The dignity of work
1. What is the question behind the question?
My interest was piqued in the topic of work when I was working as a photographer and seeking to disciple other people working in my studio. I was trying to think theologically about the work we were doing and pondering with my guys about how we might be doing that better as Christian men. At one point, this led us to establish a not-for-profit organisation, because we thought that our other work wasn’t necessarily significant enough—unless we did something else more kingdom-based. I suspect this is a tension that many Christians feel.
Fast forward some years: the issue of work came back to me again when I was a minister in a local church in Sydney. Almost everyone I was discipling was involved in work, so I spent a lot of time thinking about things like, “How do I help people think theologically and responsibly about their place at work?”, “How do I help people think about how work impacts their Christian discipleship?” and “How can I encourage them to go and work faithfully as disciples of Christ?”
Fast forward to the present: fellow Moore College lecturer Peter Orr and I were talking about collaborating on a project about the theology of work—Pete being a biblical studies scholar and me being a theologian. When Tony approached us about speaking at a CCL night, I said, “I’d love to talk about work.” I started doing some research and looking around in the library, and I counted a gazillion books about work—especially published in the last decade. And yet I remained very unsatisfied as a theologian—in part, because of the way the theological conversation has gone. I’m not going to explore a lot of those positions, because I don’t want to offer a fully polemical argument. What I actually want to do is give you a constructive theology of what I think work is and how we can think about it as Christian people.
That said, I’m also dissatisfied because of the status quo: if you think about work, it’s still seen as a sort of necessary evil. People really struggle with it. Work, for Christians, can often be a place of many blind spots: it’s one of those strange areas in which Christians are more susceptible to idolatry. Furthermore, work is one of those things that constantly puts demands on us, our families and our society in a way that can be quite oppressive. So how we think about work really impacts the way we live as Christians.
In particular, as Christians, we take a narrower focus in our thinking about work, because we want to know why it matters. With all that I’m giving my life to and with all that I’m meant to live for as a Christian, why does this matter? Does what I’m doing actually matter at all? My old university’s slogan for recruiting students was “Live your purpose”—that is, “Come here so that you can live your purpose”, because “purpose” is closely identified with your chosen career path. I suspect many Christians think about living their purpose and see their careers as being deeply tied to this. And for some, they rejoice in that, and for others, they feel deep despair.
2. Some necessary definitions
Before we move on to consider this topic in further detail, I’d like to lay down some functional definitions. They’re not technical terms; they’re just to ensure that there’s no mistaking what I mean.
You’d think that “work” would be simple to define. Yet in all the books, “work” is a word that people really wrestle with. How do we define “work”? What do we contain within work? Where does work begin and end? I just want to use a fairly simple and plain understanding of work in our culture: I want to talk about what we think of as our careers. However, I’d like to be a little bit broader than that, because I don’t want to exclude people who do unpaid work—stay-at-home parents, retirees or students—people who dedicate much of their lives to particular kinds of work, even though they may not receive a paycheck for it.
I also want to talk about “kingdom”—specifically, “the kingdom of God”—the kingdom of Christ, which we now belong to spiritually and which we anticipate coming fully in the future. At times, however, I’m going to talk about “kingdom” in other ways: I will speak of a “common kingdom”, as well as—or as opposed to—a redemptive kingdom.
3. How do we think theologically about work?
a. Creation, humanity, Christ, the new creation …
So how are we to think theologically about work? This is one of the great difficulties that’s haunted Christians for centuries—partly because work is so tied into how we understand culture. When you’ve been called by Christ and you belong to him, and you think about his kingdom being other-worldly and your citizenship being other-worldly, how do you continue interacting in this world—this place that seems so hostile to God, the God to whom we belong—the God who made the whole world? How do we live in that space? Talking about this theologically, you can think about it in various categories of theology: creation, humanity, Christ, the new creation, and many more. I think the answer to where we should locate this theme is actually in all of these.
