A Labor Day Theology of Work, and a Slight Historical Revision

This is Labor Day, a day in which we, uh, do no labor (except writing this blog). I have recently written two books that deal with, among other things, a theology of work. One is by Tom Pratt and me, Seeking the City: Christian Faith and Political Economy, A Biblical, Theological, Historical Study. This book will be out in early 2013 from Kregel, and a portion of it will appear as an ebook this Fall under the title, Awaiting the City. The other book is a shorter analysis that deals with political economy in the Baptist tradition (title not yet set), and will be published by the Acton Institute, available in November. In celebration of Labor Day, I want to distill a few ideas from my research on the theology of work, and make a slight correction to a post I published last week.

The Bible presents a thoroughgoing theology of work. Adam was given work to do before he fell into sin. He was told to name the creatures in the world and to exercise dominion over the world, to subdue it! “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to take care of it” (Gen. 2:15, NIV). Work is not simply a task for those in a fallen world, though now, because of the Fall, we earn our bread by the “sweat of our brow” (Gen. 3:17-19). In the post-Fallen condition men began to work with tools of bronze and iron, and often used such implements to oppress and kill others (Gen. 4:19-24). Jacob went to work for his uncle Laban, who cheated him on his wages, while Jacob himself returned the favor, extorting from his uncle’s herds (Gen. 30). Proverbs teaches that “The wages of the righteous bring them life, but the income of the wicked brings them punishment” (Prov. 10:16).

In the NT Jesus showed the value of work by himself being “The Carpenter” (Mark 6:3). In addition, in his many parables he often taught about the Kingdom of God by depicting people working as laborers. In the NT epistles Paul instructed the Thessalonians to be hard-working people. He makes clear that generosity toward the truly needy is important, but if able-bodied men will not work, they should not be given church welfare. “If anyone won’t work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). This is so that lazy and unproductive people will not be encouraged to “walk in a disorderly manner” (2 Thess. 3:11). When you work, whatever the work is (even the work of slaves), you should do it “unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23). To slaves he wrote that they should obey their masters “like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart” (Eph. 6:3-4). He then enjoins masters to treat their slaves in a just and honorable manner, remembering that “he who is their master and yours is in heaven” and that he sees both masters and slaves in the same way (Eph. 6:4; Philem. 16).

When we turn to the history of the church, we find a robust theology of work. Even monks, who departed from normal life to be secluded unto God, worked with their hands, making the Benedictine monasteries some of the wealthiest institutions in Europe in the Middle Ages. (And that brought its own problems to the monastic movement.) As sociologist Rodney Stark has noted, Catholic monks invented capitalism! One Hungarian monastery in the eighth century had 250,000 acres under plow. Some bred horses and even went into banking.

John Calvin gives us one of the most complete accounts of a theology of work, though we can only touch on the high points here. Building on Luther’s idea that all persons have a calling–not just the clergy–Calvin, who had been brought to Geneva to help reform the churches of that city, taught that all men must work. (Women already worked extremely hard at keeping their homes in that pre-industrialized setting.) Only the very infirm or the very old were exempted. There were no long-term handouts, except for a hand out of town for the lazy! Those who needed training for new employment got it. The very poor who showed up as refugees got temporary assistance from the churches, but no long-term “welfare” was available. And the “successful” were not taxed by the city for redistribution to the “unfortunate.”  The Geneva Reformer integrated his doctrine of sin into his theology of work, in reference both to workers and employers.  Workers should not be paid until a job was completed, so that they would not be slackers; employers must pay the agreed-upon wage, or be barred from the Lord’s Supper.  Calvin believed that God had created a world filled with wealth and that people needed to find a way to make that world work for them.

The heirs to Calvin’s theology were the Puritans, especially the ones who came to America. In America they would find no impediments to entrepreneurship such as existed back in England. There, trade guilds, the unavailability of cheap land, and governmental restrictions in England (and Europe) kept people in the same class of social standing from generation to generation, with virtually no possibility of upward mobility. In America things would be different. New England seemed the least likely place to carve out new financial empires since it was nothing like the fertile Chesapeake Bay area where tobacco and other cash crops could be grown. But New England quickly outstripped Virginia in productivity due to the theology of the Puritans that legitimized hard work, making money, and raising large families. For them, work was one of the means to fulfill one’s calling (and all kinds of work, at that), not simply an act of necessary drudgery.

Over the next three centuries America would become the shining city on a hill in terms of productivity. In 1776, the same year as the Declaration of Independence, a Scot named Adam Smith would publish The Wealth of Nations, the first book in human history that addressed what consumed the majority of most people’s waking hours–making a living. Smith argued that the wealth of a nation consisted not in how much gold it had in its vaults, but in how productive its people were. He contended that the division of labor, the use of technology, and low government interference in the economy would make businesses far more productive and thus increase the wealth of any nation. America has proven him right–until now.

In our current situation government interference in the economy, coupled with massive amounts being spent on welfare programs threaten America’s productivity. Regulation, subsidies, and increased taxation on businesses over the last three Presidential administrations have caused a remarkable slowdown in American productivity. According to the Heritage Foundation, 100 million Americans receive payments from the government that amounted to 987 billion dollars in 2011. Over 50 million families are on SNAP (food stamps).

What can change all of that? In part, a reexamination of the biblical theology of work. A new Administration would also help.

Food for thought this Labor Day.

Chad Owen Brand

PS Last week I posted a short piece on Martin Luther King, Jr. that contained what I have now discovered to be an error, and it is directly related to the subject of today’s blog. Here is the quote from my blog: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” This was supposedly said by King at a rally in New York on March 10, 1968. But a question from my editor Stephen Grabill sent me scurrying to do more research. The quote is in several secondary works and is one of the most viral King quotes on the Internet, but an examination of the transcript of that speech demonstrates that the great man did say, “All labor has dignity,” but the rest of the statement is not in the transcript (not manuscript). On March 18 he said in another speech in Memphis, “”But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the purpose of building humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.” This illustrates, at the very least, that quotes floating around cyberspace even of great people like King can get distorted. But he is right–labor has dignity and worth!

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