Work as (Spiritual) Discipline

D. G. Hart
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 2002

hat happens to Christianity in the workplace? Does faith make a difference in the way believers work? These are questions that the 1999 movie The Big Kahuna, starring Kevin Spacey and Danny Devito, raised in surprisingly thoughtful ways. The film features three colleagues from the same company who host a cocktail party at a manufacturers' convention in a Wichita hotel. They sell industrial lubricants and hope to make a deal with the president of Indiana's largest manufacturer, "the big kahuna." Over the course of the evening, they fail to make the deal for the interesting reason that one of the men, Bob, talks with his guest about Christ instead of about his company's product. One of the many issues raised in Bob's ensuing conversations with his colleagues-the movie is long on dialogue-is whether he was justified in using company time to evangelize.

Several reviewers found this to be an unrealistic dilemma, noting that evangelicals made their peace with being Christians at the office long ago. According to a writer for Christianity Today, "Even if Bob has cultivated no fully developed spirituality of work … it is improbable that this Bible-imbued believer feels no compulsion to do a good job even under intense pressure to do so." But the conundrum confronting Bob is not simply whether to work or evangelize. As Christianity Today's writer notes, the real issue is whether Christians have a "spirituality of work." Is work religious? Or is work an indifferent affair that needs to be baptized by evangelizing or fellowshipping with co-workers?

The Big Kahuna highlights this issue by demonstrating how many believers justify their work. Although the phrase "full-time Christian service" may have been more popular a generation ago than it is today, the idea expressed by it is still prevalent among Christians. There are, as the phrase suggests, jobs that engage believers full-time in explicitly religious endeavors, most commonly as pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and others that support the work of spreading the gospel. Other callings that believers may choose are forms of "part-time Christian service" because they do not have a direct bearing on bringing people to Christ. For instance, a professional basketball player is doing little to tell others about his faith while he is on the court. He does have a tremendous opportunity, though, if at other times he publicly proclaims his faith and uses his celebrity to enhance the image of Christians. Believing football players have begun to kneel in the end zone after a touchdown and point up to the sky in an effort to acknowledge their faith. Pity the linemen who do not enjoy the spotlight or the janitor (for that matter) who never stands a chance of achieving celebrity and gaining a wider audience for his Christian profession!

Central to this idea of work, then, is that for it to qualify as Christian it must involve the proclamation of Christ. Forms of work outside evangelism and the ministry do not involve such proclamation and so do not possess spiritual significance unless a personal testimony can be added. The result is someone like Bob in The Big Kahuna whose primary rationale for selling industrial lubricants is to use business contacts to spread the good news. But sales itself, the task of describing and commending the superiority of a particular product, apparently has no religious-read "redeeming"-significance.

The Protestant Reformation's conception of piety was designed in part to undo this mind set. The reformers developed the idea of vocation to teach that ordinary Christians need not be monks or priests in order to be engaged in pious-that is, God-honoring-work. All legitimate vocations-including baking, farming, blacksmithing, and shop owning-were, according to their teaching, worthy of divine approval because God had created the world good and so work in his creation was not sinful but valuable. Martin Luther put it this way: "All the duties of Christians, such as loving one's wife, rearing one's children, governing one's family, obeying the magistrate, etc., which [Roman Catholics] regard as secular and fleshly … are fruits of the spirit. These blind men do not distinguish between vices and the things that are good creatures of God." In other words, for Protestants everyday work changed from being a necessary evil to being a necessary good.

The daily work of saints was necessary because of the related Protestant doctrine of providence, which is the idea that God superintends all things according to his sovereign plan. The reformers taught that God used the labors of people in so-called secular fields to provide for his creation. Of course, God could provide supernaturally, such as when, for example, he fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna and quail. But God also providentially provides food through the natural means of dirt, water, seeds, plants, farmers, truck drivers, and food service professionals. Luther amplified this notion poignantly when he wrote: "[I]t looks like a great thing when a monk renounces everything and goes into a cloister, carries on a life of asceticism, fasts, watches, prays, etc…. On the other hand, it looks like a small thing when a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework. But because God's command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service of God far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns." The doctrines of creation and providence, in the reformers' hands, elevated work that was once thought to be tainted because of its "worldliness" into a calling blessed by God.

The corollary to the doctrine of vocation is that of the priesthood of all believers. Ordinary Christians, in the reformational scheme, now behave as priests before God in their daily vocations. This involves the spiritual service they render to God because their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. When Paul writes in Romans 12 that believers are to offer themselves as "living sacrifices to God," he is simply reinforcing what he says to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:4, 5) about the way both the Word of God and prayer consecrate those affairs in which Christians are engaged throughout their lives. The reformers taught that as priests, and by the practices of prayer and studying God's Word, believers actually offer fragrant sacrifices to God in the daily and ordinary tasks he gives them to perform.

Ironically, contemporary Protestants have often taken the reformational doctrines of vocation and the priesthood of all believers almost contrarily to what the reformers intended. For contemporary Protestants, the priesthood of all believers usually means that each Christian is called to be an evangelist, not that the ordinary and nonreligious work of nonordained believers has religious significance before God. The result is that many of us are still as uncomfortable with worldly and secular affairs as was the medieval church; we have missed the Reformation understanding of vocation that was supposed to make us content with the common work to which God calls us, showing that even in the feeding of children or the cleaning of toilets Christians, as living sacrifices, actually give God glory. Instead, we often think we must be soul-winners to justify our day jobs.

The true reformational doctrine of vocation not only clarifies the nature of full-time Christian service by teaching that all Christians, whether ordained or not, are engaged in such service. This view also has important implications for piety and sanctification. When the Apostle Paul tells Christians to put on the new man, to abound in works of righteousness, and bear the fruit of the Spirit (Eph. 4 and Gal. 5:16-26), his point is that believers are to say "No" to self and "Yes" to holiness. These are the two components of sanctification, what theologians call mortification (dying) and vivification (living). As much as religious practices such as prayer and worship contribute to our sanctification, we sometimes miss the part that work plays. The reformational doctrine of vocation implies that work is a means of sanctification since it cultivates virtues such as moderation and self-control that are part of godliness (Titus 2). It may not be entirely clear how washing a floor, hauling garbage, or planting tulip bulbs glorifies God and sanctifies us. But when believers work with a sense of reverence and gratitude, they do.

With this perspective on work, Christians may think they do not need to seek the conversion of non-Christian co-workers. This understanding is wrong, especially since the Apostle Peter urges us always to be ready "to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet if adopting this perspective means that believers start to take delight in serving God in the very tasks to which he has called them rather than having to supplement work with religious interludes at the water cooler, then the doctrine of vocation does exactly what it is supposed to do. For work itself has significance in God's sight, even to the point of sanctifying believers. Had Bob known this, he might have been able to sell industrial lubricants to the big kahuna with a clear conscience, recognizing that this work was ordained for his own holiness and blessed in God's sight.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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