Gnosticism in the Work Place (Gnosticism and Evangelicalism, part 6)

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.

In Part 1 of this series I explained how the heresy of Gnosticism taught that there was a deep opposition between the spiritual life and the material world. Consequently, the Gnostics believed that this world and our physical experiences within it are unimportant to God. Sadly, many modern-day Christians also believe that what we do in this world is unimportant, so that the best we can hope to do is to focus exclusively on the life to come. This implicitly Gnostic perspective makes it hard to understand how we can glorify God in our secular vocations.

The more Gnostic approach seems to be the position of Pastor Rick Warren, best known for his phenomenal best-seller The Purpose Driven Life. The California-based pastor takes it for granted that one’s “mission” is saving souls, while one’s day to day vocational labors derive eternal value only to the degree that they serve the ends of the former. Warren’s thesis is that by focusing on our “mission”, our lives become “purpose-driven” instead of merely wasted. Asserting that “Everything else will eventually vanish,” Warren asserts the work we do in our day job derives value only to the degree that it gives us opportunities to evangelize:

“Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production….

“Your mission has eternal significance. It will impact the eternal destiny of other people, so it’s more important than any job, achievement, or goal you will reach during your life on earth. The consequences of your mission will last forever; the consequences of your job will not….The clock is ticking down on your life mission, so don’t delay another day.”

Significantly, the subtitle to The Purpose Driven Life is “What on Earth Am I Here For?” Warren’s answer to the subtitle’s question seems to be that we are here purely for the purpose of preparing for the next life. As he puts it in chapter 4,

“Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity. It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins.” Or again, “This is not your permanent home or final destination. You’re just passing through, just visiting earth…..Your identity is in eternity, and your homeland is heaven.…earth is not our ultimate home….”

This instrumentalizing of our lives in this world leaves little room for a theology of cultural sanctification or earthly purpose, since God’s purposes are entirely the province of heaven. In keeping with this perspective, Warren defines “mission” in a way that circumnavigates around any secular labors. Secular labors become missional only to the degree that they present opportunities for evangelism. The labors we engage in outside sharing our faith, even “all kinds of good things”, he says are actually “diversions” thrown at us by the devil to delay Christ’s return. In his book The Purpose Driven Church Warren suggests that even the value of weekly church services is an adjunct to the evangelistic ministry.

Under this outlook, raising families, building cathedrals, trimming hedges, reading novels, and even corporate worship, are only of temporal importance at best unless they contain an explicit evangelistic component. At worst, such activities are dangerous distractions sent from the devil. Lurking behind Warren’s truncated idea of mission is an unconscious dualism between creation and redemption, as if God’s purposes for the latter have nothing to do with His original intentions in the former.

Warren’s dichotomy between the ordinary work we do for our job vs. our mission was echoed by Richard Coekin. In his essay ‘The Priority of gospel ministry’ (published in Workers For The Harvest Field), Coekin reflected much popular thinking when he made the distinction between “creation ministry” and “gospel ministry.” The former involves things like “[contributing] where we can to the biblical government of this planet” and “the improvement of the welfare of all humanity, especially the poor, weak and vulnerable.” By contrast, ‘gospel ministry’ involves “the world to come… of seeking to save people from hell for heaven.” After comparing these two types of work, Coekin concludes that gospel ministry “is generally more important and takes priority over our ‘creation ministry’ seeking to improve people’s lives in this world.” He continued:

“the eternal benefits of gospel ministry seem to clearly outweigh the more temporary benefits of creation ministry. Put crudely, while medical help can delay death for a few years, it is only gospel ministry that can rescue us from an eternity in the horrors of hell for an eternity of joy in the new creation. The priority of gospel ministry is clear from the relative benefits of each.”

While not wanting to oversimplify the theological issues at stake, it is noteworthy that Coekin’s antithesis between gospel ministry and creation ministry, like Warren’s disjunction between mission and vocation, closely parallels the dualism between matter and spirit that has become so endemic of contemporary thought. This is because mission and gospel relate to the “spiritual” end of saving souls, while our vocations in the material sphere only have temporal value. The result is that only those who are in “full time ministry” can see their day job as being spiritually dynamic. The work of a garbage collector, car salesman, administrator, accountant or ballet dancer achieves value only derivatively through the opportunities such employment may bring for evangelism.

This orientation limits the work of missions to the immediate task of getting people saved, while considerations about ways in which Christian mission might flesh out into the larger culture are neglected.

This Gnostic approach to labor distorts the meaning of the gospel, by truncating the good news of Christ’s Lordship to a delimited sphere. (In its original context, the gospel included every department of life, because it was the announcement of Christ’s Lordship over all of creation. To learn more about this, read my post ‘The Meaning of the Gospel.’)

