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Course Module in OT - Economics and Contemporary Workplace Issues in Ruth

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Workplace Lessons from Ruth 2

The Old Testament book of Ruth is familiar to many, if not most, Christians. But it doesn’t have a large place in theological curricula. This beloved book could be a helpful way to lead students to grasp God’s intentions for daily life and work – and it’s a great story they can use in sermons to make those lessons vivid for their future congregations!

Ruth appears in most collections of Bible stories for children because of the tragedies and uncertainties that unfold in this simple and engaging narrative. Theologically, the story of Ruth is remarkable because it leads, through her descendant David, to Ruth’s appearing in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus – a surprising place for the name of a Moabite woman to surface. And sermons about conversion and commitment are frequently preached from the words of that marvellous confession from Ruth to Naomi: “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God…”

But Ruth can also help Old Testament classes engage major contemporary issues, particularly issues of work and business. Where else in the Bible do you find – in just four short chapters! – stories of:

  • Border crossings to escape famine
  • Cross-cultural marriages and inter-religious relationships
  • Vulnerable widows struggling with life and faith in the face of death
  • An immigrant among God’s people
  • A solution to poverty that transcends welfare
  • Protection against workplace sexual harassment
  • Love, marriage and the astute management of complex family relationships and delicate business negotiations?

This potential source of wisdom is too seldom explored for issues like these.

Migrants Seeking Sanctuary

Elimelech and Naomi moved from Bethlehem to the country of Moab, with their two sons, when their crops failed (Ruth 1:1-2). No longer able to provide food through their own work, this family was forced to look for food and work in another country.

The long history of enmity between Israel and Moab reinforces the sense of desperation that lies behind this move. Desperation forced them to move to a potentially hostile country through no fault of their own, and this creates dilemmas for those who move and those who end up hosting them.

There is certainly a contemporary ring to these challenges in the light of current debates about how much hospitality we should offer refugees and migrants. But there is also a reminder that the Old Testament laws demanding hospitality towards widows, the poor and foreigners (to which Naomi will appeal later when they return to Israel) are accompanied by the reminder “for you were once foreigners seeking refuge in Egypt”(Deut 10:18-19, 16:11-12, 24:17-18).

So try throwing this question at your students: Most people got where they are from some other place, if you go back far enough. Does this story suggest that relatively free movement of people is, at least in most circumstances, something God favors?

Challenges, Death and Disappointment

Having moved to Moab, Elimelech and Naomi face the challenge of cross-cultural marriages and inter-religious relationships. While this theme is not explored in depth in this book, still we see their consequences in the hard choices Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are forced to make. They are pulled between home, commitment to one another and the opportunities and risks associated with moving (Ruth 1:4-18).

Forced migration – an all too common economic reality in less prosperous societies – inevitably involves a mixture of grief and relief about what has been left behind and also hope and anxiety about what might lie ahead. There are many conflicting emotions to be dealt with. Interestingly, in response to the events in this case, a more hopeful affirmation of faith comes from Ruth the Moabite, while we find Naomi the Israelite struggling to come to terms with the hand full of disappointments God has dealt her (Ruth 1:14-21). The vibrant faith of immigrants can stand in sharp contrast to the tepid faith of their hosts.

Providing Food and Providing Work

Old Testament Laws were formulated to protect the survival of families and ensure their ability to maintain a livelihood, even where previous generations had lost their land. This included levirate marriage and a process for redemption of land, although neither of these immediately succeeds for Ruth and Naomi. Instead, Ruth is forced to work as a farm laborer gathering grain behind the harvesters.

She finds herself working in a field that belongs to Boaz, a relative of her father-in-law Elimelech. Having gathered barley in Boaz’s field all day, Ruth spends the evening beating out the grain until it fills an entire basket. She carries it back into the town and shows it to her mother-in-law, giving Naomi the roasted grain that is left over from the evening meal that Boaz shared with Ruth.

What happens here is a combination of providing one-way assistance (food) and mutual assistance (work). This assistance is partly the result of obligations for landowners laid down in the Old Testament laws related to gleaning. It was prescribed that the corners of fields should be left for the poor to harvest.

Boaz goes further than the law prescribes by also encouraging his workers to leave out extra grain for Ruth and sharing his evening meal with her, even enough for Ruth to take some home to feed Naomi. Nonetheless, Ruth still has to work hard for what she is able to collect. Every day she is back, working from morning to dusk until all the barley and wheat is harvested.

It is a fascinating combination of biblically legislated means of mutual assistance, personal generosity on the part of Boaz and hard work by Ruth to collect and winnow the grain that has been made available to her. Here, surely, is a model for helping those in need that is worth discussing with students! It is also an opportunity to discuss how much of a duty Christians should feel to help foreign co-workers and other vulnerable people fit into a new workplace.

Highly relevant to our current context and the needs of theological education, Ruth engages the issues of migration, ethical economics and faithful forms of assistance for those in need. As seminary faculty and as members of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary editorial team, we find that the book of Ruth stands out as a very useful resource for theological discussion of work and economic issues. And of course we commend the free Theology of Work Bible Commentary on Ruth in hopes you will find it of further help in the classroom!

Ruth and the Contemporary Workplace

As we have seen, the book of Ruth has implications for ethics, economics and workplace environments. Theological students need to understand how biblical books like Ruth can inform the way Christians think about and live out their lives in the workplace.

Guarding against Harassment in the Workplace

In this story there are two people – Naomi and Boaz – very concerned about Ruth’s safety and reputation, particularly regarding the danger of sexual harassment. In Ruth 2:22, Naomi makes plain that Boaz, as a relative, has an obligation to help look after Ruth, saying, “It is good that you can pick up grain alongside the women who work in his field. Who knows what might happen to you in someone else’s field.” Boaz himself goes to Ruth and says “I think it would be best for you not to pick up grain in anyone else’s field. Stay here with the women….I have warned the men not to bother you” (Ruth 2:8).

In the light of the romantic direction this story takes it is easy to assume that more personal reasons lead to Boaz’s protection of Ruth. But these words were said when they first met and probably should be understood as the genuine concern of a conscientious businessperson taking care of those who work in his organization – particularly this solitary, vulnerable, foreign, female migrant. Boaz turns his personal concern into a workplace policy by advising his other workers how to treat Ruth and also advising Ruth where she is likely to be safe. Like Boaz, Christians are called to both refrain from harassment and to create, as much as possible, safe work environments.

Full Inclusion in the Workplace

Boaz does much more than protect Ruth from sexual harassment. He invests in her full inclusion in the workforce. Ruth is to have equal access to water (Ruth 2:9) and to the lunch table (Ruth 2:14). At meal time, Boaz invites Ruth to come sit with him and his workers and to dip her morsel of bread in his sauce (Ruth 2:14). Then he serves her until she is more than satisfied. The regular employees are to make Ruth’s work environment as secure as possible and to go out of their way to assist her in achieving her work tasks (Ruth 2:15–16).

