Equipping Men with a Robust Doctrine of Work

In what is an otherwise a fine book on parenting, author Steve Wright, in an attempt to challenge dads to greater commitment in discipling their children, makes a comment that I fear reflects what many of us Christian married folk think about our work.

I often hear dads say, “Steve, I agree with what you are saying, and I wish I had more time to do some of the things you are talking about, but my job…”  This is where I usually cut them off.  God has given a job description to us, and there is no escape clause even for dads who work a certain amount of hours.  You see, our career isn’t really our job.  Our career puts food on the table and keeps the lights on so that we can do our real job.  Our real job is laid our clearly in the Word.  In case you don’t have this job description, you may want to print it and keep it in front of you (ApParent Privilege146).

On the following page, Wright gives the following three facets of a dad’s job description.  They are to (1) love the Lord with everything they’ve got; (2) love and lead their bride; (3) love and teach their children.

Now, I certainly don’t have any problem with Wright’s job description for dads, nor do I think he is wrong to correct fathers who are using their daily workload as an excuse to avoid the biblical call to disciple their children.  Amen and amen.  What I find slightly troubling is Wright’s truncated view of work expressed in the above quote, and I am concerned with how such a view of work will impact the both the married and unmarried people in our churches.

The problem is found in viewing a dad’s daily work (what Wright calls his “career”) as a mere means to the real job of loving God, loving one’s bride, and parenting one’s children.  I understand that he is countering a tendency among some Christian dads to devote an inordinate amount of time to work or career at the expense of other biblical priorities, but I fear that he has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction and has actually muted the Bible at important points.

When we approach our job or career as a means to accomplish something more important (more spiritual?), we have actually drawn a distinction where Scripture does not.  Because God has designed and equipped man with the capacity to work and build and accomplish and exercise dominion, any work done by a Christian in faith is good and pleasing to God in and of itself.

Whether that work is drawing up a proposal for the new building project, finalizing a corporate tax return, giving a few extra hours to a patient before a major surgery, or completing a new fence and veranda for eager homeowners, it is all, when done in faith, a good work.  Pursuing excellence, greater competence, and more responsibility in one’s job can all fall under the command to “do your work heartily as unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).  There may even be times when dad has to call his wife to let her know that he needs to stay late at work in order lighten the load for his fellow employees, thus fulfilling the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 27:39).

To see such work merely as a task that “puts food on the table and keeps the light on” so that we can can be about the real business of life once we get home seems to throw us into a secular/sacred divide.  But such a dichotomy is ultimately unhelpful for both the married and unmarried people in our churches.  For the married because it robs dads of the joy and satisfaction they are meant to derive from their work (or makes them feel guilty when they do find pleasure in their work); to the unmarried and childless because they will begin to think that what they do with most of the time–their job–is not nearly as important as what husband and dads do at home.  By promoting such a dim view of work, we will unintentionally create the sense among those in our church that single people and those without children are second-class Christians.

I am confident that Wright doesn’t want to discourage men in their jobs–he says earlier in the book that it is a dad’s responsibility to instill a strong work ethic in his children (see page 40).  Nevertheless, as we seek to correct what we perceive in many dads to be an unbalanced devotion to work and help them reclaim Christ-centered priorities, we must tread carefully lest we downplay the clear biblical emphasis on the inherent goodness of work and the joy a man can find in it.

