Key Topic Overview Articles

Balancing Rhythms of Rest and Work (Overview)

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Introduction – Rest and Work

Human beings need a rhythm of work and rest in order to live up to their God-given potential. Just as God gives people important work to do, God also asks people to rest periodically from their labor. Work gives each individual the opportunity to partner with God in his goals for creation, while rest lets that person enter into communion with God in enjoyment of creation. Ideally, all people would work and rest in comfortable alternation, leaving humanity physically healthy, mentally stimulated, and spiritually fulfilled.

Making Time Off Predictable and Required

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

Alas, for many people this happens rarely. Many neglect to rest or do not have the opportunity to rest, given the patterns of their lives. With the dizzying advance of technology, people can work anywhere and anytime. In 2014 The Economist reported that 60% of people who use smartphones are connected to their offices for 13.5 or more hours a day.[1] Many people have ceased to attempt to balance work with rest.[2] Others find all their time consumed by the need to earn a paycheck, care for children or aging parents (or both), and fulfill others’ needs and expectations of them. Over-worked, they find it increasingly difficult to experience the kind of life-restoring, humanizing rest that they need.

Conversely, some people are under-worked, either for lack of full-time employment or from feeling disengaged from their jobs. Some lack the motivation to work or have not developed habits needed for work. Structural changes in the labor market over the past half-century have decreased work opportunities for those without access to higher education.[3] And even those who work full time may suffer from a lack of productive engagement. If a worker feels that his or her work isn’t valued, measured, or appreciated, that worker will struggle to exhibit ownership over the task at hand.[4] If he or she is not prepared to work productively, successful results are unlikely. The outcome will be a life-depleting lack of motivation.[5]

When people lack rest they suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Physical and mental exhaustion can often lead to emotional volatility, as a poorly rested individual become easily irritated and/or anxious. This lack of rest can escalate into larger issues. Relationships become strained. Over time a person’s spiritual life—a connection to God and the deepest meaning and joy in life—becomes diminished too.

Research bears out the cascading consequences of a rest deficiency. First, lack of rest can compromise health and the quality of work. Heavy workloads and long hours are a significant source of stress in the work place. According to an American Psychological Association survey, more than a third (36%) of workers experience chronic work stress, which can lead to anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, increased blood pressure, as well as a weakened immune system. This kind of stress can also increase chances of heart disease, diabetes, and depression.[6] Furthermore, exhaustion depletes a person’s skill at managing interpersonal relationships. Studies show that when someone is tired he or she misreads other people’s social signals. A tired person will project negative motives onto other people, and find it hard to resist lashing out in response.[7] Finally, there are spiritual implications to lack of rest. God created both work and rest, and carelessness in these areas can estrange people from him.

Howard E. Butt, Jr. on Rest (Click Here to Listen)

Behind the Sabbath, our holidays, and our vacations we find the notion—all work includes rest. Rest is not escape, but essential to the high calling of our daily work.

Both those who are over-worked and those who are under-worked may find it hard to connect with God in a rhythm of work and rest.

Yet by God’s grace it is still possible to integrate rest and work into the pattern of life that God intends. This study will explore the reasons why and how to do so.

From the opening pages of the Bible, both work and rest are surprisingly significant topics. In the first chapter of Genesis God creates everything, yet despite his infinite power and perfection God takes time to rest. This topical study will trace the theme of rest in scripture through four main topics: 1) why people need to rest, 2) why people can’t rest, 3) how rest is restored, and 4) and how people can rest in faith.

Created to Rest: Entering Into Joyful Communion With God

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On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:2-3)

The seventh day is the very first thing to be hallowed in Scripture, to acquire that special status that properly belongs to God alone. In this way Genesis emphasizes the sacredness of the sabbath. – Bruce Waltke [1]

After six days of creation, God looks upon the works of his hands and pronounces it “very good” (Gen 1:31). But it is not until the seventh day that God calls something, “holy,” the day of rest that he interjects into the time and space of creation. The day of rest receives the attribution of holiness, which is the very essence of God’s character. The two short verses of Genesis 2:2-3 emphasize three times that God rested.

Today, many people think of rest as something they have to do so that they can work. Given the choice, some people would prefer bodies that did not need rest. In modern society, rest is often seen as the opposite of productivity. Rest is a functional necessity, serving the higher end of work, devoid of higher meaning or significance. Is this view of rest and work biblically accurate?

In Genesis 2 God both works and rests. God, in his omnipotence, clearly does not need to rest for reasons of physical tiredness or exhaustion. He does not need to rest so that he can become more productive, given that he has already created everything. So clearly there is something more to rest than maintaining energy for the production line.

It is also interesting that the first thing in all of creation that is made holy is not a person or even an object, rather it is a day. What then is the significance of rest for God, and why does he make this day holy? Genesis 2 does not say why God makes the seventh day holy, merely that he does make it holy. So it helps to turn to the concept of sabbath as it is developed throughout the Bible. Surprisingly, the term sabbath does not appear again until Exodus 16:23-29, when Israel is wandering in the wilderness after being delivered from Egypt. The next significant mention of sabbath occurs in the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11. The fourth commandment to remember the sabbath and to keep it holy is grounded upon God’s pattern of working six days and resting on the seventh, making an explicit link between creation and sabbath observance, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:11). Israel is commanded to rest because God rests in creation.

It is important to note that the sanctity of rest in no way undervalues the importance or dignity of work. Rather, these opening chapters of Genesis establish a pattern of work and rest; to do one without the other is a deviation from God’s created order. In fact, the fourth commandment combines both a command to work and to rest: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” God affirms the goodness of work and the sacredness of rest, with the two beautifully woven together. The fourth commandment as given in Deuteronomy supports the rhythm of work and rest with a different argument—because of God’s deliverance of his people out of Egypt. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:13-15) People should work and rest as God instructs because of his model in creation and his model in redemption.

Exodus 31:16-17 provides even deeper insights. “Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Two important discoveries come from this passage. First, the sabbath functions as a sign, pointing to the “covenant” between God and Israel. This covenant embodies the privileged relationship that Israel enjoys with God, which begins with the patriarch Abraham. Old Testament scholar John Durham writes in his commentary, “The reason the sabbath is to be kept is that Yahweh has commanded it as a sign of the covenant in perpetuity between himself and Israel, the covenant by which Israel has made a response to the gift of Yahweh’s Presence.”[2] In other words, keeping sabbath is a living out of the special relationship God’s people enjoy with God. Second, the sabbath is a day when God himself is “refreshed” and he wants his people to experience that same refreshment. Thus the sabbath enacts God’s desire to be in intimate relationship with his people. God offers his people weekly refreshment through communion with him and with his creation.

Further evidence of this relational aspect of the Sabbath emerges in Ezekiel 20:12, “I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them.” According to this verse, God gives Israel “his sabbaths” (the refreshment that belongs to him, as a relational sign between God and his people) so that they might know who he is as well as know the sanctifying effects of relating with him. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke corroborates this relational emphasis: “[T]he sabbath is the sign that Creator has set Israel apart for a special covenantal relationship with him.”[3] The sign is not arbitrary, like a tattoo or a secret gesture. Instead, the sign of sabbath is real participation with God in the delight of resting in God’s own creation. God chooses not to be distant from his creation. Rather, God chooses to intimately commune with his people and with his creation through their participation in his sabbath rest.

The New Testament extends both the directive to enter into God’s rest and the possibility of doing so. Hebrews chapter four encourages Jesus’ followers to rest. “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (Hebrews 4:1) The ancient Israelites, according to Hebrews, fail to take God up on his offer of rest because they are disobedient to him. But followers of Jesus receive good news about the rest God promises from the beginning. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, believers are able to accept God’s offer of rest regardless of who they are or where they live. “A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” (Heb. 4:9-11)

These texts convey a deeper significance to rest, communicated by this notion of “sabbath.” Rest is much more than recuperating from a hectic, tiring week. It is the affirmation of a special relationship people have with God. Rest is a privilege graciously extended by a God who desires his creation to delight in the refreshment he enjoys. The sabbath is holy because it is a day that belongs to God and he graciously chooses to share himself with his creation. He is a generous God who delights in the delight of his people. Rest communicates the character of a holy God who relishes in the act of creation (Proverbs 8:30-31) and desires to commune with it. Rest is the gracious outworking of God’s desire to be in intimate, joyful relationship with humanity and creation.

The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time (Click Here to Read)

In 2017, the Harvard Business Review ​published a summary of recent medical and psychological studies arguing that humans are designed for periods of rest, silence, and deep thought: "​Taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us now live, work, and lead." They also include four tips for cultivating silence and sabbath even in the middle of a busy workplace.

In sum, God sanctifies the seventh day in creation to set it apart from the other days as a day of rest. God does not need to rest, yet finds rest refreshing nonetheless. God rests so his people can partake in his refreshment. Moreover his rest from work fosters his relationship with his people. People take delight in the “very good” creation of God, upon which humanity’s work is meant to build.

In the first two chapters of Genesis, God both works and rests. God also create people to be similar to him: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) God creates people with a job in mind: responsibility over creation. Both the fact that people are created in God’s image and the immensity of the task he entrusts to them prove that God intends his people to be workers. Similarly, he intends his people to be resters, after the pattern he models on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2). God’s dual invitations to work and to rest serve as a validation of the special bond between God, humanity, and creation.

Commanded to Rest: The Impact of the Fall

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If rest is a source of refreshment and a means to better relationship with God and with other people, why don’t people do it? The answer begins with the Fall of humanity.

To Adam God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:17-19).

Adam and Eve’s disobedience breaks the intimate fellowship that they were intended to have with God, and they become estranged from their Creator. The impact of humanity’s rebellion is devastating to all aspects of creation including both work and rest. Work was originally intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, but because of man’s sin God curses the ground, and work becomes difficult and painful. Rest was intended to be a similarly ennobling affirmation of humanity’s intimate fellowship with God, but due to the chasm sin creates between God and people, rest becomes deeply distorted. After the fall rest becomes a necessary antidote to the harshness of work, yet rest is elusive because humanity’s perfect relationship with God is broken.

It is important to clarify here that work itself is not a curse; rather, the ground is cursed, giving rise to greater pain, frustration, and hardship associated with work. Work is still noble and it still brings joy, but because of sin it is also beset with challenges and difficulties. The Fall makes work exhausting, and, the deeper significance of rest established in creation is overshadowed by people’s physical need for rest. In a world that is broken, people rest merely to survive, to refuel for more backbreaking work.

Despite the brokenness that enters the world due to human sin, God’s goal is to restore for his people a holy rhythm of work and rest. He does this first by giving the Israelites specific commandments regarding work and rest. Later God expands the scope and possibility of both rest and work through the life and sacrifice of Jesus.

God sets out restoring guidelines in the law of the Old Testament. The most well-known of these commandments are the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai after Israel is delivered from slavery in Egypt. Amongst the Ten, God includes the commandment to rest:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, - you, your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:8-11).

God commands Israel to honor the sabbath and to keep it holy, resting from the work that defines the other six days. This rest includes the entire household, servants and animals, so that all can “be refreshed” (Exo 23:12). God ends this commandment with a reminder that he too rested on the seventh day following six days of creation. It is as if to say that following a commanded rhythm of work and rest might restore some of the utopic harmony that is lost to human beings after the Fall.

Because life out of Eden is extra hard for humans in their work, God also institutes other cycles of rest into Israel’s calendar year. There are seasonal festivals and feasts given by God in Leviticus 23, including the feast of the Passover, a harvest festival, a day for atonement, and a rest day preceding it by a week (known today as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah respectively), as well as the festival of booths (known today as Sukkot). For each of these festivals God commands the Israelites to stop their regular work and observe a rest. God also commands the Israelites to do specific actions on each festival day, which may serve to help the people connect better with God. Here is one such example of a command to rest and to perform a connecting ritual (in this case on Rosh Hashanah):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the Lord’s offerings by fire. (Lev. 23:23-25)

On this festival God commands the people to rest from their normal occupations, and instead to take action that reminds them that God is the ultimate provider of both their work and their rest. In the case of this particular festival, the Israelites are commanded to blow the trumpets and to give some their earnings back to God in the form of a sacrifice.

A yearly pattern of rest is relevant even from a modern business perspective. Justice Louis Brandeis, who sat on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, once took a short vacation right before the start of an important trial. He received criticism for this decision, but Brandeis delivered a convincing defense: “I need rest. I find that I can do a year’s work in eleven months, but I can’t do it in twelve.”[1] Many people think their jobs are too all-encompassing to allow them to take a break during the year, but if a top US justice can do it then others probably can too.

God also commands the Israelites to observe patterns of extended rest every seven (Exodus 23, Leviticus 25:1-7) and forty-nine years (Lev 25:8-55). Because the land is cursed due to effects of The Fall, these extended periods of rest provide time for the land to recover.

In the Old Testament these weekly, yearly, seven-yearly and forty-nine-yearly cycles of rest serve two functions. The first is to give both people and land a physical rest from the hardship and frustration of work. The second reason for these rhythmic rests is to invite people to commune with God in worship, satisfying a greater need than just that of their physical bodies. God’s people need physical rest, yes, but also deep spiritual rest—rest from the instability, anxiety, and insecurity created by the threat of enemy invasion. God institutes these cycles of rest so that his people can set aside time to worship him and rediscover his covenantal love and faithfulness towards them. During these times of worship, Israel is reminded that God himself is their rest: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Exodus 33:14). When Israel turns to God in trust and obedience, this promise of rest is realized through Divine protection and blessing. Israel later achieves victory from her enemies in battle and gains possession of the Promised Land:

And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:44-45).

Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples of the rest that God provides for his people, a rest which goes beyond simple physical rest. God provides rest from war (Joshua 11:23, Joshua 14:15; 1 Kings 5:4; 1 Chronicles 22:9; Psalm 46:9-10; Proverbs 1:33; Isaiah 14:3), from social strife (2 Corinthians 13:11, Ecclesiastes 10:4; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; Hebrews 12:14; James 3:17-18; 1 Peter 3:8), from fear (Mark 4:37-38; Matthew 8:24-25; Luke 8:23-24; Genesis 32:11; Psalm 127:2; Micah 4:4; Matthew 6:31; Luke 12:29), and from anxiety (1 Peter 5:7; Matthew 6:25; Philippians 4:6). His presence provides security (Deuteronomy 33:12; Proverbs 19:23) and peace in the midst of death (Deuteronomy 31:16; Job 3:13-17; Revelation 14:13).

This deeper rest can be described as a spiritual rest—a rest that comes from being in covenantal communion with God. The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel describes this deep rest as menuha. According to Heschel, “menuha came into existence on the sabbath and can be described as tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose. Menuha is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust.”[2]

Heschel beautifully communicates what humanity loses in the Fall. In addition to the physical aspects of rest, there is a deeper spiritual need that all humans have—this yearning for menuha or the assurance that all is well. The problem is that many people look to all the wrong things to provide this deeper spiritual rest, resulting in increased restless.

This is the situation that plagues many people today. People may not be aware of the need for both physical and spiritual rest. Physical rest without spiritual rest is not satisfying; nor is spiritual rest without physical rest restoring. Honoring the sabbath does not mean engaging in soul-numbing frivolity nor is it austerely communing with God. Keeping the sabbath holy means recognizing the brokenness of the world after the Fall and looking to God to mend both broken bodies and misguided hopes.

Why People Can’t Rest – Human Nature Revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures

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The biblical narrative of work and rest is a rich and somewhat complicated story. Work is intended to be an ennobling partnership with God, and rest is intended to be an invitation to enjoy intimate fellowship with him. The Fall makes work difficult, and creates a desperate need for people to experience both physical and spiritual rest. But people often find it difficult to rest. The next passage of Scripture will illuminate why that is.

On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather [manna], and they found none. The LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day (Exodus 16:27–30).

This passage comes immediately after God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Egypt. Through awesome displays of power and might, God demonstrates his faithfulness to Israel and delivers them from the bondage of slavery. As they journey towards the Promised Land, God continues to provide for all their needs, including food in the form of this unknown substance, manna. He specifically instructs them to collect enough manna for each day, but not more than a day’s need, with the exception of the sixth day when they are commanded to collect enough for two days, so they can rest from work on the sabbath (Exo 16:4-5).

God’s instructions are clear. Collect enough food for each day—no more, no less—and God will be faithful to provide each day. After experiencing the dramatic and miraculous exodus from Egypt, there should be no conceivable reason for the Israelites to believe that God wouldn’t provide for their needs. However, there are still some in Israel who go out on the seventh day to gather manna. Do they simply forget it is the sabbath? No, the explicit point of God’s instructions is to test whether Israel trusts and obeys: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not’” (Exo 16:4). God recognizes the deeper problem within the hearts of his people—they do not rest on the sabbath because their hearts do not trust in God’s provision. Similarly, people today who do not trust God will not be able to allow him to restore the relationship with him and with other people that is broken as a result of the Fall.

If distrust is one reason people overwork, dissatisfaction is another. The author of Ecclesiastes observes that some people work constantly because neither their work nor the fruits of their labor, nor pleasure brings them satisfaction.

I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil (Ecclesiastes 4:7–9).

People end up in the “unhappy business” of working to relieve dissatisfaction with their lives, their loss of relationship with God and with people, their fears about not having the things they need, and their inability to find pleasure in anything. But obsessive work only makes people more restless and unhappy.

Because refusing to rest on the sabbath stands in the way of God’s plan to restore the world from the effects of the Fall, it is a very serious offense in the Old Testament.

In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:18, emphasis added).

When God gives Israel the sabbath, he gives them a bit of the Garden of Eden. So when the people of God reject the sabbath, it “brings more wrath on Israel” by subjecting them to the effects of the Fall a second time.

The commandment to rest and the challenges to fulfilling that commandment are not particular to Israel. The struggle is real in modern times as well. Rest is as necessary as ever. It remains the pattern God lays out for people made in his image. The reasons that people can’t rest today are the same too. Either people are unable to rest because they are still enslaved by external forces, like Israel was in the land of Egypt, or like the Israelites in the desert people choose not to rest because they don’t trust God. Christ makes it possible for believers to rest, but still rest remains far from perfect .

Like the enslaved Israelites, many of God’s people today lack basic necessities, even the food and water to survive. The world is so broken by sin that God’s promise of provision is not always fulfilled in this life. It would be no good news to impose an undue burden on people in dire circumstances by commanding them to take a day off from work when such rest is impossible. The sabbath is intended to be a liberation for people, not an added burden. Jesus performs work to relieve people in need on the sabbath and teaches that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Christ give people freedom to rest, not an impossible task to fulfill.

God ultimately delivers the Israelites from slavery and into the Promised Land. Jesus, similarly, shows nothing but compassion for those in distress, healing on the sabbath and explaining that, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12). So for those people currently enslaved either literally or by economic necessity, there is no rule that will allow anyone to judge them for their sabbath practices. All Christians would do well, rather, to partner with God in his continuing work of liberating the oppressed.

Others people operate in the rebellions mode that the Israelites adopted in the Sinai desert. Rather than believing that God will provide for their needs each day, these people put it upon themselves to obtain what they think they need. Many people would rather trust their own actions than trust a God who promises to provide for all the needs of his people yet remains unseen. The deeper problem leading to inability to rest is this lack of trust in God despite his demonstrated love and faithfulness. It’s this refusal to trust God that leads people to forfeit the rest they so desperately need.

Why is rest so difficult? Some people respond: “I feel guilty that I’m not working”, “I’m afraid other people will get ahead”, “I’ll lose my job if I don’t keep working”, “My coworkers will judge me”, “I won’t get promoted”, “My company will go under if I don’t work”, “People will think I’m lazy” or “So I won’t feel anxious”. Some would even respond, “I love what I do and enjoy the work.” This list can go on and on, and many of these reasons are not necessarily bad ones. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work hard to provide for a family or to keep a job, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with working hard to succeed or because it brings satisfaction intrinsically. God intends work for all these purposes. The problem arises when underlying these good desires is the desire to be god rather than to trust the real God.

