A Biblical Theology of Work
What does the Bible say; what do we get wrong; and why does it matter?
Will Messenger, who kicked off the fabulous Theology of Work Project, tells the story of the start of the project. The idea was to write a commentary on every Bible passage that relates to work. He and his team initially identified 100 Scripture references and thought it would take them a couple of years. As they started in depth, they discovered 859 passages that specifically relate to work (more than the number that apply to worship); and eventually the project grew to be a commentary on the whole Bible, from the context of work. It took them more than seven years to work through all the text.
As Will said, “I used to think the Bible was a book about religion, with a few applications to work. But it’s not. The Bible is a book about God, and it turns out that God shows up where God’s people spend their time, which is mostly at work.”
That project has evolved a website for workers, pastors and scholars to examine a work frame for every book of the Bible, as well as to test what the Bible says about some key issues of work such as ambition, work–life balance and workplace ethics.
A basic theology of work
I like this outline from Hugh Whelchel:
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- Creation: work is good; the way work was.
- Fall: the process of working is cursed; the way work is.
- Redemption: workplaces can be redeemed; the way work could be.
- Restoration: there will be work in the New Creation; the way work will be.
What do we get wrong?
For most Christians, our understanding of work begins at the Fall, after Adam had sinned, with the consequences of the curse. Many assume that all work is cursed. However, a careful reading notes that it is the ground that is cursed, impacting on the process of working. The passage reads:
“To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat from it,”
‘Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.'” (Genesis 3:17)
So, the curse did not reverse the good of work; and there continues to be much good in work. We need to go back to the principles of a theology of work laid down at creation in Genesis 1. Firstly, we are made in the image of a God who works, and secondly, we were made to work, caring for the creation God made:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'” (Genesis 1:26)
Our daily work can be an act of worship
Thirdly, God loves to work with us:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)
Understanding these biblical truths about work enables us to see the good of our work, as well as how it is tainted by sin. It also gives us a sense of meaning in our work, as we see that our daily work can be an act of worship: being obedient to God’s command, fulfilling our calling to work, partnering with God in that work and seeing it as a means of honouring him and serving others.
The importance of a good theology of work
Understanding this is good for your own faith formation, since knowing a basic theology of work provides the framework for you to apply your Christianity to your immediate workplace, and work role. It attacks the assumption that because I am a Christian, my work will therefore be Christian.
Having a theology of work also helps you realise how significant work is to the expression of your faith. We need to have the two fused together. You cannot do your day job and keep it separate from your faith. For example, as one teacher told me, “Teaching is all-encompassing, and there is no escaping the teaching workload. You need to understand the place of work, rather than compartmentalising it, seeing it as somehow separate from your faith.”
An understanding of what the Bible says about work is important to help people to see that work isn’t your enemy, or a distraction from being a Christian; but it is right and proper and God-given, and a huge part of your life.
Everything we do as Christians in the workplace is part of God’s plan for bringing a fragrance of God’s kingdom into the work context.
A theology of work also helps us understand the need for rest.
A theology of work is also important to give your work kingdom purpose. You need to have a systematic understanding of the Bible so that you are enabled to do good work for God, on an equal status with Christians who choose to be missionaries or pastors.
Such a theology also helps you understand that it is the impact of sin when things go wrong; and that everything we do as Christians in the workplace is part of God’s plan for bringing a fragrance of God’s kingdom into the work context.
If you are interested in exploring a Biblical Theology of Work in more detail, I will be teaching an intensive unit on this at Mary Andrews College in April.
NEXT TIME: We meet a Christian applying a theology of work in their daily work.
Kara Martin is an Adjunct Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and lectures at Mary Andrews College, is author of the Workship books, and Keeping Faith and co-host of the Worship on the Way to Work podcast.