A Blind Spot in Christian Witness: Theology of Work
Christian leaders claim that the church offers a witness that challenges secular society on many social and moral issues. Christians often disagree with each other about the teachings contained in that witness, but they agree that the church is meant to offer a better way than the world does.
And yet we rarely hear the church questioning cultural wisdom about work. We hardly hear Christian leaders talk about our working lives at all, but when we do, they most often say that hard work is a supreme virtue, that it is a Christian’s duty to put their head down and labor diligently. In doing so, these leaders say the same thing a CEO, guidance counselor, or politician would say. Hard work is America’s most unquestioned value.
The problem for American Christians is that this value has only the thinnest biblical roots. There are no scenes in the gospels of Jesus doing carpentry. When he calls his first disciples, he pulls them away from their ordinary work to follow him. He draws many parables from working life, yet often the lesson upends our 21st century approach to work. He teaches that those who labor in the vineyard for just an hour should get paid the same as those who worked all day under the sun. He praises the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, who don’t work at all. He invites those who labor and are burdened to come to him, and, he says, “I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). His yoke is easy; his burden is light.
The theology of work is a major blind spot in Christian witness. It’s one area where the church in the United States, across denominations, has fully capitulated to secular common sense without even realizing it. By ignoring the question of work, the church fails to criticize the norms of American working life and offers believers little guidance on how to find meaning in an activity that occupies half their waking hours.
Americans work a great deal. A typical worker in this country puts in hundreds more hours a year than his or her British, French, or German counterpart. We often work in conditions that put us in physical danger or subject us to unfair leadership. Work can become the site for worshipping the idols of money and status. We question whether the work we do even matters. We endure long, unhealthy commutes. Our work ethic brings us stress and leads us to burn out. And the more we work, the less we see our families and the more we contribute to climate change.
Sure, we need to work if we’re going to provide for ourselves and contribute to the general well-being of society. But given all the negative consequences of our obsession with work, do we need to work so much, or to put so much moral value on our labor?
It’s true, as Christian defenders of the work ethic point out, that human beings worked in the garden of Eden, tilling and keeping it (Gen. 2:15). Work is an important part of human life. But it is not of primary importance, even according to Genesis. God created Adam even before he created the garden (Gen. 2:7-8). Human beings were not made first of all to work. And we certainly were not made to work hard; the curse of Adam to toil for his bread was a consequence of sin, not part of God’s intention in creation.
We all know people who live good lives without working (or without working very much), like children, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. We have all been non-workers, and we will all become that again at some point if we haven’t already. Somehow we are often blind to the goodness of a life without work at the center. Yet that is exactly what we were made for.