When people today have time to rest and yet refuse to obey God’s command, they are doing exactly what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They do not believe that God will provide for their needs. Rather they trust in self-sufficiency, inadvertently stealing God’s job away from him. In futile and foolish attempts to be god, people forfeit the grace that God promises. As Augustine noted, people’s hearts will remain restless until they find their rest in God.[1]

Conversely, people might be making a god out of work, seeking to find all of their fulfillment there rather than in God. Underlying what may superficially appear to be a harmless decision to work is actually a rejection of God, his grace, and his revealed character of generosity.

Regardless of an individual’s proclivities or economic circumstances, each person should ask him or herself whether current patterns of work and rest truly reflect God’s generosity and provision. Based on what a person has received by God’s grace so far, it often does not make sense to work so much and to rest so little. Indeed, the self-congratulation many people seek may not be what God wants to provide more of. In the moment when each person must decide whether to work or to rest, it may help to ask, “Is working now instead of resting actually the way to receive the good that God has in store for me and for others? Does my work have the power to gain for me anything that God would not provide if I rest?” Clearly, there will be cases when the answer is “yes,” analogously to when an animal falls into a pit and some immediate work is the only way to bring a good outcome (Matthew 12:11-12). But for many people ,when tempted to imagine there is no choice but to work at the expense of rest, the answer will be “no.”

How Rest is Restored – Sabbath & Jesus’ Redemption in the New Testament

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What can break people out of this destructive, self-centered cycle so that they can experience the rest they need? As much as many would like rest to be a matter of strict discipline, people cannot simply schedule regular periods of rest into their calendars and expect to experience the deep menuha rest that Heschel described. The deeper problem with rest is not a matter of scheduling. It is a matter of trust in God. Somehow, people’s hearts have to be changed.

Giving God Control of My Company Lets Me Rest (Click to Watch)

In the New Testament, two passages clarify how God is restoring rest. In the first passage, Jesus makes the unequivocal and controversial claim that he will give people rest.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).

This claim infuriates some Israelites because only God can provide that kind of rest, as in Exodus 33:14, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” It is indeed Jesus’ intention to identify himself as the one true God who can provide the kind of rest that is promised to Israel. But how can Jesus provide this rest?

In the second passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes another startling claim that he is greater than the sabbath as he is “lord of the sabbath” (Matt 12:8).

“I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” (Matt 12:6-8)

Jesus makes the dramatic claim that he provides a greater rest than the law of the sabbath can offer. How does Jesus provide a deeper rest than the sabbath law? Romans gives an explanation.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3–4).

The sabbath law on its own has no ability to address the deeper problem within people. The fourth commandment teaches that people ought to rest, but it cannot enable them to do so because a commandment on its own is powerless to change hearts. The common inability to rest, rather, exposes a much deeper problem. People desire to be self-sufficient without God, and yet the effort that it takes to do so leaves people exhausted and empty. This is where the good news of the Gospel comes in. According to Romans (see below), God knows that the law is powerless to change hearts. Jesus refers to himself as the lord of the sabbath because he does something that the sabbath law could never do. God wants to commune with his people through rest, but people can’t commune with God if they fear his condemnation. Jesus frees people from condemnation by forgiving all sin through his sacrifice on the cross. In doing so Jesus grants Christians renewed access to God that individuals could never earn or accomplish on their own. No longer estranged from God due to sin, people can now enter into real restful communion with God.

Indeed, an examination of the Christian faith, as laid out in the letters to the early church, concurs about what Christ has accomplished for people with regard to rest.

First of all, in Christ believers are saved from condemnation under the Law.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)

Because people no longer need to be afraid of God, believers no longer feel compelled to work incessantly in a futile attempt to please God.

By establishing forgiveness, Christ reconciles each person’s relationship with God. In doing so, Jesus restores the possibility of people experiencing loving fellowship with God.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

According to this passage, all people should be able to experience a restful relationship with God, despite any real-world obstacles.

Furthermore, through Christ’s sacrifice the parent-child relationship between God and his people is restored.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

Christ reinstates all the privileges and benefits of being a child of God that God gave people in the garden of Eden. Adopted as God’ children, people have every right to ask for what they need, and God promises not to withhold any good thing from them. (Romans 8:32, 2 Corinthians 9:8). Moreover, individuals have the honor of partnering with God in the work he intends to do in the world.

A spirit of adoption does not negate the possibility of suffering in the life of a Christian. Rather, suffering can be viewed as part of taking on the family business. People sometimes have the opportunity to suffer with God in the same way that Jesus comes alongside all people who are suffering. Whether believers feel extremely provided for or extremely in need, Jesus’ sacrifice means that they no longer have to turn to their own work as the ultimate source of security and identity.

Similarly, when people partner with God in his work of restoring the world to his original intention, the Holy Spirit empowers them to deepen their relationships with others. It is only through Jesus’ sacrifice that people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-7). Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers find it possible to give their time and property sacrificially to others (Acts 4:34). God gives his followers his very Spirit to empower them to live by faith, to work by faith, and finally to rest in faith.

The last insight on this subject in the New Testament is that Christ will come again one day to fully restore God’s intention for both work and rest. In the fallen world which continues today, people will always be subject to a pattern of frustration, exhaustion, and partial recuperation. But when Christ comes again to make the world the way God has always intended it to be, he will reestablish an integrated pattern of purposeful work in partnership with God and rest in perfect communion with him. The following passage from Revelation reveals both themes of work and rest.

The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!" (Revelation 19:9-10)

Life in the new creation will involve both work (in fellow service with the angels) and rest (enjoying the marriage supper of the Lamb.) Human work and rest in the age to come will both occur in perfect partnership with God. Believers can wait for this eventuality in expectation, even as each person endeavors to experience closeness with God in his or her work and rest today (Hebrews 4:1).

How Christians Can Experience Deeper Rest

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God loves people so much that he is willing to leave the place of perfect rest in order to enter into the unrest of this world. Christ, the lord of the sabbath, becomes incarnate as a man who has “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) so that his followers can find real rest. This final section explores how people can experience a greater and deeper rest. The first step is to look to Jesus in a deepening faith.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28–30)

Believers can give Jesus their burdens and experience deeper rest. However, it takes a full surrendering of minds, hearts, and wills.

Many barriers to rest start in the mind. Thoughts that are angry, fearful, or anxious prevent rest. It is particularly difficult to rest when life circumstances create resentments against others, fears of the myriad things that can go wrong, or anxiety about others’ expectations. Hebrews reminds believers to let go the obstacles of the mind and to look instead to Christ, with trust in him for the future.

Christ himself, as he faces the agony and shame of death, focuses upon the joy of the future.

Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

This freedom to fix active thoughts on Christ, and in particular a future hope of glory, can be found throughout the letters of the New Testament.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8).

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4).

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

A critical part of experiencing deep rest is being proactive about what thoughts fill the mind. Philippians exhorts people to think about things that are good and true and beautiful. Colossians encourages Christians to imagine the glorious future that awaits all those who look to Christ. 2 Corinthians asks believers to recognize current problems and difficulties as momentary afflictions compared to the eternal rest that awaits. Christians can choose to follow this advice or be overwhelmed by trials and difficulties. To rest fully is to anchor the mind upon Jesus and the perfect future that awaits all who follow him.

Secondly, entering into a faithful rest involves examining existing desires. Jesus invites “all who are weary” to come to him for rest (Matthew 11:28) but each individuals must first respond in his or her heart to that invitation. Coming to Christ is not a trivial or passive decision. Jesus makes clear that being a disciple is a life-consuming reality that requires a self-denial that doesn’t come naturally.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matt 16:24-26).

Each person has something in his or her heart that he or she falsely believes will bring rest. Many people don’t experience true rest because they are consciously or subconsciously pursuing something that promises rest, but can’t ever deliver it. The Bible considers anything people pursue above Christ to be an idol. Some people berate or abuse others, hoping it will make them feel less inadequate. Others entertain themselves to the point of numbness, or excite themselves to the point of exhaustion. Still others may pile up achievements, hoping to climb high enough to rise above the fear of lacking what they need. When people feel stress and fatigue from the work week or experience anxiety, many turn to these idols to bring a sense of relief. Pastor Tim Keller elaborates upon this point in his book, Counterfeit Gods.

An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry…. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.[1]

Keller argues that even good things can become idols that take the place of Christ. People instinctively look to these things to provide a sense of deeper rest, but idols will all fail at some point. Idols keep people from trusting God, thus people forfeit the grace that brings true rest. God invites his followers to rest amidst work, but idols require ever-increasing frenzy. How can people overthrow these idols and place Christ at the center of the heart’s desires? The answer is repentance. In repentance, an individual surrenders the illusion of control. He or she has to die to a false sense of self-sufficiency. Rather, each believer must trust that God can and will graciously provide for all the “desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Without this repentance, people cannot experience

Marva Dawn, in her book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, describes what people find when they repent of idols and surrender completely to God. “When we cease striving to be God, we learn a whole new kind of contentment, the delight of the presence of God in our present circumstances. When we give up our silly rebellion against God’s purposes, we discover that he provides the security for which we were searching.”[2]

Lastly, peoples’ habits may hinder them from experiencing a deep rest. It is important to examine whether current rhythms of work and rest bring an individual closer to peaceful communion with God, or further away from it. In the Old Testament, God institutes various patterns or cycles of rest, creating regular rhythms for the Israelites. Though Jesus’ sacrifice frees Christians from needing to follow the Old Testament law to the letter, nevertheless weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual, and sabbatical rhythms of can provide needed guidelines for people who want to enter into the freeing rest that Christ makes possible.

To sum up, here are some practical suggestions for those who are looking to release their burdens to Jesus and enter into God’s rest:

  1. Reflect on things that are just, pure, and pleasing (Philippians 4:8). Some people find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal.[3]
  2. Imagine a future that transcends the current problems of this world (Colossians 3:1-4). It may help to cultivate a holy imagination.[4]
  3. Reframe current troubles as small within an eternal timescale (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Imagine looking at a current situation from a distant future time point (also known as a “fast-forward” model of decision making.) [5]
  4. If there is a solution that promises to fix all life’s problems, and it’s not Jesus, repent of it.[6]
  5. Reflect on whether adding daily rest practices might be helpful. Examples include: reading a daily devotional book[7] or Bible reading plan (if this doesn't feel like unpleasant work), praying worshipfully at the beginning and end of every day,[8] or praying together with family members at an evening meal.
  6. Reflect on weekly rest practices that feel resourcing. Some people commit to one full day of rest a week, or to a weekly meeting of a small group of Christians. Many people find a weekly church service refreshing, but that shouldn’t serve as some sort of high-water mark of sabbath rest. Other weekly rest ideas include: eating a meal with friends and neighbors, playing or listening to music, or engaging in a fun physical activity.
  7. There are other rest practices that might help people refocus on God either seasonally or annually. Spend extended times in prayer or reading scripture. Go on a retreat. Celebrate holidays or seasons of more intensive spiritual devotion, such as Advent and Lent.[9]

An important question about personal rest practices, whatever they are, is whether they pull an individual into a deeper experience of God’s faithfulness. God gives the weekly sabbath to remind the Israelites of his never-ending faithful provision, and Jesus heals on the sabbath to prove his ultimate dominion over all problems. Any particular approach, whether it be attending a church service, reading a devotional, or eating with friends, is not a fool-proof solution. Rather, all practices afford people greater opportunities to commune with God, in whom humanity finds the deepest and most satisfying rest.

It is also important to note that there are seasons in life where an individual may not be able to experience the rest that he or she might need. New parents, for example, cannot take a day off from caring for the needs of their infant. Entrepreneurs, who often have no one to whom they can delegate all the necessary work, may find it impossible to set aside enough time for rest. In these seasons when people are not able to rest properly, they need not feel guilty, but instead turn to God with hopeful expectation for future rhythms of rest and work. “A Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9), both from an eternal perspective and in this lifetime. Babies get older, start-ups develop institutional capacities, and personal practices of sabbath change even as God’s goodness remains constant.

Rest and Work: Conclusions

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In conclusion, rest is intended to remind people of the inestimable privilege of being created in God’s image. The hallowing of the seventh day is God’s gracious invitation to enjoy an intimate communion with him and to delight in his creation. Yet because of humanity’s sin in the Fall, work, which God originally creates as good, now becomes painful and frustrating.

Even as physical rest is necessity to survive, human limitations point to the need for spiritual rest too. With the exception of those who work in slavery-like conditions, chronic overwork arises from a disbelief in God’s provision and attempts to take matters into human hands. Work addiction has its roots in deep fears and insecurities. Without the drum-beat of constant work, some people may be insecure about future stability, identity, or self-worth.

Into this vicious cycle, Jesus enters as the “lord of the sabbath,” the one who is greater than the sabbath and accomplishes what the sabbath law can never do alone. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection restore peoples’ relationship with God. Once again humanity can work in partnership with God and rest in his presence.

Each individual has the freedom to choose wise rhythms of work and rest for him or herself. Yet ultimately, it is faith in Christ that leads to a deeper spiritual rest. Jesus offers to take each believer’s burdens, and he means it. The God-given identity that Jesus provides for each person who follows him gives Christians both the strength to seek out physical rest and the courage to advocate for the freedom of others. Yes, there is always a future God’s people can hope for with more satisfying work and more pleasant rest. In the meantime, however, Christians can follow God’s lead and throw themselves fully into both work and rest.

Beyond Rank and Power: What Philemon Tells Us About Leadership

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Weighing in at one mighty chapter, Philemon is the shortest book written by Paul and one of the shortest in the entire New Testament.[1] Given its length, that this book made it into the canon seems initially surprising. And yet a glimpse at this short epistle begins to show us why—this little work packs a powerful message. Paul is dealing with issues associated with slavery, a core social institution and reality of the ancient world. In Paul’s dealing with the cultural expectations of slavery, there is far more here than discussion about an ancient institution. Paul also is treating the topic of social roles and the profound change knowing Jesus should make for people. He is engaged in dealing with themes tied to power, rank, justice, and mercy.

Paul writes to Philemon, a slave owner. It is about Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves who had gone missing, apparently by running away, and had ended up with Paul. By all rights, Onesimus was at Philemon’s mercy, given he was the property of the slave owner and had violated all kinds of social rules. How Paul handles this situation reveals not only that Jesus makes a difference, but how that difference impacts leadership and power.

Here is how we will proceed. I set the background of how the letter relates to leadership, work through the letter in sequence, and then draw on points to be made about leadership. I plan to walk through the whole of Philemon before showing how it connects to issues tied to power, rank, and leadership because one needs to see the whole of what Paul is doing to appreciate all that is happening. This is not a piece here and another piece there approach with applications sprinkled in along the way. Paul is reaching for a reconfiguration of how relationships are seen and implemented. The lessons come in not only what he says, but how Paul does it. My treatment develops what the Theology of Work Commentary has to say about mutuality in Philemon going in several directions by looking at the letter’s discussion of fellowship, as well as filling out the commentary’s claim that Paul shuns the use of command in addressing Philemon.[2] This second point is seen in how Paul deals with the issue of Philemon’s social rank.

Philemon: The Background

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Why place Philemon into a discussion on leadership? Some people lead by character. They are seen as leaders by how they do what they do. Others have leadership because of social or corporate rank. Philemon is in the latter category.

This is the first reality that forms the background to the letter and Paul’s decision to write it. As an owner of a slave who had run away, Philemon has social control of the situation. Paul is addressing him as one who has choices and leverage in how the situation is to be handled. It seems likely that both are aware that Onesimus has been found since so little is said about the status of the slave. So the issue is how will Philemon lead given the slave has been found.

Second, there is an “injustice” that the slave has performed against Philemon in the social context of ancient slavery. By running away or seeking Paul’s help in a dispute with Philemon[1], Onesimus has incurred a social and economic debt Paul is going to address in ways that are distinct from the way this situation would normally have been addressed.

Paul’s Way Into a Delicate Discussion (Philemon 1-8)

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Paul’s greeting to Philemon sets the stage for the delicate social negotiation he is about to undertake. Paul opens commending Philemon’s love and faith that leads Paul to pray for Philemon with thanksgiving. The quality of Philemon’s fellowship in faith is the object of Paul’s prayer. The goal of Philemon’s faithful fellowship should be to promote the knowledge of the good that belongs to those who know Christ. Here is faith at work before we discuss how it works with work. Faith has a target, how I engage with other people. The goal is to seek the knowledge of the good, applied in relationships, including social relationships of power. The knowledge here is not mere facts, but a practical, relational good as the rest of the letter is about to show. The Greek word fellowship (koinōnia) really describes a participation, a joint interacting and engagement with others (v. 6).[1] Paul can be hopeful of this result because Philemon’s track record shows he has been a cause of refreshment to the hearts of saints. All of these themes are in the first seven verses before Paul makes a single request. But make no mistake, these are not simply opening remarks or casual comments. They help to lay the foundation for what Paul is going to ask.

Two points emerge about leading from this opening.

First, Paul states a goal of leadership is building quality in relationships. This is the goal of any relationship, the promotion of the knowledge of a practical good where people can work well together. Leadership is about more than accomplishing a task or meeting quotas. How people are treated matters. It is this goal that drives the request to come.

Second, Paul is an encourager in seeking these goals. He instills confidence that Philemon can go where Paul is about to take him, even as the request will require sacrifice of certain rights Philemon has. Paul knows Philemon well enough to know the slave owner can do what he is about to ask. The track record shows Philemon is capable of going in the requested direction.

Paul’s Delicate Request (Philemon 9-25)

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Paul’s way into his request will sacrifice his position of leadership as an example of what he is about to ask. It is easy to miss this move, coming as it does at the start. In vv. 8-9, Paul says he could command what he is about to ask. He could simply play the leader’s card of power and social rank. He says as much in verse 14, when he says he wants Philemon to act not out of compulsion but out of free will. Paul will not act from a place of power and authority. Out of love, versus status, Paul’s appeal will come not as an ambassador nor as an apostle, but as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. In jail, Paul would rather Philemon act out of what is good and right relationally than force Philemon to act.

The request is on behalf of Onesimus. Paul has fun with the slave’s name, which means “useful.”[1] “Useful” had become “useless” to Philemon, having run away, but now he is useful to them both. It is hard to know if Paul’s original assessment is because Onesimus had run away and thus was unable to serve Philemon or if this is his description of him socially and relationally as a slave, being seen only as property. The former seems more likely that the latter, as slaves were of use to their owners when they served in the house.

Paul is sending the slave back to Philemon, even though Paul would prefer to keep Onesimus and let him serve the gospel on Philemon’s behalf. Paul suggests that the consequence of Onesimus’s running away may have been a shift in the slave’s status, since he came to know Christ in the process. Onesimus has gone from being a slave to being a brother. He has gone from being a slave for a time until death comes, to being in relationship with Philemon forever.

So Paul’s request is that Onesimus be received as if it was Paul coming back to him! What a promotion. Onesimus has gone from slave to brother to “apostle” in just a few sentences. Paul’s request is interesting. He says, “If you consider me a partner (koinōnon), receive him as you would me.”[2] Fellowship means partnership. Onesimus may have one status according to the world, but in Jesus there is another way to look on who he is. He is a brother.

There is to be no doubt that part of what drives Paul’s request here is that Philemon and Onesimus share the faith with Paul. Still the idea of looking beyond mere social status to what one is at a human level would be true even if Onesimus had not been a believer. What drives the commandment to love your neighbor, regardless of who they are, enemies included, is surely predicated on the fact all people are made in the image of God.

Philemon may well be asking, “But what of the risk of being taken advantage of, Paul?” Paul is aware of that question and offers a solution as well. He says if Onesimus has wronged Philemon at all, that this should be reckoned to Paul’s account. Paul will cover any damages Onesimus owes. He even writes the letter at this point in his own hand to make the point as personally as possible.[3] Paul does push his point here, noting that Philemon owes Paul his very own self, probably a reference to Paul’s leading him to and nurturing him in the faith. If Philemon will do this, receive Onesimus as a brother, then this will refresh Paul’s heart. Philemon will do for Paul what he had already done for so many others (see v 7).

Paul is not shy in his request as he notes not only that he is confident Philemon will do this, but that he will do even more than what he asks. This is probably an allusion to the idea of sending the slave back to Paul. He then note he hopes to visit Philemon soon, so Philemon is to prepare a room for Paul.

