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Posts Tagged ‘work’

Is work something God is interested in? That was the question explored at a recent forum held at Evangelical Seminary. There is a popular theology of work that goes something like this; 1) Christians should go to work, 2) they should work hard, 3) they should be nice to co-workers (after all, they want to convert them), and 4) they should earn money (in order to give to the church, after all this is where the real work is).

This misses the mark in many ways. Notably, such a view causes a separation between work and church. Instead, Chris Armstrong suggests the following definition for work. 1) a summons 2) to meaningful work 3) in service to others. There are some things missing from this definition. Nothing is said about personal passion and nothing is said about personal strengths. This is intentional. The reality is we can be called to work we do not want. We can be called to things we are good at and things we are not. Our work is not about ladder climbing or personal success. As the parable of the Good Samaritan makes clear, just because it is not our gift does not make it ok to walk by on the other side.

We need to be honest about work. Work can be incredibly frustrating. Work can be dehumanizing and even violent. Not all work is for the good of others. Work can become an idol, it can separate us from God, separate us from creation, separate us from neighbors. We often tend to dismiss work that is not grand or heroic. But work is not about self-fulfillment, it is about being of value to others. We are made in the image of a working God. There is dignity in work. It is a blessing and gift.

I Thessalonians is helpful at this point. Abraham Malherbe reports that manual labor was held in low esteem by stoic philosophers. Converts to pagan philosophies abandoned their trades and quit their jobs. They spent their time waxing philosophical on the streets. Public perception was that these people were irresponsible and “busybodies who meddled in the affairs of others.”

In contrast, Paul tells the church to “lead a quiet life… attend to your own business… work with your hands… behave properly toward outsiders.” Paul even suggests himself as an example, “recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you… You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers.” And again later, “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you…”

Douglas A. Campbell offers, “Paul is especially concerned that some Thessalonians are mooching. They are participating in the communal meal but are not contributing to it, being too lazy to work.” Paul says it like this, “some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies…” Holy living requires those in the church not become burdens to others. To work toward some level of self-sufficiency is to demonstrate love for others. This love for one another is to spill over into larger society. Work becomes important for relationships in the body and for witness in the world.

Holiness is not only a work in the heart; it works to benefit the lives of others. We do not work in isolation, work is a social reality. John Wesley might say that personal holiness means little without an accompanying social holiness. Holiness must be externalized, including in one’s business practices. Our calling is relational and dynamic. The well-being of others depends on our work. The parable of the sheep and the goats make clear the importance of work as value to others. And it has eternal implications.

Christianity does not call for us to stop working. It does put our work to new use. It might be more accurate to say that work becomes a context for mission. Our work carries out our love for God and love for others. The rhythm and dance of everyday life is tied to everyday work. The sacred drama is grounded to the daily working world. Grand heavenly things are connected with practical earthly things like daily work. There is something sacred about the everyday and ordinary. Yes, work is definitely something God is interested in

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Scot McKnight is concerned that we have watered down the kingdom.  At a recent conference sponsored by Ecclesia, he shared that some have limited the kingdom to good people doing good things in the public sector for the common good.  McKnight calls this “skinny jeans kingdom theory.”  Others, he claims, have limited the kingdom to looking for redemptive moments.  This he calls “pleated pants kingdom theory.”

Much of the discussion that followed was intended to strengthen incomplete kingdom theories.  McKnight proposed that some things are absolutely necessary in any discussion about kingdom.  He talked about kingdom mission.  What it is and what it is not.  He talked about the character of the King as the major determinant of the character of the kingdom.

Two things in particular prompted hearers to challenge McKnight’s thinking.  One, he seems to specify a difference between doing good in the public sector and kingdom mission.  While he emphasized that kingdom mission includes doing good as disciples in a missional way, this does not mean that the kingdom can morph into a new social gospel.  He separates kingdom mission from many forms of doing good.  Kingdom mission is not social justice, activism, or related things.  Kingdom mission is not an attempt to redeem culture or an effort to change the systems of this world by means of the strategies of this world.  I do think there is a difference between 1) eliminating oppositional evil and 2) entering into it as a collection of people who call themselves the church.

The second thing that prompted hearers to challenge his thinking was the strong connection he gave between church and kingdom.  To emphasize that the kingdom is something other than social justice or redemptive moments, McKnight emphasizes the church as kingdom fellowship or kingdom politic.  (I sense some influence from Stanley Hauerwas).  The church is a political assembly.  A manifestation of God in a local community.  McKnight goes so far as to say that if kingdom is not church then you are using kingdom wrong.  I rather like his statement that kingdom mission means we learn to live under King Jesus as a body.

While many challenged his categories, I think that everyone would have agreed with a statement something like; “Whatever we choose to call certain activities of the church, let’s just do them.”  Good works are not automatically Christian, but they can serve as an assault into darkness.  They can also potentially distract from the larger plan of God for his people.  I found this discussion particularly helpful and wish that more could have participated in it.  (Perhaps it is a good idea to buy McKnight’s forthcoming book as a starter into the conversation).  I am always glad when exegetes wrestle with the issues of the church.

I am inclined to agree with the notion that kingdom and church should be considered more synonymously than they are.  And whether we call it kingdom work or not, I think that the church does participate in forays, in rendezvous, and in reconnaissance into places that some may consider to be secular territory.  There, we participate in work that is good, work that builds the kingdom, work that glorifies the King.  And all of us can agree, whatever we may choose to call it – this is work we all should join in.

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It is a good thing to work a job.  It is a good thing to put out a quality product.  It is a good thing to provide a service that is helpful to others.  It is a good thing to contribute to community and society.  “Go… get a job” is a message that is heard clearly in our culture.  This is not a bad message, in fact it is quite a practical one.  However, as Eugene Peterson has pointed out, it becomes important to connect this message with another, “Go… make disciples.”  It is essential that our work become part of our Christian experience.  In order for work to have lasting meaning, the conversation about jobs must include discipleship.

Work is a context to obey the great commission.  Without this context, we risk the danger that we will add to statistics of job dissatisfaction and loss of meaning.  We tend to place value on certain jobs, the bible does not.  We tend to hand out respect (and money, we tend to confuse respect with money) to certain jobs over others.  The bible knows that these things are fleeting.  In fact, the bible suggests that those who take on a job in order to gain respect ought to be pitied.

It becomes important to be able to talk about work in relationship to meaning and purpose.  If we are unable to see how everyday work is related to “Go… make disciples” we are either going to become discontent with our job or become careless about our faith.  We will likely be unhappy “making a living” and trying to make up for a lack of meaning with additional recreational or spiritual activities in hopes to find meaning.  That doesn’t have to be the way it works.  Nearly any job can be a context for discipleship to occur.  If we take this message seriously the present becomes filled with energy.  And the future opens up with possibility.

I think of the tax collectors and the soldiers who approach John the Baptist.  Two vocations that probably seemed outside the will of God to those in John’s congregation.   But John simply tells them to start doing their work differently.  I think of two tax collectors that encounter Jesus.  Matthew leaves his job to serve.  But Zacchaeus starts collecting taxes differently.  Prior to meeting Jesus, they both served the dominant regime.  After meeting Jesus, they both worked for another kingdom.

You can work a job that no one else would want and be smack in the middle of the will of God.  You can work the most desirable of jobs and be struggling to find a niche in the kingdom.  The kingdom appears far less interested in what you do for compensation than we do.  It is far more concerned with the way faith is demonstrated.  So, go ahead and follow through on culture’s expectation that you get a job.  But whatever you do, be sure to make disciples.

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