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Exposing a Deficient Perspective on Work - Brian Walck

In the absence of a consciously biblical perspective on any given subject, most believers will default to the perspectives of the world around them. The arena of work is no exception. In this section we will examine several deficient perspectives on work that Christians have absorbed from the culture.

Before an evaluation of these attitudes about work can begin, however, a working definition is required. Defining work is notoriously difficult. Miroslav Volf describes it this way, “Work is so close to us that nothing seems easier than to grasp what it is, yet our conceptual nets never quite manage to catch it.”[1] Work is more than employment. Work includes both remunerated activities such as construction, farming, and computer programming and unremunerated activities such as housework, caring for children, and volunteer work. Some activities fall into both categories. Construction can be pursued professionally for pay, or privately without pay for a “do-it-yourself” project. Some activities may be classified as both work and leisure. For a group of men who gather at the church gym on Sunday afternoons, basketball is leisure while for Dirk Nowitski of the Dallas Mavericks, basketball is work. Such dichotomies exist in virtually every field of human endeavor. Work in this regard is something like art, in that one might say of it, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Consequently, any definition of work is likely to be incomplete. For the purpose of this discussion, we are not necessarily interested in a formal definition that covers every eventuality. The task here is not to develop a comprehensive theology of work but rather to highlight and correct aspects of a deficient theology of work that impact the spread of the gospel. Therefore, we will simply define work as follows: work is any activity pursued which has the result of meeting the needs or wants of oneself or others, excluding those activities which are clearly pursued for pure enjoyment of the activity itself.[2] This definition includes both remunerated and unremunerated work, but excludes those activities which are viewed a leisure or play. With this definition in hand, we proceed to our examination of some deficient views of work.

Work as Obligation

It is the nature of life that all but a privileged few have to work to survive (or work now so that they can survive when they are too old to work). It is simply something that most people have to do. Even the Bible says, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thes 3:10 NIV). One problem, as Leland Ryken points out, is that “we tend to find burdensome anything to which we are driven by necessity.”[3] And for many people, it must be acknowledged that work is burdensome, particularly for those who work in harsh conditions, those whose work is physically laborious, and those who are mistreated. Moreover, the truth is there is no work that is pursued without frustration. The scriptures inform us that work has been subject to the curse with the rest of creation (Gen 3:17ff.) Nevertheless, with the exception of those who are forced against their will to participate in work that is immoral and/or dehumanizing,[4] the obligatory nature of work becomes a problem when work comes to be viewed merely as obligation, something to be endured and resented. Such a perspective is a distortion which fails to take into account the fact that work was given to Adam and Eve before the fall and therefore is something that God designed and gave to them as part of a perfect creation. As we shall see later, work has value in its own right.

Ryken turns to history in any attempt to explain how this perspective on work has arisen, even in the Church. The Greeks considered work to be a curse, a burden to be born by slaves so that the privileged in society might pursue higher virtues in life. The Medieval Church contributed its own version of this distortion by creating the Sacred vs. Secular divide in which physical work was seen as inferior to the pursuit of a contemplative, religious life. The Renaissance and the Reformation signaled the return of dignity to work as the Reformers rejected the medieval division of sacred and secular and introduced the notion of calling or vocation – the idea that God called people to tasks in the world. Since all moral work was a calling of God, all work was sacred.
This positive view of work was distorted during the enlightenment, and the “protestant work ethic” was removed from its Christian context so that work became the means to financial ends. Following the alienation of workers that occurred in the industrial revolution there were two responses, Marxism and Victorian Romanticism, which although they identified the problems correctly, provided inadequate solutions. Modern secular social science has not fared any better. In fact, what most characterizes social science is an abundance of descriptive data but no agreement about solutions. This brings us to the current day with its mix of values and work ethics.[5] In the absence of transcendent scriptural authority, the Church is left with the confused perspectives of the world. The bottom line for those who view work merely as obligation: there is no secular hope of redeeming work from its cursed position.

The view of work as obligation will tend to negatively affect the believer’s testimony in the workplace. His negative attitude about work will almost assuredly spill over in the form of poor job performance, absenteeism, negative verbal expressions about employers, managers, and coworkers, disdain for the task at hand, high job turnover and a general lack of joylessness in the workplace. Consequently, their testimony is damaged from the start because they have lost the respect of virtually everyone they work with (apart from others as dissatisfied with work as they.)

Ironically, many who view themselves as “workplace evangelists” fall into this camp. Doug Sherman states it this way, “Work is … seen as utilitarian, a fairly insignificant means of surviving while engaging in a far greater end [evangelism]. Only the mission to reach a lost and dying world gives final meaning and purpose to life.”[6] While this view is obviously a step forward from the view that sees no value in work apart from the means to survive, those who hold it fail to see the missional impact that they could have if they viewed work as something inherently worthy of giving their best efforts to. Such people are often surprised that God fails to reward their evangelistic efforts with job stability and attribute the roller coaster of job changes they experience to “persecution.”