With that said and the request made, Paul gives some final greetings and signs off commending Philemon to Jesus’ grace.

Lessons on Leading

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How does faith change work and leadership? On that question this letter says a lot because it treats how Christ impacts relationships, including relationships that exist in a world of social rank. Social rank shows itself and often controls our assessment of relationships in many spheres: work, home, church, and society at large. Here are some relational dynamics that Paul is focused on Philemon grasping and applying that also carry over into a whole host of contexts.

1. Jesus is a leveler when it comes to rank and social status. Paul asks Philemon to see Onesimus not in the social world’s terms but from within the faith. This changes everything. Paul does not do this once, but three times. The obvious place is where he asks Philemon to consider Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother. However, the second move is where he asks him to receive him as he would Paul, as an apostle. Yet, ironically, the third move is when Paul says he will appeal to Philemon not as an apostle but as a slave of Jesus Christ.

Each one of these appeals has a point. The enhanced status being in Christ gives Onesimus elevates him into a new light. But Paul’s other point is his appeal to Philemon to see the apostle as a slave. This makes the profound observation that we all serve Jesus and any power status we have is very relative. The work we do we do as unto the Lord, serving him. Even apostles serve at the leading and direction of God. This leveling, in both directions, reminds us that behind the rank the world often gives us is our core humanity that makes us all servants of God. We are called in whatever role we have to serve him well. In fact, one can argue that this is the core appeal that Paul is making is here. He is using his stepping back from his authority in humility as the example that sets the stage for what Philemon is being asked to undertake. To say such a perspective is a merely game changer profoundly understates how significant a move this is as the following points show.

2. Leadership ultimately is not primarily about the exercise of power, status, rights, or efficiency but grounds itself in relationships, a participation that leads to the practical good and affirms new potential. The practical good often does involve following through on commitments and doing one’s job with integrity, but it also, as here, can mean being forgiving and honoring the potential a person has to change and become a new person. Paul ultimately is asking Philemon to grant and acknowledge this change in Onesimus. To see him in a new light, a light that Jesus had ignited that made Onesimus a different person than the one who had run away.

3. As a leader, Paul is willing to bear the cost of the sacrifices he asks others to make. It is important that Paul, sensing the loss and cost Philemon is asked to bear, is willing to pay for the loss and make sure some sense of justice is maintained as he asks for leniency and compassion. The debt Paul is willing to bear mirrors a parable Jesus tells, where the Good Samaritan not only rescues the man beaten up on the side of the road, but pays the innkeeper for any debt the man will accrue as the man recovers at the inn. This bearing another’s burden is part of the “participation” or demands of fellowship Paul is contending for in this letter. Of course, the supreme example of bearing such a cost on behalf of another is what Jesus did in dying for our sin and paying our spiritual debt. By injecting himself into the relational equation, Paul also makes himself a participant in this situation, becoming part of the fellowship he is calling for Philemon to display.

4. Good leadership appeals to people to act out of their best choices rather than forcing compulsion. Paul as a leader is not just seeking for Philemon to make a decision here but to do so with an understanding and appreciation for why it is a good decision. He is appealing to Philemon’s free will so that character is developed. Paul is not just interested in a bottom line decision. There is a famous saying that “He who is convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In that scenario, nothing really changes. Any act that comes from mere compulsion often is done once and then left behind because the rationale for it is not really grasped. Once the compulsion is removed the behavior reverts back with no gain for character. Paul wants Philemon to act not because he must but because he should. He wants Philemon to get that profound difference.

5. As a leader, Paul still can place moral pressure on those he asks to make a decision. One of the more interesting features of this letter is how Paul applies “pressure.” There is a (non)use of power. Paul does not do it so much from rank, but he does do it quite intentionally—relationally—by reminding Philemon of the debt he has to Paul. Paul is not appealing as an apostle, but he is appealing to him based on what he has personally done for Philemon. Granted Philemon is well aware of who Paul is, but Paul is approaching him on another level. In effect, Paul is saying, if you appreciate how I have related to you with you as the beneficiary, then you will see how I am asking you to treat another. If you can be the beneficiary of such relationships, you can contribute to others in the same way. That this appeal is at a relational level underscores the entire approach of the letter to build a relationally strong response from Philemon. The approach matches the goal.

One also is reminded that we are to learn from God’s example with us. Such lessons may be behind what Paul is asking for, something a text like Philippians 2:6-11 also teaches. Jesus did not regard deity and thing to be grasped onto but emptied himself into the form of a servant for us, even to the point of dying as an innocent for us. Jesus also tells a parable where a person forgiven a huge debt fails to forgive another a small debt. That forgiven, non-forgiver is rebuked and rejected in the parable for not showing the same forgiveness he had received. Paul is asking for something similar here. If I can serve you to your benefit, Philemon, then you can serve others. If Jesus or I can empty myself for others, so can you.

6. The final point is that at the core of this request to Philemon was a call to live out one’s relationships not by appeal to status, but with an eye to service. If Philemon does what Paul asks, then Paul will be refreshed. If Philemon does more than what Paul asks, then Paul will be served in a way that allows Philemon to participate both in Paul’s ministry and in Onesimus’s service. When we lead out of a concern for building relationship and character, when we are willing to see potential and create space for growth and change in another, and when we are willing to sacrifice in the process, we are serving in our leadership, following not only the model of Paul’s request to Philemon but the example of the Lord. That is faith at work, at work in exemplary and sacrificial service that builds relationships and character. Not only does the leader grow, but so do those he or she leads as he or she models how faith works.

Further Applications for Leadership

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Two applications remain. The first is how Philemon’s rights are (not) handled. Paul does address the injustice by expressing a willingness to make up any debt Philemon incurs. However, in the end, it is interesting how little time is spent with this issue. In many contexts today, this would be the issue to address. The fact Paul spends so little time with this and leads Philemon not to go in this direction is revealing about how recast relationships also shift what becomes important to consider and address.

The second application comes from what we do not know about the impact of the letter. A key element of leadership is being able to learn and deal with confrontation like that Paul just undertook with Philemon. We actually do not know what Philemon did with what Paul said to him. Did he listen and apply the advice or not? We do not know. However, what Paul’s approach shows is that leaders need to be able to learn. What this Scripture urges us to consider is that rank and power are not the key lenses through which to view relationships, even in social contexts where we might have rank. We are especially to consider the relational dynamics that we gain from God and from the example of Jesus when it comes to thinking about the relational dilemmas we often face. This can reconfigure how culture might teach us to react to such events. It gives us other lenses that might be more powerful in helping us grow and in helping others to grow as well. Leaders who truly lead also guide others into being better, not only in the tasks they perform but also in how they do it. When relating is central to how leaders lead, leaders learn and also produce growth both in themselves and in others. That in the end is what Paul calls real fellowship, real relating.

Calling & Vocation (Overview)

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When Christians ask about vocation (or "calling"), we usually mean, “Is God calling me to a particular job, profession or type of work?” This is a significant question, because the work we do is important to God. If work is important, it makes sense to ask what work God wants us to do.

In the Bible, God does indeed call people—some people, at least—to particular work, and gives all people various kinds of guidance for their work. We will explore biblical accounts of these “calls” in depth. Although scripture seldom actually uses the word “call” to describe God's guidance to jobs, occupations, or tasks, these occurrences in the Bible do correspond to what we usually mean by a vocational “calling.” So, as a preliminary answer, we can say “yes,” God does lead people to particular jobs, occupations, and types of work.

But in the Bible, the concept of calling goes deeper than any one aspect of life, such as work. God calls people to become united with himself in every aspect of life. This can only occur as a response to Christ’s call to follow him. The calling to follow Christ lies at the root of every other calling. It is important, however, not to confuse a calling to follow Christ with a calling to become a professional church worker. People in every walk of life are called to follow Christ with equal depth and commitment.

In this article, after exploring the call to follow Christ, we will explore the calling to particular work in light of many of the biblical passages related to calling. We will show how the cooperative work of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit guides and models our work.

Along the way, we will examine related topics such as:

  • how to discern God’s calling or guidance in the area of work
  • the community nature of calling
  • the calling to church vs. non-church work
  • callings to the creative and redemptive work of God beyond the paid workplace
  • the importance of how you work at whatever job you have, and
  • the ultimate freedom that Christians enjoy in their work.


When Christians ask about vocation (or "calling"), we usually mean, “Is God calling me to a particular job, profession or type of work?” This is a significant question, because the work we do is important to God. If work is important, it makes sense to ask what work God wants us to do.

In the Bible, God does indeed call people—some people, at least—to particular work, and gives all people various kinds of guidance for their work. We will explore biblical accounts of these “calls” in depth. Although scripture seldom actually uses the word “call” to describe God's guidance to jobs, occupations, or tasks, these occurrences in the Bible do correspond to what we usually mean by a vocational “calling.” So, as a preliminary answer, we can say “yes,” God does lead people to particular jobs, occupations, and types of work.

But in the Bible, the concept of calling goes deeper than any one aspect of life, such as work. God calls people to become united with himself in every aspect of life. This can only occur as a response to Christ’s call to follow him. The calling to follow Christ lies at the root of every other calling. It is important, however, not to confuse a calling to follow Christ with a calling to become a professional church worker. People in every walk of life are called to follow Christ with equal depth and commitment.

In this article, after exploring the call to follow Christ, we will explore the calling to particular work in light of many of the biblical passages related to calling. We will show how the cooperative work of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit guides and models our work.

Along the way, we will examine related topics such as:

  • how to discern God’s calling or guidance in the area of work
  • the community nature of calling
  • the calling to church vs. non-church work
  • callings to the creative and redemptive work of God beyond the paid workplace
  • the importance of how you work at whatever job you have, and
  • the ultimate freedom that Christians enjoy in their work.

Conclusions About Calling

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Got the Job, but Not the Dream. Now What? (Click Here to Read)

How do you plug your heart and soul into a job that you are just not into, one that is so far removed from what you imagined for yourself, clearly under-utilizing your gifts and capabilities?

We take seriously God’s calling and guiding of people to various kinds of ordinary work. In doing so, we are trying to correct the long-standing tendency to regard ordinary work as unimportant to God and unworthy of his calling. But it would be equally wrong to elevate the importance of your job or profession to a position of idolatry. Getting the right job does not bring salvation, or even happiness. Moreover, the true aim of work for the Christian is to serve the common good, not to advance his or her own interests. Over a lifetime, serving the common good comes far more from doing each day’s work to the best of your ability in Christ, than it does from finding the best job for yourself.

For further exploration

Historical-Theological Perspective

For an historical-theological perspective on vocation at greater length than is possible in this article, see Vocation in Historical-Theological Perspective, by Gordon Preece.

The Legitimacy of Various Professions

Banks, Robert. God the Worker: Journeys into the Mind, Heart and Imagination of God. Sutherland, N.S.W.: Albatross Books, 1992.

Pope John Paul II. On Human Work (Laborem Exercens). Vatican Translation. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1981, especially chapters 6, 9, 10, 21 and 22.

Richardson, Alan. The Biblical Doctrine of Work. London: SCM Press LTD, 1952, especially chapters “Creative Craftsmanship and Skill,” “Work as Divine Ordinance for Man,” and “‘Vocation’ in the New Testament.” Richardson generally takes a dimmer view of ordinary work than this Note does, and his biblical approach reflects a 1940-50s sensibility that seems dated today. However, he compiled an excellent collection of work-related scripture, given the book’s brevity, and his chapters discuss many of the most important faith-work topics. Also, like the Theology of Work Project, he used a process designed to invite wide participation and response, which is incorporated in the published draft. We do not necessarily agree with his conclusions or biblical views, but we find his book highly thought-provoking.

Stevens, R. Paul. Doing God's Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006, especially chapters 1 and 2.

Career Guidance and Discerning Gifts

Banks, Robert. Faith Goes to Work. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999.

Mackenzie, Alistair, Wayne Kirkland and Annette Dunham. Soul Purpose. Christ Church, NZ: NavPress, 2004.

Schuurman, Douglas J. Vocation: Discerning Our Calling in Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.

Schuster, John P. Answering Your Call: A Guide for Living Your Deepest Purpose. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002.

Calling in Christian Thought and Practice

Guinness, Os. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. London: Word Publishing, 1998.

Hardy, Lee. The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Placher, Williams C., ed. Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.

Preece, Gordon R. The Viability of the Vocation Tradition in Trinitarian, Credal and Reformed Perspective: The Threefold Call. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.

Stevens, R. Paul. The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

Volf, Miroslav. Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001.

Competition and Work (Overview)

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Competition is a fact of everyday work. But is it godly for Christians to compete? Or is it something we should try to avoid as much as possible? Should we use whatever influence we have to reduce or even eliminate competition?

We all know how hard it is to succeed in a competitive market, and how we’re constantly tempted to seek our own advantage at others’ expense – the dog-eat-dog model of competition. At the same time, we know competition also has beneficial effects. Phone and airline prices, for example, have been dramatically improved since competition was introduced in those sectors. A neighborhood with only one grocery store will tend to get worse service at higher prices than one with three grocery stores. The pressures of competition are both constructive (encouraging excellence, value creation and accountability to customers) and dangerous (creating temptations to cut corners, deceive customers or disrupt the work of competitors). Competition both destroys and creates wealth and jobs. Competition cultivates both fear and hope.

As we seek a Christian understanding of competition—or of anything else—the Great Commandment (Matthew 22: 37-39) to love God and neighbor is an incomparable touchstone. “Neighbor” includes everyone we interact with, even strangers (Luke 10:25-37) and enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). How about economic competitors? Because I am interacting with them (through my economic activity) they are my neighbors. Yet how can I love them if I am competing with them?

We propose that the solution is to love our competitors by practicing “competition as cooperation.” In this way, we compete not only to serve ourselves, our households and our coworkers but also our customers and even our competitors themselves. This is not natural behavior in a fallen world, but it is possible if we have the right understanding of what “competition” really is, and the moral and spiritual formation necessary to look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).

Competition Can Hurt People and Societies

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The Changing Global Workplace (Video))

Although competition underlies economic choice and its many benefits, competition also lies behind many ills that befall individuals and society. The cause is not competition, per se, but sin entering the realm of competition. One of the primary effects of sin is to cause people to think, foolishly, that their own best interests are in fundamental conflict with their neighbors’ (James 4:1-12). This causes us to compete by trying to harm our competitors—and the people our work is meant to serve—rather than by trying to improve our products. A company may use false advertising to denigrate a competitor. An employee may spread rumors about a rival for promotion. A consultant may bill for more hours than they actually spent on the client’s account.

The Mosaic laws oppose this kind of sin by protecting property rights (Deuteronomy 24:10-15), requiring diligent work (Exodus 20:9) and punishing fraud (Deut. 19:14 and 25:13-16). By contrast, throughout the Old Testament histories and prophetic literature, wicked kings are denounced for accumulating wealth through political appropriation and outright theft (e.g., 1 Kings 21:1-29 and Micah 6:9-16). Greed and tightfistedness, of course, are denounced regardless of context – a theme that is taken up as a central focus in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 12:13-21)–but economic competition, per se, is not identified in any special way as unjust.[1]

Scripture leaves no room for naiveté about the dangers of competition. Consider three passages – from many others that could be selected:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)

‘Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor's boundary marker.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deuteronomy 27:17-19)

Here we see three of the largest among the many temptations created by economic competition:

  • The temptation of selfishness, making our own interests more important to us than the interests of others
  • The temptation of envy, judging our own well-being by comparison with the well-being of others
  • The temptation of greed, breaking the rules of fair play to extract wealth and advantage from others through injustice

These evils are too familiar to need much explanation. They are a matter of daily experience. In a fallen world, we know that people will in fact sometimes yield to these temptations. Many will yield frequently and habitually, creating organized systems of evil. These organized systems of evil are what Scripture often refers to as “the world.” The Lord is at work in the church to empower us for godliness in the face of temptations, and even among the ungodly his grace restrains evil (Romans 2:14-15). However, it is insufficient simply to warn that these temptations exist. We must be aware of the full scope of the fall and the evil of the world, and make our plans accordingly (Ephesians 6:12; 1 John 2:15-16). We require something more than good intentions to restrain ourselves from the temptations toward evil in economic competition.

Church, Don’t Miss the Opportunity of the Global Workplace (Video)

Competition that takes place across the boundaries of nations and people-groups, and the ethical questions it raises, becomes far more complex with globalization. For example, low tariffs generally increase the economic opportunities for workers in poorer countries, while at the same time tending to displace workers in wealthier ones. We hardly have space here to canvass all the specific questions being raised in our time concerning migration, trade restrictions, outsourcing, etc. We can only note that Scripture commends global goodwill (e.g. Leviticus 24:22) and assistance (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10) and also affirms the need for particular communities to cohere in an orderly way (e.g. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). It is in the tension between global goodwill and particular coherence that most of these ethical tensions reside. Ideally, we might hope to assess such tradeoffs from a neutral point of view, but in reality, we always cohere more closely to some groups than to others.

Another vital ethical concern in Scripture is to make a place for those who lose in economic competition, or who cannot compete at all due to incapacity for work. The Old Testament gleaning laws provide a beautiful example of ensuring that the economy always provides opportunity for those who are economically struggling. A portion of agricultural product must be left in the field for poor people to gather, elegantly combining a requirement that the wealthy be generous and a requirement that the poor support themselves through their own work (Leviticus 19:9, Deuteronomy 24:19-22). The system leads to an especially lovely outcome in the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz (Ruth 2). Finding comparable ways to combine these two imperatives in contemporary economic systems is a continuing challenge to which the people of God should diligently apply themselves. Of course, Scripture commands that those who are unable to work be generously cared for. Primary responsibility for this rests in the household, in accordance with God’s concern for the integrity of the family (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:8); but it is also a general duty, and the church in particular has a responsibility to do what it can to take the lead (e.g. 1 John 3:17).

Competition as Cooperation Is the Solution

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We have seen that competition is essential, yet it can also hurt people. The Bible recognizes both of these facts. It accepts—and in places commends—competition. Yet it decries the harm people do one another when they compete unlovingly, and commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). How can we reconcile this seeming contradiction? By engaging in competition as a form of cooperation. Even in the act of competing with others, we must cooperate with them and with society in loving regard for their needs and God’s purposes. In this section we outline how participating in economic competition can be a form of cooperation, and can therefore be a way of loving our neighbors.

We start by recognizing that economics is not only a result of our finitude; it is a result of our relationality. As the Theology of Work Project commentary on Genesis asserts, we are made as relational creatures in the image of our relational God. We are interdependent, cooperative creatures in virtually every respect, including in the world of work. “Economics,” considered from one vantage point, is simply the social and cultural aspect – the relational and cooperative aspect – of work.

Our diversity of needs, preferences and circumstances creates opportunities for mutual love through economic exchange. The things we make or services we perform offer people choices. One person may prefer to love and glorify God and love their neighbor by preparing food for others, and in return receive the means to listen to music on a mobile device. Another person may prefer to love and glorify God and love their neighbor by maintaining computer servers that deliver music to mobile devices, and in turn receive prepared food. Thus, Jane the restaurant worker makes money preparing food and spends it downloading a song from Mary’s company, while Mary the IT professional makes money maintaining servers and spends it ordering lunch at Jane’s restaurant. In other words, we compete not only because we want to make the sale, but also because we want to provide something good for the customer.

The relational aspect of work is the deeper reason it was “not good” (Genesis 2:18) for Adam to be alone. Eve was needed not simply for procreation, but as Adam’s “helper,” his cooperative partner in the work of cultivating and keeping the world. A single person cannot cooperate, and was thus unable to manifest the glory of the triune God, whose persons work in eternal cooperation. As John Bolt puts it:

“It is not good that the man should be alone.” For us to understand this properly, we must set aside for the moment modern notions of companionate marriage. The point is not that Adam was lonely; rather, there is something humanly incomplete about him. If humanity is to image God as the Creator intended, “man” needs the complement of “woman.” Here we have, in nuce, the foundation of all social order. [1]

Many people together – the human community – are able to do the work of cultivating and keeping creation, thus manifesting the relational love that is God.