4 thoughts on “Equipping Men with a Robust Doctrine of Work”

  1. I’ve recently commented to you that I very much appreciate your recent articles on work and the value of work in the life of a Christian. So, please don’t take my comments here as anything detracting from that. I would like to hear your comments on this, so I’m asking…

    What about the Pauline commands to follow (imitate; be like and live like) him and other Christian workers? For example:
    1. (1Cor 11.1) Paul commands us to follow/imitate him.
    2. (1Cor 4.16) Paul beseeches us to follow/imitate him.
    3. (Php 3.17) Paul commands us to follow him and those who are like him.
    4. (Php 4.9) Paul tells us to do those things we have seen in him.
    5. (1Thes 1.6-8) Paul puts forth the Thessalonian church members as exemplary Christians because they followed/imitated Paul and his missionary team.
    6. (2Thes 3.7-9) This last passage is what I’d like to comment on below…

    In 2Thes 3.7-9 Paul speaks of following/imitating him in the specific context (vv6-15) of work–our jobs. He says we ought to strive to be like him and that means:
    1. We labor night and day to pay our own bills.
    2. But our primary “job” is that of making disciples by evangelizing the lost and edifying the saved.

    So, when I read comments like those by Steve Wright that you quoted, I find biblical support for them. Frankly, it seems to be the Pauline model. Paul worked. Paul was a tradesman. Paul, I’m sure, did his work to the best of his ability. But Paul never saw his job as his primary calling/vocation in life; it was never a “career.” His primary calling/vocation in life was ministry: making disciples by evangelizing the lost and edifying the saved. His job simply paid the bills so he could go and make disciples.

    I’ve been very encouraged by the new focus I’ve seen among many evangelical authors on work. I’m encouraged because I often feel guilty because I work and I try to do my job well. I was a pastor for about 20 or 25 years. Fifteen of those years I was a church-planting pastor in South and Central America. Now I find myself working and going to school (a 45-year-old missionary returning home doesn’t have many marketable job skills… so I’m back to school to better provide for my family in the future). I haven’t the time right now for much ministry. And for the most part I like my job (law enforcement) and I like my studies (computer information systems). Also, I don’t much desire the office of pastor right now (1Tim 3.1), although I definitely want to get back to more ministry in the near future (once I’m finished with school, etc.).

    So, I read passages like those above (especially 2Thes 3.7-9) and I feel very guilty because I’m not following Paul in how I’ve always understood those verses. I’m not laboring night and day to support my missionary endeavors to preach the gospel and train up the saints in the work of the Lord. I’m laboring night and day to pay the bills and develop some marketable job skills so if or when I can’t do my current job anymore (it does get physical and violent at times and older bodies tend to break easier than younger ones), I can still fulfill the biblical mandate to provide for my own (1Tim 5.8, etc.).

    One more thought: I’ve often found comfort in Ephesians 6.5-8 and Colossians 3.22-24, because God says he’ll reward the servant for his labor done by faith. However, it’s been pointed out to me that those passages speak specifically about servants (i.e., slaves). They had no choice but to work in the jobs they held. That’s very different than us today. I could change jobs tomorrow if I had to or wanted to. Therefore, these passages don’t really apply to “employees”; they apply to slaves.

    Are we all supposed to follow/imitate Paul in the sense of seeing ourselves primarily as missionary disciple-makers? Are we all supposed to see our jobs as merely a means to support our real ministry, like Paul? Or am I missing something here? And if I am missing something, what is it? I would welcome any insight you might have.

  2. Greg,

    Good questions. Let’s first look at the context of each of the verses where Paul says, “imitate me.” We must examine these texts first because I don’t believe Paul meant that Christians should imitate him in every respect. For example, Christians shouldn’t attempt to imitate Paul in his apostleship, or in his authoritative writing of Scripture. We have to leave room for some uniqueness in Paul’s ministry in comparison to other Christians.

    1 Cor 11:1 – Here I take Paul to mean that the Corinthians should follow him in setting aside their legitimate rights for the sake of their brother’s conscience (see 1 cor 9-10).

    1 Cor 4:16 – Here it seems that Paul means that the Corinthians should imitate him in how he was willing to suffer for Christ’s sake (see vv.11-14).

    Phil 3:17 – Here I think Paul means that the Philippians should follow him in shunning works righteousness (Phil 3:4ff), suffering with Christ (3:10) and pressing on toward the resurrection (3:11ff). But it could have a more general reference to imitating his whole life.

