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Advancing a Biblical Perspective on Work by Brian Walck

In this section, we look at a few critical aspects of a biblical theology of work in an effort to understand how a biblical perspective can positively impact mission.

Work in Creation and Re-Creation

The creation account informs us that human work is part of the original plan of God. Gen 1:26 says, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” In his comprehensive study of the subject, Middleton concludes that rule is “a necessary and inseparable purpose” of God’s creation of man in his own image.[1] Man’s rule over creation was his primary task in the world and he was endowed with the necessary qualities to accomplish it. How are rule and work related? Volf makes the link as follows: “The text does not mention work explicitly, but since human beings can fulfill their God-given task only by working [emphasis mine], it is obvious that this locus classicus of Christian anthropology considers work to be fundamental to human existence. Only as working beings… can human beings live in accordance with the intentions of their Creator.”[2] Work therefore, as the means of ruling over creation, was an integral part of the purpose for which man was created.

The second reference to work is explicit and is found in Gen 2:5, 15, in which Adam was given a specific job, to cultivate the garden and keep it. “In the garden God gives man a purposeful existence that includes overseeing his environment.”[3] Adam was to work in the production of his own livelihood. Unlike other Near Eastern creation accounts in which man is created to toil in place of the gods, in Genesis God is portrayed as the “Provider for man’s needs, a part of which is the honorable, meaningful labor of tilling the soil.”[4] In the process of serving God through the beneficial stewardship of creation, man’s own needs are provided for. This pattern is instructive for work today. Although man’s own needs are met through work, the believer’s work is also part of God’s plan for stewardship of creation.

After the fall, work was cursed along with all Creation (Gen 3:14ff.). Man would only survive by toil. As discussed previously, this is the experience of many workers. There are no examples of work today that do not reflect in some part the affects of the fall. Even highly paid professional workers experience certain aspects of work as “toil” which includes elements of disagreeable labor, frustration, and failure. Stevens points out that the structures of economic systems themselves are affected. “Fallen powers and structures render some work dehumanizing, create structural unemployment, or demand a workaholic lifestyle.”[5] However, work itself is never called a curse.[6] Human work remains crucially important to the purposes of God and to man’s survival.

Nevertheless, it is painfully clear that after the fall work was in desperate need of redemption. Yet, this is precisely what the cross provides. The Kingdom of God was inaugurated during Christ’s first advent (Mark 1:15; 9:1ff.) but awaits complete fulfillment until his second coming (Rom 8:19-21). One of the results of the final coming of the Kingdom will be the total redemption of work (cf. Rev 21:5). Until then, as with all other aspects of the Kingdom, we have a taste now with expectation of experiencing its fullness later. With respect to what we can experience today, Stevens says, “Redemption in Christ brings substantial healing to our work through the power to invest meaning in ordinary work by viewing that work in relation to God (Col. 3:22-4:1).”[7]
Not only is work itself being redeemed but work is a primary means by which the Kingdom of God is being propagated. “Since much of the present order is the result of human work, if the present order will be transformed, then human work necessarily has ultimate significance.”[8] Human work contributes to the redemption of the present creation, bringing order out of disorder, healing to human institutions, and transformation of society - albeit in incomplete fashion. Human work, therefore, is invested with immense ongoing significance even in a fallen world. For the individual Christian, ordinary human work presents the believer the opportunity to work alongside God to bring order and blessing to creation while providing for the material needs of himself and others. It is a channel of God’s blessing to all of human kind. It is important to recognize in all of this, however, that the gospel and the Kingdom are more than just social transformation. The Kingdom of God advances as individual hearts are transformed by faith in Christ. This implies that work that is truly redemptive will impact the sphere of individual lives in addition to producing beautiful and life giving products and services and affecting the social and economic order of things.

Work as Calling, Gifting, and Leading

There has been a tendency within the church to construct a hierarchy of professions according to their perceived level of “spirituality” – pastors and missionaries at the top, doctors, teachers, and social workers somewhere in the middle, lawyers and stock brokers at the bottom. There has also been a tendency to divide work into sacred and secular. “Sacred work” (or “ministry”) is defined as what the pastor or missionary does while “secular work” encompassed most everything else. As noted earlier, this divide between “clergy” and “laity” is widely regarded to be the byproduct of the Medieval Church’s view that divine “calling” applied only to clergy. The reformers rejected this view and championed the notion that every “calling” (or vocation) was sacred. As Carl Henry said, “Faithful obedience to God’s call makes the clergy as good as, but not better than, the devout merchant or shoemaker.”[9] This last is an important point; a rejection of the sacred-secular divide is not anti-clericalism.[10] It is simply recognition that all work is sacred work if it supports God’s purposes in the world.

Volf acknowledges the contribution of the vocational view but wants to move beyond its limitations – in particular the idea that calling came through one’s position or station in life when he received his call to salvation (i.e. if one was a baker when he was saved then being a baker is his calling). It fails to acknowledge any number of reasons that a person might want or need to change the type of work he does or the fact that a typical person in an industrial or information age economy is likely to have several different jobs in his career.[11] He proposes what he terms a “pneumatological” view in which “the Spirit of God calls, endows, and empowers Christians to work in their various vocations.”[12] This is a positive direction although Volf takes it too far when he suggests that the Holy Spirit is directing all constructive forms of human work, including that of unbelievers. “All work whose nature and results reflect the values of the new creation is accomplished under the instruction and inspiration of the Spirit of God.”[13] God’s role in providentially directing the work of believers and unbelievers is quite different. It is true, however, that God’s spirit does work in the lives of believers to impart, develop, and use their various abilities, talents, and interests so that his redemptive purposes will be accomplished in every sphere of life.