This is why cooperation is at the heart of God’s will for our work. It is noteworthy that alongside competition, cooperation is a consistent theme in the Theology of Work Project commentaries. A very large number of the modern-day applications suggested by the commentaries are aimed at cultivating better cooperation in workplaces. This is a concern that is supported extensively in Scripture (Psalm 133:1; Proverbs 26:21; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; Philippians 2:1-5; 2 Timothy 2:24).

Loving Our Neighbors Through Competition as Cooperation

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As Christ-followers in a fallen world, we are called to love, and therefore work for the benefit of, our households, customers and communities. In virtually every culture in history, this has involved participating in competitive economic markets. The pride, envy and greed of fallen humanity are all around us at every turn. Yet God is at work in the world, using the legitimate structures of human culture – including competitive markets – to accomplish his purposes. Competition can be, and often is, a form of cooperation in which markets and prices shape the activity of competitors to benefit customers, companies and the public good. We can participate in economic markets in ways that manifest and promote competition as cooperation; this is our most promising strategy for promoting the common good of our communities and resisting the sinful abuse of market structures.

Conflict (Overview)

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Research has not yet begun on this article.

Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly. Most sections of overview articles are also on the website as brief resources in their own right.

Economics & Society (Overview)

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Economics and Society

This article pending publication June 2016.

Ethics at Work (Overview)

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Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly.


Ethics is about knowing and doing what is good or right, and workplace ethics is about knowing and doing what is good or right at work. For the Christian, this means applying the Bible and other resources of the Christian faith to help decide and do what is ethical or moral at work. (In this article, “ethics” and “morality” are used interchangeably.)

Three general approaches to ethics have achieved widespread use both in Christian moral thinking and in the world at large. The approaches are:

  1. Command — What do the rules say is the right way to act?
  2. Consequences — What actions are most likely to bring about the best outcome?
  3. Character — What kind of moral person do I want to be or become?"[1]

What distinguishes Christian ethics is not that it uses different approaches, but that it brings biblical values into each of these approaches. There are biblical commands (also called principles), biblically desired outcomes and biblical character traits (also called virtues) that Christians need to bring into their moral decisions, actions and development.

In developing a Christian ethic, we will consider what help the Bible provides for each of these approaches. Then we’ll explore whether we might need to combine these three in some way to give us a more balanced and integrated approach. Finally, we’ll consider how to live with the reality that our world is fallen, or imperfect, and that there is almost never a perfect solution.

We will be developing a Christian approach to ethics as applied to work, but we will not attempt to give answers to major issues in workplace ethics. Instead, we will develop Christian ethical principles and methods that readers can use to apply the principles to issues and cases.

At this point, we offer you the choice between two different presentations of these approaches. Choose to read either a narrative involving a real-life case study or a more systematic presentation of the different approaches. The systematic approach is briefer and more abstract. The narrative approach is longer and applies the approaches to a real-life situation faced by used car dealer Wayne Kirkland.

Click to continue with a

Systematic Presentation of Ethics

Click to continue with a

Narrative (Case) Presentation of Ethics


Atkinson, David. Pastoral Ethics. Oxford: Lynx, 1994.

Atkinson, David, and David H. Field. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: IVP,1995.

Boulton, Wayne G. and Thomas D. Kennedy and Allen Verhey, eds. From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

Burkett, Larry. Business by the Book. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.

Chewning, Richard C., John W. Eby and Shirley J. Roels. Business Through the Eyes of Faith. London: Apollos, 1992.

Cook, David. Moral Choices: A Way of Exploring Christian Ethics. London: SPCK, 2000.

Farley, Benjamin W. In Praise of Virtue: An Exploration of Biblical Virtues in a Christian Context. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Gardner, E. Clinton. Biblical Faith and Social Ethics. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1960.

Gill, Robin. Churchgoing and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Moral Quest. London: Apollos, 1997.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Vision and Virtue. Notre Dame: Fides/Claretian, 1974.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1975.

Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1981.

Higginson, Richard. Called to Account. Guildford: Eagle, 1993.

Higginson, Richard. Questions of Business Life. UK: Spring Harvest, 2002.

Hill, Alexander. Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.

Hollinger, Dennis P. Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.

Mackenzie, Alistair and Wayne Kirkland. Just Decisions. New Zealand: NavPress NZ, 2008.

Mackenzie, Alistair and Wayne Kirkland. Where’s God on Monday? Christchurch, NZ: NavPress NZ, 2002.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

McLemore, Clinton W. Street Smart Ethics. Louisville/London: WJKP, 2003.

Maxwell, John C. There’s No Such Thing as “Business” Ethics. USA: Warner Books, 2003.

Murdock, Mike. The Businessman’s Topical Bible. Tulsa: Honor Books, 1992.

Murdock, Mike. The Businesswoman’s Topical Bible. Tulsa: Honor Books, 1994.

Nash, Laura. Believers in Business, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994.

Rae, Scott B. and Kenman L. Wong. Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices: An Introduction To Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Sherman, Doug and William Hendricks. Your Work Matters to God. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1987.

Sherman, Doug and William Hendricks. Keeping Your Ethical Edge Sharp. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1990.

Stackhouse, Max L. “The Ten Commandments: Economic Implications” in On Moral Business, Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann and Shirley Roels, eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Stassen, Glen H. and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.

Zigarelli, Michael. Management by Proverbs. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.

    Systematic Presentation of Ethics

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    A Christian view of work is distinctive in the way it insists that human work ultimately derives its meaning from God’s character and purposes. It is who God is and what God does that shape the way we see the world, our place and work in the world, and the values that we take to work. Fundamental to this understanding is recognition that God is at work in the world and we are workers made in the image of God and invited to work as partners in God’s continuing work. We work to further God’s purposes through our work and to reflect God’s character in the way we work. It is our understanding of this reality that injects distinctive Christian perspectives into our view of workplace ethics. But we begin with some more general observations about ethics.

    Narrative (Case) Presentation of Ethics

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    Click here if you would like to return to the beginning of the Ethics and Work article.

    The Case of the Broken Gearbox

    Wayne is a Christian car dealer. Just over twelve months ago, Wayne sold a secondhand Toyota Camry to a customer in good faith. The car had a comprehensive check before sale and was determined to be in above-average condition for its price range. Now, twelve months later, the customer calls Wayne. A problem has recently developed with the automatic transmission. What is Wayne going to do to fix the problem? A long time has elapsed since the sale, but still Wayne is sympathetic to the client’s plight. Should he (Wayne wonders) take responsibility for the problem and carry the cost of fixing the gearbox? In reality, this would mean choosing to accept a financial loss on the Camry. Adding the cost of the repair will make the car more expensive to Wayne than the price he charged for it. Rather than immediately commit himself to a particular course of action, Wayne tells the customer he will get back to him within a day.

    As Wayne puts the phone down a number of different concerns begin swirling through his mind. Who should carry the cost, Wayne or his client? On what basis should Wayne make his decision? And in what ways might his Christian faith influence what he chooses to do?

    1. What commands should a Christian obey?
    2. What consequences should a Christian seek?
    3. What does Christian character call for?

    We will stay with Wayne as he considers each of these approaches.

    Evangelism - Sharing the Gospel at Work (Overview)

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    The suggestion that every Christian is called to share the gospel is unsettling to most Christians, since most of us don’t feel gifted as evangelists. Although it is thrilling to be part of someone’s journey to faith, broaching a spiritual conversation with colleagues at work can arouse no small amount of angst.

    A Workable Definition of Evangelism

    Evangelism is

    the organic process of intentionally engaging

    individuals in their spiritual journey

    joining the Holy Spirit

    watching for where he is already at work

    to help these individuals take one step closer to God

    and new life in Christ,

    becoming the unique reflection of the image of Christ

    as the resurrected, glorified persons God intended.

    Success in evangelism is consistently taking the initiative, using the gifts and opportunities God gives us, to help individuals move one step closer to Christ.

    This might be true of you—and for a lot of understandable reasons. You might feel unprepared to answer the questions you fear colleagues will throw at you. You might feel like broaching spiritual conversations is inappropriate for the workplace—or that’s what you’ve been told. You might feel a bit intimidated by hostile attitudes toward Christianity held by some coworkers. You might think that sharing your faith could create conflict and generate bad feelings with colleagues. You might feel unqualified because—well, you know your faith isn’t very exemplary at work.

    But what if we understood that being part of someone’s journey to faith in Jesus could begin with something as simple as having a cup of coffee with a colleague, encouraging someone who has had a rough week at work, or offering a helping hand to a boss or coworker under stress? What if we truly believed Jesus’ words about sharing the gospel with others?

    • What if we believed that Jesus authorizes us to act on his behalf to fulfill our calling as his witnesses at work that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18)?
    • What if his promise is true that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26)?
    • What if we were confident in Christ’s presence—that he is with us always and everywhere, in every situation (Matthew 28:20)?
    • What if even in brief interactions and casual mentions of our faith, we knew the Holy Spirit was at work in the hearts and minds of people to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8)?
    • What if we knew we didn’t have to be perfect and say just the right things—that it was God’s work to draw people to himself that “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father” (John 6:44)?
    • What if we understood that simply doing a good job at work can turn on the light for coworkers “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16)?

    This is what early Christians believed and how they saw their role in fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations—and it changed the world. It’s the greatest communication success story in human history—how the gospel spread across the Mediterranean world and ultimately to every corner of the earth. Just before his ascension, Jesus outlined his strategic plan for reaching the entire world with the good news of God’s kingdom. He told his followers, And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) First-century disciples embraced this mission, and followers of Jesus grew from a few hundred before the day of Pentecost to over six million by the end of the third century[1]—considerable growth by anyone’s calculus.

    The Mission of Sharing the Gospel

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    We might be tempted to believe that the exponential growth of the early church was the result of effective preaching by Peter, Paul, and a few other gifted communicators whose occupation was spreading the gospel. Or we might credit Paul’s strategy of targeting key cultural centers and planting churches that could share the gospel throughout the surrounding countryside. These efforts were no doubt noteworthy—after all they’re in the Bible [1] —but even more so is the fact that early Christians of every ethnicity, gender, and level of society were passionate about extending Christ’s kingdom. They were determined to “act as Christ’s embassy to a rebel world, whatever the consequences.”[2]

    History and the New Testament tell us that the gospel spread like wildfire along trade routes, in public places, and from house to house—or in Greek, from oikos to oikos. An oikos was the basic social and economic unit of the Greco-Roman world—not just a home where a family lived, but the small business of ancient times that included extended family members, workers, and customers who frequented the place.

    It was through informal conversations within and between oikoi that men and women shared the gospel with friends, relatives, coworkers, colleagues, customers, students, teachers, and fellow soldiers—through their network of workplace relationships. They were not professional clergy but informal evangelists.

    As early as Acts 8 we find that it is not the apostles but the “amateur” missionaries, the men evicted from Jerusalem as a result of the persecution which followed Stephen’s martyrdom, who took the gospel with them wherever they went. … This must not have been formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel; they did it naturally, enthusiastically and with the conviction of those who are not paid to say that sort of thing.[3]

    As a result, the workplace became the most strategic venue for evangelism for the early church.

    Churchgoers Believe in Sharing Faith, Most Never Do

    A study conducted by LifeWay Research found 80 percent of those who attend church one or more times a month, believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but most never do.

    Today, the church of Jesus Christ is experiencing similar exponential growth in the Global South—which raises a question: With over 340,000 churches [4] and more than 600,000 clergy[5], and 75 percent of Americans “looking for ways to live a more meaningful life,”[6] why is the Christian population in the West shrinking while the non-religious population is growing?[7]

    As Western culture moves further away from Christ, we might assume that reaching people with the gospel has become more difficult. In a way this is true. It is certainly harder to get people to visit a church, to listen to a gospel presentation from a stranger, or to attend a crusade. But a door for the gospel remains wide open through personal relationships. In fact, studies show that up to 90 percent of people in a given congregation who come to Christ as adults, do so because of a relationship with one or more Christians outside the four walls of the church.[8] This is what makes the workplace so strategic. It’s where the actual work we do every day can not only contribute to human flourishing, but also give living proof that the gospel really is good news.

    We Are Called to Serve as Christ’s Ambassadors

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    Christians of every era are called to be Christ’s ambassadors. An ambassador is a personal envoy sent from the head of a state. Just as a head of state sends an ambassador on a diplomatic mission, Christ sends us on a mission to represent him in both words and actions.

    We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)

    The job has two aspects—conveying messages from the sovereign and representing the sovereign personally. Conveying messages requires words, but representing the sovereign personally requires more than words. It also takes action, for example by demonstrating the sovereign’s character and acting to accomplish the sovereign’s purposes. As Christ’s ambassadors, we convey Christ’s message of good news and we live in ways that show God’s love for the people we encounter at work and everywhere we go.

    Jesus' words in Acts 1:8 flesh out this picture of being an ambassador. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus does not send his followers to go witnessing, but to be his witnesses. To go witnessing might only mean speaking words about God somewhere away from home, but to be a witness means living a life that shows God’s love wherever we are. In fact, we are never commanded in the Bible to go witnessing. To focus on telling before showing disconnects who we are from what we say—and that’s a problem. Church historian Michael Greene notes that the early church’s impact on the world was dependent on this linkage of the messengers’ lives and their words.

    It was axiomatic that every Christian was called to be a witness to Christ, not only by life but lip.[1]

    The connection between belief and behavior runs right through Christian literature. The two cannot be separated without disastrous results. Among them, the end of effective evangelism.[2]

    Notice the order in Paul’s instructions to the Colossians, how actions precede spiritual conversation.

    Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4:5-6, NIV)

    When we serve other people through our actions, we bring the love of Jesus to them. Evangelism is not as much about bringing people to Jesus but bringing Jesus to people—to show and then tell. Bringing Jesus to people—serving them—was key to Paul’s strategy of bringing people to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 9:19 he says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Paul was willing to reach out to people wherever they felt at home in terms of space, language, or history, not make them accommodate themselves to him.[3]

    Motivation (Overview)

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    This article is currently in development.

    Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly. Most sections of overview articles are also on the website as brief resources in their own right.

    Pay (Overview)

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    Research has not yet begun on this article.

    Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly. Most sections of overview articles are also on the website as brief resources in their own right.

    Relationships at Work (Overview)

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    This article is in development. We expect to complete it in 2014 or 2015.

    Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly. Most sections of overview articles are also on the website as brief resources in their own right.

    The Equipping Church (Overview)

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    Alistair Mackenzie on the Equipping Church (Click to watch)

    The effectiveness of a church’s mission largely depends on its ability to mobilize its people in doing God’s work in the world. The largest force the church has to accomplish its mission is the People of God engaged in the life of the world every day in the course of their daily work. The church’s mission includes bringing people to Christ, guiding their spiritual growth and taking care of their needs. Yet the church’s mission to those beyond its congregation is an even greater need. Our purpose here is to focus on how churches equip their people to make the world beyond the church more like the way God intends the world to be.

    Fortunately, increasing numbers of churches are developing new ways of resourcing and supporting their people for this work. We will describe both the thinking of these equipping churches and the practical strategies they are adopting. We hope that all the resources on the Theology of Work Project website can be of use to churches and workplace Christians in this regard. We welcome churches and individuals to send us materials and evaluations of resources they have tried for incorporation into future Theology of Work Project resources.

    Churches that develop the ability to equip their people for mission in daily work usually find themselves asking the following questions:

    • What is God’s Mission in the World?
    • How does human work connect to God’s work?
    • What does this mean for people in their daily work?
    • How can we equip our people for God’s work in the world?

    What Is God’s Mission in the World?

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    Greg Forster: The Christian Life at Work (Click to watch)

    First of all, God’s mission is to inspire people to work with the materials he provides to bring forth new and good creations and to order the natural world. The world God created is good, and when humans begin to work alongside God in creation, things become ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). Unfortunately, because of the Fall of humanity, the world comes up far short of God’s intent, and the human condition ranges from very good (still, at times) to dismal or worse. Nonetheless, over the entire course of history—concentrated first in the nation of Israel, centered on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and continuing in God’s people today—God gives people the grace to return to him. He heals the World’s brokenness, and he opens the way to fully restore his original intent for the world, including humanity’s role of co-creativity with him. Both the creation of the world and its redemption by God’s grace are therefore the mission of God.

    Christians participate in the mission of God through every activity of life that expresses God’s creativity, sustains God’s creation, and cooperates with God’s redemption. The church—including church-related organizations—is the one body exclusively dedicated to advancing the mission of God, so all Christians are part of the church. Of course, the church itself is not the kingdom of God, and church work is not the only way believers go about the work of advancing God’s kingdom. As Dallas Willard put it, ‘The church is for discipleship, and discipleship is for the world’.[1] Gathered in churches, Christians advance the mission of God through a wide variety of activities. Scattered into an amazing variety of workplaces, we have opportunities to advance the mission of God through daily work in every sphere of society. Anglican Bishop D.T. Niles of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) pointed out that ‘the Church is the only society which exists for the benefit of its non-members’.[2] The church comes into contact with non-members primarily through its people’s daily interactions with people in their places of work.

    The result is that churches do the mission of God themselves, and they equip Christians to do the mission of God in other spheres of life and work. The latter role—equipping Christians for work outside church bodies—is essential, because unless Christians are trained and supported for it, our work is likely to have little positive effect toward God’s mission. Churches that support Christians at work find themselves on a journey in mission. Their focus has expanded from concentrating on what God is doing in the church to include what God is doing in the world. They also help church members gain a glimpse of the God who goes before them into their workday worlds and invites them to operate as partners in God’s work there.

    Among churches that have undergone this shift in perspective, different theological emphases may be seen.

    For some churches, it is an expansion of their existing evangelistic emphasis. They now more deliberately recognise workplaces as a strategic priority in their evangelistic outreach. After all, this is where most people spend the majority of their time and where Christians are most often in close contact with non-Christians.

    For other churches, understanding God’s mission has involved embracing a broader view of mission that involves participation in the creating, sustaining and redeeming work of God the Father, Son and Spirit. Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, for example, has developed a remarkable faith and work programme dedicated to ‘the renaissance of Christian cultural engagement in New York City’. They understand that God’s mission includes ‘culture making,’ in the city at large, in addition to calling people to come to Christ through the church.[3] Churches embracing this understanding of mission are often shaped by the influence of thinkers such as John Stott and Lesslie Newbigin. Stott’s influence has helped some from conservative evangelical backgrounds to add a new concern for serving others and caring for creation through their work, in addition to introducing people to Jesus.[4] Lesslie Newbigin warned churches in the West against separating personal spirituality from the way we live and the issues we address at work and in the community.[5] Miroslav Volf, coming from an eastern European Pentecostal background, adds an emphasis on work in the spirit.[6]

    For some other churches, understanding God’s mission in the world has meant re-thinking their perspective on our destination of salvation. These churches have discovered that salvation in Christ is not the escape of souls from this world, but the transformation of the world to become the kingdom of God on earth (Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, see "A Tale of Two Cities (Revelation 17-22)". This restored world will be brought to fulfilment when Christ returns to earth, and the work we do today contributes to the restoration of the kingdom of God in eternity. Thus, work has an inherent or eternal value on a par with evangelism and worship. Darrell Cosden’s book The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work[7] is a good source for exploring this topic in biblical and theological depth.

    One source that may be useful to churches exploring how to better equip their people for daily work is the Theology of Work Project’s Theological Foundations outline.

    Whole Life Discipleship

    One British church leader describes what is happening in his church this way: ‘This whole-life discipleship stuff is getting under the skin a bit – in our midweek prayer meeting one of our ladies prays for the prosperity of the city, then in the following morning leadership prayer meeting there it is again – we’re praying for businesses in Milton Keynes, for our unemployed to not just find jobs but know where they are called to serve God and fulfill that calling in his strength. Deloitte’s, Ernst and Young, Home, Milton Keynes Job Centre, Santander, Alanod, Accenture, MK Hospital, Bradwell School, BT, Keune & Nagel, Stowe School, Invensys PLC…Lights are on; salt is getting some taste to it!’[8]

    It is encouraging to find these common concerns among church leaders and thinkers from such diverse backgrounds. In spite of many differences, in each case the starting point is the understanding that mission starts with what God has done and is doing, including not only what we do at church, but also our everyday work at our jobs, at home and in voluntary service in the community.