Work as Self-Advancement

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the “work as obligation” perspective is the view that work is a “ticket to success.” The “success ethic,” as Ryken calls it, is the dominant attitude toward work in the West since the second half of the 20th Century.[7] For those who hold this view, work has become the means of satisfying their increasing acquisitiveness, gaining career and social status, and wielding power over others. And, if Christian charitable giving is any indication, it appears as though evangelical Christians have bought into this mindset wholeheartedly. Although wealth has increased, it hasn’t been attended by an increase in generosity. In fact there seems to be an astonishing stinginess with respect to giving among American evangelicals. According to George Barna, only 11 percent of evangelicals gave 10 percent or more of their income to charity in 2006.[8] In Matt 6:21, Jesus said, “for where your treasure is your heart will be also.” Apparently, evangelical hearts are not in heaven or in increasing heaven’s population. Instead of viewing work as means to bless others, it appears that work for these believers has become simply a means of financing their own self-absorbed materialism.

The drive for wealth, status, a\nd power also has a tendency to separate Sunday morning morality from Monday morning ethics. Alexander Hill calls this “dual morality,” where different rules are said to operate for business ethics than for “personal” ethics. Each arena is “defined by its own culture.” He summarizes Milton Friedman’s advice to corporate managers this way; they should “lay aside personal values and focus solely on generating profits for shareholders. Their duty is to do everything possible – except break the law or commit fraud – to enhance the bottom line” (emphasis mine).[9] Since so many employees today, particularly in management, are rewarded based on profits achieved and stock performance, the incentives to cross moral boundaries are compelling. Everyone is familiar with the Enron and Worldcom debacles where shareholders lost billions of dollars. During the “Dot Com Boom” of the late 1990’s it was common practice for dot com companies to give “friends and family” stock to customers. It was legal to do so despite the obvious ethical quandary this posed.[10] Other examples of ethical violations occur when the Christian marketeer embellishes the capability of her product in her advertising or the Christian sales representative succumbs to pressure to take his big client out to the local strip club in the name of “making the deal.”

R. Paul Stevens calls attention to the devastating impact of this self-centered view of work, “The environment is destroyed, human existence is trivialized, workers are dehumanized and treated as machines, competition becomes predatory, and the developing world is exploited.”[11] Employees and the environment are viewed as a means to an end, an obstacle to a goal, or enemies to be beaten. Volf states that people are used as means “when we exclude the individual’s conscious acceptance of the goals we expect them to realize.”[12] This takes freedom and responsibility away from them. When people are viewed as means to an end, their needs and desires become secondary to the needs of the bottom line.

It is obvious that Christians who have adopted the “work as means to advancement” view of work are likely to have abandoned biblical principles at any number of points along the way. The one whose primary objective is the accumulation of wealth and possessions has violated the principle of contentment. The one who no longer gives out of the proceeds has abandoned the principle of generosity. The one who views employees and coworkers as obstacles and means has abandoned the principles of love and service to others. The one who compromises his integrity to “win at any cost” has abandoned the principle of holiness.[13] The fact is that those who view work solely in terms of its contribution to their personal success compromise their witness in the marketplace by their attitude towards wealth, business integrity, and the value of other people. Many unbelievers have high ethical values and low tolerance for hypocrisy. It is unlikely that those who view work merely in terms of what they get from it will find much receptivity to the gospel from their co-workers, if indeed these self absorbed believers have any interest in sharing it with them.

Work as Identity and Self-realization

The final deficient view we will examine is the notion that work can in and of itself, satisfy the deepest human longings of the human heart for affirmation, self-esteem, and identity. As Volf has poetically stated:

After Western civilization has climbed up the ladder of the Protestant work ethic to a state in which incessant work has become one of its main features, it has pushed this ladder aside but continued to work even more frantically. Work thrives today more on the insatiable hunger for self-realization than on the Protestant work ethic. In their own eyes and in the eyes of their contemporaries, modern human beings are what they do.”[14]

One only has to attend the average annual neighborhood Christmas party to realize the truth of this statement. The conversation between new acquaintances rarely goes more than a minute or two before the inevitable question is asked, “So what do you do?” The awkward interchanges that fill the air between the career woman and the homemaker, or the business executive and the construction worker are revealing. Work, more than anything else, defines identity in Western culture. People are ascribed value according to the yardsticks of title, education, and paycheck. As Phillip Stone says, “It is indeed ironic that some of the most useful vocations in our society are the least respected: custodians, sanitation workers, housekeepers, food service workers. Unfortunately, even professionals like ministry and teaching are sometimes treated with a lack of respect and acknowledgment.”[15] In addition, those who don’t work in the “marketplace” including the retiree, the stay at home mother, and the unemployed feel deprived of worth.

