Secular Work vs. Sacred Work: The Greek Distortion of Work
"All work done well and for God's glory is Christian work."
– Dorothy Sayers
When I was a student at the University of Kansas, I wrestled with the theological questions about work. Like William Wilberforce, I was under the false assumption that if I really wanted to please God and if I really wanted to do something of significance, then I needed to go into "full-time ministry." However, I didn't believe I was equipped for being a pastor or missionary, nor did I want to be. I shared this spiritual tension with friends from a campus ministry I attended and learned several of them also wrestled with the same tension.
Like Wilberforce, we had bought into a Greek distortion of a biblical truth about work. Greek dualism states that life is divided into multiple spheres and these spheres war against each other. At the heart of dualism is the belief that there are two antagonistic forces at work in the world: good and evil. The Greeks applied this concept of division to all of life. They rightly believed man had a body as well as a spirit, but they wrongly believed there was a clear division between his body and spirit. And they didn't stop there. They also taught the body was bad and the soul was good—and work associated with man's soul was the only work that mattered.
Somewhere along the path, the Church assimilated this Greek distortion into its teaching and applied a dichotomy between the priesthood and all other work. They taught that secular work was ultimately a waste of time because it dealt only with the temporal and physical world with no benefit to the eternal and spiritual world. Too many Christians still view their work this way. Nurses, engineers, sales people, programmers, managers, accountants, and other professionals are too often earning a paycheck to support the full-time ministers. They are all real priests.
Many Christians wrongly believe the work only matters to God when it is sacred work. Then we limit our definition of sacred work to any activity affiliated with our institutional churches. Of course, meeting together as a church is very important. But idolizing church and church work causes many problems in the church and its desire, vision, and ability to fulfill God's mandates.
- It leads us to believe the only work that matters to God is paid "full-time ministry." So if we really want to please God and if we really want to live a life of significance, we must become pastors or missionaries. But the Bible tells us all work is Christian work if done well with the purpose of meeting the needs of others and enhancing the lives of others. In 1 Peter 4:10, Peter tells us whatever gift you have received, use it to the benefit of others.
- It has caused many Christians to become spiritually fragmented and divided. They believe there should be a clear division between the sacred and the secular and the private and public. Most protestants and Catholics alike no longer know how to integrate their faith into each sphere of their lives—family, work, recreation, and church. But the Bible tells us a Christian is to be a person with integrity, which means whole, healthy, undivided. We are to be the same person in private as in public and vice versa.
- It leads us to believe God is only concerned about souls and not about the body or the physical world. Yet the Bible states that God created the body as well as the spirit and called them both good. Our bodies are God's homes on earth. Also the Bible states we will have both a body and a soul in the new heavens and the new earth. (Note: When Jesus rose from the dead, he had both a spirit and a new body.) So the body has high value. When we care for the bodies of other humans, we are doing a good service. God also created the earth and commanded us to be good stewards of it. This means he cares about the environment and expects us to care about it as well.
- It leads us to believe it is the clergy's job to evangelize and make disciples. So we neglect leading Bible studies and prayer groups at work. Even worse, we don't engage coworkers in meaningful conversations and relationships. God gave each of a mandate to go into all the world, the workplace, home, neighborhood, church, school, etc. Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19-20). That command is for all of us, not just the paid staff.
God equips each of us with unique gifts, talents, and interests, and he calls us to a vocation for which we are best suited. He is most glorified and pleased when we pursue a vocation that he uniquely equips us for and calls us to, even if we don't think it is "sacred" work.
As Dorothy Sayers said, "All work done well and for his glory is Christian work."
Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:
- Read the following passages to go deeper: Genesis 1:27-31, Romans 12:1-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-27, Colossians 3:23, and 1 Peter 4:10.
- Do I see myself as a missionary in the workforce and the work I produce as a primary Christian ministry? Am I being intentional about practicing the fruits of the spirit in the workplace so that coworkers and clients will see Christ's work in my life?
- Am I doing my work in such a way and with such an attitude that my coworkers and clients can't help but see that I pursue excellence in my work?
- Am I bearing the image of Jesus in the workplace? Am I going beyond words to being Christ-like in my relationships with coworkers and clients? Are the fruits of the spirit evident to others . . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.?
- Do coworkers and clients sense they are in the presence of one of Jesus' disciples when they are around me? Do they feel respected, valued, even loved?
- Am I being intentional about being a missionary for Jesus in the workplace by befriending coworkers and taking time to engage in their lives? Am I eating lunch with coworkers and inviting them into my home for dinner and fellowship to go deeper? Am I part of a work-based prayer group and Bible study? If not, why not?