    God’s mission is not primarily about getting people more involved in what churches are doing, but getting churches more involved in what God is doing in the world. It is a shift in emphasis from attracting crowds to church meetings towards equipping and supporting followers of Jesus for their work in the world. This is not to suggest that gathering for worship and church meetings is not still important to these churches. Rather these churches recognise the importance of both gathering Christians together and sending them out to do the work of God in the world. Sending people out has become a more serious attempt to forge stronger links in people’s experience between Sunday and Monday in order to help them become more effective participants in God’s work in the world.

    How Does Human Work Connect to God’s Work?

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    When it comes to answering the question, ‘Does our work matter to God?’ most churches say yes. But they give different answers when it comes to explaining ‘How does our work matter to God?’ For some, work is just about people earning money to support themselves and the work of the church. Others prioritise the importance of evangelism in the workplace. Neither of these approaches sees work as being a spiritual exercise and having intrinsic value. For these people work has only instrumental value, work matters only for what it means in terms of making money and opportunities for evangelism. Others expand on this to include work as a context for serving other people. For example, Christians involved in what are sometimes called ‘helping professions’ (doctors, nurses, social workers, counsellors and teachers) sense that their work matters to God in a way that people involved in most other professions don’t. Most churches seem to affirm the worth of more direct, person-to-person service kinds of work, and words like ‘ministry’ and ‘service’ are often applied to this work. Christians involved in other industries also look for opportunities to help people in their workplaces, but fewer churches affirm the intrinsic value of work outside the helping professions. Perhaps, the term ‘helping professions’ is part of the problem, as it suggests that the other professions—such as business, law, engineering, finance and all the rest—do not help anyone. In reality, all good work is a helping profession. A biblical understanding asserts that all work matters to God and provides an opportunity for people to participate in God’s ongoing creative work, as called for in Genesis 1:26-28.

    A more complete understanding of the meaning of work can be visualised as a three legged stool. Each of the legs represents one of the three great callings we read about in the Bible; the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-38) and the creation calling—or “Cultural Mandate,” as it is often called (Genesis 1:26-28). The Great Commission emphasises the importance of Christians being involved in sharing their faith and making disciples. The Great Commandment emphasises the importance of Christian service, demonstrating love in action. The Cultural Mandate emphasises that our work in itself can be an act of worship and participation in God’s work. It is actually the first of all commandments, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,’ (Genesis 1:28), and the others complement, but do not supersede it. Hence, just as a stool requires all three legs to stand, so an integrated theology of work needs to affirm the importance of witness, service and intrinsic worth, although particular people according to their different giftings or circumstances may emphasise one more than the others. See Theological Foundations and Vocation in Historical-Theological Perspective at for more on a biblical theology of work.

    What Does This Mean for People’s Daily Work?

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    Lunchtime Prayer Triplets

    Work-related Prayer Triplets: People meet in groups of three just for half an hour to pray for each other over breakfast, or lunch, or supper. Ideally they all work in the same organization, or at least in the same field. They pray specifically for each others’ work, workplaces and co-workers.

    An integrated understanding of work from a biblical perspective needs to include a clear sense of Christian vocation, or calling. As Christians we are called first of all to find our identity in our relationship with God. This is our primary calling. We are called to ‘belong’ and to ‘be’ in relationship with God through Jesus, and then we are called to ‘do’ and to follow Jesus in all of life, including our daily work. It is a vocation centred on Jesus and not on the work that we do. At the same time, this is not discipleship divorced from our work, but rather a call to follow Jesus in all our daily activities—house work, voluntary work and church work, as well as employment, are included. Our calling is not just about our job. It is about our whole life’s work, becoming a follower of Jesus in all that we do.

    Business and Faith Aren’t Separate Parts of my Schedule (Click to Watch)

    Just as our calling in Christ guides us in our daily work, applying our faith to our daily work helps us grow spiritually. It is a two-way street. Consider the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. It is important to learn about the fruit at church, but the place we actually develop the fruit may well be our workplace. For example, doing our present job to the best of our ability—even while hoping to find another, better job—helps us develop patience and self-control. For further reading, the books, After You Believe by N.T. Wright[1] and The Callings by Paul Helm[2], explore how daily work contributes to spiritual growth.

    The church has an important ministry of vocational guidance which it needs to rediscover. According to the Bible, this is less about us finding personal fulfilment in our work and more about us finding opportunities for service in our work—finding opportunities to serve God and other people through our work. Work, in Christian perspective, is about service, and churches are being challenged to take much more seriously the support and equipping of all Christians for this ministry in daily life.

    This does away with any notion that clergy do the work of God, while lay people support the clergy by giving money and volunteering at church. Clergy and church leaders do have a unique role, yet lay people in non-church-jobs have an equally important role in God’s mission. Lay people do support clergy and church workers by giving money and volunteering at church, yet this is not the primary way they contribute to God’s mission. This is not a matter of diminishing the role of clergy, but of equipping every person to do all their work as a service to God’s kingdom.

    How Can We Equip Our People for God’s Work in the World?

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    Tim Keller: Forming Fully Christian Workers (Click to Watch)

    How can a church become more effective at equipping its people? The need for a reorientation outward and embarking on a journey in mission has already been identified—so has the need for an understanding of our Christian vocation and calling that includes a new appreciation of the role our daily work can play in the mission of God. It’s also helpful to ask, what does it look like in practice for a church to operate in a way that reflects these changed perspectives and priorities? Churches that have embarked on this journey demonstrate a number of common characteristics.

    Equipping churches:

    • have a vision of God at work where their people work
    • actively hunt for examples and resources
    • connect daily work to worship
    • address the opportunities and challenges their people face at work
    • invest resources in equipping people for daily work
    • create structures to sustain this ministry
    • empower and collaborate with people in the congregation to lead the ministry
    • release and support their people for work outside the church
    • encourage everyone to take responsibility
    • include daily work as part of youth ministry and compassion/outreach/service ministries

    Perhaps this list can provide a useful benchmark against which you can measure, evaluate and envision developments in your own church setting. We will examine some of the issues surrounding each of these developments.

    Conclusions About Equipping Churches

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    Christians in every kind of legitimate work are called to work according to God’s vision for the world. Doing so requires training, support, and encouragement. Most Christians have no place besides their church to be equipped for this work. Many churches do a great job of equipping people for other aspects of the life of faith, and this is vitally important. However, most churches are not yet capable of equipping their people for the workplace.

    There is no single way for a church to become an equipping church. We have provided a glimpse of some methods, techniques, programs and ideas that have been pioneered at churches and workplaces around the world. Hopefully, some of these might be useful at your church too. However, becoming an equipping church does not happen by slapping on a few methods and programs. Instead it takes a deep belief that the daily work of people in all occupations is — or could be — service to God. It takes a commitment to keep trying, practicing, and adapting ways to prepare and support the work of every member. We hope that the resources on the Theology of Work Project website can be of use to churches and workplace Christians in this regard, and we welcome people to send us materials and evaluations of resources they have tried.

    The Meaning and Value of Work

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    The Meaning and Value of Work

    Research has not yet begun on this topic.

    References may be added below:

    1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (see 1 Corinthians and Work)

    Truth, Honesty, and Deception in the Workplace (Overview)

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    Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly.


    Virtually everyone knows that the people of God are supposed to tell the truth. Even though we recognize there are exceptions—protecting the innocent, guarding national security, and a few others—we remember how Jesus described himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), and we understand that truth is the way of life God calls us to.

    But our commitment to truth is often stretched thin in the workplace. Sometimes it seems that it is impossible to succeed at work by telling only the truth. Sometimes it even seems that the workplace is a different realm from the world Jesus inhabited, and that truth is actually out of place at work. Consider the case of Philippe Kahn.

    Philippe Kahn was the head of startup software company Borland International, and needed a break to launch his company. His software was field-tested and ready to market and distribute, and all he needed was an opportunity. But Kahn had no employees (beyond his assistant) and no money to mount an expensive advertising campaign. What he really needed was an ad in the niche magazine Byte. But the ad cost $20,000 that he didn’t have, and he had insufficient collateral for a loan that size. He needed 100% credit for the ad. The only way he knew to get credit like that was to attempt an elaborate bluff, to convince the sales person for Byte that his company was much more of a going concern that it actually was. So he rented office space for the day, hired temporary employees to answer non-existent phone calls, left a folder open that indicated that Byte was far down the list of potential advertisers, and told the salesperson that he didn’t think Byte was the right forum to advertise his product. His intention, as he admitted in a later interview in Inc. magazine, was to make the salesperson believe that his company was strong enough to generate the sales from the ad to repay the loan.[1] And in fact, that is precisely what occurred. The ad sold roughly $150,000 worth of software, Byte got paid, and Borland International was on its way. Clearly, everyone benefitted and no one got hurt.

    Kahn’s strategy raises important questions about truthtelling and deception. It seems clear that Kahn’s intention was to deceive the Byte salesperson. Many in the business community assess actions such as Kahn’s as clever, and would blame the salesperson for not doing his homework on the company before extending the credit.[2] But this scenario strikes many others as unethical. This illustrates some of the nuances that must be explored in coming to a well-reasoned view of truthtelling and disclosure and its application to work.

    In this article, we will first lay a Biblical foundation for truthtelling, establishing it as the prima facie norm for interactions between human beings. Then we will look at exceptions to this norm. We will emphasize why truthtelling is important, both for the believer and for the culture at large. Then we will apply the notion of truthtelling to the workplace and suggest that though truthtelling is a very strong norm, there are times when it is not necessarily required. We will address puffery, white lies, bluffing and occasions when the other party has no right to the truth. Although the vast majority of the believer’s life is spent in pursuing truth, describing the exceptions takes many words, and much of the text of this article is spent in developing their proper limits. The balance of text in an article on truth and deception does not reflect the proper balance of truth and deception in a believer’s life.

    Why Truthtelling Is Important

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    Besides emulating the character of God, truthtelling is critical for a flourishing society. Therefore, except in rare circumstances, God mandates it. Though God’s command would be a sufficient motivation, theologians and philosophers have identified other reasons as well.

    Conclusions About Truth & Deception

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    CEO Don Flow Sums Up Ethics With the Don’t Cringe Rule (Click to Watch)

    Though the majority of the discussion in this paper has been on the exceptions to the norm of truthtelling, this should not be interpreted to mean that truthtelling is not the moral norm. The basic biblical perspective on honesty and deception is to tell the truth and let the consequences fall where they may. The ambiguities enter in when it comes to the exceptions to the norm. The exceptions occur when there is no expectation of the truth (as in puffery and poker), when (in the rare cases) it is clear that everyone knows the rules (as in bluffing), when someone has no right to the information (as in protecting confidential information) and when truthtelling conflicts with other important moral values (as with Corrie Ten Boom and the Nazis). Exceptions to the norm are just that—exceptions that are unusual occurrences. They do not set the pattern for the application of truthtelling in the marketplace.

    Best-selling author James Stewart, in his recently released book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America,[1] has argued for the restoration of truthtelling as an important moral value in society. His point—that honesty is crucial for social cohesion—applies to the marketplace as much as to any element of society. He chronicles the damage done by deception, which, in the case of many of its victims, is ruined lives and financial disaster.

    Truthtelling is a critical moral value for a Christian worldview as well, because Christian identity is in Jesus—the way, the truth and the life. Christians may practice clear exceptions to truthtelling in the ways we have outlined, and at times it may even be our duty to do so. But let us hope that our love of the truth leads us to reduce the territory of exceptions, rather than expand it. People motivated by self-gain will prefer to exploit the advantage they can gain by exaggerating, bluffing, or misleading when the other party expects the truth. People motivated by the coming of the kingdom of God on earth will prefer to serve others by speaking the truth, even when it is not expected. Our favorite question will not be “Is this justifiable,” but “Is this how things will be done when God’s kingdom comes?”

    Key Biblical Texts on Truth & Deception

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    Gen. 3:13 The serpent tricked me.


    Gen. 29:25 Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?


    Gen. 31:20, 26 Jacob deceived Laban . . . “You have deceived me.”


    Lev. 19:11 You shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.


    Job 11:11 Surely he recognizes deceivers . . . (NIV)


    Psalm 32:2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit is no deceit.


    Psalm 101:7 No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house.


    Psalm 120:2 Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.


    Prov. 14:5 A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.


    Isa. 53:9 Although he had done no violence, and there was there any deceit in his mouth.


    Mark 7:21-22 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit. . .


    Rom. 1:29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness . . . full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness. . .


    Rom. 16:18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.


    1 Peter 2:1 Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile.


    Gen. 42:16 . . . in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you.


    Psalm 15:1-3 O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.


    Prov. 12:17 Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully.


    Prov. 12:19 Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.


    Prov. 14:25 A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer.


    Prov. 22:21 . . . to show you what is right and true, so that you may give a true answer.


    John 14:6 I am the way, and the truth, and the life.


    John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.


    John 17:17 Your word is truth.


    1 John 5:6 And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.


    Ex. 20:16/Deut. 5:20 You shall not bear false testimony against your neighbor.


    Psalm 52:3 You love lying more than speaking the truth.


    Prov. 30:8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying.


    Eph. 4:25 So then, putting off falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.


    Job 27:4 My lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit.


    Psalm 10:7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.


    Col. 3:9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off your old self with its practices.


    Titus 1:2 . . . God, who never lies . . .


    Prov. 20:17 Bread gained by deceit is sweet, but afterward the mouth will be full of gravel.


    Gen. 30:33 My honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you.


    Lev. 19:36 You shall have honest scales, honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (see also Deut. 25:15, Prov. 16:11).


    2 Kings 12:15 They did not ask an accounting from those into whose hand they delivered the money to pay out to the workers, for they dealt honestly.


    Prov. 16:13 Righteous lips are the delight of a king.


    Prov. 24:26 One who gives an honest answer gives a kiss on the lips.


    Matthew 5:37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


    What Does the Bible Say About Finance? (Overview)

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    Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly.

    Does finance contribute to the flourishing of society and to serving fellow people? The chairman of the United Kingdom Financial Services Administration argues that significant parts of banking are “socially useless”.[1] Laura Newland, a recent Duke University graduate, in the New York Times bemoans graduates going to work in finance, when they could instead be working to benefit society.[2] Young people wonder whether studying or working in finance is an honorable occupation.

    In this article we will assess the value of finance by drawing from Christian theology—especially the Bible—and from the financial literature and practice. Our conclusion is that finance is not socially useless. In fact, our biblical and theological exploration reveals that God created the foundations of finance and commands us to use finance for social good, specifically for stewardship, justice, and love.

    Stewardship, justice, and love can have many different meanings, so it is important to establish what we mean by them. Stewardship is obedience to God’s mandate to increase his creation from something like a garden to something like a city, all the while remembering it is his. We are to care for it and we will be held accountable as stewards. Justice is treating persons with due respect for their rights as humans, these rights based on the fact that every human is loved by God. Love is caring for another person by seeking to bring about their flourishing as an end in itself, and with due respect for that person as a human. Finance within this framework is an excellent place for a Christian to work and to seek societal renewal and transformation, despite the pervasive impact of sin in finance.

    Our approach is to first reflect on what finance is, how its basic building blocks are created by God and how God enables humans to build the institutions of finance on the foundations he created. We will then consider the effects of the Fall on finance, and in particular whether market-rate finance has a positive role in a fallen world. Then we will weave the biblical themes into a redeemed vision of finance with specifics for finance professionals, borrowers and lenders.

    What Finance Is

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    Finance is that human activity whereby we allocate or exchange resources with respect to time. For the most part this article concerns external exchange—that is, borrowing, lending and investing—rather than allocation of resources within entities. The term “finance” will be used here as shorthand to refer to financial transactions among parties. Financial functions within households and institutions also concern the allocation of resources over time, and by analogy many of the same principles apply. Nonetheless internal finance—budgeting or project planning, for example—does have its own particular circumstances, which this article does not cover.

    Finance occurs, then, when people who want to borrow some resources in a particular time period do so by entering into arrangements with people who have more resources than they currently need. The borrower is willing to pay a price (interest for example) to gain present access to the resources, and the lender wants to make a profit or return in the future from giving up access to the resources at present. Assuming all goes well, the lender benefits the borrower by providing resources at a time the borrower needs it (now), while the borrower benefits the lender by increasing the borrower’s resources in the future. If all goes well, the borrower uses the resources in such a way that both the borrower and lender are better off after the borrowed resources are returned to the lender.

    To put it a bit more formally, finance is that human activity involved in the allocation and exchange of resources with respect to time. As a shorthand, we will use the term “lending” to refer to all forms of making resources available, including debt, equity, derivatives, etc. Thus lenders could be households with deposits at a bank, but could also be, for example, stock investors, private-equity investors, or employees contributing to a pension fund. Similarly, borrowers could be households with bank loans, but could also be, businesses selling stock, households borrowing to purchase a house, or government entities issuing bonds in open markets. In general, we are referring to market-based transactions undertaken in a mutually beneficial voluntary manner.[1] We will not develop a theology regarding non-market types of resource allocation—for example governmental or non-voluntary allocation of resources—which are more properly called “subsidies.” Also, since by “finance” we mean the exchange of resources at one time with the expectation of a reverse exchange of resources later, we are excluding labor markets, markets for goods and services, and the like, which are more properly called “trade.”

    The earliest example may have been lending a hunting instrument to a fellow clansman for a period of time with the understanding that it would be returned later along with part of the kill. Perhaps a somewhat later example would be borrowing seed from a neighbor with the understanding that that amount of seed plus a little extra would be returned at the end of the growing season. Later, when currency was developed, more complex borrowing and lending transactions could be handled more easily. A successful fisher might sell the catch and have a bit of money left afterwards. A farmer could borrow that money, buy seed, grow grain, sell some of the grain crop and repay the fisher’s original money plus some interest. The fisher helps make the farmer successful and vice versa. In this way people benefit each other in ways beyond their personal skills or capabilities. The history of finance is the history of human creativity and social cooperation applied to make the earth’s God-given resources more productive.

    Over the centuries several types of institutions have developed which greatly facilitate this borrowing and lending of resources. Banks, investment banks, mutual funds, microfinance organizations, credit unions and many other organizations have emerged to help borrowers and lenders find each other and to exchange and re-exchange resources to fit the needs of the borrowers and lenders. For example, mutual funds make it possible for people to invest modest amounts of money in an array of stocks and bonds that would be too costly and complex to invest in individually. The contracts or instruments used in finance include debt and equity as well as many hybrids and derivatives designed to suit particular borrower or saver needs.

    God’s Purposes for Finance

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    Finance has a role in God’s purposes for humanity. Three primary purposes of human work revealed in the Bible are to i) reveal God’s glory, ii) engage in stewardship, and iii) provide for justice and love. We will explore each of these shortly. But first, let us note that finance—like all human endeavor—suffers from the profound, devastating effects of sin. For example, greed and dishonesty infect finance in many situations, directly undermining the service of God’s glory, and human stewardship, justice and love. We will explore the effects of sin in detail a bit later. To begin with, let us explore finance according to God’s original purposes for the world, giving us a glimpse of what God intends and what might be possible through Christ’s redemption.

    The Foundations of Finance Are Created by God

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    It was God’s choice to make us in a particular way that enables finance. This is not to say that God created particular institutions or systems of finance, but that people are created in ways that give finance a role in God’s purposes. This concept is critical for our theology. If God did not create the foundations of finance, then finance is a purely human invention that might not have any role in God’s intentions for humanity. If however God did create the foundations of finance, then surely he did that for a purpose, and that purpose must align with his revealed will. We will explore eight foundations of finance to see whether they really do spring from God’s creation.[1]

    Financial Institutions

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    To complete our theological analysis of finance, we need to demonstrate exactly how people can develop financial institutions that bring glory, stewardship, and justice and love from God’s created foundations. By institutions we mean those structures and mechanisms which society uses to organize its activities. The four primary finance institutions are currency, intermediaries, instruments and prices. In this section we explore each of these four institutions, show how they are built on God’s foundations and are a way in which we obediently respond to God through stewardship, justice, and love. Along the way we address several questions which arise.

