The Real Meaning of ‘Christian’ Work

Is this world, and our physical experiences within it, unimportant to God? Can anything of lasting spiritual importance be accomplished in the present space-time universe, or is it simply a waiting room for the life to come? Is it a waste of time for Christians to invest too much attention in this-worldly ‘secular’ pursuits—whether culture, the arts or our individual vocations—since everything of ultimate value is other-worldly?

For many modern-day Christians, the answers to the above questions are plain: what we do in this world is unimportant, and the best we can hope to do is to focus exclusively on the life to come. Such an understanding leads to a truncated view of the gospel, leaving whole departments of life isolated from the transforming influence of Christ.

We could look at a number of different areas where this diminished view of the gospel is operative, but in this post I will limit myself to the issue of work. Building on my earlier post, I will be using the wisdom of Dorothy Sayers as an entry point into the discussion. (To learn more about Dorothy Sayers, see Chapter 17 in my book Saints and Scoundrels.)

Offering Our Work to God in Worship

In my earlier blog post ‘Dorothy Sayers, Gnosticism and the Problem of the Body’, I shared how Sayers’ understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and the physical “had implications for how human beings approach work, the world, cultural institutions, and life itself.” Sayers taught that if we really believe God took on flesh and dwelt among us, and if we really believe that He redeemed our material bodies through His life-creating death and physical resurrection, then these beliefs should have ramifications for every department of life, including how we approach labor.

Rejecting the notion that the physical body is sub-spiritual because it is physical, Sayers was able to assert the purposefulness of our bodily experiences, even in those experiences that may not seem particularly ‘spiritual’ such as the secular vocations. As she put it in an address delivered at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on February 6, 1942,

Christianity demands that all work should be done in a Christian way – Christianity proclaims that all work, all that is well done, does reveal God and may be offered to God in worship.

For Sayers Work was ‘redemptive’, not in the sense that it is a means of earning salvation, but in the sense that the incarnation of Christ has redeemed all departments of life, investing them with intrinsic spiritual value. Appropriating ourselves of the spiritual value inherent in ordinary things is one way that we work out our salvation.

Sayers believed that this spiritual appropriation of labour had been largely ignored by the church of her day due to the pervasive body-spirit dualism that was the topic of my earlier post. The emphasis on glorifying God in work tended to be negative, focused on not sinning during one’s work time, instead of teaching people to understand and appropriate the intrinsic spiritual value of labour. As Sayers lamented in Creed or Chaos?,

the Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

In Defense of Vocation

Neo-Anabaptist authors have written some trenchant criticisms of the dualistic posture that was the target of Sayers’ critique, urging radical discipleship in all of life. However, the separatist and pietistic tendencies of neo-Anabaptists mean that their approach can be just as fragmented, especially when it comes to our ordinary labour in the material world. Robert Brimlow’s book Paganism and the Professions is a notable example.

Despite the fact that the Genesis narrative records Adam working before the fall, Brimlow maintains ‘that God intended work as a punishment for sin’ and contends against the position ‘that all work is somehow good and blessed by its very nature…’ (p. 6) Brimlow goes on to assert that ‘To label our work and the professions as “callings” or “vocations” is not only arrogant it also, and importantly, cheapens the gospel. There is one calling we should recognize – discipleship – and one vocation – to follow Jesus.’ (p. 12)

In suggesting that work falls outside the vocation of following Christ, Brimlow was echoing Stanley Hauerwas who suggested that “work need not be regarded as ultimately significant. Work is simply common as it is the way most of us earn our living. Indeed, if there is a grace to work it is that we do not need to attribute or find in our work any great significance or salvation.” (In Good Company: The Church as Polis, p. 115.) Significantly Hauerwas was highly critical of what he terms “John Paul II’s attempts to give work an intrinsic status by underwriting the dignity of common work…” (p. 117) Hauerwas’ pessimistic views of vocation seems to arise from an almost militant antithesis between the church and the world that pervaded his entire theological project (at least, according to Healy).

Work vs. Mission

I opened this post by asking whether this world, and our physical experiences within it, are unimportant to God? Is it a waste of time for Christians to invest too much attention in this-worldly ‘secular’ pursuits—whether culture, the arts or our individual vocations—since everything of ultimate value is other-worldly?

For many modern-day Christians, the answers to the above questions are plain: what we do in this world is unimportant, and the best we can hope to do is to focus exclusively on the life to come. This seems to be the position of Pastor Rick Warren, best known for his phenomenal best-seller The Purpose Driven Life.

