The Doctrine of Work: Some Recent Titles (And an Old One, Too)

The past fifteen years has provided Christian readers with a blessed increase in literature on the doctrine of work. This growth in resources is a welcome development because it appears that for some time now, the doctrine of work has become a matter of tertiary importance–if not insignificance–among evangelicals.

However it developed, it seems that the default attitude among Christians with whom I have associated over the years (as I’ve held membership in churches in Montana, Southern California, Northern California, and Kentucky) is that work no longer a joyful calling but a mere means to an end. “Spiritual” endeavors like evangelism, pastoral ministry, missions, Bible study, and other church-related activities are the aspects of life that God really cares about. Work? It just pays the bills so that we could pursue the stuff that truly matters. (See my reflections here on a recent parenting book that appears to imbibe this kind of attitude.) This neglect of the doctrine of work is ironic, however, because evangelicals are the theological heirs of Reformation and the reformers’ robust teaching on the inherent goodness of all work.

Nevertheless, the response to this drift from our Reformed (and broadly Protestant) moorings in recent years has been significant. In 2002, Gene Veith published God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.  In 2003 Wayne Grudem published his concise yet helpful book, Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business. While not nearly as theologically rigorous as the previous two, Joel Bakke’s 2005 publication Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job provided some useful counsel on how to approach one’s work as a Christian–and actually enjoy it.

Most recently, Timothy Keller published Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work in 2012 and Matt Perman’s 2014 contribution What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, while specifically a Christian manual on productivity, also, by necessity, offers much on a Christian understanding of work and vocation. Similarly, Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert’s The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to our Jobs (2013) focuses on the necessity of diligence while warning against idolizing work in order to help those in non-ministerial jobs–most Christians–find joy and gospel fruitfulness in their daily labors. Gospel Centered Work: Becoming the Worker God Wants You To Be (2013) by Tim Chester and Gospel-Centered Life at Work (2014) by Robert Alexander follow a similar approach to Traeger and Gilbert’s.

Meanwhile, the Acton Institute gave us a new edition of Lester Dekoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life (1982; 2011), while Christian Library Press published four volumes on work and economics, each from the perspective of distinct Christian traditions. Flourishing Church and Communities by Charlie Self provides the Pentecostal perspective, David Wright’s How God Makes the World a Better Place offers a Wesleyan’s take, Economic Shalom by John Bolt gives us the Reformed View, and Chad Brand’s Flourishing Faith writes from the Baptist tradition.

This renewal of concentrated thinking on the Christian doctrine of work is a very positive development, and I pray for its continued growth. As a pastor, I find that many believers do not have a robust biblical perspective on the inherent goodness of work and the satisfaction they were meant to find in it. Fear of giving oneself too much to “secular” employments at the expense of “spiritual” activities has burdened many Christians with unnecessary guilt and hindered their ability to glorify God while on the job. Others view work as a necessary evil that provides for their necessities and enjoyments, but little else. The Church is still in need of some clear thinking on this important topic.

In my next article, however, I want to look at an old book that we would be wise to not forget among this deluge of new titles. The Religious Tradesman by Puritan minister Richard Steele (1629-1692) is a rich, deeply theological yet intensely practical work that seeks to help people glorify God in their daily work, not by making one’s work a mere secular means to a greater spiritual end, but by showing his readers, from Scripture, how Christianity is meant to pervade every corner of one’s profession. Work is not a necessary evil, but a gift from our Creator that we can pursue for the glory of God, the good of our neighbor, and our own joy.

Photo: Sergie Zolkin

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