    Van Duzer argues that institutions may be among the powers and principalities referred to in the Bible and that as such were created by God for good.[1] He infers that Colossians 1:16-17 may be referring to institutions such as business or markets.[2] He quotes Yoder who argues that God created institutions to provide “regularity, system, order” to his creation.[3] Consistent with this we take an optimistic view of finance; a “what was intended by God” view of finance. Later we look at how God’s intentions for finance are impacted by a fallen humanity, and recognize that finance institutions can be, and are, used for great harm in society; exhibiting bad stewardship and lack of justice and love for fellow humans.

    Finance and the Fall

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    Up to this point we have considered finance as God originally intended. But, we know that the Fall of humanity has marred every aspect of creation. Until Christ’s redemption of the world is accomplished, we live in a world shaped by both the good of God’s creation and the evil of the Fall. Sin has severely damaged the ability and propensity of humans to be stewards and to show justice and love through financial markets.

    Several sins are especially damaging to finance. Since finance is fundamentally about allocating resources, the sin of greed has a major impact on finance.[1] Since God did not create us to be omniscient, and since information is important in finance, the sin of lying also causes huge problems in finance. In fact, this greed and lying can seriously impair the ability of finance institutions to do the good they are intended for, and begs the question whether these institutions are so corrupted by sin that they cannot be redeemed.

    British Economist Offers Perspective on Global Crisis (Click to Read)

    In recent history, nothing has been more demonstrative of the fallen nature of finance than the economic recession of 2008. What went wrong? Is there a future for capitalism? How do society and governments move forward? In an interview with Ethix's Al and Nancy Erisman, Lord Brian Griffiths provides a compassionate, hopeful and insightful response to these questions.[7]

    Many authors have explored the problems in finance and their underlying causes. Shiller reminds us that Keynes argued we have a spontaneous urge to action, which he called animal spirits, which causes financial markets to have problems.[2] Stiglitz outlines many of the problems with investment banks (the wholesale financial intermediaries), with a special focus on compensation structures.[3] He argues that “the financial system failed to perform its key roles: managing risk, allocating capital, and keeping transaction cost low.” Terrill argues that a moral breakdown has occurred in investment banking and with consumers, and that we need a soul change to pursue what is “good and right. ” [4] Van Duzer has a chapter detailing how sin impacts markets, including finance.[5] He shows how broken relationships among humans and with God cause many problems in the marketplace. Davis argues that over the past three decades some elements of finance—particularly institutional investing and securitization—have contributed to the waning of organizations which contribute to society and to the rise of a trader mentality which has a shorter term view and can damage society.[6]

    Given the work of these and other writers, we will not expand on the evils that people intentionally commit in finance, such as fraud, deception, violence, racial, ethnic, gender and other biases, and the like. These are much the same as ethical lapses in other fields of work. The article Ethics at Work Overview at gives a framework for ethical reasoning in biblical perspective.

    We are more interested here in how the Fall may limit the ability of finance—in the sense of voluntary, market-rate transactions—to bring stewardship, justice, and love to both borrowers and lenders. Are there situations in which finance must be replaced with some other form of exchange—private or governmental charity in particular—and if so, how extensive are they? In a fallen world is there still scope for finance to fulfill the purposes God intended?

    Redeemed Finance

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    Fidelity and Banking: An Interview With John Gage (Click Here to Read)

    In this interview at the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, banker John Gage discusses how while attending theological seminary he realized that God uses all of us in our various vocations for His mission in the world, and developed a renewed sense of calling to live out a faithful life in the banking industry.

    What would it look like for finance to participate in God’s redemption of the world? God in his grace offered his Son so to that we can be reconciled to him and that his entire creation can be freed from the effects of sin. God’s redeeming grace, operating through people in financial institutions, can redeem finance’s ability to honor God, foster good stewardship, and show justice and love to people. A reminder of what these terms mean may be useful here. Stewardship is obedience to God’s mandate to increase his creation from something like a garden to something like a city, remembering that resources ultimately belong to him. Justice is treating persons with due respect for their rights, which are based on the fact that every human is loved by God. Love is caring for other people by seeking to bring about their flourishing as an end in itself. Using this framework, let us consider some brief examples of redeemed finance in operation.


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    God created the foundations of finance which have led to the development of the financial institutions of currency, intermediaries, instruments, and prices. Ideally, these institutions would make finance work as one of God’s means—among many others—for stewardship, justice, and love. Borrowers and lenders would exchange or share resources over time in ways that grow the resources and help everyone to thrive. However, the Fall has marred finance extensively, as it has every other sphere of God’s creation. In particular, the sins of greed and lying are pervasive in finance and severely cripple our ability to obey God’s plans. Nonetheless, finance still has a positive role to play in God’s redemptive work in the world. Several examples show how finance can be redeemed by God’s grace and can be used for stewardship, justice, and love. Finance professionals, borrowers, and savers/lenders all have the opportunity to participate in finance as a redemptive activity. As followers of Christ, we are called to be redeemed ourselves as we work out the applications of renewed foundations of finance to our own decisions and actions.

    Further work needs to be done to enable us to better understand and honor God’s intentions for finance. First, tighter connections between specific elements of our framework and specific practices need to be developed. Finance professionals, for example, could apply the biblical framework to specific practices in mortgage lending or investment management. Second, we need to better bridge the gap between the redeemed view of finance and the actual fallenness of finance. Although some examples have been given, the thinking, practices, and institutions need to be developed to enable professionals in finance to better honor God’s intended role of finance in society. Third, although the theological framework developed in this article could be adapted to derivatives and insurance, this article does not address those topics. Fourth, we have seen that financial markets do not always enable humans to serve each other, especially the poor, and a full development of the role of finance relative to governments and charitable organizations has not been made. Finally, we have limited ourselves to finance in the sense of exchange between borrowers and lenders (and their equity equivalents) over time. In common usage, finance may also refer to allocation of resources within households or organizations, where no exchange is involved, for example in budgeting, accounting, product design, project planning, and internal financial analysis. Another article on these topics may be warranted.

    What Does the Bible Say About Wealth and Provision? (Overview)

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    God intends for everyone to thrive economically. He wants us to find provision (basic needs) for our daily life. He also desires for us to enjoy the wealth (abundance) of his generosity. Furthermore, God’s world has ample resources to provide all we need. However, in the fallen world we inhabit, many people do not experience God’s abundant provision. Others find their needs are met, but only at great cost (emotional, physical, relational, environmental, moral or spiritual) to themselves and those around them. Then there are still other people who attain significant economic wealth, but this is gained through harming others or themselves. Whatever situation we find ourselves in economically, questions and concerns about God’s intent and role in provision and wealth weigh heavily on almost every Christian’s mind. Such matters are to the fore in the lives of rich and poor; employer, employee and job seeker; student, parent and retiree; homeowner, tenant and homeless person.

    Fortunately, this concern for the economic is matched by the priority it is given in Scripture. Indeed, provision and wealth are far from peripheral issues in the Bible. They occupy a large share of both the Old and New Testaments, and are prominent in the Gospels.

    So what does God’s word have to say to us? In this article we will explore:

    • God’s original intentions for us regarding provision and wealth
    • The impact living in a fallen world has had on our capacity to experience provision and wealth
    • God’s response in redeeming the economic sphere, and our role in this
    • What we can reasonably expect from God in regard to our provision
    • How we should treat any wealth we possess

    Overall, our emphasis is more on God’s intent for how we handle wealth, and less on what it means to depend on God for basic provision. Many who read this article may feel anxious about whether God will provide for their needs, but we guess that for the majority of readers, much of the anxiety is really about whether they will continue to enjoy a high level of wealth—by world standards—rather than basic provision. Basic provision is nonetheless an essential part of the discussion, of course, and we welcome further insight in this area, especially from those whose experience in living with poverty and anxiety about basic provision is greater than ours.

    God’s Original Intentions: Blessing, Provision, Abundance

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    The account of Genesis 1 and 2 makes it clear that God planned for humanity to enjoy the beauty, abundance and fruitfulness of creation. In the idyllic setting of the Garden of Eden, the first humans found a rich, fertile place, and humanity was intended to prosper in every sense. God provides an abundance of resources and means for humans to flourish.

    As the writer of Genesis states early on in the story about the creation of humans, “God blessed them” (Genesis 1:28). The word “blessing” or “blessed” is a central feature of the biblical story. Part of the blessing of relationship with God is very definitely tangible, in-the-hand stuff. And these material blessings are thoroughly integrated with the other benefits of knowing and loving the Creator.

    Later, even in the barrenness of the wilderness, the people of Israel find daily provision from God, in the form of manna (Exodus 16) and water gushing from the rock (Exodus 17). The abundant wealth of God’s creation is discovered further on in the biblical narrative by the people of Israel, when they finally reach the Promised Land. It is a land “flowing with milk and honey,” rich with all the ingredients needed to live according to God’s design. Deuteronomy records the promise made to God’s people in the desert that they would find on earth everything they need to prosper.

    For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing. (Deuteronomy 8:7-9)

    From the beginning, God perfectly provisioned the world for humans to thrive. The good earth yields food when humans exercise their God-given ability to “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). God’s intent is that people would not merely subsist, but have good things in abundance. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). God gives people the capacity to understand the natural world so that we make use of its resources (Genesis 2:20). Human work and ingenuity are more than capable of developing God’s creation to provide abundantly for all people. In partnership with the Creator, we are to make creative use of the resources of the earth, growing and innovating, creating new products, improving on the original. There is more than enough raw material to go around. This is in stark contrast to the principle of scarcity that applies to most goods and materials in post-Eden economics.

    At our best, we humans have cooperated with God amazingly well in developing his creation. Whether it be the development of agriculture and horticulture, the harnessing of coal, oil, gas, wind and water for power generation, the creation of parks, gardens and images of beauty, or the design and building of houses, appliances, clothes and modes of transport, all such developments that enrich our lives are expressions of co-creation. The capacity to innovate, produce and develop is part of what it means to be made in God’s image.

    The Effects of a Fallen World

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    The rebellion of the first humans (Genesis 3) had a catastrophic effect on all of creation—not just their relationship with God, but also their capacity to draw provision and create wealth from the land. The Fall demonstrates that when we break our relationship with God, we create economic problems, along with all sorts of other evil. Because God is the source of blessing, no longer being close to him undermines humanity’s ability to find provision and wealth.

    As a result of the Fall, people began to live under both a curse and a blessing. This had significant implications for work. The land—and therefore its productivity and fruitfulness—is deeply impaired by the breaking of relationship, prompting God to say to Adam:

    Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground… (Genesis 3:17b-19a)

    We may even become unable to draw basic provision from the materials of creation, whether by our own fault, or by the fault of others, or by no one’s fault in particular. Drug abuse, poor work habits, lack of access to education, ill health, concentration of resources in the hands of elites, ethnic discrimination and a myriad of other causes may prevent individuals, families, communities, and entire societies from co-creation with God of the provision they need. In the fallen world we inhabit, God’s original intentions for provision and wealth are disrupted in several notable ways.

    Redeeming the Economic Sphere

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    While it is true that God’s original intention for humanity to enjoy his provision and wealth has been disrupted, the story is not finished. God’s response to the lack of provision and wealth in the world is to redeem the economic sphere so that it again provides what everyone needs.

    The Apostle Paul reminds us in Colossians that

    In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)

    “All things” includes the economic sphere.

    A critical way God brings about this redemption is through the lives of Jesus’ followers. Colossians continues,

    You who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. (Colossians 1:21-22)

    And in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul expands on God’s work in and through us:

    If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

    This reconciliation with God has enormous implications for every aspect of our lives, including economics. Ambassadors, of course, represent their sovereigns’ economic interests, along with all other interests.

    So what might this mean for our role as Christ’s ambassadors and redemptive partners?

    Nehemiah - A Positive Role Model

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    Nehemiah is one biblical character whose attitudes, lifestyle, strategies and priorities work together to change society for the betterment of poor people. As governor of the city of Jerusalem—working for a foreign power—he risks his position to advocate rebuilding of the city walls in order to protect the native (mostly poor) Jewish population. Nehemiah is well rewarded materially for his leadership role. It would have been easy for him just to enjoy the privileges that went with his position. Yet when Nehemiah is approached by a group of Jews who are struggling economically he intervenes to help them. Like many Jews, they had ended up with crippling debt, forfeited their land, even becoming enslaved, because many wealthy people exploited unfair advantages during a tough economic climate. Nehemiah’s response is to publicly denounce the exploiters and challenge them to give back what they had taken. Remarkably they did! Additionally, Nehemiah organizes a relief program for those in distress and institutes long-term financial reforms to ensure those impoverished were able to develop a livelihood again.

    But the most remarkable feature of Nehemiah’s response is a costly, personal change of lifestyle. Having observed how his predecessors and their assistants “laid heavy burdens on the people” and lorded it over them, Nehemiah chooses to reduce his income, live more simply and refuse many of the benefits he was entitled to. To reduce the tax burden on the people, he takes over the expense of 150 Jews, officials and foreigners, serving in his administration. In doing so he expresses a generous hospitality, hosting them daily at his own table (Nehemiah 5:14-19). See "Restoration of the Wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1-7:73)" in “Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther and Work” at for more about Nehemiah’s use of his wealth for the good of the people of Israel.

    Hope and Help in God’s Provision

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    What then, is reasonable to expect from God in regard to provision for our own needs?


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    What then can we say in conclusion about provision and wealth in the Bible?

    If we are wealthy, we are to be grateful and thankful for the blessing of wealth and seek God’s guidance how to handle this wealth without harming ourselves, others or the environment. We are to learn to be content with what we have and as God’s trustees, put our wealth at his disposal through acts of giving, wise investment and responsible spending. Recognizing the dangers of riches, we should ask for God’s grace to not become proud, corrupt, self-sufficient, exploitative or complacent. And perhaps most of all, we are not to imagine that we are especially favored by God.

    If we are poor—or struggling to provide enough for our needs—we are to ask God for guidance and help. Resisting the urge to be overcome by anxiety or despair, we can look for God’s grace to remain generous and joyful, even finding a way to be more content with less than we desire. Most of all, we should ask God for his grace not to imagine we are less valuable to God or are being punished by him.

    If we feel we are neither rich nor poor—just getting by, as it seems—we are to express gratitude for what we have received and ask for God’s guidance how to use it well. Being on the guard for worry, we should rejoice in the opportunity our economic situation provides to trust God daily for our needs. We are called to learn contentment and practice generosity beyond what we feel we can afford. Even when we feel uncertain of our own security, we are called to work for economic justice, though it might seem to threaten our own prospects. Together the practices of thankfulness, contentment, generosity and justice may show us more clearly the difference between what we feel we need and what is truly best for us. Perhaps they will prepare us to trust God’s promises to provide for us.

    Rich, poor or somewhere in-between, we can look forward in confidence to a future where there is no more struggle and none will lack anything. We will live in abundance in the renewed earth. God’s vision for us and for his world will be fulfilled.

    Women Workers in the Old Testament

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    From time immemorial men and women have worked together in whatever enterprise they've found themselves. In the early American colonies women worked at tasks ranging from attorneys to undertakers, from blacksmiths to gunsmiths, from jailers to shipbuilders, from butchers to loggers. Some historians tell us that women ran ferries and operated sawmills and gristmills. They ground eyeglasses and painted houses. Every kind of work done by men was done, at least occasionally, by women. Wives had a good knowledge of their husbands' work and often took over the business, running it successfully when the husband died.

    But with the developing Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, “men's work” and “women's work” became increasingly separated to the point that the Doctrine of Separate Spheres[1] became firmly entrenched in people's thinking. Men and women were considered so different from each other that there could be no overlap in their skills or occupations. Any thought of men and women working side-by-side was out of the question.

    But that was not God's original design. In Genesis 1:26-28 we hear God speaking:

    Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

    So God created humankind in his image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

    God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

    Note that God gave both the man and the woman two tasks: to create families (populating the earth) and to subdue the earth, or more accurately, to be stewards or caretakers of God's creation. Often people assume that the first command about the family was given only to the woman while the second command about stewarding the earth was given only to the man. But that misreads the text. God gave both commands to both the man and the woman. This implies that men should have family responsibilities as well as those in the workplace, and women should have responsibilities in the wider world as well as in the home.

    It is in turning the page to Genesis 2:18 that we get a clearer picture of that original command. Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Earlier in Genesis 2 the man had been placed in a beautiful garden with the assigned task of tilling it and keeping it. In Genesis 2:18 God creates a woman to work alongside the man in the same endeavor.

    God Created Woman as an Ezer Kind of Helper (Genesis 2:18)

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    Many opinions of working women have been shaped by the word in Genesis 2:18, "helper." This word therefore merits some greater attention. Was the woman to be merely a helpful assistant to the man? In our day we use the word “helper” in the sense of a plumber's assistant, handing the boss the right wrench for the job. But that is far from the meaning of the Hebrew word used to describe the first woman.

    God created the woman as an ezer. The word ezer occurs twenty-one times in the Old Testament. In two cases it refers to the first woman, Eve, in Genesis 2. Three times it refers to powerful nations Israel called on for help when besieged. In the sixteen remaining cases the word refers to God as our help. He is the one who comes alongside us in our helplessness. That's the meaning of ezer. Because God is not subordinate to his creatures, any idea that an ezer-helper is inferior is untenable. In his book Man and Woman: One in Christ, Philip Payne puts it this way: "The noun used here [ezer] throughout the Old Testament does not suggest 'helper' as in 'servant,' but help, savior, rescuer, protector as in 'God is our help.' In no other occurrence in the Old Testament does this refer to an inferior, but always to a superior or an equal...'help' expresses that the woman is a help/strength who rescues or saves man."

    While many devout Christians see a woman's function as a subordinate to a man, the word ezer in the original Hebrew overturns that idea. The woman was not created to serve the man, but to serve with the man. Without the woman, the man was only half the story. She was not an afterthought or an optional adjunct to an independent, self-sufficient man. God said in Genesis 2:18 that without her, the man's condition was "not good." God's intention in creating the woman for the man was for the two to be partners in the many tasks involved in stewarding God's creation.

    Genesis 3 and the Birth of Sin

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    While Genesis 1 and 2 show us how God intended human beings to be, Genesis 3 shows us what the man and woman chose to become. You probably know the story about a forbidden tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and about a snake who persuaded the woman that eating its forbidden fruit would make her like God, knowing everything, both good and evil. She was persuaded, and the man standing next to her followed her example. In the instant that they both ate the fruit, everything changed for both of them. The man's work would remain that of tilling the ground, but now he would have to contend with harsh conditions. Part of the woman's punishment was that her desire would be for the man, but he would dominate her. Among the consequences of the Fall, patriarchy was born.

    Patriarchy means male domination of the female. The word describes how societies have been structured from very early in human history. In Genesis 4 we see that polygamy also appeared early, as Lamech boasts to his two wives about his ability to best all opponents. After Adam and Eve left the Garden, wives became collectible property. The accumulation of obscenity and violence meant that, " The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. " (Genesis 6:5).

    Sinful people treat others unjustly. This has been true almost from the beginning of time and it is true today. Both men and women may suffer unjust treatment in the workplace and feel powerless to change their circumstances. But God is aware of the evil that exists in human hearts. He routinely uses human instruments to challenge evil and its perpetrators.

    Shiphrah and Puah: Two Ezer Midwives Defy the King (Exodus 1:8-22)

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    One consequence of the woman's sin was greater pain in childbirth (Genesis 3:16). Enter midwives. Midwives have been part of human experience as long as we have historical records. [1] In Exodus 1 this particularly female vocation takes center stage in a political context. The setting is Egypt where the Hebrew people are mercilessly enslaved, forced to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses with poor materials. "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites." (Exodus 1:12).