Boaz’s actions are an investment in Ruth’s productivity. As a member of the work group, she could come up to speed on the best practices for each crop according to the local conditions, which would be different from what she was trained to do in Moab. She learned how to work both the barley harvest and the wheat – developing skills in multiple areas, or cross-training in today’s business terminology. In the group she could benefit from teamwork rather than having to perform every task on her own.

Today, managers and co-workers can invest time, skill and care in helping new workers become integrated into work groups, or they can leave newcomers to fend for themselves. Organizations can develop systems for “onboarding” new employees, or leave the task to the whims and chances of each manager and team. This is an issue not only of productivity, but also justice. If an organization invests in the successful integration of high-status workers – or conversely does little or nothing to assist vulnerable, minority, or non-traditional workers – it fails to respect the image of God in each worker.

As seminary faculty and members of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary editorial team, we have found that the book of Ruth stands out as a useful resource for the exploration and discussion of faith, work and economics issues in the seminary classroom. And of course we commend the free, online Theology of Work Bible Commentary on Ruth to assist you in this.

ASSIGNMENT

  1. Explain how Boaz applied the law given in Leviticus 19:9-10, Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-22, and Exodus 23:10-11 in the case of Ruth. To what degree did he fulfill the requirements of the law? To what degree did he go beyond the requirements of the law?
  2. Imagine you are proposing legislation to reform welfare in your State. What would be the main features of your proposal in the light of the Leviticus and Ruth passages?
  3. Imagine that you own a company that employs a number of staff. What would you do to aid unemployed or underemployed people in the light of the Leviticus and Ruth passages and the need to make a profit?

Course Module in OT - Work in Song of Songs

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Song of Songs is not a book we usually think of in connection with work and the economy. Certainly it has presented interesting hermeneutical challenges for successive generations of Christians, but these center on the extent to which it is primarily a celebration of sexual love and marital fidelity, and additionally (or alternatively) a more figurative poetic picture of the sort of intimacy God wants to enjoy with His people.

But a closer reading notices what the couple are actually doing while reciting love poetry to each other: planting a vineyard and working hard at it.

Song of Songs is about a couple who start a small business as a way to make a living and to strengthen their love. Their work draws them together, rather than keeping them apart. This book shows work and family life not as a balance of competing priorities, but as an integrated way of achieving what is most important in life.

The Theology of Work Bible Commentary notes: “The Song of Songs is love poetry. Yet it is also a profound depiction of the meaning, value and beauty of work. The Song sings of lovers who court, then marry, and then work together in an ideal picture of life, family and work.” It goes on to explore themes of hardship, beauty, diligence, pleasure, passion, family and joy as they are depicted in the wide variety of work seen in the Song of Songs.

The Song begins with the woman speaking about how her skin has been darkened because her brothers made her work the family vineyard (Song 1:6). In the ancient world, people tended to look down on dark skin, not for racial reasons but for economic reasons: dark skin meant you were in the peasant class and had to work in the sun. Fair skin meant you were in the aristocracy. Therefore pale skin – not a tan! – was especially prized as a mark of beauty in women. But this woman’s hard work has not really diminished her beauty: “Dark am I, yet lovely” (Song 1:5 NIV). A woman who works with her hands may not be an aristocrat, but she is beautiful and worthy of praise. The biblical perspective is that work has an intrinsic beauty.

Solomon builds himself a palanquin (a seat carried on poles) and the Song extols the beauty of the workmanship. It is literally a labor of love (Song 3:10). He puts its beauty to use in the service of love, transporting his beloved to their wedding (Song 3:11), yet the work was already beautiful in its own right. Work is not only a means to an end – transportation, harvest or paycheck – but a source of aesthetic creativity. Believers are encouraged to see and praise the beauty in others’, including spouses’, work.

The woman seeks her beloved where he is tending the sheep. His work is arranged in a way that makes interaction with his beloved possible. There is no notion that work time belongs to the employer, while time off belongs to the family. While the reality of modern work often makes family interaction during employment hours very difficult, many workplaces are exploring creative ways of becoming more family-friendly.

A trip into the countryside in springtime is not just a picnic. It involves work. Specifically, pruning has to be done to ensure a good harvest (Song 2:12–13; “the time of singing” can also be translated “the time of pruning,” as in the NASB). In addition, Song 2:15 says that foxes – animals that love to eat young grapes – have to be kept from the vineyards lest they spoil the harvest. But the man and woman have light hearts. They turn this task into a game, chasing away the “little foxes.” This episode in the Song is a glimpse of how God desires life to be for us – almost as if sin had never happened. It is as if Isaiah 65:21 were already fulfilled: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” The kingdom of God brings not the elimination of work, but the restoration of joy and delightful relationships in work.

The Song should increase our appreciation of unpaid work. In pre-industrial households, there is little distinction between paid and unpaid work, since work occurs in an integrated unit. In industrial and post-industrial societies, much – but by no means all – of the work occurs outside the household, earning wages to support the household. The unpaid work that remains to be done within the household often gets less respect than the paid work done outside. Money, rather than overall contribution to the household, becomes the measure of work’s worth, and sometimes even of individuals’ worth. Yet households could not function without the often unpaid work of maintaining the household, raising children, caring for aged and incapacitated family members and sustaining social and community relationships. The Song depicts the value of work in terms of its benefit to the household, not its monetary value.

The Song may pose a challenge to many churches and those who guide Christians, for it is uncommon for Christians to receive much help in arranging their work lives. Not enough churches are able to equip their members for making godly, wise, realistic choices about work in relationship to family and community. Perhaps churches could do more to help their members recognize God’s design for work and relationships, express their hopes and struggles, and explore creative options with other workers.

The Song shows us an ideal for which we should strive. Labor should be an act of love. Marriage and household relationships should support – and be supported by – work. Work is an essential element of married life, yet it must always serve, and never crowd out, the most fundamental element of all: love.