The California-based pastor takes it for granted that since one’s ‘mission’ is saving souls, and since ‘Everything else will eventually vanish,’ one’s day to day vocational labours derive eternal value only to the degree that they furnish opportunities to evangelize. (The Purpose Driven Life, p. 285) Warren’s thesis is that by focussing on our ‘mission’, our lives become ‘purpose-driven’ instead of wasted. (p. 285). The work we do in our day job derives value only to the degree that it gives us opportunities to evangelize. To quote from his book:

Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production. (The Purpose Driven Life, p. 36)

Your mission has eternal significance. It will impact the eternal destiny of other people, so it’s more important than any job, achievement, or goal you will reach during your life on earth. The consequences of your mission will last forever; the consequences of your job will not….The clock is ticking down on your life mission, so don’t delay another day. (p. 284)

Significantly, the subtitle to The Purpose Driven Life is ‘What on Earth Am I Here For?’ Warren’s answer to the subtitle’s question seems to be that we are here only to prepare for the next life. As he puts it in chapter 4, ‘Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity. It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins.’ (p. 36) Or again, ‘This is not your permanent home or final destination. You’re just passing through, just visiting earth…..Your identity is in eternity, and your homeland is heaven.…earth is not our ultimate home….’ (page 48)

This instrumentalizing of life in the world leaves little room for a theology of cultural sanctification or earthly teleology, since God’s purposes are entirely focused upon the province of heaven. Thus, Warren defines ‘mission’ in a way that brackets out all secular labours. Rather, secular labours become missional only to the degree that they present opportunities for evangelism. The labours Christians engage in outside sharing their faith, even ‘all kinds of good things’, are actually ‘diversions’ thrown at them by the devil to delay Christ’s return. (p. 286) Even the value of weekly church services becomes auxiliary to the evangelistic ministry. (p. 253–4.) Consequently, raising families, building cathedrals, trimming hedges, reading novels, and even corporate worship, are of only temporal importance at best unless they contain an explicit evangelistic component. At worst, such activities are dangerous distractions sent from the devil.

Creation Ministry vs. Gospel Ministry

Warren’s dichotomy between the ordinary work of a job vs. the spiritual work of mission was echoed by Richard Coekin, who writes about the distinction between ‘creation ministry’ and ‘gospel ministry.’ The former involves things like ‘[contributing] where we can to the biblical government of this planet’ and ‘the improvement of the welfare of all humanity, especially the poor, weak and vulnerable.’ By contrast, ‘gospel ministry’ involves ‘the world to come… of seeking to save people from hell for heaven.’ After comparing these two types of work, Coekin concludes that gospel ministry ‘is generally more important and takes priority over our ‘creation ministry’ seeking to improve people’s lives in this world.’ He continues:

the eternal benefits of gospel ministry seem to clearly outweigh the more temporary benefits of creation ministry. Put crudely, while medical help can delay death for a few years, it is only gospel ministry that can rescue us from an eternity in the horrors of hell for an eternity of joy in the new creation. The priority of gospel ministry is clear from the relative benefits of each. (Richard Coekin, ‘The Priority of Gospel Ministry’ in Roberts and Thornborough, Workers For The Harvest Field, 34–36.)

At the risk of oversimplifying the theological issues at stake, it is noteworthy that Coekin’s antithesis between gospel ministry and creation ministry, like Warren’s separation between mission and vocation, closely parallels the separation between matter and spirit that has become so endemic to popular Christian eschatology that I discussed in my previous post. Mission and gospel relate to the ‘spiritual’ end of saving souls, whereas vocations in the material sphere only have temporal value. The result is that only those who are in ‘full time ministry’ can see their day job as being spiritually dynamic. The work of a garbage collector, administrator, car salesman, accountant or ballet dancer achieves value only derivatively through the opportunities such employment may provide for evangelism. Ultimately, the work of missions becomes limited to the immediate task of getting people saved, while considerations about ways in which Christian mission might flesh out into the larger culture are neglected.

The paradox is that these false antitheses are often strongest among thinkers and groups that are ostensibly culture-affirming. Rick Warren claims to navigate between the extremes of cultural imitation and cultural isolation. (The Purpose Driven Church, 235–238.) However, his solution is not to return to an integrationalist theology in which all legitimate departments of life can be sanctified. Instead, his solution is simply to infiltrate the culture with evangelism, to be more serious about the Great Commission and to create a service that is attractive to unbelievers. (The Purpose Driven Church, 236–238.) Since evangelism is the only real purpose in life, mission becomes divorced from vocation, and one’s labours in the secular realm derive their legitimacy only to the degree that they provide raw material for evangelism. Culture thus becomes irrelevant, a matter of spiritual indifference. While it may have some functional value (for example, culture may provide the medium for evangelistic marketing techniques), it essentially remains spiritually neutral. On this mentality, any value that culture might possess is seen to be purely instrumental.