Let’s begin with creation and humanity. Many have sought to identify something known as the “culture mandate”—a term coined in the last hundred years or so. It’s seen in Genesis 1 and 2 and it’s reiterated in other places, such as Genesis 9. So Genesis 1:26-28 says:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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.” (Gen 1:26-28)
This purposeful work is picked up again in Genesis 2 and 9. Some have argued that these texts provide for us the purpose of humanity, which is cultural engagement. One author says,
the Bible teaches that cultural engagement before the living God is, along with worship, the fundamental calling of the human race.1
Another author, however, takes it a little further:
Contrary to the popular notion that we are made to worship God, the Bible suggests a more mundane purpose for humans made in God’s image, involving the development of culture and care for our earthly environment. 2
The question is, what is humanity for? I believe that an understanding of humanity linked exclusively to human utility and cultural development is impoverished. I don’t think we can just stop there. Of course, there are relational notions that are implicit within work and cultural development—namely, that humanity is functioning (as many have identified) as vice regents under God, or as God’s deputies in the world. This is true, of course. But it’s not the whole truth; there’s a higher purpose for humanity that lies within relationship. Humanity’s highest purpose is relationship. Human beings are made for relationship. Work is penultimate to this purpose—the ultimate purpose being relating to God. Work impacts the way we relate to everything else that God has created. It is, in fact, the right expression of human relationship to the created order—fruitfully multiplying, filling, subduing and having dominion, and so on. But this is in correspondence to our relationship to God. So we don’t do this for God, we do this under God.
Work, of course, was one of the things deeply impacted by the curse after Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. In Genesis 3, God says to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
He says to the woman,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”
Women often say that childbirth is the hardest work they ever do. I’ve witnessed childbirth and it looks tough!
Now comes an even more explicit cursing of work when God speaks to Adam:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
A little further on in the chapter, the Lord goes on to say,
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:22-24)
Notice broken fellowship. The breaking of relationship. Cursing of the order. Devastation to the created order, and yet preservation. A curse upon creation that has real implications for the ways that human beings live, and yet gracious provision for ongoing existence. I think it’s a wonder that God allows work to continue after the Fall. But I think it’s even more of a wonder that God allows life at all after the Fall—that he allows human beings to continue to exist and be a part of his created world.
In Genesis 9, after the Fall and the flood, God talks to Noah and gives him the cultural mandate—of filling and subduing, being fruitful and multiplying—once again. This demonstrates that God does have an ongoing purpose for humanity to cultivate the earth. So we can conclude that God’s purpose (or part of God’s purpose and plans for humanity in the world) is indeed cultivation.
In fact, I would say that work is part of God’s providence to humanity. Some have noted that common grace is extended to all of humanity, and I believe that work belongs to this common space: God lovingly provides for all creation in spite of humanity’s common sin. This is God’s good provision. In fact, it’s gracious and merciful; it’s an act of mercy that allows human beings to live and even flourish on earth under his good care.
Jesus talks about this in the Sermon on the Mount: “For he [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45b). In the world, humanity gets to live under God’s good care, whether or not they recognise him. God still causes the sun to rise. He still causes the rain to fall. He still allows people to have things such as simple happiness, relationships, good food and, of course, work.
Some have argued that with Christ, we have restoration, and therefore in Christ, we participate once again in God’s original plan for culture-making as Christians. Most of the evangelicals who make such arguments (and there are many evangelicals who make such arguments) stress that the culture-making involves gospel proclamation as part of that culture-making. However, they also go on to talk about embodying the Christian message and taking social action—working for the transformation of society. This means that our work is steered by the gospel, but it also includes a social edge: seeking the welfare of the city and the transformation of society to reflect the kingdom of God. I am not convinced this is the best way to think of work in the Christian life.
As we Christians take notice of our beliefs about work, we’re quickly forced to think about our ethics and to reflect on our ethics as workers. How does our understanding of work and God’s purposes for work in the world impact the way we think about ourselves as workers and the kind of work we do? How do we work as Christians? What do we work for?
I’m going to come back to this in a moment, but first I want to consider something about our location.
4. What is our location?
a. Already and not yet …
I don’t mean Sydney, Australia; I mean our location within salvation history. One of the important observations that Christians have made in reading the New Testament is that we live in the “already” and “not yet”.
This is a strange thing. What do I mean? It means that Christians already belong to Christ and are a part of his kingdom. This kingdom’s citizenship is realised in the Christian life as Christians live in the power of the Spirit under Christ their king. But there remains a “not yet” element to our kingdom thinking and our kingdom citizenship. While Christians belong to Christ and enjoy citizenship in Christ’s kingdom, Christ’s kingdom is still to come. In theological language, we speak of the consummation that is to come—that is, the day at the end of time when Christ will return for his people and be wed to his bride, the Church. On this day, there will be judgement: all evil and wickedness will be rid from the world. Christ will reign with his people in righteousness and perfect fellowship. This is the expectation of the coming kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth.