Assignment

  1. Read the introductory sections to two recognised commentaries on the Song of Songs (as recommended by the course teacher). Note the different approaches that have been taken to interpreting the Song of Songs historically. Then read the Song of Songs Commentary from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary. In what ways is the TOW Commentary on the Songs of Songs both similar to, and different from, other historical hermeneutical approaches to this book? How valid is the approach that the TOW Commentary on the Song of Songs takes? Does it provide a new and useful perspective on the Song of Songs or a distortion of the message of this book? Please offer specific examples from the text of the Song of Songs, the commentaries and other sources you have consulted.
  2. Here is another component that could be added to the above assignment or assigned separately: Create the outline for a Bible study or sermon exploring the meaning of work based on the Song of Songs.
Surprised by Song of Songs

Course Module in NT - Leadership in the Epistles

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One might think that Philemon has little to say about the theology of work. However pursuing vocation often raises key relational questions, especially in a world consumed by issues of rank and status. How Paul handles the relationship between the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon has a great deal to teach us about issues of rank and status. I recently did a full walk-through of this little letter for the Theology of Work Project. Here are some of main points made in this article:

  • Jesus is a leveler when it comes to rank and social status. When Paul tells Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would a brother, and then as an apostle, rank is flipped around. Christianity often does this, using old concepts and completely transforming how they are to be understood.
  • Leadership 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 Christian faith is about relationships – how we connect to God impacts how we connect to others. The Great Commandment and the Ten Commandments demonstrate this, as both have a “God and others” structure. Healthy relationships have the potential to bring out the best in people. Good leadership works for this.
  • As a leader, Paul is willing to bear the cost of the sacrifices he asks others to make. Paul goes to bat for the one he defends in the letter by saying if there is anything owed, he will bear the cost. By doing this, Paul keeps things orderly and fair, but also neutralizes any potential animosity, promotes justice and builds toward compassion.
  • Good leadership appeals to people to act out of their best choices rather than through coercion. Paul is often accused of being manipulative in how he approaches Philemon. However, Paul is simply asking in a way that shows that what he could demand, he instead invites. The result is an opportunity for Philemon’s character to be developed through this choice.
  • As a leader, Paul still can place moral pressure on those he asks to make a decision. There is a form of pressure that emerges from what Paul does. Paul lays things out so clearly that Philemon really has little choice but to respond. The moral vision Paul provides shows how faith goes in a relational direction that differs from common cultural norms. It also means that these new ways need to be learned and digested. They do not come naturally. This different direction is the direction of Christ, who is the example Paul provides in Philippians 2:5-11.
  • At the core of Paul’s request to Philemon was a call to live out one’s relationships not through status but through service. This is the core of vocation. How do we steward well? We steward well when we serve first and foremost. At the root of vocation is the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28. We are called to manage the creation of God well. As we serve each other, we understand our role is actually a means to a greater end, rank becomes less important, and relationally serving takes priority. That is a central message of this little book.
  • Philemon’s rights take a back seat to what will make for a better relationship and work environment. This is perhaps the key result of Paul’s approach. In a culture that emphasizes rights, stepping back from them is a difficult lesson to accept, but it is a key to what Paul asks for here.
  • Rank and power are not the key lenses through which to view relationships, even in social contexts where we might have rank. The great lesson of the book is that the way we move forward in our relationships is to minimize what rank does. Sometimes you need rank as a way to know who makes what decisions. But realizing we are all made in God’s image and deserve respect is a great leveler, especially in light of the example of Jesus. This is where real living and real relating reside in vocation.

Simply put, Philemon is a little book that say a great deal about how we live out our lives as we work together.

ASSIGNMENT

1) How does thinking about how Paul instructed Philemon make us think about how we view rank and relational engagement in contrast to the way the culture around us handles these issues?

2) Pick one New Testament letter and highlight its applications for the modern Christian worker. Re-write the letter as a one-page office memo.

For reference, here are some of the issues explored in the Theology of Work Bible Commentary on the New Testament letters:

Course Module in NT – Women at Work

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Stories from, about and for women at work have not often been told as prominently as those of men in Christian contexts and discussions about work and economic life.

Where to Start?

One important starting point for Christians must be to take a fresh look at what the Bible has to say about women and work. As a member of the Theology of Work Project committee, I have discovered how much there is to be learned about women at work from the Bible. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because previously I didn’t realise that the Bible had so much to say about work, either.)

Prior to this work, I seldom looked beyond Mary and Martha, Ruth, Lydia and perhaps one or two other women, but now I realize that dozens or even hundreds of passages in the Bible depict the work of women. For example, I had never stopped to think seriously about how those poetic passages in the Song of Songs about grapevines and little foxes and a woman’s darkened complexion were related to long hours of hard work under a hot sun planting grapevines and chasing off vermin in the process of establishing a family business (see November 2016 Oikonomia Newsletter).

Why so Important?

Neglecting the the experience of women at work in the process of developing theologies of work is unfortunate for a number of reasons:

  1. The experience of women often challenges us to recognize the value of both paid and unpaid work.
  2. Women, are more likely to experience tension juggling parenting/homemaking, community and marketplace commitments in a way that forces us to consider the significance of a whole life’s work.
  3. From the underside of history, the work of women in the Bible includes the perspectives of foreign migrants, widows, slaves, prisoners of war, despised women and prostitutes.
  4. From the more privileged side, the work of women in the Bible includes numerous influential leaders, businesswomen, benefactors who Jesus depended on for support and women as fellow workers with Paul.

A Useful Introduction

A very useful and condensed introduction to this variety of work experiences in the Bible is provided in two papers prepared by Alice Mathews for the Theology of Work Project, “Women and Work in the Old Testament” and “Women and Work in the New Testament.” These papers include thoughtful discussions of the work of Eve, Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Abigail, Huldah, Esther, Lady Wisdom, Elizabeth and Mary, the women who followed and funded Jesus in the Gospels, Lydia, Damaris, Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia.  Women still struggle to be acknowledged for their work. Yet it is clear that from the time of creation God has always valued the essential work of women. And the Bible provides a rich history of women working at home, in the church and the marketplace for God’s purposes. The content of these papers is further developed in two books of Bible studies, published by Hendrickson under the same titles: Women at Work in the Old Testament and Women at Work in the New Testament.

The TOW Bible Commentary also offers further  commentary on all the pasages that relate to the women mentioned in the articles above.

​Assignment

Some think the world of the Bible is so far removed from the world of the modern marketplace that we shouldn’t expect to draw contemporary insights and lessons from these ancient stories that apply to our working lives today. How true is this of your interpretation of the relevance of the stories that the Bible recounts about working women?

Choose one woman whose story is recounted in either Women at Work in the Old Testament or Women at Work in the New Testament. Read the relevant Bible passages for yourself and any other useful resources. Then respond to the statement and question above.

Some Useful Resources

  • “Occupations, Skills and Crafts of Women” by Marsha Ellis Smith in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Katherine C. Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 337-338.
  • Cohick, Lynn H. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians  (Grand Rapids, IL:Baker, 2009).
  • Ackerman, Susan. Women in Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible (Online publication, April 2016).
  • Susan DiMickele in Working Women of the Bible (Abilene, TX:Leafwood Publishers,  2013).

Supplementary Resources

One woman’s perspective on work in the Bible can be found in Denise Daniels’ paper on “A Management Professor’s Perspective on Work in the Bible”; a six-day devotional series, Created and Called: Women in the Workplace, is also available.

Course Module in Theology - Work and Eschatology

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It is surprising that few systematic theology texts or courses demonstrate interest in exploring the meaning of work from a theological perspective. Every category in systematic theology offers a lens for examining the meaning of work. Our daily work, both paid and unpaid, is a reality that consumes most of our time and energy in this life, so making these theological connections is imperative.

