In the course of an extended argument beginning in chapter 8 on an issue of critical importance to believers in Corinth—the propriety of eating meat that had previously been offered to idols—Paul articulates a broad principle concerning the use of the earth’s resources. He says, quoting Psalm 24:1, “The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s” (1 Cor. 10:26). That is, because everything comes from God, any food may be eaten irrespective of its previous use for pagan cultic purposes. (In a Roman city, much of the meat sold in the market would have been offered to idols in the course of its preparation.) There are two aspects of this principle that apply to work.
First, we may extend Paul’s logic to conclude that believers may use all that the earth produces, including food, clothing, manufactured goods, and energy. However, Paul sets a sharp limit to this use. If our use harms another person, then we should refrain. If the context of a dinner party at which meat offered to idols is the issue, then another person’s conscience may be the reason we need to refrain from eating it. If the context is worker safety, resource scarcity, or environmental degradation, then the well-being of today’s workers, the access to resources by today’s poor, and the living conditions of tomorrow’s population may be the reasons we refrain from consuming certain items. Since God is the owner of the earth and its fullness, the use we make of the earth must be in line with his purposes.
Second, we are expected to engage in commerce with nonbelievers, as we have already seen from 1 Corinthians 5:9–10. If Christians were buying meat only from Christian butchers, or even from Jews, then of course there would have been no reason to worry whether it had been offered to idols. But Paul asserts that believers are to engage in commerce with society at large. (The concerns in chapter 8 also assume that Christians will engage in social relationships with nonbelievers, although that is not our topic here.) Christians are not called to withdraw from society but to engage society, including society’s places of work. As noted earlier, Paul discusses the limits to this engagement in 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 (see “Working with Nonbelievers” in 2 Corinthians).
“Therefore, whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God,” says Paul (1 Cor. 10:31). This verse by no means legitimates every conceivable activity. It should not be construed to mean that absolutely anything could be done in a way that brings glory to God. Paul’s point is that we have to discern whether our actions—including work—are consistent with God’s purposes in the world. The criterion is not whether we associate with nonbelievers, whether we use materials that could be used for ill by others, whether we deal with people who are not friends with God, but whether the work we do contributes to God’s purposes. If so, then whatever we do will indeed be done for the glory of God.
The upshot is that all vocations that add genuine value to God’s created world in a way that benefits humanity are true callings that bring God glory. The farmer and grocery clerk, the manufacturer and the emissions regulator, the parent and the teacher, the voter and the governor can enjoy the satisfaction of serving in God’s plan for his creation.
Hans Conzelman, 1 Corinthians, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 176, incl. nn. 11–13.