But as we look around, we know this is not our current reality. We get a foretaste of this now—wonderfully and graciously as God sends his Spirit to indwell us—and even as we enjoy Christian fellowship now in great anticipation of what is to come. But we’re still waiting. We’re still hoping. We’re still waiting for faith to become sight.
b. Cities, Kingdoms …
As theologians have reflected on this “already” and “not yet” way of thinking, they have tried to give an account of the way things are in society. Augustine spoke of two cities: the earthly city, in which people are deceived and led to false ends, and the celestial city, which is what we are talking about when we say, “the kingdom of God”.
Without perfect symmetry, the Reformers picked up some notion of this and began to articulate an understanding of two kingdoms. First, they spoke of a common kingdom—a common kingdom in the world to which all people belong. Every human being exists in this common kingdom. It is the place where we enjoy common grace—God’s good gift to us of providence so that we can continue living in his world, irrespective of our sins. The world is impacted by our sin and brokenness, but God still allows us life in this world in spite of our sin.
This common kingdom is a place that everyone participates. But there is also a redemptive kingdom—a kingdom consisting of those who have been called by God to saving faith in the Lord Jesus. Those who belong to this kingdom know God’s particular grace—his saving grace that comes to us in the gospel. Within this kingdom, citizens enjoy a reorientation of life and a reorientation of purpose through the restored fellowship they have with God.
So all people belong to the common kingdom. But not all people belong to the redemptive kingdom. Those who do still exist in the common kingdom, but as dual citizens: they rub shoulders with people in the world, they do common activities with people in the world, and they enjoy the provisions of common grace with people in the world. But they know the particular grace that comes through salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
5. What dignifies our “vocation”/work?
a. Evangelism, endurance and ethics
Our location within salvation history is very important as we turn to consider what dignifies our work. There have been multiple proposals about where the dignity of work is located. Some people try to stretch this evangelistically into the future: “my work is important insomuch as I am able to share the gospel”—i.e. the old sacred/secular divide. If your work isn’t paid vocational ministry (as if paid ministers only ever share the gospel! I hate to tell you, but about 60 percent of it is admin!), what do you do if you work in a secular space? What dignifies your work? Is it just the times you get to share the gospel? Some people think that that’s all that matters in the end, so therefore our work only counts if we get to share the gospel.
Position 1: Evangelism/mission only; value in people in eternity
A second way of thinking about it, though, is to try to extend our work into the new creation. We want to find value in endurance. So there have been quite a few proposals stating that what you’re doing now isn’t for nothing: it will remain. You are contributing to the transformation of creation. You’re making culture that will belong to the new creation. Now this is very attractive, because I want my work to matter and I want it to last; I don’t want it to be for nothing.
Position 2: Culture/new creation-making; value in stuff in eternity
So you can think about it in terms of evangelism, you can think about it in terms of endurance, or you can think about it a third way: ethically. What I really think dignifies your work as a Christian is that what you do, you do unto the Lord. You are in relationship with the eternal God—the God who made himself known and came to you in spite of your sin. He came and restored relationship with us so that we could have relationship with him.
Position 3: Work as ethics; value in relationship to/with eternal God
As we live under the Lordship of Christ in the power of the Spirit, everything we do is unto the Lord. It’s an expression of that relationship. As Jesus says to the scribe in Mark 12,
“The most important [commandments] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
This is a summary of the whole law: love. So we do our work under the Lord, but as we do so, we also do it in love to our neighbour. In fact, as we love God and we know God’s love, our love overflows and spills over into our relationships. In some ways, the way that we love the Lord best is by properly loving other people. And so we can do good work in the common kingdom for the good of those around us. This is part of God’s provision.
I think this is a great relief. We can consider these approaches through the vocation of dentistry. If I’m a dentist and my work is only valuable if I can do evangelism, then my work really only matters if I can tell my patients the gospel while I’ve got tools in their mouth. That’s quite a vulnerable position for them! I have ethical issues with that. On the other hand, if my work as a dentist only matters insomuch as it impacts eternity, well, then, I really better hope that my fillings work well so that your teeth last forever. But on the other hand, if my work matters as I do it unto the Lord, then, every way I work is an expression of that relationship. So as people come and sit in the chair and I work on them, I can love them. I can be a gentle dentist and not go crazy with the drill. So ethics is the way I think we should think about the dignity of work: it’s all about relationship.
