Keeping Work In Its Place

George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community of Scotland, said that he took the job of cleaning the community’s toilets so, “I will not be tempted to preach irrelevant sermons on ‘the dignity of all labor.'”

I haven’t preached many sermons on the subject of work.

When I do preach on work, I will tell them that I believe that the fabled “Protestant work ethic” is a decidedly mixed inheritance for the church. Martin Luther attacked medieval monasticism by dignifying all work as divinely ordained. You don’t have to become a nun to serve God. Even the lowest servant cleaning floors in the rich man’s house mops to the glory of God. God did not simply create the world and quit. God keeps creating and invites us, in even the humblest work, to join in God’s continuing creativity.

Luther’s thought on work is not so much a glorification of our human work, but rather a celebration of the work of God. When Luther uses “vocation” he uses it more to refer to tasks like marriage and family than to jobs. Our vocation is not work but worship.

Sometime ago, I saw a book for Christian students. It began, “How can you serve Christ on campus?” Answer. “First by studying hard. You are called to be a student. You have gifts and graces from God for study. You are not studying just for yourself, but for what you can eventually give to others through your study. Now, study!”

That sounds like “vocation.”

Unfortunately, the “Protestant work ethic” tended to elevate even the meanest job to the status of divinely ordained, so that today, when we say “vocation,” we mostly mean “job.”

Sometimes the “Protestant work ethic” defended the indefensible. If you’re in a demeaning, degrading job, it is because God put you there, therefore, don’t strive to better your condition. Such thought was a powerful hindrance to revolutionary thought and action.

Today, most people can expect seven job-changes in their lifetime. Many of these will be forced upon them by external economic factors. How can these multiple changes, forced upon the worker from the outside, be called aspects of divine vocation?

While Protestantism, in its attempt to honor all work as a vocation from God, may have contributed to some of the abuses of capitalism, the Christian and the Jewish faiths also bear within a prophetic critique of work. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, humanity is graciously invited by God to work. God creates a garden, then invites the woman and the man to tend the garden. Yet Genesis also admits that work, gracious gift of God, can also be a curse, when abused and used in sinful ways. Adam and Eve are cursed by hard work when they’re kicked out of God’s garden.

We have no record that Jesus ever worked or urged anyone else to do so. The “call” of Jesus appears to be a call to ordinary people like fishermen and tax collectors to leave their careers and to follow him on his travels about Galilee.

Thus, while work may be a good gift of God, our present structures of work are not divinely ordained. Work, like any human endeavor — sex, money, art — may be tainted with human sin. For some, that sin will take the form of idolatry, in which we give honor and energy to our jobs which should be reserved for God.

I think that we pastors ought to be cautious about claiming too much for work. Most of work’s rewards are most mundane. For one thing, most of our friends are somehow related with our work. One of the most dehumanizing aspects of unemployment is the loneliness of the unemployed.

Also, from a Christian perspective, your work has value because it contributes, not to your well being, but to someone else’s. As a mechanic said to me recently, “People need me more than they need a brain surgeon. When I put somebody’s car back on the road, they’re grateful and I’m happy.” Work is a major way we discover our dependency on one another, our connectedness in a wide web of other persons’ work.

For another thing, most of us work for the mundane, but utterly necessary need to earn a living. Our work puts bread on the table. Rather than debate which forms of work contribute to our personhood and which do not, we ought to focus on which work fairly compensates a worker and which work doesn’t. We ought to admit that most of us work for pay. While we are working for pay, we can achieve many other noble human values. But none of those noble values should deter us from the most basic value that all ought to have work and that all ought to be justly compensated for their work.A fair, living wage is more to the point than our high-sounding theological platitudes.

We are right to seek meaningful work, since work is a major task given by God to humanity. We are right to criticize our present structures of work, expecting them to be sinful and in need of reform in various ways. Our work, suggests our faith, is source of great joy, also of much pain. Making a life is more significant than making a living.

William H. Willimon

I hope you will join me at the “Growing Healthy Churches” Event with Dr. Paul Borden on February 9 and 10.

3 thoughts on “Keeping Work In Its Place

  1. This was a good read. I struggle with the protestant work ethic on a daily basis. Having worked much too hard in the last year and ending up with an ulcer and a severe depression, I am now trying to find healthy models and structures for work.I have always seen the way some denominations are rigorous in keeping the sabbath as legalistic, but now I am not sure. I start to understand it as grace – how the sabbath can be a celebration of work, and at the same time a testimony to our conviction that God supplies.Thank you for sharing your wisdom!


  2. I agree with you that not every job/vocation is a result of a ‘calling’. However, I do believe we can function w/in our calling as we engage in our job/vocation, or employment.For example, I am a medical lab technician. That is my vocation/jobWhile performing the duties of my job, I often seize opportunities to fulfill God’s calling on my life. That calling is a call given to all the saved; to pray for those in need. Additionally, God has called me to be a teacher of His Word. That calling too, I have had opportunities to fulfill while on my job.Keep up the good work. I enjoy your posts.


  3. “We have no record that Jesus ever worked or urged anyone else to do so. The “call” of Jesus appears to be a call to ordinary people like fishermen and tax collectors to leave their careers and to follow him on his travels about Galilee.”Never worked? Then why did he get away to retreat so often? What do you mean by “work” when you say Jesus never did it?


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