“Leading” is probably a better term to describe the way in which the Holy Spirit guides believers to the type of work God wants them to pursue. As Stevens says, “The Bible shows us God as a vocational director, but he does not call people to various occupations in the same way he called people like Amos and Elijah to serve as prophets or Paul as an Apostle…. Normally God calls us to himself and leads us into particular expressions of service appropriate for our gifts and talents through our passions, abilities, and opportunities.”[14] God is, of course, the one who gives all gifts and talents as well but it is only as we are yielded to Him, seeking Him in prayer, desiring to please Him and to serve Him that he lovingly leads us into avenues of work where they can be most effectively used in service to Him.

Work as Service and Worship

When all productive and moral work is accorded its rightful place as ministry, then all of the New Testament values associated with ministry become applicable to work as well. Spiritual gifts which are given for the building up of the church for service (Eph 4:11-13) are also given for building up of the church in the workplace. Love, which is the controlling value for all Christian interaction (1 Cor 13), is also the controlling value for interactions at work. Service and worship replace the deficient motivations of mere survival, greed, power, and self-fulfillment.
Stevens points out that the words for “service” and “ministry” in both testaments are the same.[15] The attitude of a servant is one in which the believer deliberately sets aside his rights in order to make himself useful to others. Believers are instructed to imitate Christ who, although he was God, set aside his rights to become a servant to all mankind through his death on the cross (Phil 2:1-8). Jesus continually instructed his disciples in the critical value of servanthood and Paul offered both Christ’s example and his own.[16] Work is service to God in that anytime believers serve others they are serving Him (Matt 25:34-40). Work is service for God in that believers are agents of God’s blessing. Work is service with God in that he is one who empowers it.[17]

That same service becomes worship as believers consciously offer it to God. As 1 Cor 10:31 says, “Whatever you do, do all to the Glory of God.” According to Richard Foster, we can view our work sacramentally, that is, the every day details of work (indeed of all of life) become sacraments as we recognize that we are to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).[18] Brother Lawrence, the 17th Century Carmelite monk, famous for his work The Practice of the Presence of God, made it his practice “to live in a continual sense of His Presence.”[19] He attempted to live in a state of constant praise to God, where even in those moments where he was mentally distracted from the conscious praise of God, he performed his daily tasks with a sense that they were done as an act of worship and with his help. When every task, menial and grand, is done for the love of God, we experience His presence with us.

There are at least three significant implications of this biblical perspective on work. First, it alters motivation. When work becomes a means of service and a mode of worship then it ceases to be a means of acquisition of money, power, and status. Nor is it a means of self-realization except in as much as it enables us to fulfill a calling that God has given us. Second, it alters attitude, even the most difficult of circumstances can be born with hope and joy. “If one is truly a believer, no boss and no machine can pluck him out of Christ’s hand and thrust him into a morass of meaninglessness.” [20] Even the most monotonous tasks can be performed with a positive attitude if they serve God and humanity. Third, it aligns the believer’s purposes with God’s. The believer understands that she works to God, for God, and with God in the service of the Kingdom. The result of this perspective will be work promotes rather than hinders God’s mission in the world.

Brian Walck is an Entrepreneur and thought leader on the movement of Business and Mission. In addition to being a regular contributor on the Business as Mission Network site, he’s heavily involved in supporting God’s work around the world through Business as Mission Efforts, Missions Agencies and the local church. If you’d like to continue the conversation, email him at bwalck@yahoo.com.


[1]J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2005), 50-55.
[2] Volf, 127.
[3] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, in The New American Commentary Vol 1A, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1996), 209.
[4] Ibid.
[5] R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000),114
[6] Volf, 128.
[7] Stevens, 114.
[8] Volf, 94.
[9] Carl F. H. Henry, “The Christian View of Work,” in Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 44.
[1] Stevens, The Other Six Days, 7.
[11] Volf, 105-110. To Volf’s critique I might add that Luther’s view doesn’t seem to accommodate the idea that someone might be “called” from their current work to a new work, even Pastor or Missionary, by God.
[12] Ibid., 113.
[13] Ibid., 114. He cites Isa. 28:24-29 in support of this but at best this is a reference to God’s common grace. It says nothing of charisms as Paul might define them.
[14] Stevens, Doing God’s Business, 36.
[15] Ibid. 52.
[16] Matt. 20:26-28; 23:11; Mark 9:35, 10:43–45; Luke 22:26-27; John 13:12–15; Acts 20:33–35; Rom. 15:1–3; 1 Cor. 9:18–22; 1 Cor. 10:24, 31–33; 2 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 6:10.
[17] Cf. Stevens, Doing God’s Business, 52-52; Charles Metteer, “A Survey of the Theology of Work,” Evangelical Review of Theology 25:2 (2001): 164.
[18] Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Walter: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (San Francisco, HarperCollins Publishing, Inc., 1998), 269-71
[19] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God: The Best Rule of the Holy Life, available online at www.ccel.org/ccel/lawrence/practice.html, 8.
[20] Henry, 59.

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posted by Justin Forman | 1.11.2009 - 3:27 PM

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