This article suggests some themes that might be developed to help students think about the meaning and purpose of work from an eschatological perspective. Is our work only about sustaining physical life in this world, or does it have spiritual and eternal value that continues into God’s new creation? 

Popular Conceptions

Many popular conceptions of eternity with God – the end point of Christian eschatology – are built around glimpses of eternal rest or eternal worship services. For many Christians, these are not particularly compelling or attractive futures if they are isolated from activity and accomplishment. People can’t imagine how they will find fulfilment in a purely passive future, or singing worship songs that go on forever. We have been created to contemplate and worship God, yes, but also to be actively involved in God’s creation. People want more from a vision of the future if it is to be worth looking forward to and working toward.

Questions Worth Addressing

  • Does the phrase “eternal rest” imply that there is no work in the end, or just that work will no longer include drudgery and struggle?
  • If there is work in the end, what sort of work is it?
  • How much continuity and discontinuity is there between work in this creation and in the new creation?
  • Does our present work have any eternal significance?
  • Does any of our present work or the fruit of our work survive in the new creation?
  • In what ways is work impacted by our understandings of the resurrection of the body and the final reconciliation of the cosmos to God?

Theology of Work Project Resources

The Theology of Work Project has developed a number of resources that can help correct popular misconceptions and provide students with a compelling and scripturally-grounded vision of what Christian eschatology means for our work now and eternal life with God:

The TOW Theological Foundations page provides a condensed outline for a theology of work, including a section on the New Creation. 

Commentaries on the following passages address a number of the questions above

  1. 1 Corinthians 15:58 - Part of a section titled "Our Work is Not in Vain," this commentary talks about questions of continuity and discontinuity in relation to resurrection.
  2. 2 Peter 3:13 - The commentary on 2 Peter is all about Work and New Creation.
  3. Isaiah 65:17-23 - Isaiah chapters 60 to 65 introduce a relevant discussion on "The Ultimate Meaning of Work."
  4. Revelation 17-22 - See the TOW commentary on the book of Revelation called "A Tale of Two Cities," as well as  our article on "the Meaning of Revelation for Our Work"

Of course you can also search for other topics on www.theologyofwork.org, by typing in phrases like “new creation” or “future hope” or “work and resurrection,” or by viewing articles that have already been tagged in our alphabetical search listing with tags including “Work in the New Creation,”  “Kingdom of God – Restoration of the World,” “Eternity,” “Eternal Perspective,” or “Material World, the Spiritual Value of.”

Other Resources

Nathan Hitchcock, associate professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, has previously addressed the issue of “The Resurrection of the Body in Our Work” in the May 2015 edition of the Oikonomia Network newsletter. Hitchcock says:

How then shall Christians work? By imitating the healing God in their own creaturely way. They cannot raise the dead, but they join in the anticipatory work of elevating bodies. By the Spirit of resurrection, in anticipation of the final day, Christians work to see thriving bodies.

Darrell Cosden’s scholarly work A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation and his more popular The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work offer helpful introductions to these issues. A more condensed essay exploring similar concerns is offered by John Jefferson Davis in “Will There Be New Work in the New Creation?” You can find it in Evangelical Review of Theology, Vol 31, No.3 (2007) pp 256-273; or in J.J. Davis, Practicing Ministry in the Presence of God, Wipf & Stock, 2015.

ASSIGNMENT

  1. Does the work that we do, or the fruit of our work, survive in the New Creation? If so, explain in what ways you understand this to be true. If not, is there any eternal significance in our present work?
  2. Identify key scripture passages and themes that have influenced your thinking and conclusions. Also demonstrate that you have considered the work of Darrell Cosden in The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (Paternoster/Hendrickson, 2006) and at least one other prominent theologian of your own choosing who has addressed this topic.

Course Module in Preaching - Is Work Meaningful or Futile?

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Work with Contentment - Lessons from Ecclesiastes

Interpreting and Preaching Ecclesiastes 2&3: Two Different Ways to Assign this Topic

Both of these assignments assume that the biblical text of these chapters will be read and examined. Also that the TOW Commentary on Ecclesiastes will be read and whatever other commentaries and biblical resources the teacher chooses to recommend.

The aim of the first exercise is to get students thinking carefully about how to deal hermeneutically with a portion of Scripture that seems to communicate different, perhaps even contradictory, messages about the meaning of work.

The aim of the second exercise is to get students to explore how the different messages about the meaning of work in Ecclesiastes 2 might help people with very different experiences of work make sense of their working lives.

ASSIGNMENT

1. CLASS DEBATE – IS WORK MEANINGFUL OR FUTILE?

The whole class is divided into two teams, one pro-meaningful and one pro-futile. The case for each side has to be built solely around their reading and interpretation of Ecclesiastes Chapters 2 and 3. Everyone is to be involved in examining Ecclesiastes 2 and 3 to see how their case might be argued. Each side appoints 2 speakers to argue their case, with speakers from each side taking turns for a maximum of 5 minutes each. Then a third speaker from each side is given the chance to offer reinforcement or rebuttals of what other speakers have said.  After the last speaker, class members vote on who offered the most convincing case.

2. WRITE A SERMON ON “IS WORK MEANINGFUL OR FUTILE?”.

This exercise could be done by all class members following the previous “Class Debate” exercise or completely separate from that exercise.

Your text is Ecclesiastes 2. Your sermon is to be only 15 minutes long. You must try to make it helpful for those who love their work, those who struggle with their work, and those who don’t have paid jobs. Before you finish preparing this sermon, talk with at least one representative from each of these categories and ask for their personal answer to the question in the title “Do you think work is meaningful or futile?” Try to incorporate or at least acknowledge their observations into your sermon in an appropriate way.  Assume that they are listening to you preach.

Additional Resources to Get Students Thinking

Course Module in Church History - Lay Movements in the Marketplace

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Compared with church leaders, lay people have a low profile in church history.  In reality, however, the faith was shared along trade routes opened up by ordinary believers. The influence of missionaries was dependent on indigenous lay people opening up the way for them. Increasingly the history of mission is being re-written to reflect this reality.

It is interesting to trace the influence of British Quaker and Baptist business entrepreneurs in the 19th century.  At that time the brightest and best Anglicans were pushed towards Oxford and Cambridge universities to train for church leadership.  This avenue was denied non-conformists. However this also resulted in the brightest and best non-conformists going into business and integrating their faith and practice there. We see this in ventures like Cadbury Chocolates, Rowntree’s Biscuits, Boots Chemists and Thomas Cook Travel Agents. All of these businesses were successful enough to still exist today.