One of the greatest things I think we often overlook in life is the strong and simple ethical encouragement to love God and love our neighbour. Living unto the Lord is living unto his glory; this is our ultimate end, and this we can do in restored relationship with God himself—living our lives in the Spirit through the Son unto the Father. But we often make life—and especially our work—about so much else. I am really encouraged by Wendell Berry who, referencing Revelation 4:11, wrote:
This bountiful and lovely thought that all creatures are pleasing to God—and potentially pleasing, therefore, to us—is unthinkable from the point of view of an economy divorced from pleasure,3 such as the one we have now, which completely discounts the capacity of people to be affectionate toward what they do and what they use and where they live and the other people and creatures with whom they live.4
In short, Berry is appealing for an ethic of love: love the Lord in your work, love your neighbour in your work. It rises out of our affections—renewed affections that we have set on God, because of the relationship that he’s initiated with us in Christ. These affections reorient our whole reality. Our work must find its orientation in who we are in Christ and in anticipation of the future that he alone secures.
6. Who does the work of transformation?
a. Salvation, sanctification and “vocation”
As we think of our participation in creation as new creations in Christ, we must conceive of the world to come much like we do our salvation. We live according to the work that God alone has done in us, and if you’re a Reformed Protestant Christian, you really believe that salvation is the work of God alone in your life. We don’t contribute to it. Indeed, even the work of transformation (even if we’re participating in, say, putting to death sin) is ultimately only ever and always the work of the Spirit in and through us to bring transformation.
Now, as we conceive of the creation (which has certainly suffered because of our disobedience and the curse), as Romans 8 tells us, the creation waits for the salvation of humankind with eager expectation and with groaning. This is because as we are saved, redeemed and transformed, so too will the whole created order be transformed. But like our salvation, that transformation work does not belong to us; it belongs to Christ. That recreation, just like our recreation, will be a work of the Lord alone.
If we extend that transformation work to us and our participation in society, that might work out great for society, but that is not bringing in the new creation and the kingdom, because Christ is the only one who can do that.5 Christ is the one who redeems, transforms and make all things new, thus completing the cultural mandate of Genesis once and for all. Instead, we await eagerly the day of God—the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13).
This does not, then, negate our responsible and considerate participation in this creation. It doesn’t mean we cease from participating in culture. But we do so with a different view: our end is not ushering in the kingdom through our participation in work and cultural activities; our aim is glorify the Lord as we love him and love our neighbour. As Van Drunen writes,
Christians are called not only to act in accord with God’s law at all times but also to do all things from faith (Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6) and all things for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31). Though unbelievers do many things that are in outward conformity to God’s law (when they are honest, refrain from violence and adultery, etc.), they never truly exhibit faith in Christ as a foundation for their actions or seek God’s glory as the goal of their conduct. Here then is one way in which cultural activity should be uniquely Christian: even in their most ordinary and mundane tasks, Christians must act from faith, in accord with God’s law, and for God’s glory. Whatever they do, they should ‘work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men’ (Col. 3:23). An unbeliever can never and will never do this. Because of Christians’ inner motivation and subjective attitude, therefore, they should always be interpreting their cultural activities differently from unbelievers, hence making their cultural work, in this respect, uniquely Christian.6
Colossians 3:23 tells us that we are to work unto the Lord and not for men. But this sort of ethic will have positive consequences for our neighbour. Listen to Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians:
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess 4:9-12)
Work is to be conducted with diligence and discipline. Participation in society is a good thing. In fact, our presence among outsiders—unbelievers—must win favour with them so that we will not build any barriers for the gospel. Instead, we create opportunity for gospel witness. But ultimately our work is governed by our relationship with the Lord: this is what gives dignity to our efforts.
1 William Edgar, Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture, IVP, 2016, p. 87.
2 J Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, Baker, 2014, p. 17.
3 Berry uses “pleasure” to mean “affection in action”.
4 Wendell Berry, What are People For?, North Point Press, 1990, p. 139.
5 David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, Crossway, 2010, p.164.
6 VanDrunen, pp. 167-168.