Appendixes on Vocation and Theology of Work

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Doctrinal Differences in Theologies of Work According to Graeme Smith

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Scholars who have developed theologies of work during the last fifty years have approached the Bible in different ways and employed a variety of different hermeneutical principles. Graeme Smith has identified some of the areas of doctrine in which these divergencies are particularly pronounced. This section is a summary of Smith’s conclusions (Smith 1990: Chapter 5.2 - 5.12).

Different views of Creation.

Conservative theologians tend to adhere to the view that creation was completed at the beginning, thus debarring any human involvement in the creation process. Cocreationists on the other hand view creation as a continuous activity to which humanity contributes. Some, such as Paul Marshall, waver between the two positions.

Different Evaluations of the Importance of Work before the Fall.

Many theologies of work make much of the significance of the Divine charge in Genesis 1 to 'have dominion' and 'subdue the earth'. This commission is linked with what it means to be made in 'the image of God'. This is of particular importance to cocreationists and leads Smith to suggest that there has been an over-emphasis on the early chapters of Genesis in recent theologies of work and the notion of 'the image of God' has wider significance than most of these works suggest. He also notes how the dominant view contrasts with that of Ellul who argues that work before the Fall was of a totally different character.

Differences in Understanding the Impact of the Fall.

The way writers interpret the significance and enduring relevance of the Fall follows largely from their understanding of creation and work prior to the Fall. Most agree that while the Fall has made human work less comfortable, it does not overwhelm its primary purpose as the means by which humanity contributes to God's continuing activity. In opposition to this Ellul maintains that the Fall impacts upon all human work and means all work is 'under the curse'. Marshall's assessment results in ambiguous conclusions.

Genesis 1-3 is overemphasised at the expense of Genesis 4-11.

The theologians of work tend to weight their analysis very heavily towards Genesis 1-3 to the exclusion of other important segements of Genesis 4-11, such as the Tower of Babel story. Smith notes the failure to provide a more comprehensive exegesis and interpretation. He also questions whether the narratives condensed and smoothed by centuries of oral tradition provide a sufficient foundation on which to build a detailed interpretative edifice.

The Diversity of Work Traditions in the Old Testament is Ignored.

Recent scholarship maintains that there are diverse traditions with distinct emphases in the Old Testament. For example, Agrell comments in relation to Genesis 2-3 that this is 'a fine portrayal of the two-sided nature of work' (Agrell 1976: 15). It has 'a positive base, by which “work” is service to God, independent of the struggle for maintence, and free of suffering. It has as its base the Lord. But it has as well a negative side, by which work is bound up with disobedience towards God, the necessity of producing sustenance, and where it is synonomous with suffering (Agrell 1976: 15). He goes on to argue that this dualistic outlook is the basic model of work throughout the Old Testament: 'we find here approximately the same tension as in Genesis 2-3, between work on the one hand as God-given, joyful and good, and, on the other, as hard, necessary, meeting with failure, and capable of leading to idolatry (Agrell 1976: 31).' Theologians of work clearly experience great difficulty in embracing the dualism or ambivalence of Old Testament teachings on work. For conservative scholars who adhere to the unity of scriptural teaching on such matters this provides a stumbling block. But less conservative scholars also fall into the trap of selectively using only those texts or interpretations which support their view and hence fail to express the diversity of traditions which are apparent. We do well to heed Chenu's warning, that

the books of the OT provide the most disparate judgements on man's work. It is impossible to give an abstract classification of these teachings; it is better ... to point to the various social settings in which they evolved ... almost any conclusion can be drawn from these texts; in fact, Judaeo-Christian thought throughout the ages reveals the relativity of the conclusions and prescriptions that theologians, catechists and teachers have drawn from them. (Chenu 1970: 369)

The fact that Jesus worked is over-emphasised whereas His relevant parallel teachings are under-emphasised.

There is a tendency to expand upon the scanty references to Jesus' work. Ellul is opposed to this. Other Biblical scholars are also hesitant about this. Westerman in discussing Luke 12:13-41 points out that Jesus rejects the undue importance given to work (Westerman 1980: 90). Others point out that Jesus called his disciples away from their occupations and he himself left the carpenter’s shop to pursue unpaid work. Agrell in his summary of the teaching of the synoptic Gospels also concludes that the ambivalence evident in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament persists. For Agrell, work has secondary significance for Jesus and his disciples; it may be necessary for most in this age, but one should not get too involved in it. And toil will cease in God's kingdom. The teaching of Matthew 6:25-34 is regarded as representative (Agrell 1976 :92-94).

Variation in Understanding the Relationships between Human Work and Soteriology.