Increasingly, people are expecting work to provide them with self-realization, that is, fulfillment and personal development as well. Like the person who pursues work for money or power, this person is primarily interested in work for what she can get out of it. Ryken describes her inevitable frustration this way, “Workers want a nurturing work environment, time for family and leisure, security, job satisfaction, and self-realization…. The fly in the ointment is that it presupposes a more ideal world than we actually live in. A lot of work simply does not carry its own reward.”[16]

The problems with this view of work are more subtle than the problems with the more material aspects of the success ethic above. In fact, self-realization is actually consistent with many biblical values – hard work, use of ones talents and abilities, and the development of the whole person. Moreover, the person who is seeking self-realization is often motivated by the desire “to be a good person” and thus is less likely to crawl over others in her quest. Where this view diverges sharply from the biblical view is that it ascribes to work things that only God can provide. With respect to identity and self-worth, the biblical view, of course, is that every person, irrespective of what work they do (or don’t do) has inherent dignity and value because they are made in the image of God. With respect to self-realization, there is a failure to acknowledge that talent and abilities are the gift of God and they are to be developed for his service and the service of the Kingdom, not for self alone. When we ascribe to work something that is due to God alone we are committing the sin of idolatry. When we expect from work something that only God can give we are setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment.

When we think more highly of ourselves than others based on education, title, or paycheck we are guilty of a lack of humility and love. Most of all, this view suffers from its weak or non-existent sense of conscious dependence upon God. If the one who holds it does not realize his own need for God how will he succeed in persuading anyone else of theirs?

What should be noted as we conclude our discussion about these three deficient views of work is the following: (1) each suffers from a separation of sacred and secular – work is not considered to be something spiritual, it is placed in a separate domain that is considered to operate by a different set of rules – man either masters them or is at their mercy. (2) Because God is left out of the equation, work takes on the character, definitions, and values pushed by the surrounding culture – materialism, consumerism, narcissism, situational ethics, etc. (3) Social networks are two way streets. Because of the huge role that work plays in the lives of most people, Christians in the workplace who are not armed adequately with a biblical theology of work begin to absorb the values of the secular world along with all its attendant social ills rather than project biblical values into the workplace. These include high levels of personal debt, workaholism, dissatisfaction with work, as well as dysfunctional work and family life. The result is that a huge opportunity is lost to impact the marketplace for Christ as believers lose both their interest in sharing the gospel and their credibility as gospel witnesses.

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] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1991), 7.
[2] Adapted from the more comprehensive and formal definition found in Volf, 10-11.
[3] Leland Ryken, Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1995), 16.
[4] Someone who is enslaved as a laborer is forced to participate in dehumanizing work because choice has been taken away from him, someone who is enslaved as a prostitute is forced to participate in work that is both dehumanizing and immoral. The biblical case against slavery and immorality such as prostitution certainly requires no further argument at this point. Christians are obligated to be activists against exploitation in all forms. The argument for loving treatment of co-workers and employees will be made below.
[5] Ryken, 71-81; 129-133.
[6] Doug Sherman and William Hendricks, Your Work Matters to God (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1987), 71
[7] Ryken, 48.
[8] George Barna, The State of the Church: 2006 (Ventura, CA: The Barna Group, 2006), 45.
[9] Alexander Hill, Just Business: Christian Ethics in the Marketplace (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 70-71.
[10] Customer purchases were instrumental in creating the sales growth that fueled the massive increase in stock prices these companies experience at initial public offering. Although customers were ostensibly buying stock at the initial offering price, the truth is they were purchasing stock at pennies on the dollar, sometimes making tens of thousand of dollars in a single day. Friends and Family stock amounted to a “reward” given to customers in exchange for their business. In other words, it was a legal bribe.
[11] R. Paul Stevens, Doing God’s Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 83;
[12] Volf, 172.
[13] See Hill 72-74. Hill’s contention is that Holiness, Justice, and Love are three “undergirding principles of Christian ethics.” Contentment, generosity, and service are not strictly ethical values although they are certainly biblical values (cf. Luke 3:14, 1 Tim 6:6, Heb 13:5, 1 Tim 6:18, Matt 20:26, Mark 9:35, John 13:5-17).
[14] Volf, 129.
[15] Phillip C. Stone, “Mistaken Identities: Dignity and Value in All Work,” Brethren Life and Thought, 46 no 3-4 Sum-Fall 2001, p 244.
[16] Ryken, 138-39.

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posted by Justin Forman | 11.24.2008 - 3:23 PM


I enjoyed this very much. I am indebted to my parents, pastors and Sunday school teachers for a great deal of knowledge and character, though I am seeing Christ break down more and more paradigms I established growing up. It is exciting to see God's kingdom come.
commented by Blogger vtshipe, 3:56 PM  

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