    The Pharaoh (king) ordered the midwives to kill all boy babies at birth, but the midwives "feared God" and let the boys live. Jonathan Magonet has called these two midwives "the earliest and in some ways the most powerful examples of resistance to an evil regime." Ordered to carry out genocide, these two brave women risked their lives by disobeying the Pharaoh. They were ezer women in the original meaning of the word, helping those who needed their help. Willing to stand bravely against evil, these women used their professional expertise to aid their people in a time of crisis.

    Sometimes ezer women are called to stand against a powerful evil, or to aid those who are weaker, or both. One of the Hebrew babies saved by the midwives grew up to defy the Pharaoh and deliver the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. We honor Moses as one of the great heroes in Hebrew history, but he survived only because two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, risked their lives when they defied the king's order.

    Sometimes women (and men) in the workplace today find themselves facing an order from a boss that they cannot ethically carry out. Knowing God's will and doing it in such circumstances may cost them their job. But just as God honored the Hebrew midwives, God honors those today who stand up and fight for what is right in the workplace.

    Rahab: Diverse Situations Require Ezer Work (Joshua 2)

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    Sometimes surprising women are called to show up as ezers in unusual situations. Rahab was one of these examples. Here's the back-story. God had used Moses to free the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, and Moses had led this huge band of people for forty years in the desert before they arrived east of Canaan, ready to conquer the Promised Land. By then Moses had died and Joshua took charge of around three million people camped on the east side of the Jordan River, across the water from their destination.

    As the Israelites (the Hebrew people) prepared for battle, their first objective was the important walled city of Jericho. As a wise commander, Joshua sent two spies across the river to find out all they could about the city. Enter the ezer woman named Rahab. Most Bible translations tell us that she was a prostitute, though some think she was merely an innkeeper. Regardless of her profession, she owned a house spanning the double wall surrounding Jericho, a good location from which the two spies could carry out their mission. Joshua 2 recounts their experience there.

    Jericho's king heard about the spies and sent a contingent of soldiers to arrest them. But Rahab hid the spies on her flat roof under stalks of flax drying there. She told the soldiers that the men had come to her, but that they had left, and if the soldiers hurried they would catch up with the spies on the road back to the river. When the coast was clear, Rahab went up on her roof and had a fascinating conversation with the two Israeli spies.

    How is it that a pagan Canaanite prostitute could lie to authorities and still be an ezer woman? The answer lies in her conversation with the two spies in which she said:

    I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond Jordan...whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family (Joshua 2:8-12).

    Rahab had come to believe that the Israelites' Lord was indeed "God in heaven above and on earth below." Turning her back on the gods and goddesses of Canaan and on her loyalty to her own people, she sheltered the spies, saving their lives. She had become a believer in the Lord and was willing to risk her own life to further God's purposes. She used her ezer power to back her new allegiance. Letting the spies slide down a sturdy rope out a window on the outer wall, she sent them safely on their way. You can read the story of God's amazing deliverance of Jericho into Israeli hands in Joshua 6. In the end Rahab and all her family became one with God's people. Whatever she had done in the past became irrelevant as she cast her lot with the God of Israel. God didn't hold her accountable for her past but gave her a new beginning. This isn't the last we hear of Rahab in the Bible. In Matthew 1 we discover her name among the ancestors of Jesus Christ.

    This ezer woman stands before us, witnessing to the possibilities within each of us. Whatever you are, whatever may haunt you from your past, know that God looks, not at that, but at what you can become by faith. God is the God of new beginnings.

    Deborah: An Ezer Woman Equipped to Lead (Judges 4-5)

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    Sometimes God calls a woman to the highest level of leadership in a crisis moment. As the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, they often strayed from faith in the Lord. Human sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and other practices often replaced the worship of the Lord. When this happened, God allowed neighboring nations to conquer Israel. When someone would cry out to God for deliverance, the Lord would raise up a leader to organize a military campaign to throw off the oppressor. We meet Deborah in such a time, when the northern tribes in Israel were cruelly oppressed by King Jabin and his superior military might.

    We first see Deborah in her day-job as judge over all the people of the land. The Bible tells us that Deborah was both a prophet and a judge, a wise woman: "she used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment" (Judges 4:4-5). But hearing about the oppression of the two tribes in the north, Deborah the prophet stepped into a different leadership role. In her hill country safety she could have ignored the plight of the Israelites in the northern flat lands under Jabin's conquest. But an ezer woman who has the ability to come to the aid of the helpless will do so.

    She commanded Barak (a northerner) to raise an army of 10,000 armed men whom God would use to defeat the superior forces of King Jabin. It happened that Jabin had nine hundred iron chariots and Israel had none; Israel's soldiers were seriously outgunned. God had given Deborah the prophet a battle plan, but nervous Barak insisted that Deborah stand by his side during the battle or he wouldn't take on the assignment. Some Christians have the notion that men shouldn't work under a woman's direction, but here Barak and Deborah made a successful team with Deborah as his leader.

    The ragtag Israeli army, camped on the flanks of Mount Tabor, looked down on all those iron chariots with well-equipped archers and swordsmen and knew such a battle was hopeless. But at the right moment, Deborah next to Barak shouted, "Up! The Lord is indeed going out before you!" (Judges 4:14). And as Barak's army moved down the mountain slopes God threw the enemy forces into a panic. The historian Josephus tells us that a sleet storm hit Jabin's army full in the face, blinding the archers, the chariot drivers, and their horses. The rain soon turned the plain into a muddy swamp, trapping the heavy iron chariot wheels in the mud. The nearby trickling brook Kishon overflowed its banks and flooded the land, carrying warriors out to sea in its turbulent waters. Witnessing God's deliverance, Deborah and Barak sang their praise to God: "March on, my soul, with might!" (Judges 5:21).

    In the book of Judges, Deborah is the model leader, equal to the greatest leaders of Israel. No other judge was also called a prophet, indicating how closely Deborah resembles Moses and Joshua. As a prophet she had an unshakable faith in God, which gave her strength to lead her people. She knew that it was the Lord who overcame the enemy. She was merely God's instrument.

    Not every man or woman is called to lead, but every woman is created by God to be an ezer, to come alongside those who are helpless without her aid. Like Deborah, our confidence is in God, not in ourselves. We too can "march on with might" because we do so in the strength of the Lord our God.

    Ruth: The Ezer Daughter-in-Law

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    Women's work takes many forms. Among the women in the Old Testament, some served as midwives, some as either prostitutes or innkeepers, some as prophets, and one as the leader of the nation. But for many women today, as in biblical times, work is primarily within the home. In the sphere of domestic life women make choices every day about how they will carry out their necessary work. Sometimes those choices seem easy; other times they require a strong commitment to go beyond what anyone would normally expect. That was true of a Moabite woman named Ruth.

    The back-story: In the Israeli town of Bethlehem a man named Elimelech inherited land, which he planned to pass on to his sons Mahlon and Kilion. (In the Ancient Near East, property nearly always passed from father to son, never to daughters - with one exception.) Life was good for this family until a famine in Bethlehem sent them fleeing to the neighbor nation, Moab, where food was plentiful. There the two sons married Moabite women. In time the father and both sons died, leaving three widows: Naomi (Elimelech's wife), Ruth, and Orpah. In that culture, Ruth and Orpah were expected to return to their father's house where arrangements for another marriage would be made. This was necessary because a woman could not survive without a man (father, husband, or son) to take care of her.

    When Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem, she urged her two daughters-in-law to return to their fathers’ homes and seek other husbands. Orpah agreed to do so, but Ruth resisted. Instead, she insisted to Naomi: "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16). These are the words of an ezer woman. She had many reasons to follow Orpah's example, but she steadfastly insisted that she would go with Naomi. Israelis hated Moabites, and if she went to Bethlehem she would face prejudice as an immigrant. But Ruth knew that Naomi had no one else to care for her. So together Naomi and Ruth journeyed to an unknown future in Bethlehem.

    Upon arrival, Ruth's first concern was to find food for the two of them. The barley harvest was in full swing, and Ruth became a "gleaner." Outsider or not, her work was cut out for her. Gleaning meant crawling on hands and knees down rows of grain, retrieving any kernels that the harvesters had missed. When the owner of the field (a man named Boaz) saw Ruth’s commitment and heard her story, he determined to add to her pickings. When Naomi heard about the Boaz’s generosity, she developed a daring plan: Ruth, a penniless immigrant, would eventually propose marriage to the rich Israelite owner of a barley plantation!

    The little book of Ruth in the Old Testament can be read through in less than an hour. If you read it, you know that Naomi’s scheme succeeded. When Ruth asked Boaz to "spread your cloak over me, for you are next-of-kin" (Ruth 3:9), he knew a marriage proposal when he heard one. His response: "May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, do not be afraid. I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman."

    The Hebrew word (chayil), here translated “worthy,” really has a much stronger meaning in the Bible. It's a common word, appearing 246 times in the Old Testament. In all but a very few cases it refers to soldiers or armies and is usually translated as “strength” or “valor.” A soldier who refuses to desert his post in the face of danger is a chayil soldier. This is the kind of strength that Ruth brought to her care for Naomi.

    There was, however, a hitch before a wedding could take place: a nearer relative wanted Elimelech's land, and Boaz knew that the other man had the prior claim. But when that fellow found out that Ruth would go with the bargain, he backed out because of complicated inheritance laws which meant a son of his through Ruth could inherit the land for Naomi’s family, rather than for Elimelech’s. After a public arbitration session Boaz was free to marry Ruth. They did have a son, and that son did become Naomi's heir.

    We may smile at these ancient customs, but they point to Ruth's integrity on the job. Her ethnic identity had become secondary to her faith in Naomi's God, which in turn spotlighted her loyalty to her mother-in-law and her willingness to work hard to support them both.

    If you read the little book of Ruth to the end, you know that Ruth and Boaz became the great-grandparents of Israel's greatest king, David. The ezer outsider was now part of God's people in Bethlehem, and like Rahab, this outsider woman also became an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:3). Who could have guessed such an amazing outcome!

    In today's work world, ezer women are sometimes called to cross ethnic barriers in order to do good for the community. That is never easy, but if God is honored, it can lead to unexpected blessing for the woman herself as well as for others touched by ethnic insensitivity.

    Abigail: An Ezer Ranch Wife Saves Her Household From Disaster (1 Samuel 25)

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    Refusing to be hampered by patriarchal strictures, Abigail defied gender roles in order to keep a workplace dispute from escalating to murder and genocide.

    Here's the back-story (found in 1 Samuel 25): The rich rancher Nabal pastured sheep and cattle on unfenced lands. David, on the run from King Saul, voluntarily employed his large band of men to protect Nabal's livestock. The expected reward for this year-long service would be a large gift of food at harvest time. But Nabal scorned David's work and refused to give him anything. In response, David armed four hundred of his men and set out to annihilate Nabal's entire household. When Nabal's wife, Abigail, heard about this, she felt she had to act, even though as a woman and as Nabal’s wife in a patriarchal society, this was beyond the scope permitted her. What could she do?

    Tossing patriarchal structures to the wind and risking her life in the process, Abigail loaded vast amounts of food on donkeys and set out to meet David and his band of warriors. She bowed low to the ground and presented her gifts, hoping that David would accept her apology on behalf of her husband. David was pacified by Abigail’s gifts and judicious words. He and his men accepted the gifts and returned to their mountain lair.

    But on her return home Abigail still faced Nabal's wrath at her disloyalty. Nabal could have disowned her or worse, he could have her killed. But when the rancher heard of David's intention to murder him and all his household, he had a stroke, and ten days later he died.

    As soon as David heard that Nabal was dead, he immediately proposed marriage to Abigail. With her five maids in tow, Abigail mounted her donkey and rode off to become David's wife. That may sound like a fairy-tale ending to Abigail's life, but David already had two other wives, and in time he would marry five more. Patriarchy in some form or another would still rule Abigail's life.

    In today's world, a plucky woman like Abigail could have returned home, taken charge of the ranch, and run it effectively. We don't live in the patriarchal world of the Ancient Near East. But we still deal with patriarchal notions in the workplace, at home, and in all spheres of life. How is an ezer woman to negotiate such an environment? Like Abigail, we can make decisions about how much we're willing to accept and what we choose to change. We work to overturn patriarchy at work and in the larger society, yet know that we might not see the demise of sexism in our lifetime.

    Huldah: A Prophet and Teacher (2 Kings 22)

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    One of the most important but sometimes under-valued professions is that of teacher. We may prosper or fail, depending on the quality of the teachers we've had. For some people everything hangs on the quality of education they receive. In 2 Kings we meet a teacher who had this level of impact not only for one student but for an entire nation.

    To pick up the thread of Old Testament history, David's nemesis, King Saul, died and David succeeded him to the throne. After a long and successful rule, David was followed by his son Solomon. But after Solomon's death, the kingdom began to unravel with fighting between rival kings in the north (Israel) and in the south (Judah). While some of the kings in the next two centuries were faithful to the Lord, most kings forsook Israel's God in favor of pagan worship. As a result the northern kingdom had become so evil that God brought in the Assyrian forces to conquer and disperse the people. In the south, things were only marginally better. Many of Judah’s rulers acted evilly, until one young king with a heart for God came to the throne. His name was Josiah.

    By Josiah’s time God's temple in Jerusalem had been trashed with idol worship, and Josiah ordered a thorough clean-up project in order to return the temple to God. In the process of this renovation, a workman found an ancient manuscript, which he turned over to Hilkiah, the high priest. The king's courtiers couldn't understand this document, but when a part of it was read to the king, he recognized that. God's wrath was about to descend on Judah for all its evil practices. But was there more? Josiah ordered his staff to locate a reliable prophet to explain the complete contents of the scroll.

    Jeremiah was prophesying in Jerusalem at that time (Jeremiah 1:2), as was Zephaniah (Zephaniah 1:1). But the high priest turned not to these male prophets, but to a woman named Huldah living in the Second District, the university district. Scholars believe she was a teacher, and we know from the Bible that she was also a prophet.

    Does it surprise you that the high priest and the king's secretary chose a woman to interpret the manuscript for them? As we listen to her speech to the king and his court (2 Kings 22:14-20), we hear a straight-shooter speaking. She did not mince words. Yes, the nation was headed to destruction. No, this would not happen during Josiah's reign because he honored the Lord God. But his successors would be evil men, and eventually the nation would go into captivity in Babylon.

    Huldah was a true helper (ezer) in that she came to the aid of her king and nation, using her intellectual and spiritual gifts. She helped these leaders understand the Word of the Lord, and as a result Josiah instituted a massive purge of idols from every part of Judah's territory. On the basis of Huldah’s teaching, all those living in Judah were saved from imminent destruction.

    At times women may find their work routine interrupted by a request to step into a different role, one that pushes them to speak for God in a public arena. Huldah's experience challenges women to accept these new opportunities without shying away from them. In the process, they may discover that God uses their gifts in a new way, or gives them new gifts altogether.

    Esther: A Harem Girl Grows Into a Powerful Queen (Esther 4)

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    Esther was a woman who thought she had no influence over her husband or over matters of importance. Yet a desperate situation forced her to into the spotlight, where she realized she had more power than she thought, indeed the power to change the political climate for all the Jews in Persia.

    The conquest of Judah by the Babylonians was soon followed by conquest of Babylon by the Medes and Persians. The biblical book of Esther opens with Jews in the seventy-year exile under the rule of a capricious and despotic Persian king known to historians as Xerxes. The king's right-hand man was Haman, a man more evil even than the king. He hated the Jews and especially a particular Jew named Mordecai. Mordecai's business location was just outside the palace gates, and whenever Haman entered the palace, he had to pass a man who refused to bow to him. Anxious to get rid of this unruly Jew, he concocted plan to rid the kingdom of all Hebrews.

    Meanwhile the king had another problem: his queen, Vashti, had refused his request to display her beauty before a raucous, drunken crowd of men feasting with the king. Such impertinence must be punished, and Vashti was deposed as queen. But who would succeed her? A beauty contest was held to locate the most beautiful virgins in all 127 provinces of Persia, and Mordecai's niece, Esther, was among those brought to the palace to undergo the year-long beauty treatment required before presentation to the king. At the end, Esther finished first in the pageant and was crowned queen of the realm. The one fact about her that remained hidden was that she was a Jew.

    Meanwhile Haman succeeded in convincing Xerxes that every Jew in the Persian Empire should be killed. Due to the intractability of the Law of the Medes and Persians, once Xerxes signed that edict (not knowing that his queen was one of the hated Jews), nothing could overturn it.

    When Esther heard about the decree, she sent word to Mordecai, who responded, " Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:13-14)

    This frightened harem-girl-become-queen could not imagine that she could do anything about the decree, but she finally agreed to go to the king, asserting to Mordecai, "If I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16). Esther had to make a choice. She could continue to conceal her Jewishness and spend the rest of her days as first lady of Xerxes' harem. Or she could take her life in her hands and do what she could to save her people. She came to understand that her high position was not just a privilege to be enjoyed, but a high responsibility to be used to save others. Her people were in peril, and their problem became her problem because she was in the best position to do something about it.

    Even though she trained to be a submissive harem girl, Esther, the ezer woman, found inner strength to take a stand for the sake of others.

    In the short book of Esther you can read the risky actions Esther took to persuade the king to issue a decree giving Jews the right to defend themselves. In the process, the harem queen became a powerful woman. From Chapter 4 through the end of the book, we see a strong ezer woman taking on a villain and dealing politically in ways unprecedented for women in that culture.

    Sometimes as women we deplore the smallness of our challenges and the limits of our influence. We may feel we have limited usefulness to God. But we can remind ourselves that the sovereign God has his hand on our lives and knows what we are able to do. Whatever God is putting into your hands to do today, tomorrow, or next week is never without meaning, never without significance. God has brought you to your present position and place in life: " Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."

    Lady Wisdom and the "Beginning of Wisdom" (Proverbs 1:20-32; 9:10)

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    We may be familiar with the real women and real situations of the Old Testament. But the Bible also calls us to pattern our lives on the values of an "ideal" woman who we meet as soon as we open the book of Proverbs. She is called Lady Wisdom and she "cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice, at the busiest corner she cries out...'the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and live at ease, without dread of disaster" (Proverbs 1:20-21, 32-33).

    The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs contrast Lady Wisdom to a foolish woman. If we want to be wise in the way we live, we're told to listen to Lady Wisdom, not to the woman without maturity or sense.

    Throughout the Bible the concept of wisdom is described as insight that leads to living life well. A wise person uses this combination of acquired knowledge and life experience to make good decisions that lead to positive outcomes. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wisdom as "the capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct." Here wisdom is more than knowledge; it's a prerequisite for a successful life.

    Proverbs 9:10 tells us that to gain wisdom, there is a starting point we can't ignore. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and a knowledge of the Holy One is insight." In order to see how a "fear" of God leads to wisdom, we must first defang the word "fear." The “fear of the Lord” in the Bible is never "fright." It always means living in awe, not only of God's sovereignty, but also of his goodness and mercy. When we live in awe of God, we learn how to be wise. We begin to see life from the vantage point of the eternities. We focus on the long game, not just on the next play.

    The Old Testament gives us many examples of women who made wise decisions because they feared God. Shiphrah and Puah feared God, and that gave them both the wisdom and the courage to defy the Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-21). Rahab took a risk in siding with an opposing army because she became convinced that "The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below" (Joshua 2:11). Deborah knew that it was God who sent a storm that destroyed the enemy’s army (Judges 5:4). Ruth, a pagan Moabite, left her people and emigrated to a foreign land because she embraced the God of her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 1:16). Abigail won over David by reminding him that through her intervention, "the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance" (1 Samuel 25:26). Huldah spoke fearlessly to the king and his courtiers, beginning four times with the words, "Thus says the Lord!" (2 Kings 22:14-20). Esther negotiated peace for her people when she grasped that God had brought her to her royal position "for just such a time as this" (Esther 4:13-14).

    Knowing God is the gateway to a perspective on life that changes our thoughts, our actions and our goals. Indeed, when we know God our whole orientation to life changes. So how do we get to know God? We were not left to guess about this. Jesus came from God, taking on human flesh and blood, to reveal God to us. When Philip asked Jesus to show him and the other disciples "the Father" (God), Jesus replied, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). The apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Colossae, noted that Jesus "is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15). The letter to the Hebrews opens with the statement that Jesus "is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3).