With regard to cultural transformation that has economic consequences, we can compare the influence of these movements:

  • Benedict and Christian monasticism and their cultural and economic effects in the middle ages
  • Wesley’s working class small group movement with its distinctive economic concerns
  • the political and social influence of the fairly elite Clapham group
  • the Moravians with their international business as mission ventures (before that sort of language was ever used)
  • the powerful long term cultural changes brought about by 19th century Protestant missions agencies (now being analysed and documented by Robert Woodberry)

ASSIGNMENT

In the 18th and 19th centuries a number of Christian industrialists and bankers in Britain created businesses that in many cases are still thriving. 

Read either James Walvin’s The Quakers: Money and Morals (London:John Murray, 1997), or Ian Bradley’s Enlightened Entrepreneurs: Business Ethics in Victorian Britain (Oxford, Lion Hudson, 2007).  What do you learn from the stories related in your chosen book about the relationship between Christian faith, commercial success, and social responsibility? Identify and explain any particular personal challenges you experienced or lessons you learned from doing this study.

Course Module in Church History - John Wesley and Economics

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A while ago, my daughter received a video intended to tell the story of John Wesley’s life in a 30-minute form for 8-12 year olds. As a good historian worried about nuance, I sat down to watch it with her with some trepidation. But I’m happy to report that 8-12 year olds would come away from the video clear that John Wesley believed in free grace and helping poor people.

In a past era of my life, I taught an introductory course on the history of the Wesleys and Methodism. This course is required for United Methodist ordination and I taught it fifteen times. Each class averaged 22 students, so around 330 of my former students are now in ministry as United Methodist pastors or laypeople.

While I did not ignore the economic context of the Wesleys and Methodism while teaching the class, neither did I emphasize it. My opportunities to teach this class are now few and far between (becoming an Anglican will do that!) But meditating on the ON curricular touchpoints for church history has led me to think of some ways I would restructure the class if I ever taught it again to engage economic issues more fully, beyond simply assuming or dismissing the writings of Élie Halévy and E. P. Thompson – familiar analysts of the Wesleys and economics, beyond whom we too rarely inquire.

For the sake of space, I’ve focused on economic issues germane to Wesley’s own lifetime. A whole separate article could be written on bringing out economic themes in the American Methodist story.

ASSIGNMENT

  1. I would spend more time discussing the social and economic context of 18th-century England and I would get down into the underbrush of statistics. Most people know how Wesley lived on £28 a year and gave the rest away throughout his life. But how much would £28 actually have bought? Where did he give the money and for what purposes? How much money did the Wesleys make, how much did their followers make, and what real purchasing power did that money have? What percentage of Methodists were working class and what percentage were upper class? How much did that change during the century? What did it actually look and feel like to be a working-class follower of Wesley? There’s some material on this in The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, which I began using as a text near the end of my time teaching United Methodist History; other helpful sources are David Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of the Spirit and possibly Samuel Rogal’s The Financial Aspects of John Wesley’s British Methodism.
  2. I would have students explore the prominence of economic themes in John Wesley’s own writings. We’re used to tracing the idea of grace through Wesley’s sermons. Without losing that emphasis, what if we also traced ideas of work, industry and money? I suspect they come up almost as much. I’d have students read “The Use of Money,” “On Riches,” “On Dress,” “On the Danger of Increasing Riches,” and other money-oriented sermons along with the “usual suspects” on prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. I’d also discuss his economic contributions to public discourse like Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions and Thoughts upon Slavery.
  3. I’d spend some more time with Primitive Physic and Wesley’s dispensary. While I always made sure to bring this up, we would do well to focus more closely on why Wesley found issues of health care for the poor central to his ministry, and what economic and social lessons we can learn from how he approached the practice.
  4. I’d connect the instituted and prudential means of grace (works of piety and works of mercy) more thoroughly. As a “high-church Methodist” for many years, I made sure my students spent time discussing Wesley’s instituted means of grace, often known as the works of piety: prayer, searching the scriptures, Christian conferencing, fasting, and the Lord’s Supper. I would not back off of my emphasis that Wesley taught these spiritual disciplines as places where God’s grace meets us especially, and can be expected to meet us. But I’d explore what it means that he also taught that works of mercy can be means of grace. What does it mean to say that the Holy Spirit can be expected to meet us as we tend to the economic and social needs of others (among other things—the prudential means are broad)? If practicing the instituted means does not lead us to practice the prudential means, have we really gotten the picture?

Wesley put grace and good works together, and did so with integrity, in a way that provides helpful models for our own day. Indeed, we could do worse than having Methodist seminarians (and maybe even others!) come away from history classes with the same idea.

Course Module in Church History - The Development of the Doctrine of Vocation

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Studying the history of biblical interpretation is an important part of studying the history of Christian thought. A recent experience opened my eyes to how the doctrine of vocation has developed in the church. Classes on church history or historical theology can introduce students to this vital area of the church’s development.

Although I have taught in the seminary and college contexts for over a decade, I now mainly spend my time as the editor of Christian History and the content editor for The High Calling at the Theology of Work Project. A few years ago, with the assistance of some people familiar to the Oikonomia Network, Christian History put together an issue on vocation throughout church history.

While working on the issue, I was struck by how differently calling and vocation have been interpreted throughout history. Sometimes this history of Christian understandings of vocation gets reduced to a simple story: the biblical concept of vocation was spiritualized by an otherworldly early church and used solely to promote clerical and monastic vocations in the Middle Ages until Luther came on the scene. The reality is far more complex than that.

When students exegete, they tend to assume that they need to understand the historical world of the Bible and how to apply the Bible to our own day. Yet they seldom consider conversing with interpreters of the passages in question throughout church history before they settle on their modern application.

In light of this omission, the assignment below – from the Theology of Work Project – seeks to help students develop this habit and technique, focusing on questions of work and vocation and exposing them to significant biblical material from the Theology of Work Project for the modern component.

ASSIGNMENT

Choose one of these passages, which have been historically significant in discussions of work and vocation. Compare interpretations found in the TOW Bible Commentary with those of 4-5 famous theologians and Biblical scholars. What are the similarities? What are the differences? What theological, historical, social, and cultural reasons might explain the differences? What applications can you draw for your own current ministry based on these historical opinions?

Here are some sets of theologians students might be given to consider:

  • “Jesus to Now”: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Barth
  • Western Church Fathers: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome
  • Eastern Church Fathers: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor
  • Middle Ages: Gregory the Great, Abelard, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich
  • Reformation: Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, John Knox, Richard Hooker, Thomas Cranmer, Menno Simons, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales
  • 17th-18th Centuries: Jacob Arminius, George Fox, Jonathan Edwards, Phillip Jakob Spener, John and Charles Wesley, John Owen, Richard Baxter, William Law
  • 19th-20th Centuries: Borden Parker Bowne, Horace Bushnell, Søren Kierkegaard, F. D. Maurice, Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, Walter Rauschenbusch, Frederic Schleiermacher, George MacDonald, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Georgia Harkness, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton

Not all these figures will have discussed all the passages, of course, so students will need to do some research to find the best people to compare based on the passage they choose.  Denominational or other focused lists could also be developed.

