Podcast episode 003: The dignity of work

by | May 2, 2017

What dignity, value or significance does our daily work have? Does it really matter to God? Or are gospel preaching and Christian ministry the only things that really matter in the end?

This much-discussed question (at least recently) is the subject of Episode 3. Chase Kuhn and Peter Orr speak with Tony Payne about the dangers of both over-valuing and under-valuing our work, about the common arguments and key texts that come up in the debate, and about the vexed question of how our work relates to ‘the work of the Lord’.

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Chase Kuhn: Five minutes ago before we came in here to have this discussion, I was just responding to somebody on Facebook who sent me a message. She’s been working as an artist for a number of years and she said to me, “I know that you’ve moved away from working in the arts to teaching theology. I’m finding it pointless that I’m doing art in terms of a long-term thing—in terms of eternal value. Why should I be working as a photographer? And I think I’m ready to hang it up and change directions.” This is a real tension that people feel: why is what I’m doing—or how does what I’m doing matter? If I’m not telling people about Christ and if I’m not doing something explicitly gospel-related or kingdom-oriented, why should I keep going with it? Does it actually matter in the big picture?

Tony Payne: Well, there’s no need for some fancy introduction to this episode of our podcast. That’s one of our guests, Chase Kuhn, and he’s pretty much captured exactly what we’ll be talking about in this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. It’s about our work—our daily work. Does it actually matter? Does it matter to God? Does it matter in the big scheme of things? How are we to think about all those hours we spend in our daily employment? There’s been lots of discussion about this issue in recent times in Christian circles. It’s our topic today on the Centre for Christian Living podcast.


TP: I’m Tony Payne and welcome to episode 3 of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. In each episode of the podcast, we seek to do our best to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and today’s everyday issue is work—that thing nearly all of us literally have to get out of bed and do every day. And as Chase said in our intro,

CK: This is a real tension that people feel: why is what I’m doing—or how does what I’m doing matter?

TP: I suppose I should also let Chase introduce himself.

CK: My name’s Chase Kuhn. I teach at Moore College in the areas of theology and ministry.

TP: So I asked Chase what he would say to his friend about the real value of their everyday work.

CK: So the person I was describing, I think, is probably undervaluing their work—what they would call “secular” work: they see it as pointless, whereas other people may take a different reason to justify themselves and their work, and therefore over-esteem for the wrong reasons the kind of—what we would call secular work that they’re doing.

Peter Orr: Yep—particularly when people start to see their secular work having a redemptive significance.

TP: Sorry, forgot to tell you: there’s another guy in our conversation today: it’s Peter Orr.

PO: My name’s Peter Orr. I teach in New Testament, biblical theology and Greek, also at Moore College.

TP: Anyway, back to what Peter was saying about the redemptive significance of work.

PO: —so that somehow their secular work is building God’s kingdom. So people talk about having redemptive value or kingdom value or even eschatological value—so “eschatological” meaning pertaining to the, you know, the age—the end times—the age to come—Jesus’ return. So if you see your work as an artist having eschatological value, you might then think, “Well, I’m doing kingdom work in my art, so I don’t need to do other kingdom work, such as evangelism, discipleship.”

CK: Yeah, there’s a lot of this language that’s in vogue today—especially in popular literature and even in some more academic theological literature—and I think the buzzwords that you see are “transformation” or “culture-making”, “cultural renewal”—all sorts of these words that I think are tied towards a kingdom thinking about secular work in terms of a contribution of material or cultural artefacts that will endure through the end time.

PO: And it seems to be that—people say, “Unless my work does have that sort of value, then it’s not significant. So it’s almost—the search for significance leads them to, as we said, over-inflate work and give it this kind of eternal eschatological value—

CK: Yes.

PO: —which I think is not biblical and pastorally problematic.

TP: So it seems our conversation has started by thinking about the ways in which we can over-value our work, or wrongly understand our work. Let’s tease some of that out before we get to how we could rightly understand our work in terms of the Bible’s teaching. Let’s start with Chase and the theological ways in which people over-value or misunderstand our work.

CK: There’s multiple angles that this is being worked at the moment, which is why I think it’s sort of a perfect storm in the theological literature today. Of the more theologically robust positions, I think you end up with Neo-Calvinists and people particularly following Abraham Kuyper and his trajectory of how we participate in culture, how we participate in the political space, and thinking about cultural renewal and so there are people within a strong and robust Reformed theology that are promoting this way of thinking.

