This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
My previous article in this series, ‘Building for God’s Kingdom,’ looked at the way God is renewing our world through the present efforts of His people. I did not go to the extreme of suggesting that we can actually build the new heavens and the new earth through our own efforts, which is the temptation of over-realized eschatologies such as Marxism. However, I did suggest that scripture shows there will be some continuity with what we do now to advance Christ’s kingdom, and the final fulfillment of that work when Jesus comes again.
My previous article looked at these questions from a ‘Big Picture’ perspective, considering the large flow of salvation history. In this article, I want to explore some of the same questions with a more narrow focus, looking at what you can do in your day to day life to advance God’s kingdom. In the process, I will again debunk some of the Gnostic assumptions that are often taken for granted within contemporary evangelicalism.
Glorifying God Monday through Saturday
When the apostle Paul was writing to Titus, he told him a specific message to give to bondservants. Paul said that “in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” even in the mundane tasks they performed. (Titus 2:10) This was also a theme Paul picked up on in his letter to the Corinthians, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) Everything can be done to the glory of God, and not just “spiritual” tasks.
This simple truth can sometimes be hard to truly believe. It’s easy to appreciate how work in Christian ministry can glorify God. It’s easy to appreciate how sharing the gospel with someone can glorify the Lord. But it’s harder for us to understand how the mundane things we do Monday through Saturday – things like eating, sleeping, working at a secular job, etc. – can bring glory to our Creator.
Luther and the Protestant Work Ethic
One man who helps us to think properly about this issue was the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther was born at a time where the work we do in the world had come to be perceived as morally neutral at best. While it may never have been expressed formally as such, an implicit theology had arisen which assumed that the best a lay person could do, so far as his profession was concerned, was to refrain from sinning. In his book Sources of the Self, the Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor described the conditions Luther was reacting against:
“On the degenerate, hierarchical understanding of the monastic life then prevalent, I as a layman am as it were only half-involved in my salvation: both because I need to draw on the merits of those who are more fully dedicated to the Christian life, through the mediation of the church, and because in accepting this lower level of dedication, I am settling for less than a full commitment to the faith.”
This hierarchical understanding helped to fortify the implicit dualism between the spiritual and the material realms, with the concern of the church belonging to the former and the concern of ordinary life belonging to the latter. The result is what Taylor described as “first and second-class Christians” defined by the contrast between the renunciative vocations and ordinary lay ones.
The Dutch statesmen and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) would later make a similar point in his lectures on Calvinism:
“Under the hierarchy of Rome the Church and the World were placed over against each other, the one as being sanctified and the other as being still under the curse….Escape from the world was the counterpoise in monastic and partly even in clerical orders, which emphasized holiness in the centrum of the Church…”
Luther realized that the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 sanctifies all honest labor. Consequently, the work of a baker, housewife, carpenter or administrator is just as valuable as the work of a priest or a nun. Hence, under the Protestant canopy, the term “vocation” (calling) which had previously only applied only to full-time ministry, came to refer to all legitimate professions. Luther put it like this in one of his sermons:
“…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 lowly employment must be praised as a service of God, far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns.”
I don’t know if I would go so far as Luther in saying that secular work actually surpasses the work of monks and nuns. Saint Paul did say that it was better to remain single (1 Cor. 7:7). I don’t think Paul said that because there is anything dirty about sex, but because single persons are able to devote themselves to constant prayer, as we know from the example of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38). The reformation may have over-reacted when they began destroying monasteries and forcing into secular labor those who, like the leaders in Acts 6:2-4, had dedicated themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. But Luther and the reformers certainly got one thing right: no matter how low our station, no matter how menial our task, we can glorify God in our labor.
Realizing that all honest labor can be spiritually productive frees us from having to tie the spiritual value of our work to specific functional ends. It is not merely the consequences of our work that brings glory to God, but the process as well. If I spend a month constructing a building that later topples down in an earthquake, my time has (in one sense) not been wasted if the work was done to the glory of God.
The Protestant Work Ethic in the Early Church
The, so called, ‘Protestant work ethic’ actually predates the reformation.
In the ancient Christian text known as the Didache we read, “If a prophet desires to abide with you, and if he is a tradesman, let him work and eat. However if he has no trade, according to your understanding see to it that as a Christian, he will not live with you idle.”
For Augustine of Hippo (354-430), no conflict existed between the work we perform with our hands and the life of prayer. In his tract “On the Works of Monks”, Augustine appealed to 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat”) in disputation against Carthaginian monastics who had decided not to work.
This understanding was later echoed by Caesarius of Arles (460-542) who taught that ordinary actions can be holy provided they do not proceed from impure motives: “Since God especially advises reasonable concern for food and clothing, so long as avarice and ambition…are not linked with it, an ordinary action or thought can be most rightly considered holy.”
The same notion is also found in a sermon of Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347–407):
“Whensoever then thou seest one clearing wood, smiting with a hammer, covered with soot, do not therefore hold him cheap, but rather for that reason admire him. Since even Peter girded himself, and handled the drag-net, and went a fishing, after the Resurrection of the Lord. And why say I Peter? For this same Paul himself, after his incessant runnings to and fro, and all those vast miracles, standing in a tent-maker’s shop, sewed hides together: while angels were reverencing him, and demons trembling.”
Similarly, the fourth-century collection of Christian writings, known as The Apostolic Constitutions, declares,
“Attend to your employment with all appropriate seriousness, so that you will always have sufficient funds to support yourselves and those that were needy. In that way, you will not burden the church of God…..Some of us are fishermen, tentmakers, and farmers, so that we may never be idle. Solomon says, ‘Go to the ant, though sluggard; consider her ways diligently and become wiser than she.’”
Suffice to say, the ‘Protestant work ethic’ did not originate with Luther. It is an orthodox and apostolic idea that Luther revived. I want to suggest that the same idea needs to be revived in our own time because of certain Gnostic-like ideas that have seeped into the Christian community. But more about that in my follow-up article.