Course Module in Ethics - Can The Bible Speak to The Marketplace?

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Traditional seminary ethics courses tend to focus on an introduction to the main schools of ethical thought and approaches to moral reasoning, combined with discussion of a few contentious moral issues. Topics discussed often include abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, sexual ethics, genetic engineering and war. While thought-provoking, these courses usually leave out the dilemmas people face every day at work. There is room to expand the study of ethics to include day-to-day decision making.

The Theology of Work Project (TOW) has developed a number of valuable ethics resources. In this article, I want to introduce you to two of the most valuable tried and tested resources.

Ethics at Work Overview

Too many Christians understand “ethics” as something that only applies in certain areas of life. The TOW “Ethics at Work Overview” paper introduces readers to a survey of different practical ways that Christians have used the Bible to distill a distinctively Christian ethics for the marketplace. At one point, it makes the following observation:

Research suggests that most regular churchgoers only exhibit ethical understandings distinctive from the rest of the population as this relates to a few issues of sexual conduct, personal honesty and the accumulation of wealth. In most other respects, we are shaped more by the values of our culture than the ethics of Jesus.

The encouraging thing about this research is that it does demonstrate clearly that churchgoing does make a difference to our ethical understanding. But sadly, only in a very limited way, because those ethical concerns that are regularly addressed in church exclude most workplace and business ethics issues.”

(Quote taken from “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” section of the Overview paper).

The paper introduces a range of specific examples from emphasizing a command or principle for every occasion, to one overriding command, to three balancing principles, to biblical examples that challenge us to think about the consequences of our actions, to those that emphasize the importance of motivation and character shaped by Christian virtues and the consideration of “What Would Jesus Do?”

The paper then goes on to examine and contrast ways ethical decisions are made in theory and in practice. In fact, the paper itself takes two forms – one a systematic presentation and the other as a case study. The assignment below uses the systematic presentation and encourages students to think about different ways that Christians have sought to use the Bible to establish and explain a Christian ethic for the marketplace.

ASSIGNMENT

Read the Theology of Work article on Ethics and Work, specifically the systematic presentation option.

Write an essay in response that:

  1. explains which approaches you find most helpful and why.
  2. names those approaches that you don’t think are valid or useful and explains why.
  3. adds any other helpful approaches or perspectives that you think have been neglected in this discussion.
  4. describes how your understanding has been challenged, changed or reinforced by this exercise.

Truth, Honesty and Deception in the Workplace

A second helpful resource is the TOW paper, “Truth, Honesty and Deception in the Workplace.” Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics and dean of the faculty at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, describes in a short video how he uses the TOW article on truth and deception in the courses he teaches. Rae teaches an undergraduate course on business ethics and a course in the MBA program on ethical decision making. In both of these classes he discusses truth-telling, disclosure and deception, and uses the paper as an indispensable resource for students who want to delve deeper.

Teaching Ethics at Biola 

Course Module in Spiritual Formation - Active Models for Prayer

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Most of our models for prayer, contemplation and conversing with God are based upon the idea of retreat. They involve withdrawing from the distractions and busyness of everyday life. Is this because we think God is far removed from us and not involved in our everyday circumstances, or because we have largely ignored developing Christian practices that can help us become more attentive to the presence and guidance of God in everything that we do?

Are the following biblical statements just vague and unrealistic ideals, or are these intended to be regular Christian practices?

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 – “Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:31 – “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
  • Colossians 3:23 – “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters….It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” 
  • Romans 12:1 – “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship.”
  • Romans 12:12 – “be constant in prayer”
  • Ephesians 6:18 – “Pray in the Spirit at all times”
  • Colossians 4:2 – “Continue steadfastly in prayer”
  • Philippians 4:6 – “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
  • Hebrews 13:15 – “Continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God”

Today there are many people promoting the significant physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of “mindfulness” for those struggling with the increasing complexity and competing time demands of the modern marketplace. Most of these teachers draw on Buddhist and New Age perspectives, rather than Christian resources. I don’t want to debate the pros and cons of this movement, but I do wonder if it would have the same attraction if Christian churches hadn’t failed to connect contemplation and action and forgotten how to implement the practices that ought to grow out of the scriptures cited above.

Apple’s Former Retail Boss Compares His Relationship with God to Customer Care (Click to Watch)

Certainly the lives of Daniel, Nehemiah, the woman in Proverbs 31, Jesus and Paul demonstrate creative combinations of contemplation and action, prayerful reflection and purposeful work. Looking at the different ways commentators historically have interpreted the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) also demonstrates how many struggle to value and connect both contemplation and work (See here).

The assignment attached to this module asks: Where in the Bible and in Christian tradition do we find distinctively active everyday models and instructions for prayer and conversing with God?

Perhaps rather than teaching about this topic first and then setting the assignment, the assignment can be done first and then class discussion follows. Students could be asked before this discussion to come prepared to present their findings and to share any resources they have found particularly helpful and to share the questions they are wrestling with.

ASSIGNMENT 

Most of our models for prayer and conversing with God are retreating models. Where in the Bible and in Christian tradition do we find distinctively active everyday models and instructions for prayer and conversing with God? What are some practices that can help us to connect prayer and worship with work?  

Describe some of these examples and explain ways in which they differ from retreating models. What have you personally found most helpful in this exploration?

OTHER RESOURCES

In addition to examining some of the Bible passages referred to above, other useful resources might include:

You might also like to look at the 90 second video “Hope for the Overworked” from Chuck Conniry, Vice President and Dean of George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Chuck describes Brother Lawrence as the patron saint for the overworked – Brother Lawrence shows Christians how to engage deeply in spirituality without having to escape to a quiet place and how work can be a context in which we experience Christ’s presence.

Hope for the Overworked from Brother Lawrence

Course Module in Worship and Liturgy - Services that Focus on Work

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Worship choices and the liturgy in the Sunday service can have a huge impact on Christians throughout the work week.  This page shows how seminary professors can teach their students to make the biggest impact on Sunday.

The Equipping Church Overview paper describes a great variety of ways in which churches of different sizes and from different denominational backgrounds have sought to integrate faith, work and economic concerns into their worship and practice. It includes a discussion of theology, ecclesiology, pastoral principles and examples of specific practices. One section is devoted to discussing elements of corporate worship and liturgy.

The Pastors Page on the TOW Website also includes a variety of preaching, worship and liturgy resources, plus creative ideas and examples from other churches. These will be very useful resources for the second part of the assignment below.

ASSIGNMENT

This assignment includes parts A and B.

A. What elements of the equipping church, as described in The Equipping Church Overview paper, have special relevance for your church?

