Eight Influential Ideas about Work

As we pass Labor Day and settle into the fall, I want to label a few of the most influential ideas about work in Western thought and invite you, my reader, to see which thoughts might be informing you and supplanting more biblical ideas about work. Without further ado

     Most Greeks thought work was a curse. They especially despised manual labor. Leaders tried to foist it on servants or slaves, so they would have time for philosophy and friendship. To this day, many follow the Greeks in thinking of work as an evil to avoid, if possible.

     Ancient and medieval Christians merged Greek and biblical ideas about work. They knew that farmers and artisans "contribute to the common good."[1] Like Greeks, however, they believed that contemplation is the highest human activity. So they respected farming, trade, and raising a family, but they exalted priests and monks because they could devote themselves to "the contemplation of divine truth [which] is the goal… of human life."[2] This led to the distinction between sacred and secular work. The notion that spiritual work is superior has led millions of Christians to diminish the value of their work. It can also keep us from praying "Your kingdom come" and striving for that in our work.

        Renaissance thinkers, by contrast, praised the active life. Not only could humans be like God, by working creatively, they could mold and make themselves, either by descending to a brute-like life or by soaring to the divine.[3] At best, mankind worked both for God and as God, through creativity. Existentialists still believe that humans have no fixed nature and can therefore mold or create themselves. Technology enthusiasts dare to dream that genetic engineering can fashion ageless bodies or that our minds may one day be transferred into refined, body-like machines.

        Martin Luther deserves credit for dignifying the work of common laborers. He taught that the farmer shoveling manure and the maid milking her cow please God as much as the minister preaching or praying. Workers are the "masks of God," he often said. "God gives every good thing, but not just by waving a hand."[4] Instead, God feeds and clothes the world through our labor. He answers our prayers for "our daily bread" through farmers, millers, and bakers. Luther thought God places every believer in a station. Whatever one's station may be, faith transforms it into a vocation. All work pleases God equally.[5] It is a great consolation to hear this, but there is a problem. If all work is a God-given call, how can anyone seek a new position? If all work is a divine appointment, how can anyone reform brutal working conditions?

     Luther chided Christians who chafe against boredom and sigh for someone else's work. Luther urged believers to change their attitudes, not their work. "Cast aside… the boredom" and you will "realize that you neither needed nor wished a change."[6] So Luther stressed the need to work faithfully where we are. Luther could appeal to Paul, who said "Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you…" But Luther forgot Paul's next line: "If you can gain your freedom, do so" (7:20-21, NIV).

        John Calvin added one essential concept to Luther. He believed sin can distort the very fabric of work, so that evil structures and institutions spring up and betray the natural or God-given order. That allowed Calvin to question the institution of slavery, which, he said, God tolerated but never ordained. In itself, slavery is "totally against all the order of nature."[7] Thus Calvin teaches that is insufficient to work faithfully wherever we are. Sometimes we should seek to reform a corrupt social order.

        Adam Smith was a Deist who extolled the beauty of free markets, which, he said, God orchestrates through an "invisible hand."[8] He also said the marketplace puts self-interest to good use. To prosper, we must produce things others find beneficial. Self-interested people, seeking wealth, must offer valuable goods and services, so other self-interested people will pay for it. Without intending to promote "the public interest," selfish people do good to each other by providing and paying for products people want.[9]

     Smith was an intellectual father of modern manufacturing and modern materialism. He argued that workers are most productive when they repeatedly perform the simplest tasks, using the right tools.[10] Smith foresaw that repetition would develop speed and accuracy but crush the worker's soul. He believed people would endure the boredom to gain the wealth. How would you respond to Smith?

     Karl Marx thought Adam Smith's devotion to wealth was crass and caused despair, because factories doomed workers to a few "endlessly repeated mechanical motions." Worse, since there are numberless unskilled workers to perform these motions, manufacturers treat them as commodities and pay them just enough to survive.[11] Marx hoped the masses would overthrow the capitalists. Then work would become a "liberating activity" that fosters "self-realization."[12] Marx's views are appealing but unrealistic. In his world, who collects garbage and washes floors? More important, Marx had no doctrine of sin, so he didn't see that selfishness will always spoil the workplace and its relationships.

     Abraham Maslow labeled the current outlook on work, which is largely a reaction to Adam Smith and his many followers who always want to make workers more productive. Automated assembly lines have reduced (not eliminated) the problem of people forever performing the same simple tasks, but the problem of dehumanizing work remains. Humans shine when the whole person is engaged, not when bosses make them act like machines.

     Abraham Maslow enters here. He said people have a hierarchy of needs. Once we have food, clothing, shelter, safety, and security, we seek higher goals – loving acceptance, respect and self-actualization.[13] Maslow describes the way people generally think today, although people seek security, respect, and fulfillment in different ways. Let's call them idealists, capitalists, and adventurers.

     Idealists seek fulfillment at work. They want jobs that are challenging and make a difference, like teaching in the inner city. Capitalists will take any job that pays well so they can enjoy the good life through work. Adventurers want to earn enough to support a meaningful life after work. They want a respectable job that ends at 4 p.m. so they can hop in their kayak or coach a soccer team. But all three types seek fulfillment and self-expression.

     Most of us entertain several of these influences. To keep our bearings, let's remember basic biblical teachings about work. First, the Lord works and ordains that humans work. Second, after humanity's rebellion, work became toilsome and frustrating. Third, God bestows all gifts, respects them, and puts us in position to use them. Fourth, sin distorts the workplace. Therefore, it may be right to work for reform, if possible, or best to take a new job (1 Cor. 7:21-22), where we may perhaps do more to fulfill God's mandate to govern and care for his creation.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

[1] Chrysostom, "Homily LXXVII, Matthew 24:31-32" in The Gospel of St. Matthew, trans. George Prevost, in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, First Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 10:469.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947-8), 2:1939-45 (Questions 181-2).

[3] Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, 4-7.

[4] Martin Luther "Psalm 147," Works, 14:114-5.

[5] Volf, Work in the Spirit, 105-6.

[6] Martin Luther, Gospel for St. John's Day: John 21:19-24," eds. Benjamin Mayes and James Langebartels in Luther's Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013), 75:357-8. This is a common theme in Luther's sermons.

[7] John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, trans. Arthur Golding (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1973 [French, 1562, first English translation 1577), 633-5.

[8] Smith, Wealth, II:29-30.

[9] Smith, Wealth, I:13-14.

[10] Smith, Wealth, 1-11.

[11] Frederick Engels, "Principles of Communism," in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6: Mark and Engels, 1845-48 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 343 (Question 5).

[12] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 611.

[13] Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation in Psychological Review, 1943.


Dan Doriani