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What Good is Work? (Part III)

Much of the tumult of this election season is, in a roundabout way, all about work. There’s the work of immigrants. There’s the question of steel workers, coal miners, and factory workers in this country. There’s the work of low paid assembly line laborers in other countries with whom we have trade agreements. (And I won’t even mention the work of the presidential candidates themselves.)

I’m very grateful to Jonathan Malesic and the work he put in to our three-part stewardship of work series that concludes this week. As the election rhetoric reminds us, work is a timely issue, one that begs for better theological framing and congregational reflection. My prayer, therefore, is that our ministries might embrace a renewed focus on work this election season and beyond. 

Yours truly,

Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders


What Good is Work? (Part III)

Jonathan Malesic

A ministry only works if its members do. The concept of tithes and offerings is that a portion of the fruits of one’s labor should go to support the ministry of one’s congregation. Ministries also depend on unpaid work done in church basements, homes, and care facilities. Christians often speak of this work as a vocation -- a calling from God. The language of vocation is strongly connected to stewardship, but if it’s used uncritically, it can end up justifying poor stewardship in the form of overwork and exploitation. Like work itself, the theology of vocation needs to be kept within limits.

The great reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin saw the Christian’s calling as the building block for a stable and prosperous society. While they argued strongly against works of any kind justifying the person in the sight of God, they also taught that God’s providence operates through human beings in their daily labor.

For Luther, the key biblical verse concerning vocation comes from Paul, who wrote, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called” (1 Corinthians 7:20). The point here is that there is spiritual value in work, regardless of its position (or, in Luther’s terms, “station”) in the social hierarchy. Any and every form of work is an opportunity to love God and neighbor.

As Luther said in a sermon, “If [someone] is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.” Calvin echoed this idea, writing that if you understand that your work is a calling, then “no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendor and value in the eye of God.”

As inspiring as this theology of the calling can be, we have to keep in mind that work itself is not purely good. Remember that, according to Genesis, hard work is a punishment for sin, and according to the gospels, Jesus puts little value on labor. So it would be a mistake to give Luther and Calvin the last word on the value of work.

As the theologian Miroslav Volf argues, the classical Protestant theology of vocation cannot account for the mobile and discontinuous nature of work in a modern economy. Few people work as farmers or tailors for a lifetime today as they did in Luther’s time. Careers are often interrupted to have children, or to move for the sake of a spouse’s work. What would Luther say is the “station” of someone who works part-time in a big-box store during the day and drives for Uber at night?

Volf is also rightly concerned that the advice to remain in a vocation can lead people to accept low wages and oppressive working conditions. I’m troubled by claims like this one, from the theologian Douglas Schuurman: “In and through one’s vocations one picks up one’s cross, follows Christ, and participates in his self-sacrificial sufferings. Christians should not aim at self-fulfillment.” Without question, working, even in a calling, is hard. So is the way of discipleship. But I think that by putting too much emphasis on self-sacrifice as the measure of one’s vocation, Schuurman’s approach can lead to poor stewardship of your gifts. You can’t be a light to others if you’re burned out.

Despite the problem of applying Luther’s theology of vocation today, he is right in saying that your vocation is a means for you to love your neighbor. So ask yourself, does your sacrifice in labor serve others who are truly in need? Or is it serving your boss’s demand for ever-greater profit? Or even the unreasonable demands of a spouse?

When it comes to work, we cannot ignore questions of justice, both for others who labor (see Matthew 20:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18) and for ourselves. Work is a great activity of human society. By keeping it within the bounds of justice and love, we can ensure that it serves human ends.

Check out Part I and II of this series below:

What Good is Work? (Part I)

What Good is Work? (Part II)

More Information

Jonathan Malesic has written about the meaning and value of work for America, The New Republic, the Wilson Quarterly, and several academic journals. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia and taught theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA for more than a decade. He is now a writer living in Dallas. For more info, visit jonmalesic.com.

 

 

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"Mission-Mill-8" image by PhotoAtelier. Creative Commons image on Flickr.

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