TP: Now, just in case you’re not completely au fait with Abraham Kuyper, Neo-Calvinism and what that’s about, I asked Chase for a quick summary.

CK: Kuyper believed that Christ’s rule extended to every square inch. It’s a common phrase that’s around these days, and so the reign of Christ over all of that space then means that we can participate in the social sphere, in the cultural sphere, and the work that we do in the name of Christ and in the power of Christ then can have transformative effect so that we can almost see the kingdom realised in and through our efforts as we see ourselves enacting Christian values, Christian truth in that space.

TP: Okay, that makes sense. But what about biblical texts that are currently being used in this argument to talk about work and, perhaps, sometimes to overvalue work in its kingdom value? I asked Pete about that.

PO: Well, in terms of biblical arguments, let me give one example from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament. So if we go to Genesis 1 and God’s words to Adam, Genesis 1:28: “God blessed man—humanity—man and woman—blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number. Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” What does it mean for mankind as the image of God to rule the earth—to subdue it? Presumably that means more than just a sort of naked suppression of that, which is unhelpful in creation, and so many people argue that that—what they term as the “creation mandate” continues today and is reflected as we, particularly as Christians, are engaged with the culture and live out Christian values, we are in, a sense, fulfilling that Adamic mandate.

So the argument is that, you know, does that continue? So they would say, “Yes, it does: Genesis 1:28 continues.” You know, the common argument is we can’t get back into the garden because of the Fall, so Genesis 1 is cut off because of Genesis 3. But once we use that argument, well, what about marriage, because marriage—you know, the foundation of marriage is in Genesis 1 and 2. So why are we happy to go back into Genesis 1 and 2 for marriage and not for this creation or cultural mandate?

So that’s the argument from the Old Testament. There are many texts we could look at in the New Testament, but one in particular is 1 Corinthians 15:58, where Paul says to the Corinthians, “Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” So that’s the climax of a long chapter—chapter 15, where he talks about the resurrection—and the argument is often made: because of the resurrection—because of that great affirmation of creation (in other words, there will be a resurrection, and so, in a sense, there’s got to be some continuity of creation—because of that, everything we do in the name of the Lord will continue. So the understanding is the work of the Lord there is anything that we do in light of the resurrection will continue. And so because of that, yes, preaching the gospel, but also I’ve seen people argue, you know, poetry, music, you know, the arts—anything like that that is done as a Christian in the name of the Lord and in light of the resurrection will continue into the new creation. So those would be a couple of texts that people appeal to for this type of idea.

CK: The culture mandate in Genesis 1 features prominently within the Neo-Calvinist and Kuyperian tradition, and I think the arguments that Pete’s just mentioned from 1 Corinthians 15 feature much more prominently in those that would follow NT Wright. So NT Wright had responded strongly against a rejection of what he sees people dismissing the material, created order and therefore “All of it’s going to burn” is kind of the mantra that he’s responding against. So some people have identified a lifeboat theology: the only thing that can get out of this creation is—are the souls that are saved, therefore we preach the gospel, nothing else, and it almost ends up in a dismissal of all created matter, where Wright and others that have followed after him have tried to reaffirm the created order and say, “No, actually, because of the resurrection, there is renewal and we see creation regained. And so therefore, we invest in creation: we do things well in the name of the Lord, and those things—even good deeds somehow feature in the new creation.

PO: And so the argument’s often made with culture. So think of great music, like Bach; great literature, like Shakespeare: are we really to think that those things will be lost to the new creation? Surely, it’s argued, you know, Bach and Shakespeare, great scientific discoveries—surely, in a sense, those won’t be lost; they will be, you know, brought into the new creation. And so, if that’s true of that great music, it’s also true of, you know, what I try to do in my own life to sort of fulfil that cultural mandate of Genesis 1.

CK: And it’s not all without biblical warrant. Some people look to Revelation chapter 21—the text that Pete and I were talking about earlier today, actually—and they’ll say, “This is part of the richness of the new creation—that actually, in terms of thinking about where we’re heading, it’s progress, not regress. So in order to undo all of the culture that’s been developed through history, that would be a return to Eden, and therefore a regress, but actually what God is doing is something that is progressing into the future, and part of the richness of that work is the transformation and the renewal of all of those vast cultural differences coming into the new kingdom. And so there’s a preservation there of culture.