Such a view of culture can lead to the ‘seeker-friendly’ posture of accommodation and compromise (what Hunter describes as the ‘relevance to’ paradigm’ of adaptation in To Change the World) or to the more ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘pietist’ posture of retreat and isolation, since in both cases the work of redemption has essentially become privatized and detached from the material world. Under both approaches, the arenas of art, politics, drama, economics, literature, film, architecture, education, music, fashion design, gardening and the media become ‘secular’ by default. The only disagreement between the isolationism of fundamentalism and accommodating posture of the ‘seeker-friendly’ paradigm is whether one should retreat from this ‘secular order’ or capitulate to it. Fundamentalists will often take the former course while more accommodating and liberal forms of Christianity are more tempted by the second. In both cases, what tends to be left intact is the basic sacred/secular divide. Serious Christian engagement with all of life becomes the chief casualty of this fragmented posture.

The move to divest common labour of any sanctifying quality is correlative to the instrumentalizing of our worldly lives and material experiences. In this perspective, one’s life is simply a means for the life to come, as in Warren’s teachings, or one’s life is carefully partitioned between the sacred and the secular, as in Hauerwas’s view. What is eclipsed in both cases is Sayers’ perspective that the full gamut of our lived experiences can be spiritually valuable and infused with ultimate significance. The result is an amphibious posture in which one’s religious commitments are sequestered from life in the world, with the latter having little to no organic relationship to the former.

Guming up the Works?

Though motivated from a different network of theological concerns than what we find in Neo-Anabaptist authors, a similar disjunction permeates the writings of various theologians associated with Westminster Seminary California.

Darryl G. Hart, former Dean of Academic Affairs at Westminster, has urged that ‘adding Christianity to the common realm only gums up the works.’ Hart takes exception to Abraham Kuyper’s oft-quoted remark that ‘the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life.’  Accordingly, Hart teaches that it is both impossible and undesirable to mix human culture with the work of Christ: ‘To try to integrate human cultural goods and the work of Christ does not upgrade culture but trivializes the gospel.’

David VanDrunen, Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary, concurs with Hart, writing that the believer’s cultural involvement should scrupulously avoid ‘a redemptive model of Christian cultural engagement’ (VanDrunen believes he has located this dreaded “redemptive model” in N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope.) “God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world” VanDrunen stresses, adding dramatically that “Those who hold a traditional Protestant view of justification consistently should not find a redemptive transformationist perspective attractive.” (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, pp. 13–21.)

(I had to laugh at that last sentence: if all roads used to lead to Rome, it is even more the case that all doctrinal disputes eventually lead to the doctrine of justification, or at least they do so in the imaginations of our reformed brothers.)

In the zero-sum game of VanDrunen’s theological calculus, if Christians really were able to participate in Christ’s work of restoring the world, then this would subtract from His all-sufficiency. Accordingly, VanDrunen disputes the notion that humankind’s labour in this world has a holy or redemptive dimension. Drawing on Ecclesiastes which describes work as vanity, he asserts that humanity’s labour in the world is ‘transient and fleeting.’ Accordingly, only vocations relating to the church are invested with a redemptive quality. While believers can bring ‘a distinctively Christian flavor’ to their jobs, this is achieved through conditions extrinsic to the work itself, such as maintaining integrity at the workplace and not sinning. Consequently, ‘the adjective “Christian” is less helpful and accurate when describing the believer’s vocation.’ (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, pp. 189–191.)

(For a more systematic defense of the notion that we can actually build for God’s kingdom in the here and now, see my Colson Center post ‘Building for God’s Kingdom.‘)

In Defense of Christian Work

In contrast to VanDrunen’s extraordinary admission that the adjective ‘Christian’ should be expunged from language about secular vocations, Dorothy Sayers contended that “The only Christian work is good work well done.” That is to say, in doing work well done, we are involved in Christian work.

In Sayers’ essay ‘Why Work?’ she made the following observation which makes a fitting conclusion to this post:

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion. But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?… [The Church] has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work. Let the Church remember this: that every maker and worker is called to serve God in his profession or trade – not outside it. The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not meet they should leave the word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the word. Bu the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not meet for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the word.