The link between human work and salvation in Jesus is evident in Catholicism since the Middle Ages, partly through the Catholic doctrine of recapitulation. This tradition which continues in Laborem Exercens (John Paul II 1981), is anathema to conservative Protestants for whom divine action and human action are clearly distinct. However Moltmann has recently explored the interplay between human work and divine redemptive action. He concludes, 'human beings through work and self-giving participate in the Lordship of Christ in the world and thereby become co-workers in God's kingdom which completes creation and renews heaven and earth....all work is filled with the hope of the Kingdom of God ... it receives through faith a 'messianic meaning' (Moltmann 1985: 44-45)'. And despite his vigorous opposition to cocreationism, even Ellul late in his life was drawn through his study of the book of Revelation to conclude that human work is linked to God's work in some way and there is some degree of continuity between work in this life and in the coming age.

Paul's Attitude to Work is under-emphasised.

Contemporary debate has tended to focus on the question to what extent can human work be seen as an extension of God's creativity? Smith suggests that this is why Paul's teaching has tended to be ignored, because Paul's emphasis on duty and obligation fits more comfortably into the traditional schema as a corollary of the curse and the divine command. But even for those who do discuss Paul, quite different conclusions are drawn. Barth concludes that Paul has a negative view of work; 'Paul has no positive interest either in work itself or in its achievements (Barth 1961: 600).' Agrell, on the other hand, sees in Paul a more realistic approach to labour than he sees in Jesus. Paul accepts the necessity of such labour and combines it with his apostolic task (Agrell 1976: 114). Paul's view of manual labour is still negative, but he is able to incorporate it into his life in Christ. Smith concludes that Paul esteems the economic independence which comes from work. He also adds that this may have been more to do with Paul’s desire to avoid criticism than with any theology of work. Paul accepts the necessity of work, and seeks to apply the Gospel to the work setting that he sees around him. It is suggested that Paul could not envisage any alternative structure of work. What we get from Paul is not a theology of work, but an example of the limited application of the Gospel to a particular structure of work.

The Link Between Human and Divine Creativity is Interpreted Differently and Generally Inadequately.

The co-creationist position depends on maintaining the link between human and divine creativity. Smith maintains that recent theologies of work tend to examine God's physical creativity only, but ignore the work of God in

Fashioning a people for himself ... God is the builder of personhood and community. The "new creation" of the New Testament is new personhood in community with others. By focussing only on God's physical work, the major thrust of God's creative work in the world is overlooked. Co-creation would take on a richer and more radical meaning if the link was drawn with these wider dimensions of God's work. (Smith 1990: 100)

The Rest Tradition is Under-emphasised by the Co-creationists.

There is a separate 'rest' tradition in the Bible. Some argue that it is a more prominent theme than work. Co-creationists tend to minimise the relative importance of this tradition. Marshall seeks to give it an equal footing with work, even though this attempt is not completely successful. Ellul uses it to oppose the work tradition. Moltmann argues that 'the Sabbath does not simply interrupt work. Rather, work is understood and defined through the Sabbath (Moltmann 1984: 40).' A proper assessment of the biblical picture of rest will qualify or moderate some of the co-creationist conclusions regarding work.

The Meaning And Purpose of Everyday Work for Christians Throughout History

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The idea of vocation has carried a variety of different understandings in Christian history. I want to try to describe some of these to you, with a brief overview. Basically these different views are all attempts to explain "What is the meaning and purpose of everyday work for Christians?"

If we start back just before the Christian era we find 2 sharply contrasting views of everyday work among the Greeks and the Jews.


In the Greek world work was considered to be a curse. Aristotle said that to be unemployed was good fortune because it allowed a person to participate in political life and contemplation. Today its probably politics that enjoys the low reputation. Anyway for the Greeks, society was organised so that a few could enjoy the blessing of "leisure" while work was done by slaves. Everyday work was a demeaning occupation that one should try to avoid. Certainly there was nothing spiritually meaningful or uplifting about everyday work.


The opportunity to think about issues and engage in contemplation was also valued by Jews. And when Jesus came on the scene he was only one of many Jewish rabbis or teachers on the block. However, it is very significant to note that Jewish teachers were not expected to live off the contributions of their students, but were all expected to have a trade through which they could support themselves. Far from being avoided, as far as possible work was to be embraced as part of God's purposes in creation and theological reflection would be engaged in by people who were daily engaged in everyday life in the world.

Early Christianity.

Jesus was known as a carpenter and the son of a carpenter, although there is no example of him continuing this trade during the period of his public ministry. He called some of his inner circle of disciples to leave their fishing nets to follow him. But there are also examples of them continuing to fish at times. Certainly he gave no general call for all Christians to give up everyday work and much of his teaching drew on themes from the world of everyday work without any self-consciousness or apologies. Paul emphasizes a positive view of work, commending all Christians to continue in their work and to work well. And he plainly continued in his trade as a tentmaker during his church planting ministry. This would seem to be the general Christian pattern for the first century after the Apostles.

Distorted Christianity!