PO: So if you have that view, then that gives your work this incredible significance—that what you’re doing can potentially continue in some form into the new creation. So if you’re an architect and you’re designing this building, in whatever form it might take, there’s a sense in which your design will carry through to the new creation.

CK: This has vast appeal.

PO: Absolutely.

CK: I mean, if I’m stuck in a 9 to 5, and, you know, my boss isn’t very nice, my work seems pretty mundane, and suddenly I have a radical reorientation of thinking about my work, “Well, this is going to be part of the new creation because I’m a Christian and what I’m doing actually God is going to see through”, well, suddenly now that gives me different kind of motivation for going to work everyday—different kind of motivation for, you know, the sweat coming off my brow. This is why people, I think, find it so appealing.

[Music: “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton, performed by Dolly Parton, B-side on Sing for the Common Man, released 29 November 1980, RCA.]

TP: Well, I guess it was sort of inevitable that we’d use that song at some point in this episode, but I hope you enjoyed it. And I hope you enjoyed what Pete and Chase had to say about some of the alternative views of how work can be seen to be significant, and that are very popular these days. And in just a few minutes, we’ll come back to Pete and Chase’s critique of those views and their view of how the right way is to think about the dignity of our work.
If what they’ve said has already started to whet your appetite, I hope you’ll come along to our CCL event on May 17th at Moore College, where Chase and Pete will be speaking about the dignity of work—obviously in more depth than they can do just in this brief podcast and in a way that you can ask them questions: you can be there in the audience, you can ask them questions, and interact with them about this really important subject. That event’s on May 17th in Sydney at Moore College. For all the details and to book tickets, go to ccl.moore.edu.au. And if you do so soon, you can get tickets at the earlybird rate, so get onto the website and book your tickets for our next event.

Some other resources that you can also dig into if you want to read further on the subject of work or investigate this idea further, are found at matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl. This is a special page we’ve set up with our friends at Matthias Media to promote and sell good books and resources on the subjects that we deal with in these podcasts. And for this episode, Matthias Media have three really helpful little resources on this subject: the first is by William Taylor, called Revolutionary Work—William Taylor, of course, the rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate and a fine Bible teacher. He’s written a wonderful little short book on work and what it means, and our revolutionary view of the significance of work. The other is also a short, punchy little MiniZine by Paul Grimmond called God’s Plan for Work, which looks at what the Bible as a whole says about this subject. It’s a great little summary of the Bible’s teaching. Plus there’s also a little book on the reason why we do everything—whether it’s work or anything in our lives and how it fits into the kingdom and the purposes of God for us and for the world. That’s called The Thing Is. That’s one I wrote. The Thing Is. And you can get all those three resources at matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl, but only for the next couple of weeks. So go to matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl and you can find those three excellent little resources.

But enough of the ads. Time to get back to work, so to speak! So far, Chase and Pete have given us a good summary of some of the arguments that are used these days to give work a very high value, and in particular, to lodge the significance of work in the coming kingdom—in the resurrection—in the new creation—and to say that the value of our work today derives from its significance in the kingdom that is to come. But are these arguments as biblical as they first appear?

PO: Just looking at—looking at the texts that I mentioned earlier—looking at Genesis 1:28, we can’t just go back into Genesis 1 as if nothing has happened in between, and we do have to read it in the light of biblical theology, and in terms of humanity bringing the earth—you know—under the rule of God, when we get to the New Testament, how is that done? It is done by the preaching of the gospel, and as the gospel is preached, people come into relationship with Christ. So that is the fulfilment of Genesis 1:28, and people will say, “Well, okay, if we change that, why don’t we change marriage?” Well, in a sense, even marriage is … we understand marriage differently through the lens of Christ. We see marriage not as an end in itself, but as anticipating the great marriage between Christ and the church—Ephesians 5. So the whole trajectory of the Bible, I think, pushes us to see God’s kingdom expanding not as we do things in this world to transform culture, but as people are brought under the lordship of Christ.

Particular texts, I would say, again, 1 Corinthians 15:58: the work of the Lord in the context of 1 Corinthians and in Paul in general is gospel ministry. So it’s, “In light of the resurrection, give yourself to gospel ministry”. And I think you would see similar texts across the New Testament.

