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A Bible Scholar’s Perspective on Reading the Bible with Workplace Eyes

Article / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
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Sean McDonough, Professor of New Testament, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, gives a Biblical Scholar's Perspective on reading the Bible with workplace eyes.

Few things occupy our attention as much as work. It stands to reason that the Bible would address this crucial aspect of life. And so it does. But the Bible does not have a Book of Labor where all God’s instruction about human work can be quickly found and easily understood. Passages about work are strewn throughout the Scriptures like fish in the sea – they can be difficult to find, and hard to hold onto once you find them.

The writers for the Theology of Work project have done their best to remedy the first problem by assembling all the texts we deemed relevant to labor in a set of articles covering all the books of the Bible. We have also tried to explain how those passages contribute to our understanding of work. But thoughtful readers of the Bible will still ask, “How can I take this wisdom of long ago into my workplace of today?” This brief article is designed to give the beginnings of an answer to that question.

Who Reads?

The first step in answering it is to remember that the disposition of the reader is critical. If we come to the Scriptures with an attitude of trust in God and a willingness to follow him in the paths he prescribes, we can be confident that through his Spirit, we can make progress in understanding how to honor Him in our work. All the “how to’s” in the world are no substitute for a disposition of faith in the reader of Scripture.

And we should not imagine that meditating on the Scripture is solely an individual affair. God wants us to be members of a living community of faith. “In a multitude of counselors there is safety”, the Proverbs say, and this is nowhere more true than in our study of Scripture. Friends and pastors and teachers can help us grow in knowing how to apply the Bible to work.

Reading with Care

We cannot provide a complete guide to how to read the Bible in such a brief space. But there is one overarching principle we can hold out: we need to respect not only what God says in the Bible, but also how He said it. God chose to speak through people in different lands and different cultures, all of whom lived a long time ago. It takes careful reflection to discern just what He is getting at in a particular text of Scripture.

Sometimes this can seem like scholarly nit-picking: why can’t we just pick up the Bible and read it without all this history and archaeology and theology? There is certainly some truth to this. It does not take a trained theologian to understand the basic sense of “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Do not commit adultery”. But if we do not respect the differences between our times and the times in which the Bible was written, we run the risk of reading our own ideas into the Bible and moving ahead as if our word were God’s word.

The good news is that the single most important tool for applying the Bible to work is one you already possess: common sense. Commentaries and guides are important, but the first and last task of the Bible reader is this: to pay careful attention to the Word in front of them. What does the author seem to be getting at here? How does it relate to what has been said before, and what gets said after? Reading the Bible is much like listening to a friend or a spouse – you need to set aside yourself for a while and listen to someone else. Like much else in life, this principle is easy to learn, but difficult to practice.

The World We Work In

Few people would begin a long automobile journey without first starting up their GPS or consulting a map. In the same way, before we can understand what the Bible says about calling or work-life balance or economic injustice, we need an orientation to the world we work in.

From the very first chapters in Genesis, God gives us insight into this big picture. We learn that He has created the world, and called his creation “very good”. We learn that He commissioned human beings to be stewards of the world, to develop it and to adorn it with the work they do day by day. Many of the Psalms celebrate the ongoing goodness of God’s “creation project” and our role in it. Yet Genesis also informs us of the rupture of the relationship between God and humanity, a tragic fall that bruised every aspect of human life and labor. Work is tinged with futility; from dust we are taken, and to dust we return, and our work with us. Against such a backdrop, it is no surprise that our everyday work can seem such a strange mix of blessing and curse, joy and sorrow.

Nor should it surprise us that when God begins to reclaim humanity and set the creation project back on the rails, work is of central concern. God liberates his people Israel from an oppressive work situation in Egypt so that they might serve him in every aspect of life in the land he gives them. In the law, he gives them guidelines for building a community which might show the world how life is really meant to be lived. Much of that law was directly related to workplace realities: building codes and farm animal regulations and laws concerning equal access to goods and services.

When Jesus comes as the ultimate expression of how people were meant to live, he comes working: first in the trades, and then in the labor of teaching and healing. He culminates his work in his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. There he frees us from the tyranny of sin, and sends us his spirit that we might serve God in every sphere of life.

How We Work

Commands about Work

The Bible is much more than a book of “do’s” and “don’ts”. But the Bible does in fact have some pretty direct instruction about proper and improper behavior in the workplace, and it is a sensible place to start thinking practically about how to apply the Scriptures to work.

In many cases the commands about work in the Bible are pretty straightforward. God tells Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it”, and he never takes that command away. We can have fruitful discussions about the details of this text. For instance, we could ask precisely what “subdue” means here: some might prefer to interpret it as “nurture” or “care for”. But the basic message is clear -- work is a part of God’s good design for people – and it is equally clear that this applies to people in general and not just to Adam and Eve.

