society.
What is the significance of work? Dorothy Sayers gave an address on the subject in 1942 titled Why Work? In that address, she stated that in respect of an intelligent carpenter, “The very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”
Note also what she did not say: The role is not to convert the workforce or the customer. She went on to add that the very worst religious films she had seen were those in which the actors were chosen exclusively for their piety. This raises for us two questions:
1. What is the purpose and value of human work?
The first thing we need to do is to ask why we work at all and why our work is important. Of course, one approach is to argue that the reason we work is to put food on the table, to provide for our own wants and needs. This is known as the instrumental view of work: Work has no purpose other than to provide. You can also see how this creates the idea that work is drudgery or even cursed; work is a distraction from the truly spiritual parts of life. This leads to the second question.
2. Is the priority given to spiritual work?
This suggestion that human work possesses intrinsic value under God seems to have been replaced in much contemporary evangelical thinking by a pietism that emphasises separation from the world and that views evangelism as our only vocation. Human work is only deemed important if it enables spiritual work. Hence, the role of the Christian in business is either to convert the person at the next desk – the customer, the client, or the supplier – or to provide the money to pay for more evangelists. Such an approach is flawed; it destroys purpose and dignity in the part of our lives that occupies at least 50% of our waking hours, vitiates ethical conduct, and reduces most of our life to secondary value. My contention is that business is much, much more important to God than this view appreciates.
The purely spiritual outlook of the efficacy of work turns on its head the Reformers’ critique of medieval Catholicism and the Reformed affirmation of the intrinsic value of all human labour. However, the light of much contemporary Roman Catholic teaching – not least in several papal encyclicals which we will consider in this series – the tables seem to have turned. In his encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961), Pope John XXIII sought to show that humanity expresses itself in work. He wrote, “Every man has, of his very nature, a need to express himself in his work and thereby to perfect his own being.”
Consequently, work conveys dignity. Thus, Pope John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens (1981) that “man’s life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity.” This dignity reflects the nature of the Creator Himself.
To return to Dorothy Sayers, she established the principle of common grace and the idea of creation principles. We will explore these ideas later in this series. However, what these principles suggest, in essence, is that there is something of divine and intrinsic value in work. This is affirmed in the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions. Darrell Cosden, in his book The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work, pointed out, “From a Christian point of view, all human work (and not just ‘religious work’) has eternal meaning and value.” Sayers, again, wrote that work “should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfil itself to the glory of God.”
In a biblical theology of work, work cannot merely be instrumental due to the nature and goodness of God. Of course, work is necessary for reward and provision, but it is also an expression of human purpose. Consequently – as we will see as we turn to the theological principles and the biblical narrative – enterprise, entrepreneurship, beauty, and goodness are all divine elements that we find woven into human work.
Work is a deeply theological concept.