CK: So, systematically, when we’re thinking about eschatology in particular and what’s coming in the new creation, we’re thinking about how we live now in light of that new creation, and it seems to me that tensions exist between either extreme continuity or extreme discontinuity. So how much will remain the same and how much will actually be radically and completely different? So some people will go extreme end of common grace and they’ll return back to the created order as Pete has been mentioning, and they will see that within common grace and within God’s providence, there’s a lot that we can be doing and working in and throughout society because of common grace, and because of the grace of the gospel that can be worked throughout that common grace.

On the other end of that spectrum, people, obviously, have that lifeboat theology in saying, “It’s all going to burn. There’s nothing that we can do. In fact, nothing matters now.” I suspect the best way for us thinking about these things in that tension is recognising that God has in his grace given us provision: he’s allowed for humanity to live and thrive and enjoy really good things at his hand. So the rain does fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. We have things like tastebuds to enjoy food. We could eat without tasting, but God in his kindness has given us tastebuds. God has given us eyes to see beautiful things and appreciate them, noses to smell sweet aromas.

But it doesn’t mean that those sweet aromas are necessarily lasting or that what my eyes see must endure. There is something wonderful about this life that’s common to every human being that lives on the earth. But within this society—this common society—God in his good pleasure has chosen a particular people for himself—an elect people to belong to his redemptive kingdom. This kingdom is established by the gospel being proclaimed full stop. So people hear the good news of Jesus Christ, they’re delivered out of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom, and they live in Christ. That is the only thing that brings the kingdom. But there is an overlap in this age of that redemptive community living amongst a common population, enjoying many good things, feeling many of the same pressures and tensions, belonging to a common created order, and now living and working for the good life from that common order.

PO: On the question of continuity and discontinuity, I think it’s instructive in 1 Corinthians 15: albeit Paul’s talking about the resurrection body, but there is both continuity and discontinuity: Paul uses the image of a seed becoming a plant, and you can see organic continuity, but extreme discontinuity as well: you would never mistake the seed for the plant, and perhaps that’s the way that we’re to think of this relationship between continuity and discontinuity.

In terms of texts that speak of the value of work in the New Testament, there’s some very very strong commands in the New Testament that sometimes Christians in their desire to emphasise the right need for evangelism and discipleship sometimes—maybe we have ignored these texts. So 1 Timothy 5 verse 8: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. So there is this strong word that out of love for our family, we’re to provide for our family. Similarly, in Ephesians 5—Ephesians 4: Paul tells the person who’s been stealing not to steal any longer, but to work and do something useful so that they may be able—may have something to share to those in need. In other words, it’s love: we work so that we can love other people.

So I think if we take love as the kind of prevailing ethic, and we see that throughout the New Testament, that helps us think about the way that we work. So we work to love our neighbour and that will affect how we do our work. So if we’re an architect, we’ll be thinking about, “I want to build a building in a sense that is loving to my neighbours. I want it to be pleasant to look at, I want it to be functional.” So as a Christian, it does affect how I do my architecture. But it’s not sort of because this has eschatological significance. I think it is much more out of love—love for my neighbour—and also Colossians talks about the slave doing what they’re doing out of reverence for the Lord. Now, we could say, “That’s a slave. They didn’t have a choice.” But I think if we’re careful, we can see a principle here—that what we do is done out of love—love for God. So the New Testament seems to talk a lot about how we do our work, and gives significance to how we do our work.

CK: So what then dignifies our work, if we think about the governing ethic of the New Testament and the Bible, really—loving God and loving neighbour—encapsulated in the Great Commandment—or the Greatest Commandments, we should say—then we know love: 1 John 3—because God has given his Son for us. We abide in God’s love if we love one another. We love others. So when we’re thinking about that governing ethic of love, well, then we receive love from God and the gospel. Everything we do, then, is an expression, and hopefully, of our gratitude in love to God. And so there’s an “unto the Lord” sense of everything that we’re given, which is a way of honouring and glorifying God. So it’s a relational component. So that what we’re doing, then, is relative to our relationship not towards eternity. So it’s not that what I’m doing in painting this picture is because it’s going to make it in the new creation; it’s that actually God has given me gifts and given me an appreciation for beauty, and I can honour him by saying, “Lord, thank you for these gifts, thank you for letting me have this opportunity, and actually, I can make something wonderful for other people to appreciate and enjoy, and hopefully, according to the truth that you’ve revealed to me and the truth that I know by living in your good care.”