    The invisible God has become visible in Jesus. So if we want to know God we can read the four Gospels and listen to Jesus carefully. From his teachings we learn that God is infinitely patient with us. From his actions we learn that God has a heart for people on the fringes of life. From his life, we learn that God loves us so much he was willing to die for us. Somehow as we see God's mercy and grace acted out before our eyes in the four New Testament gospels, it changes us. We get glimpses of what really matters in life. We become wise.

    Lady Wisdom still cries out in the streets of our cities, calling us to follow a different drummer. That drummer is Jesus, God-in-the-flesh who gives us a different perspective on life, a different drumbeat. When we fall in behind him, his example will reshape our thoughts and actions. If we make paying attention to Jesus a serious pursuit, it will change us completely.

    Lady Wisdom in Street Clothes (Proverbs 31)

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    We met Lady Wisdom in the opening chapters of the book of Proverbs. We also find her in the closing verses of that same book. Proverbs 31:10 asks, "A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels." Has Lady Wisdom been demoted to merely a "capable wife"? Unfortunately most translations from Hebrew into English obscure the implications of the original text. The word translated as "capable" is the Hebrew word chayil, which, as we have seen, means mighty, strong, valiant, and is used in the Old Testament 242 times, usually to describe soldiers or armies. In 2 Samuel 23 we learn that David's "mighty men" were chayil for their courage and strength. Here in Proverbs 31:10 it should read, "A valiant woman who can find? She is far more precious than jewels."

    So what does wisdom look like in the life of this valiant woman? "She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong" (Proverbs 31:17). As an ezer woman, she knows it takes strength to act in wise ways, so she "exercises" her moral and compassionate muscles. Those moral muscles cause five things about her to stand out:

    First, as an ezer chayil woman, she is trustworthy (Prov 31:11-12). Her husband trusts her because he knows that she has his best interests at heart. This extends to women in the workplace today. Do colleagues and bosses know that we have their best interests at heart? If we're not trustworthy, then little else really matters.

    Second, as an ezer chayil woman, she is shrewd (Prov 31:13-18). She chooses her tasks and materials carefully. She thinks ahead, not acting impulsively or at the last minute. She's thoughtful about her work, considering that field carefully, then turning it into a profitable vineyard. She produces "merchandise that is profitable" - items she knows she can sell because they are well made.

    Third, as an ezer chayil woman, she is generous (Prov 31:19-20). While English translations make these two verses look unrelated, the Hebrew language ties them together grammatically, telling us that this woman works (in this case, spinning and weaving) so that she has the means to help the poor and needy.

    Fourth, as an ezer chayil woman, she is diligent (Prov 31:21-25). She provides fully for those in her care (even warm clothes in case of snow in the Middle East!). And she operates a successful cottage industry, making linen garments and sashes to sell.

    Fifth, as an ezer chayil woman, she guards her tongue (Prov 31:26). The text tells us that "she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."

    This is Lady Wisdom in action. In her we see that a wise person is trustworthy, shrewd, generous, diligent, and guards his or her tongue. While wisdom is personified as a woman throughout the book of Proverbs, her wise sayings are for men as well as for women. And though the translators in 31:10 refer to her as a “wife” (probably because the next verses refer to her husband), the Hebrew word is simply the one for “woman. The conclusion of the book of Proverbs makes the concept of wisdom concrete so that we can see what wisdom looks like in action.

    Our trustworthiness, shrewdness, generosity, diligence, and care in speaking are evidences of wisdom. They result from wisdom but they do not replace it. The root cause of wisdom can be found in Proverbs 31:30: "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." The baseline for wisdom lies in our "knowledge of the Holy One," our "fear of the Lord." We stand in awe not only of God's power as sovereign over the cosmos, but also of God's amazing unending love for us. We cannot fathom that God really cares about us. But he does. In his very essence God is love. That love extends to each of us, no matter who we are or what we might have done. This is the gift of the fear of the Lord.

    Our relationship with God gives us a different perspective on life. We know what matters. We know what lasts and what passes away. And we choose to live for what is eternal. We bring that perspective to every choice we make - whether or not to be trustworthy, to plan ahead and work with care, to show compassion, to pursue our goals with diligence, and to control our tongues. We choose whether or not to be wise.

    Ella Wheeler Wilcox in her 1916 poem put it this way:

    One ship sails East, and another West,

    By the self-same winds that blow.

    'Tis the set of the sails, and not the gales

    That tell the way we go.

    Like the winds of the sea are the waves of time,

    As we journey along through life.

    'Tis the set of the soul that determines the goal,

    And not the calm or the strife.

    It's the "set of the soul that determines the goal." Men and women, single or married, can all learn from Proverbs 31. In every part of your life, including your workplace, make it your goal to live wisely in light of what lasts forever. If you do, you will choose to be trustworthy, shrewd, generous, diligent, and in control of your tongue. But even more, you'll know the difference between what passes away and what lasts, and you'll choose to give yourself to what lasts for eternity. That's God's formula for living life with skill.

    When we look back over the women at work in the Old Testament, we see all of them taking the long view, choosing to live for what ultimately matters. That's the choice God also gives each of us every day.

    Women Workers in the New Testament

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    People everywhere have always worked. And when we turn to the New Testament we find women engaged in all kinds of employment. For some it was the work of bearing and rearing children. For others it was bringing aid to folks in need. And for still others it was as businesswomen engaged in profitable enterprises. For many it was some form of ministry for Christ and his kingdom.

    Women Happily Accept Significant Work (Luke 1)

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    When we open the Gospel according to Luke, we immediately meet an elderly woman named Elizabeth, the wife of a Jewish priest, and a young girl named Mary, engaged to marry a carpenter. Barren Elizabeth is now six months pregnant in her old age and will later give birth to John the Baptist. Mary, likely in her early teens, is also pregnant, but uniquely by God’s Spirit, not by sex with any man. After her encounter with God’s angel and her agreement to become the mother of God’s Messiah, Mary journeys on foot the seventy miles from the province of Galilee in the north to the highlands of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth. For both women their pregnancies were supernatural.

    We may not think of bearing and rearing children as “work” and wonder why an article on women in the workplace should begin with two pregnant women. But in both cases, these women were partnering in God’s work to invade a broken and sinful world and reverse the grip of evil on people’s lives. This partnership required real work. There would be physical work in bearing and rearing these special boys, to be sure. But Mary and Elizabeth embraced the prospect of this work joyfully. Mary captured the significance God intended for her work in her song that we call the Magnificat:

    My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-53)

    Giving birth was not the only meaningful work Mary did in her lifetime. She also played a role in Jesus’ adult ministry. Yet the part of her story that inspires us today is how she trusted God’s purposes despite the difficult work it would mean for her.

    Women Make Jesus’ Work Possible (Luke 4:14-19)

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    Jesus, now in his thirties, “filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:14-15). Going throughout Galilee’s cities and villages proclaiming God’s Good News (Luke 4:18-19), “the twelve [male disciples] were with him as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1-3).

    These women, healed in some way by Jesus, were part of that traveling band following the Lord around Galilee. The women’s self-appointed work was to care for Jesus’ physical needs in his travels. Given the patriarchal society of first-century Palestine in which women were most often sequestered, have you ever wondered how these women could travel with Jesus and his followers without creating any hint of scandal? The fact that they had wealth made them benefactors with the freedom to come and go in public without being censured. If you’ve ever wondered how Jesus and his followers could survive for three years without an obvious source of income, look no further than to these wealthy women.

    Jesus’ Teachings Include Women

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    The four gospel accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry contain the mention of more women than virtually any other secular writing of that era. In them we hear Jesus praise women for their faith (the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28; Martha in John 11:26-27) or for their generosity (a poor widow’s gift, Mark 12:43-44). He included them in his teachings (about a woman baking bread, Matthew 13:33; or a woman hunting for a lost coin, Luke 15:8-10). Contrary to custom, he spoke freely to women in public (John 8:10-11) and taught theology to them (Luke 10:39). He entrusted them with the message of the resurrection while the male disciples hid in fear of the Jewish authorities.

    In contrast to some of the disciples, no woman deserted him, betrayed him, or failed to believe his words. Because of their faith, their understanding, and their fidelity, women were often examples to the men. And after his ascension to God’s heaven, these same faithful women were with the men in prayer in an upper room in Jerusalem, waiting for the promise of God’s Spirit to prepare them for ongoing ministry.

    Some folks suggest that because we don’t hear of these women later in the New Testament, they were never more than benefactors to Jesus in his earthly ministry. But neither do we hear of all but two of the disciples in the rest of the New Testament. Yet we know the strong tradition that Thomas went to India as an evangelist and church-planter. We assume that all of them (except the suicide Judas) scattered in every direction, carrying the Gospel of Jesus to the ends of the known earth.

    The book of Acts carries, initially, the work of Peter as leader of the early church in Jerusalem (with the baton soon passed to James, the brother of Jesus, not James the disciple). Then the story picks up with the apostle Paul, working sometimes with Barnabas, sometimes with Silas. And it is here that we find the fascinating stories of women in a variety of professions who became followers of Jesus and ardent workers in the new churches scattered around the Roman Empire.

    This is the true story of five working women, whose original professions were totally diverse, but who ended up in the same surprising position. Our authority for their stories is the apostle Paul. We find their stories in two places: in Luke’s account of the early Christian churches, in particular as he traveled with the apostle Paul, then in the letters of the apostle.

    The Businesswoman Lydia (Acts 16)

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    Our first story is about a woman in the northwest Turkish town of Thyatira, known for its guilds of craftsmen, especially the guild of the professionals knowledgeable in the production and sale of expensive purple dye. Lydia was a member of that guild. We don’t know how it was that a woman had become one of those professionals, but when we first meet her, she had crossed into northeastern Greece and had established her business base in the Roman city of Philippi. As a seller of rare and expensive purple dye, Lydia must have had enough wealth to buy into that franchise.

    We learn in Acts 16 that, while born and reared to believe in the gods and goddesses of Thyatira, Lydia did not worship the pantheon of gods venerated in her hometown. Instead, she had become a “God-fearer.” She had already taken a major step away from her religious upbringing and had investigated Jewish claims of one God and wanted to know more. (Many God-fearers became Jewish proselytes.) We first meet her at Philippi’s riverside with a group of women who had come together there to pray. It was there that Paul and Silas met her and talked with her about Jesus, and there she became the first convert to Christianity in Greece.

    Convinced of the truth of the Christian gospel and believing that it was for everyone, she bore witness to her entire household and with her, they were all baptized. The apostles stayed on with her for several weeks, instructing her and her household in what she needed as a new follower of Jesus. There in her large house she began the first Christian church on Greek soil, welcoming other new believers into the fellowship of faith.

    Lydia was successful both in her professional work and in her social or spiritual work nurturing the nascent Greek church. Most likely the knowledge and connections she cultivated as a trader helped her in her church work, and vise versa. In Lydia we see a woman whose skill and interest is not confined to one limited area. Indeed, we see that both her position in commerce and her knowledge of faith made her uniquely qualified to spearhead the church in Greece.

    The Intellectual Damaris (Acts 17:17)

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    As the apostle Paul continued his ministry in various Greek cities, he ended up one day in the unique city Athens, known for its university and its intellectual climate. In Acts 17 we watch him wandering through the city, astonished by all the idols and shrines to an endless list of gods and goddesses. We read in Acts 17:17 that “he began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion.” Out of that he received an invitation to address the Aereopagus, the leading council of Athens. As he spoke of Jesus, some ridiculed him, but others believed. Among the believers was a woman named Damaris.

    In the culture of that city, women lived sequestered lives. But one group of women was exempt from that. These were the intellectual courtesans, high-class prostitutes attached to rich men in the city. These women were able to hold their own intellectually, carrying on esoteric debates on philosophical subjects. The Bible doesn’t tell us specifically that Damaris was a courtesan, but the fact that she was allowed to be present at Paul’s meeting with the leading men of the city strongly indicates that possibility. Both her freedom to be in public and her ability to follow Paul’s conversation with the leading men enabled her to understand and to embrace the gospel Paul taught. She became one of the new converts to Christianity in the city of Athens.

    New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham tells us that any time we come across the name of someone in the book of Acts or in the apostle’s letters, it’s there because that person had become widely known among the Christian churches as teacher and leader. Because we know Damaris’s name, we also know that she was well-known for ministry in the churches. As an intellectual herself, she had the ability to reach the intelligentsia in Athens.

    If Damaris began her career as a high-class escort and ended it as an evangelist, we might wonder what change this brought to her income, influence, or working conditions. The answers might be lost to history. At the very least we can say that God may lead a woman to change careers, and he certainly entrusts important work to women from a diversity of backgrounds.

    The Businesswoman Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2)

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    The apostle Paul left Athens and moved on to Corinth. This city was radically different from Athens. Located on the narrow neck of land joining a large southern peninsula to the mainland of Greece, Corinth had two ports: one on the west coast on the Adriatic Sea and one on the east coast on the Saronic Gulf. A Roman city (like Philippi) in Greece, it was a bustling commercial city with a very diverse ethnic population and a plethora of temples to every known god or goddess (including Egyptian deities). Once in Corinth Paul settled down for eighteen months, preaching and starting new Christian churches.

    It’s there that we meet Phoebe. While in Corinth Paul had written a long letter to the Christians in the city of Rome, and he needed someone to carry the letter to them. It appears that Phoebe traveled for business purposes and offered to take the letter on her next trip to Rome. So we meet her in Paul’s letter where he describes her to the Christians in Rome:

    I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2)

    Note the two words Paul used to describe her. In the church she was, first, a deacon, a term Paul uses for only five people in his letters: himself, Tychicus, Epaphras, Timothy, and Phoebe. Whatever he and the other three men were doing as deacons, we can assume that Phoebe was also doing in the churches.

    But Paul then uses a second word to describe her. Our translation (NRSV) calls her a “benefactor,” but the Greek word in Paul’s letter was prostatis. According to the lexicographer Thayer, the first meaning of that word was “a woman set over others.” The Greek word was in the feminine form of the masculine word prostates, usually translated leader. It referred to “one who preaches, teaches, and presides at the Lord’s Table.” Obviously Phoebe, the business woman was more than merely a benefactor. She was a leader of the church in Cenchreae.

    Like the businesswoman Lydia, Phoebe used her wealth and influence to grow the Christian church. She even leveraged a business trip to spread the gospel. But she didn’t just carry a man’s message. Phoebe was a church leader in her own right. Today, women are often denied equal responsibility both in businesses and in churches. However, this was not the precedent set by the earliest Christian churches.

    The Tentmaker Priscilla (Acts 18:2)

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    In Corinth Paul needed a means to support himself, and fortunately, he had a trade: he made leather tents for the Roman government and private parties who ordered them. Once in Corinth, he collaborated with a couple who also made leather tents: Priscilla and Aquila. (The Roman government required leather tents for housing its military on bases all over the empire. A canvas tent would not do, especially in northern climates. Furthermore, Paul could carry with him the few tools for leatherwork, but would not have been able to carry necessary equipment for working with canvas. Canvas was usually used for boat sails.)

    While scholars believe that Priscilla was a Gentile (and from the Roman aristocracy), she had married Aquila, a Jew from the Turkish province of Pontus. They lived in Rome and were part of the folks who worked with the apostle Peter in his evangelism there. But the Roman emperor (around 51-52 A.D.) ordered that all Jews be expelled from Rome. Corinth was the nearest major city outside Italy, so as refugees, they had settled there. And there they connected with the apostle Paul.

    This tentmaking couple became so valuable to the apostle Paul that when he left Corinth to begin missionary work in Ephesus, he took Priscilla and Aquila with him. This couple is mentioned six times in the New Testament, and in all but one case, Priscilla’s name is given first. This wasn’t simply a matter of courtesy in the first century; it indicated her primacy in their work together. Eventually, when the exile of Jews from Rome was lifted, they returned to their home in the capital city and once again became active in starting new churches there.

    Priscilla is often thought of as a tentmaker, but clearly she was many other things in her lifetime too: a businesswoman, a refugee, a traveling evangelist, and a church planter. While we often hear stories about complex men in the Bible, in Priscilla we see that women too are multitalented, multifaceted, and capable of working in a variety of different environments.

    The Jewish Palace Insider and Benefactor Junia (Romans 16:7)

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    Biblical scholars have puzzled over the years about Paul’s reference in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Who were these folks? Paul was clear that they were related to him, that they had shared prison time with him, they were prominent apostles, and they had become believers before he had. Who could fill that bill?

    That points to someone who was Jewish, had known Jesus in his earthly ministry (the requirement for the title apostle), and had signed on as a Jesus-follower before Paul himself. Now they were in Rome.

    In his book Gospel Women, noted biblical scholar Richard Bauckham untangles the knots in this mystery for us, starting with one of the women healed by Jesus, mentioned in Luke 8:3. She was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the business manager for king Herod Antipas. It turns out that the name Joanna is the Hebrew equivalent of the Roman name Junia. Could Joanna in the gospels be the same person as the apostle Junia? Look at some of the possible clues leading to that conclusion.

    The name Chuza is not a Jewish name, and he is thought to have been Nabatean (King Herod Antipas had other connections to the Nabatean royal family). But as the king’s finance minister living in the new Roman-style palace in the royal city of Tiberias, he needed a Jewish wife connected to a wealthy Jewish family. Enter young Joanna (probably just entering puberty when she was married to the much older, mature man, Chuza). While king Herod Antipas had some Jewish blood, his kingship depended on Rome, so palace life in Tiberias followed Roman practices. Joanna would likely have been given a Roman name (Junia) and would have been formed in Roman ways of acting and thinking.

    We first meet Joanna in the Bible, however, not as part of the royal household, but as a woman in need of healing. Luke tells us that after Jesus healed her, she became part of his traveling band of women caring for the physical needs of the Savior. In short, she became one of his benefactors, providing funds for the support of his group.

    What the Bible does not tell us is whether or not Chuza had died and Joanna was widowed, but scholars surmise this likely was the case (given the probable disparity in their ages). Nor does the Bible tell us that in traveling with Jesus’ band, she might eventually have remarried, becoming the wife of Andrew, one of Jesus’s disciples. If, however, this was the case, it would answer to all of the clues given in Paul’s greeting to this couple in Romans 16:6. We know that Peter first carried the Gospel to Rome, and to bring along his brother and fellow disciple, Andrew, is logical. So as Paul’s letter to the Romans was read to the assembled Christians, he addressed this apostolic pair by their Roman names – Andronicus and Junia.

    Paul doesn’t tell us that back in Palestine they had been Andrew and Joanna, but all of his clues fit that possibility.

    Pinpointing the identity of Junia leads us through some fascinating detective work. It is unfortunate though that we often have to struggle to uncover the significant work of women throughout history. In all fields of human achievement, the contributions of women have often been either swept under the rug, or ascribed to males whom we see as more likely sources of innovation, intelligence, or heroism. Women still struggle to be acknowledged for their work. And yet, God has always seen the value of women workers. Throughout the New Testament God chose women as well as men to understand his message and to work for his purposes.

    Conclusions About Women Workers in the New Testament

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    Women as well as men were leaders in those first-century churches. That practice was a radical departure from pagan philosophical notions accepted at that time. So the wider culture began pushing back against women leaders in the churches. Centuries earlier, Aristotle had taught that a woman was a “failed male” with a “flawed anatomy.” She should not lead. One by one, the later Church Fathers imbibed Aristotle’s idea and began closing the door to leadership for women. By the third century, women were effectively locked out of any kind of Christian leadership.

    But that did not stamp out the first-century vision of men and women working side-by-side in ministry. We have their record in the New Testament, in the stories of Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Damaris, Phoebe, Pricilla, and Junia. From these stories we can reconstruct a history of women working both in the church and in the marketplace for God’s purposes. Thanks be to God.

    Work & Life (Overview)

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    This is scheduled for production in 2014 or 2015.

    Note: "Overview" articles are full-length explorations of major topics in the theology of work. If you're interested in a specific aspect of the topic, the table of contents can help you jump there quickly. Most sections of overview articles are also on the website as brief resources in their own right.