Likewise, when Paul tells the Christians in Colossae, “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart as unto the Lord”, there’s not much ambiguity in what he says, and there is no hint that he meant this as an instruction just for a certain group of people at a certain time. The challenge is not understanding his statement or figuring out whether it applies to us; the challenge is actually doing whatever we do with all our heart as unto the Lord.

Things in Scripture are not always so clear. Proverbs provides wonderfully pithy and memorable statements about how to live wisely in the world, and many of them concern our work. It’s hard to miss the humor, or the point, of Proverbs 22:13: “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets!’”. But a master teacher is not always going to be easy on his students: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself,” we read in Proverbs 26:5. But the very next verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” So which is it? We are left to puzzle it out for ourselves. It may be that there are times when it is fitting to do the one, and times when it is fitting to do the other; the wise person will know when to do which. But Proverbs will not simply hand us the answer.

Perhaps no work-related commands are trickier to manage than those found in the law of Moses. Paul says in Galatians “we are no longer under the law” (5:18), and some Christians conclude from this that the law (and in fact the Old Testament as a whole) therefore has nothing to say to them. It is true that many of the specific commands of the law have reached their goal in Christ. The most obvious examples are those related to the Old Testament sacrificial systems. We do not sacrifice bulls and goats for our sins now because they were pointing to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. Some specific laws about regulating mildew in the nation of Israel likewise do not apply directly to present day Christians.

This hardly means, though, that the injunctions of the law are of no value to Christians as they think about work. The law represents God’s wisdom for Israel, and his commands are no less wise even if the specific situations that gave rise to them might no longer be in place. Paul himself regularly drew on the law to guide Christians in their conduct, and we may do so as well. We simply need to glean the principle driving a given precept, and see how that might inform practical realities in today’s world.

To take just one example, Israelites were enjoined to build guardrails on their (flat) rooftops, since the roofs might be used for sleeping, and God did not want a slumbering friend or relative to tumble off to their doom in the middle of the night. It is not hard to see the relevance of this for the world of work. Many countries now have detailed codes for keeping workplaces safe; but a Christian business owner who is looking to love her neighbor as herself has clear Biblical encouragement for taking practical steps to ensure the safety of those in her employ.

Good (and Bad) Examples

More is caught than taught, they say; and they are correct. No one ever became a great basketball player just by memorizing a list of rules – you learn by watching, imitating, and innovating. So it is with the Christian life. The Scriptures hold forth numerous examples of both good and bad workers. The question, “What would Jesus do?” was in essence guiding believers long before Charles Sheldon published his popular novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? in 1897 (and it is worth remembering that much of that book is devoted to how believers could imitate Jesus in their workplaces).

Not everything in Scripture, of course, is there primarily as an example of precisely what we ought to do with our lives. Jesus was involved in some sort of carpentry or masonry work during his life, but that doesn’t mean “following Jesus” must therefore involve stone or wood work. How then can we tell when something is intended as an example? As always, we will need to listen carefully to what the passage itself seems to be saying. If there are clear signs in the text that a given person is deserving of praise or blame, we have warrant to think about how those praiseworthy or blameworthy traits might play out in the contemporary workplace.

Perhaps the most useful places to find Scriptural models for work are those passages which give us an extended portrayal of a character. The best examples here are the gospel portraits of Jesus. We see God’s own Son incarnate and in action, working hard to further God’s kingdom through teaching, healing, exorcism, feeding, and a host of other activities. We may not do exactly the things Jesus does, but we can trust that he is providing us of a model of how to go about our business.

There are other examples as well. In the Old Testament, the stories of Joseph and Daniel can be of particular encouragement for Christians in “secular” workplaces. These commendable men held the highest positions in decidedly pagan nations, and they did their work with distinction, maintaining their faith in God throughout. On the other side of the ledger, King Saul’s career arc is a sad fade towards oblivion, and we can learn some sobering lessons watching him work poorly (especially later in his life). The grand-standing acts of conquest, the bullying and mistrust of capable subordinates, the botched succession planning: Saul becomes a tragic object lesson in bad management.

Character

As much as we can learn from the characters of the Bible, the Bible teaches us even more about the character of the person who brings honor to God in their work. The world and its work keep changing, and it is no wonder that the Bible does not give us the specific directives we sometimes want concerning what to do or where to do it. But the virtues of honesty and diligence and trust are never made redundant, and the Bible instructs us in cultivating these virtues at every turn. Thus biblical instruction about living as God would call us to live can be applied in the workplace. Life and work are not separate, but rather work is a part of a whole life. When Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your father who is in heaven” he is not limiting this to life at church or in the family. It is the whole of life, including our work. When Paul says to Titus, “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good,…” (3:14) this also applies to our daily work.

Conclusion

Through exhortation and example, God seeks to create a people who will bear his image and display his glory in all the creation, at work and at play. His transforming grace works powerfully in us through the Spirit, and the Spirit-inspired word shows us how this new life is to be lived out in the world.

The Psalmist says that God’s word is a light to his path. Much of our path lies in labor; we may be grateful that his light shines there as well. Every blessing as you attend to his word.

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