So there’s a different dynamic, then, that’s a relational dynamic of love to God first and foremost, and then love to neighbour. And, of course, the most loving thing that we can be doing for anyone is introducing them to the God of love. So it doesn’t stop at us making a beautiful painting. But it stops at us then saying, “This is something that encapsulates”—not that every painting has to have gospel throughout it; it might actually depict something else in reality. But it’s a way for us, then, to be conveying truth in the world that we live in, and as we interact with people in that space, we’re seeking and hopefully having that opportunity to tell people about God, the greatest lover—the only way that they really know true love. So I think that’s how we think about our ethics in the world.

PO: I think one thing we’ve got to be clear on, though, is the Christian artist who’s painting a beautiful picture out of love for God and out of love for neighbour, which is entirely appropriate for her to do that, is God working through her as she does her art? I don’t think the New Testament would use that language of God working through her. How does God work in the world? And I think we’ve got to think—when we think about work, we’ve got to think not just about our work, but how is God working in the world, and I think God is working in the world by his word—

CK: Through.

PO: By his word—through the proclamation of his word—the proclamation of the gospel.

CK: Yes. Absolutely.

PO: And so we’ve got to all think about giving ourselves to that work. And that’s why it’s striking for me Paul tells the Corinthians to abound in the work of the Lord. He doesn’t tell the Corinthian elders or the Corinthian pastor, if they have a pastor. He tells all the Corinthians, “You’ve got to give yourselves to the work that God is doing in the world.”

CK: Yes.

PO: And so the Christian artist, as much as she’s commanded to do her work unto the Lord and out of love for neighbour, is also commanded to give herself to the work of the Lord. And I don’t think those two are in competition.

CK: No. I agree with you.

TP: Okay. So now we’ve gotten into a really interesting area: not just the significance of the work that we do day to day as an act of love for God and for neighbour, but how our work relates to the work of the Lord—the work that God himself is doing in the world at the moment to bring his kingdom. That’s another big question, and probably one that we can’t deal with in any sort of adequate detail in this episode. But let’s hear a little bit more about it from Pete and Chase.

PO: But once you see your art or your garbage collection or your shelf stacking as somehow advancing the kingdom, that’s what you pour your energies into exclusively—

CK: Yes.

PO: —and you don’t need to worry about the progress of the gospel to the unbeliever or the believer is being deepened in their understanding of the gospel.

CK: That’s right.

PO: So I think it’s right to see that we have these parallel responsibilities.

CK: Yes.

PO: I would want to argue that the strength of Paul’s language at the end of 1 Corinthians 15 suggests that every Christian make this a priority—that we give ourselves to the work of the Lord.

CK: Absolutely. So the dignity of our work, then, isn’t that everything has gospel opportunity, but everything that we do is unto to the Lord. And as we do everything unto the Lord, there’s a parallel work with our work in the world, and that parallel work is making known the glories of Christ, and that comes through proclamation—that comes through taking every opportunity to speak the truth in love.

PO: I think it’s very important that we think biblically about our work. We spend a lot of time at work. If we have an underdeveloped biblical theology of work, the temptation is to dismay and frustration. If we have an overdeveloped—wrongly overdeveloped—biblical theology of work, the temptation is, as we’ve been saying, to, in a sense, to steal glory from God and seek too much significance in our own work. So I think it’s very important that we consider these questions.

CK: And when we think about how does the kingdom come, well, the kingdom comes as the proclamation of the word, God’s Spirit, brings new life to people: they come into his kingdom, and they are living in great expectation of Christ’s coming again when he will make all things new.


TP: Well, that’s all we have time for in this third episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. Subscribe to this podcast at iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Please leave us a comment or a review. And if you have any questions about this episode, or indeed questions you’d like us to address in future episodes, then just get in touch: send us an email at ccl AT moore edu au. Don’t forget, also, to check out our website, which is ccl.moore.edu.au—not only for the show notes for this episode, but for lots of other resources, essays, podcasts, videos from past events, and lots more besides.

Thanks so much for being with us today. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.

Our next event:

“The elusive joy of Christian community” with Chase Kuhn and Tony Payne, Wednesday 27 February 2019 at Moore College.

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