Is all work equal? Yes and No

At this moment, two contradictory ideas about work compete for our attention. On one hand, economists say the desire to work is waning. People aren’t rushing to return to work after the disruptions of Covid. Specifically, employers can’t obtain laborers for entry level jobs. People would rather be unemployed than accept a job with low pay, poor benefits, and no prospects. Meanwhile, the church, and especially the faith and work movement, enthusiastically promotes the dignity and value of all labor. We cite Paul, who says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). In particular, Protestants refuse to call church work “sacred” and ordinary work “secular.” The faith and work movement cheers workers on saying, “All work is holy. Your work matters to God!”

Like all slogans, “All work is holy” must be refined. The idea that all work is holy doesn’t cover dishonest or illegal work. Pushing opioids is work, but it isn’t good work. Further, work can be lawful, yet almost meaningless. There is work that neither lasts long nor matters much. How important is it to sell lottery tickets? Cotton candy? Promotional T-shirts that can’t survive two journeys through a washing machine? It is unpopular but necessary to say it, but all work is not equal in every way.

First, let’s agree that all honest work has dignity. Second, every worker has equal value, whether they sweep floors or run major corporations. Third, both CEOs and cleaners can and should please God at work. In fact, the cleaner may well please God more, since a CEO can easily become impatient or selfish.

Nonetheless, certain positions have more strategic weight than others. The CEO has more impact on a corporation than the cleaning crew. A restaurant chain in my area recently declared bankruptcy due to a series of errors by corporate leadership. A little later, a Christian camping ministry escaped bankruptcy through a series of wise and sacrificial decisions. The labor force at both places was skillful and faithful. The restaurant enjoyed good food, loyal customers, and prices that were low enough to be acceptable but high enough to be profitable. The camp also had good food and programs, but the camp had better leaders in a time of crisis. Situations like these show how leaders have strategic influence. In short, all work can please God and every honest job has worth, but executives exert greater influence than security guards do – I say this as a former security guard.

The biblical teaching on gifts is essential here, for it explains how “all work is equal” in some ways, but not every way. In 1 Corinthians 12:4–31, Paul says every gift is essential for the church to be healthy. Thus, every gift has value. And that implies that every skill and every worker is valuable too. But Paul also says we differ in our functions. Yet there are “higher gifts” and believers rightly “desire” them (12:31). If God grants them, he expects us to use them. If the gift is service, we serve. If it is leadership, we lead “with zeal” (Rom. 12:6-8). Therefore, believers should aspire to use their leadership gifts. We do this “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2) – whether we feel energetic or not.

Paul doesn’t define the higher gifts, but Paul does emphasize the gifts of prophecy and teaching because they are more foundational than “tongues” (1 Cor. 14:1-15), so we can call them strategic gifts. We are drawn to rare gifts, but they aren’t necessarily strategic. I have the rare ability of reading books while juggling, but it’s a parlor trick, not a strategic gift. Other gifts are strategic but common. In an operating room, skillful cleaning is strategic, but cleaning gifts are not rare. But if anyone has a gift that is both rare and strategic, they should recognize it, hone it, and, if possible, use it cheerfully (Rom. 12:8).

Imagine a man who is the best pediatric cardiac surgeon in his region. He had superior training; his visual acuity and manual dexterity qualify for the hardest operations. Alas, the work is stressful, since mistakes have grave consequences. Our surgeon realizes that success is fraught too, for accolades and wealth tempt him to pride and self-indulgence. Therefore, to avoid temptation, he resolves to leave surgery and provide primary care.

Primary care may be best for him as an individual, but he belongs to a community that needs him. The parents of an infant, born with a hole in his heart, won’t think his angst settles the matter. They may plead, “Find a counselor for stress, a pastor for egoism, and start operating again. You can save our child.”

Thus, people who have rare and strategic gifts should exercise them. Jesus himself said this: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). When God bestows gifts, he expects people to use them. The line “they entrusted much, they will demand the more” suggests that God’s gifts are loans, not simply our possession. (The Greek word translated “demanded” in Luke 12:48 – as well as Luke 12:20 - means to ask for something back or recall a loan.)

Actually, gifts have a triple ownership: they belong to God, to the gifted person, and to their community. In both Luke 12:13-21 and 12:48, Jesus suggests that we will give an account for the right use of our gifts. The greater they are, the more He expects of us.

This means ambition can be positive. The Bible condemns selfish ambition: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3, James 3:14–16). But Scripture doesn’t condemn all ambition. It affirms the desire to serve in wider, more daunting spheres. God called Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, he empowered David to deliver Israel from her enemies, and he called Paul to preach to Gentiles. There is a proper ambition or desire to use our abilities for others (1 Tim. 3:1).

By God’s grace, you may have gifts and training in strategic fields. Jesus tells you, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Gifts bring responsibilities. If the Lord gives the ability and you receive a call to a strategic task, you should take it, if you violate no commitments in doing so. As Ephesians 5:16 says, we must make “the best use of the time.” So then, all honest work is equal in dignity and in its capacity to please God. But when Paul tells believers they may “desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), he teaches that some tasks and some forms of work are more strategic. If God grants gifts and opportunity, we must steward our gifts by exercising them.

This blog adapts part of a chapter from Doriani’s new book Work That Makes a Difference (P&R publishing, 2021).

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. His most recent is Work That Makes a Difference.

Dan Doriani