Truncating the Gospel

In The Purpose Driven Church, Warren claims to navigate between the extremes of cultural imitation and cultural isolation. However, his solution is not to return to an expansive understanding of the gospel in which all legitimate departments of life can be sanctified; rather, his solution is simply to infiltrate the culture with evangelism, to be more serious about the Great Commission and to create a service that is attractive to unbelievers. As everything other than evangelism becomes reduced to unimportance, mission becomes divorced from vocation and one’s labours in the secular world derive their legitimacy only to the degree that they provide raw material for evangelism.

Culture thus becomes a matter of spiritual indifference, often leading to uncritical accommodation rather than thoughtful engagement. While culture may have some functional value (for example, it may provide the medium for evangelistic marketing techniques), it remains essentially spiritually neutral under the truncated idea of the gospel.

Where Pietism and Fundamentalism Meet

 Viewing the physical order as spiritually neutral can lead to the “seeker-friendly” posture of accommodation and compromise (what Hunter describes as the “‘relevance to’ paradigm” of adaptation) or to the more “fundamentalist” and “pietist” posture of retreat and isolation, since in both cases the work of redemption has essentially become privatized and detached from the material world. Under both approaches, the arenas of art, politics, drama, film, economics, literature, architecture, education, fashion design, gardening and the media become ‘secular’ by default. The only disagreement between the isolationism of fundamentalism and the accommodation of the “seeker-friendly” posture is whether one should retreat from this “secular order” or capitulate to it. Fundamentalists will often take the former course while more accommodating and liberal forms of Christianity are often tempted to the second. In both cases, what tends to be left intact is the basic sacred/secular divide. Serious Christian engagement with all of life—including our Monday through Saturday jobs—becomes the chief casualty of this dualistic posture.

Neo-Anabaptist authors have written some trenchant criticisms of this bipolar approach to the world, urging radical discipleship in all of life. However, the separatist and pietistic tendencies of neo-Anabaptists mean that their approach can be just as schizoid, especially when it comes to our ordinary labor in the material world. Robert Brimlow’s book Paganism and the Professions is a notable example.

See Also

Despite the fact that the Genesis narrative records Adam working before the fall, Brimlow maintains “that God intended work as a punishment for sin” and contends against the position “that all work is somehow good and blessed by its very nature…” Brimlow writes that “To label our work and the professions as ‘callings’ or ‘vocations’ is not only arrogant it also, and importantly, cheapens the gospel. There is one calling we should recognize – discipleship – and one vocation – to follow Jesus.”

Brimlow was echoing Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas who had similarly suggested that “work need not be regarded as ultimately significant. Work is simply common as it is the way most of us earn our living. Indeed, if there is a grace to work it is that we do not need to attribute or find in our work any great significance or salvation.” Significantly, in his book In Good Company: The Church as Polis, Hauerwas was highly critical of what he termed “John Paul II’s attempts to give work an intrinsic status by underwriting the dignity of common work…”

Once again, this Gnostic-type approach is not what we find in either the Bible or Christian tradition. The Church has taught that all legitimate aspects of life can be dignified and put to the service of Christ, not merely those things we consider ‘spiritual.’

A Christian Vision for All of Life

How do we recover from this Gnostic orientation to a more expensive vision of the gospel? A good place to start is going to work with a different attitude. Instead of thinking of our jobs as a necessary evil so that we can simply earn money to survive, we can begin thinking of work—even unpleasant work—as an arena in which we can glorify the Lord.

Maybe our work will provide opportunities for evangelism, maybe it won’t. Perhaps our work is making the world a better place, or perhaps it isn’t. But if we do our work to the Lord, then it is spiritually productive whether or not we understand how (provided, of course, that we are doing nothing sinful). In short, you can begin thinking of your day job as your ministry.

I’d like to end with a quotation from Albert Wolters, from his book Creation Regained. In discussing the passage from James’ epistle about friendship with the world being enmity with God, Wolters noted that

…Christians of virtually every persuasion have tended to understand ‘world’ to refer to a delimited area of the created order, an area that is usually called ‘worldly’ or ‘secular’ (from saeculum, the Latin rendering of aion), which includes such fields as art, politics, scholarship (excluding theology), journalism, sports, business, and so on. In fact, to this way of thinking, the “world” includes everything outside the realm of the “sacred,” which consists basically of the church, personal piety, and “sacred theology.” Creation is therefore divided up neatly (although the dividing line may be defined differently by different Christians) into two realms: the secular and the sacred.

This compartmentalization is a very great error. It implies that there is no “worldliness” in the church, for example, and that no holiness is possible in politics, say, or journalism. It defines what is secular not by its religious orientation or direction (obedience or disobedience to God’s ordinances) but by the creational neighborhood it occupies. Once again, it falls prey to that deep-rooted Gnostic tendency to depreciate one realm of creation (virtually all of society and culture) with respect to another, to dismiss the former as inherently inferior to the latter.

Further Reading

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