Gradually the Church Fathers began to draw more heavily on Greek and Roman motifs in their theology and the more positive view of work gave way to a much lower view. This is reflected in the view of Eusebius who wrote about his doctrine of 2 lives about AD300. He says:

"Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, child-bearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone...such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other, more humble, more human, permits man to join in pure nuptials, and to produce allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion....a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them"

In a similar way Augustine distinguished between the 'active life' and the 'contemplative life'. While both kinds of life were good and Augustine had praise for the work of farmers and craftspeople and merchants, the contemplative life was clearly of a higher order. While at times it may be necessary to follow the active life, wherever possible one should choose the other. The one life is loved, the other endured. Very soon it was this view that dominated Christian thinking, until only those people pursuing the contemplative life or a priestly role in the church were said to have a truly 'religious' vocation.

Restoring the Balance.

It was initially through the work of Martin Luther that the 16th century reformers recovered a sense that all of life , including daily work, could be understood as a calling from God. According to Luther we respond to the call to love our neighbour by fulfilling the duties that are associated with our everyday work. Work is our call to serve. This work includes domestic and civic duties as well as our employment. In fact Luther said we can only truly serve God in the midst of everyday circumstances and attempts to elevate the significance of the contemplative life are false. In fact it is the monastic life that has no true calling. It is an escape from the true obedience that God calls us to. Luther's view tended to defend the status quo socially and he had a fairly negative view of working for profit. Whereas John Calvin developed a more dynamic view which encouraged a greater degree of urban enterprise and the possibility of changing vocations. He identified a person's vocation more closely with their job. And this Calvinistic view was further developed by the Puritans who also encouraged enterprise and thrift with a strong ethic emphasizing the importance of stewardship and service but this was soon overtaken by the development of industrialisation.

A New Distortion!

How much the "spirit of capitalism" was a true product of the Protestant work ethic or a corruption of it is still debated. Whatever the case, it is clear that with the passing of time the concept of vocation became so closely associated with a person's occupation or career that these words became synonymous and secularised without any reference to the calling of God. So the pursuit of a vocation became an end in itself. This is true for both capitalism and Marxism. Both encourage us to look for personal fulfilment through the work of our own hands.Once people worked to live now they are living to work. Marxism became attractive when the lack of a social ethic accompanying the Protestant understanding of vocation gave rise to a church that was afraid of conflict and sided with the status quo rather than exploited workers, following the industrial revolution. Whereas once the medieval church threatened to divorce faith from work, now they are so closely fused that work has become idolised. It is this distortion that deprives the unemployed person, or the person engaged in unpaid domestic or voluntary work of status, security and satisfaction, by emphasizing that these are primarily associated with employment. Work once degraded, is now worshipped, and demands great sacrifices.

The Destructive Consequences.

Today we end up with a mixture of destructive consequences resulting from the ways these influences have impacted on our understanding. 5 of these are

  1. Ordained pastoral ministry or missionary service is elevated by Christians above other vocations and they feel the need to pursue these even when they don't seem to fit (medieval monasticism)
  2. The Sunday-Monday Gap: The world of the marketplace is seen as "secular" and depraved: the world of the church as "spiritual" and divine. They are 2 unconnected worlds (Greek dualism). Another development is the way faith has become a private and personal leisure time pursuit that is considered out of place in the public sphere of a pluralistic and secular society.
  3. Workaholism and the devastating consequences of unemploymentemployment is seen as necessary for a true vocation and the source of fulfilment (Marxism and a distortion of the Protestant work ethic)
  4. An inflexible view of vocation that is not adequate to cope with changes in work patterns and career paths and gender roles, etc...
  5. A view of Christian vocation which seems to foster either a strong personal spirituality or a strong social concern, but doesn't often combine these two essential elements effectively.

So What Is Needed?

We need to find a path that will lead us between the twin heresies of divorcing faith from work and idolising work. We must rediscover that our primary vocation is the call to follow Jesus. But we must also emphasize that this call embraces the whole of our lives , including our everyday work. It needs to effectively combine both the personal and social dimensions of the gospel and nurture a lively everyday spirituality. We need to see ways in which our work is connected to the creating, sustaining and transforming work of God. This will not be a quietist view of Christian vocation that surrenders to the status quo, but one that will contest corruption and exploitation and work to name and resist what is evil and to transform bad circumstances. We must also strive to maintain a broad definition of work that encompasses not only paid employment but also domestic work and voluntary work. In this way we can seek to live a more radical yet also more balanced discipleship through the whole of our lives. The balance will be different for different people and different at different stages in our lives. Therefore we need a view of our vocation which includes some constant elements but is also flexible enough to help us make sense of lives in which the nature and mix of work that we do is regularly changing. Employment remains an important part of life through which we express our Christian discipleship. But it is only one part of a multi-faceted life of discipleship. Unemployed people, home makers and voluntary workers have a vocation too! Our vocation as Christians does not depend on paid employment, but it must be expressed through our employment. We also need to understand that living out our vocation was never meant to be a solitary task and we need the encouragement of committed companions and the community of faith to assist us.