B. Prepare an order of worship that includes at least one biblical text, outline of the sermon theme, songs, prayers, and any other worship elements appropriate to your tradition in a way that integrates faith, work and economics themes. (See Worship Resources Page for ideas.)

Course Module in Ministry - What Might an Equipping Church Look Like?

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Lesslie Newbigin’s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society includes a chapter about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel”. Newbigin says, “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables its members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith”.

Explain how you respond to this statement from Newbigin. Also describe a number of specific strategies that might help to facilitate this in your local church setting.

Write down the words that you could use to communicate both this challenge and your practical suggestions to your church leadership team.

The TOW Equipping Church Overview paper might provide additional resources for this essay.

ASSIGNMENT IN ECCLESIOLOGY / MISSIOLOGY

Lesslie Newbigin’s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society includes a chapter about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel”. Newbigin says, “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables its members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith”.

Explain how you respond to this statement from Newbigin. Also describe a number of specific strategies that might help to facilitate this in your local church setting.

Write down the words that you could use to communicate both this challenge and your practical suggestions to your church leadership team.

The TOW Equipping Church Overview paper might provide additional resources for this essay.

Alistair Mackenzie on the Equipping Church (Click to watch)

Teaching Business to Seminarians: Crossovers between Commerce and Kingdom?

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Teaching MBAs Faith and Spirituality in Business

ASSIGNMENT: A QUOTE AND RESPONSE

“God’s people can, as agents of His redemptive plan, transform business, stripping it of selfish ambition and pursuing instead what’s best for their neighbors. Through business, God’s people can harness mankind’s creativity, and with it nurture His creation, developing products that make the world more satisfying. Through the economic power of commerce, Christians can make the world safer and healthier. The members of Christ’s Church, distributed in offices around the world, can transform greed into good stewardship, showing the world that business has a biblical responsibility to create new wealth and provide a fair return to investors (Matthew 25:14-28). But, with an eye toward the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, we also create wealth in order to create new and satisfying jobs, which offer hope (and perhaps a glimpse) of a coming world where there is no poverty (Richard Doster, “The Kingdom Work of the Corporate World,” By Faith 11 [2006]).

Is this just a utopian dream? To what extent can it become realised as a present reality? Describe some practical strategies that would help to make this more of a reality.  In what ways do you find this  personally challenging or inspiring?

Resources for Seminary Courses on Work and Calling

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Resources for courses on the theology of work

Closing the Pulpit Pew Gap in the Seminary Curriculum

Resources for courses on vocation & calling

More Sample Assignments across the Seminary Curriculum

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Here are sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice across the curriculum.

Course Modules in OT - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on Old Testament.

Economic Wisdom Project Exegetical Paper

Ask students to take one of the twelve elements or one of the four central themes of the Economic Wisdom Project and write a short exegetical paper tracing the element or theme through scripture. This could be done with the Bible as a whole, either testament, or one biblical genre or book. Naturally, the Theology of Work Bible Commentary would be one good resource for students to begin with, as would the new Faith and Work Study Bible from Zondervan. Some questions for students to consider:

  1. What are the main points the biblical witness puts forth regarding this element?
  2. Is the testimony about this element consistent, or are varying opinions given about it in different parts of scripture?
  3. What are some of the reasons for varying opinions (if they exist)? Historical development? Cultural context or setting? Compare and contrast the opinions. The assignment could actually be given in this form: i.e. “Compare and contrast the view of stewardship in the parables and in Paul’s letters / the view of integrity in Psalms and Proverbs.”

Work in the Prophetic Books

Ask students to look at one of the prophetic books in whole or in part

  • Where is work mentioned in the book or excerpt?
  • What kind of work is praised? Why?
  • Are any kinds of work condemned? Why?
  • What implications do the answers of these questions have for contemporary discussions about work?

(The TOW Project discussions of each of these books may be helpful.)

Course Modules in NT - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on New Testament.

Rewrite an Epistle as an Office Memo

Ask students to pick one New Testament letter and highlight its applications for the modern Christian worker, then re-write the letter as a one-page office memo.  Some suggested ideas for getting started can be found here.

Vocation-Themed Bible Study

Ask students to prepare a lesson plan for teaching a Bible study that is

  1. based on a specific passage dealing with work, vocation and/or economics (the list in the preaching segment) or
  2. based on themes of work, vocation and/or economics throughout an entire book of the Bible.

Greek Word Study

Have students do an exegetical word study on one of the following words in New Testament Greek related to work, economics, and vocation:

  • ἔργον / ἐργάτης
  • ἐνεργέω
  • τέχνη / τεχνίτης
  • κλῆσις / καλέω
  • οἰκονομία / οἰκονόμος
  • πωλέω
  • προσκαλέω
  • λατρεύω
  • διάκονος

What does Acts Say about Work?

Ask students to look at the book of Acts in whole or in part.

  • Where is work mentioned in the book or excerpt?
  • What kind of work is praised? Why?
  • Are any kinds of work condemned? Why?
  • What implications do the answers of these questions have for contemporary discussions about work?

(Again, the TOW Project discussion may be helpful.)

Course Modules in Theology - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on Theology.

Explore The Theology of Work Over Time

Ask students to write a short paper explaining the theological development of one of the following ideas (throughout church history, in a specific era or tradition, in the writings of a specific theologian, etc.). Even better, ask them to turn their findings into a lesson plan to teach about this concept with their congregation.

  1. Stewardship
  2. Vocation/calling
  3. Poverty (material and spiritual)
  4. Exchange
  5. Community
  6. Creation in the image of God
  7. Economic justice

Some suggested books to use as resources are in the Economic Wisdom Project document. Other bibliographies are here:

Work and Doctrine

Ask students to write an essay addressing the following questions:

  1. What are some key Christian doctrines that should have priority in a theology of work, and what do these doctrines contribute to a theology of work? Any doctrines could be fair game, but particularly good places to start might be the Trinity, the image of God, sin, the Incarnation, ecclesiology and eschatology.
  2. What parts of the human experience and the Christian response to it should a theology of work explain? Examples include the place of work in life, whether we are designed to work, how we are called to work, the role of work in discipleship, our role in the economy, etc.

Some book resources dealing specifically with the theology of work can be found here.

A related assignment would be to base a similar essay based on whatever readings are already assigned for a particular course, by asking what theology of work is present in those readings and authors.

Do We Need a Theology of Management?

Have students respond to this article by Benjamin Norquist: “Proposal for a Theology of Management.”

  • Is Norquist correct in thinking we need a theology of management as well as a theology of work? If so, what additional evidence do you see for this point? If not, why not?
  • Where would you start in building such a theology? What doctrines could serve as starting points? (the imago Dei, original sin, and the Incarnation are three possible ones, but should not be construed as the only possibilities). What do you have to say to the managers in your own congregation?

Creeds and Work

Have students take a statement from either the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed and link it to a current news or human interest article that centers on problems and issues related to the world of vocation, work and economics, individually and/or socially. Have them explain their choices and discuss what they learned in applying the creed so specifically to work.