    Phil 4:9 – This seems like a more general statement and can probably refer to the whole of Paul’s life, but it could also refer specifically to Paul’s example of rejoicing in Christ (4:4), letting his reasonableness be known to all (4:5), and his example of prayer (4:6), his experience of God’s peace (4:7) and his pure conduct and personal life (4:8). Again, I don’t want be too narrow here. It’s possible that Paul is referring to everything he has already said in the letter.

    2 Thess 3:7-9 – Paul is calling the Thessalonians who, in light of Christ’s immanent return, had shunned work in order to give themselves to more “spiritual” things. Some commentators believe that some Thessalonians were living off rich patrons and refusing to work because they viewed work as an unspiritual, useless waste of time in light of the more thrilling tasks of ministry. Paul exhorts these people to follow his example and work diligently to provide their own living. But I don’t believe Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to follow his exact course of life. The main issue here is pseudo-spiritual laziness and the unwillingness to work. Paul gives himself as an example because he had the right as an apostle to request a living from those to whom he ministered. But in order to demonstrate to these overly spiritual Thessalonians how to conduct oneself as a Christian, he set aside his apostolic right and worked for his living. Therefore, I don’t take Paul in this text to be emphasizing your second point: “But our primary ‘job’ is that of making disciples by evangelizing the lost and edifying the saved.” Paul’s emphasis in this text is on the call for the Christian to work for one’s living.

    With regard to the Thessalonians, it is interesting to note that in his first letter he instructs them to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1Thess 4:11-12). The word for “aspire” is the same word that Paul uses in Rom 15:20 where is said he aspired to preach Christ, but not where Christ has already been named. Paul also uses this word (translated “make it our aim” in the ESV) in 2 Cor 5:9: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” Given his use of this word elsewhere, I find Paul’s statement to the Thessalonians rather astounding. Make it your goal in life, Thessalonians, to live quietly, work with your hands, and earn your own living. Yes, ministry and evangelism and discipleship were to be priorities for the Thessalonians now that they had come to believe in Christ. But I don’t believe Paul would have made a distinction between one’s job (what they did for a living) and one’s real job (loving God, loving our families, etc.). This, in my estimation, is a false distinction, as I argue in my blog post.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this comment, I think it is important to reckon with the uniqueness of Paul’s calling. You say, “But Paul never saw his job as his primary calling/vocation in life; it was never a ‘career.’ His primary calling/vocation in life was ministry: making disciples by evangelizing the lost and edifying the saved. His job simply paid the bills so he could go and make disciples.” That’s true. But Paul was an apostle whom God had equipped with spiritual gifts to fulfill a specific calling in the history of the Church. As I noted above, no Christian should attempt to imitate Paul in every respect, and not all Christians will be called to a life of vocational ministry. Paul knew he had been given a special task that he had to fulfill, that’s one reason why he said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). But Paul also said (with a rhetorical question) that not everyone is an apostle (1 Cor 12:29). In other words, there was an compulsion, based on Paul’s inward desire and Christ’s unique calling on his life, to fulfill a specific ministry.

    With regard to Ephesians 6:5-8 and Colossians 3:22-24, I think it’s clear that Paul’s instruction should not be restricted to a master-servant relationship. First, the principles in and of themselves are applicable in both scenarios. We obey with fear and trembling, we work diligently, not for eye-service but to please the Lord. But notice what undergirds the slave’s godly diligence in Ephesians 6:5-8: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether bondservant or free.” Paul generalizes the motivating principle to “whatever good” that “anyone” does, whether they are a slave or free. With these statements, Paul broadens out the application of this passage to a multitude of different circumstances, and employer-employee relationships would certainly fit within the realm of legitimate application.

    Derek

  3. I have been listening to a lot of Gregs sermons and would like to find more of them. But have been unable to contact him. I will leave my e- mail address here in the hope that he will e-mail me so that I am able to start up a correspondence with him tkurtz24@yahoo.com
    Tony

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