Here are some possible examples:

Apostles’ Creed

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”

Article: Brookwood Community Offers Work to People with Disabilities

“[I believe in] the resurrection of the body”

Article: Why We Need a New Theology of Work

Nicene Creed

“For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven”

Article: Election Day in the Shadow of the Cross

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son”

Article: The Quiet Unraveling of Work in America 

Theology by Video

Ask students to watch an episode of the Jesus and Your Job series by Sean McDonough at the Theology of Work Project and answer the following questions:

  • What theological point related to work is addressed?
  • How are the Scriptures used to explain and illustrate this point?
  • What other Scriptural passages might illustrate this point?
  • How does the Scripture relate to the lives of the workplace Christians interviewed?
  • Bonus assignment: write a set of study questions for your congregation about the chosen video.

Course Modules in Preaching - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on Preaching.

Sermon Illustrations Straight Out of The Workplace

Require students to develop and preach a sermon in which all the illustrative material is drawn from workplace contexts. If possible, encourage the student to visit members of their congregation in their workplace to help give context to the sermon. Afterwards, have a conversation or assign short reflection questions about their experience:

  1. How did this illuminate the biblical text for them?
  2. How was it similar to, and different from, their usual sermon preparation?
  3. Did they have any surprise learnings from the experience?

Work-Themed Sermon Critique

Ask students to:

  1. Read and critique one of the work-focused sermons on the TOW Project page. What do they admire and find useful about the exegesis, structure, and illustrations? What would they change? How could the sermon be adapted to their own setting?
  2. Write their own sermon on the given passage in light of their study of the TOW Project sermon.

Preach on a Work-themed Passage of Scripture

Ask students to prepare a topical, a narrative and an expository sermon on a passage focusing on work and vocation.  Here are possible scriptures. Links go to the Theology of Work Project Commentary on each passage:

If possible, the students should preach one of the three sermons in the field and reflect on the experience. 

Pick a sermon, pick it apart

Ask students to critique a sermon related to the topic of work. (This link leads to over 40 sermons from the Theology of Work Project and The High Calling that discuss work.) How does the preacher approach the text? What aspects of their exegesis do you agree with? What would you have done differently? What other illustrations can you think of which illumine the biblical text the preacher chose?

Course Modules in Church History - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on Church History.

Unacceptable Jobs for Christians

Ask students to respond to the Apostolic Tradition’s list of unacceptable jobs for Christians (chapter 16 here.)

  • What is the context for this writing? (It will help to have students read the entire document – it’s not long – and/or use this at a point in the semester when you are studying the early church.)
  • Why are these jobs defined as unacceptable? What themes unite them? How did they function in Roman society?
  • Would you put forward a similar list of unacceptable jobs today? If so, why? If not, why not?

It may also help to introduce as resources some links from the Theology of Work Project and The High Calling:

Lesson Plan for Education at Church

Ask students to write a lesson plan – including modern-day application questions – for teaching in a church educational setting (Sunday School, small group, etc.) about some aspect of church history dealing with work, vocation or discipleship (whether this be a movement, figure, event or famous text).

Course Modules in Spiritual Formation - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on Spiritual Formation.

Work-Themed Spiritual Narrative

Ask students to write a spiritual narrative of their journey with Christ – focusing on their work. Such narrative-based assignments are common in spiritual formation classes, so you may simply want to add this as an additional focal point to a narrative you already assign. Where have your students seen God in their callings to work, both paid and unpaid? How have they served God in their work up to this point? How do they see their callings within the larger context of the body of Christ in ministry?

Workplace Prayer App

Ask students to design the content of a prayer app to be used by people in the workplace. What prayers, scriptures, songs and readings might they include? What issues should be addressed and how should the app be organized? What kind of structure should be used? (Do people need a prayer every hour? A longer devotion at lunchtime? Music? Would they like notifications to remind them to use the app? How often do they want to be notified? Do different occupations want different structures?) If possible, have them interview several workplace Christians in the course of developing the app. They might also want to check out Pray as You Go for ideas and inspiration.

Unemployment Spiritual Resources

Ask students to develop a spiritual resource specifically for congregants facing unemployment or underemployment. This could be a set of prayers, a Bible study or Bible reading plan, a sermon on the topic, or anything else you feel would be appropriate to the specific situation.

Work Problem Case Study

Ask students to write a case study according to the normal case study method, but paying special attention to issues of work (perhaps focused around a client or congregant’s work problem, or around the way work plays into relationship issues within a family or marriage.) Discuss with them afterwards how it affected the case study process to foreground work in their analysis.

Youth Education

Ask students to prepare a lesson plan for children or youth explaining one of the following (or another work-related topic) in audience-appropriate language:

  • Being made in the image of God
  • The concept of Sabbath and a rhythm of work and rest
  • Serving others through work
  • Especially for teenagers: How to treat others justly and ethically at work
  • Especially for teenagers: How to discern what work God is calling you to do

For inspiration, see the elementary school curriculum God's Story of Work for Kids.

One example of a curriculum for elementary-age children is here and another for older students is here if students need help with ideas on how to approach their chosen audience.

Course Modules in Worship and Liturgy - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on Worship, Liturgy, and Church Music.

Work-Themed Worship Service

Have students prepare a worship service centered on a work- or vocation-related theme. Include scripture readings, hymns, prayers and other liturgical resources, and the outline of a potential sermon. For those traditions which require set scripture readings for various Sundays, students can work with a particular set of Sunday lessons that is congenial to being adapted in this fashion.

For inspiration, see sample services with work themes in from David Welbourn's book Work in Worship.

Earh and Heaven Separated by Song

Ask students to list ten hymns or songs, preferably from their own traditions, that emphasize discontinuity between earth and heaven, or between our current work and the new creation, with explanations. Then ask them to list ten (if they can!) which affirm the holy in the everyday and a continuity between our work and the new creation, with explanations. Possibly, follow this up by asking students to attempt to compose lyrics to a new hymn or song affirming an aspect of work or creation.

For practical examples of hymnody, see the TOW Project page on worship ideas related to work.

Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice across the curriculum.

Commissioning Service

Ask students to design a commissioning service by which a church could commission a believer upon entering into a specific type of occupation (teachers, nurses, artists, construction workers, secretaries, fast-food workers, parents, retirees…the list is endless!). The service should be

  1. appropriate to the student’s tradition
  2. biblically and theologically based
  3. inclusive of prayer, scripture and music.

For students from traditions with set liturgies, assign them to find the appropriate resources in their liturgical materials for putting together such a service.

If possible, ask the students to use the service in the field and reflect on the results.

For more on how a possible service could work, read the article Commissioning Our People for the Workplace and take a look at a service for commissioning an Industrial Chaplain.

Daily Commute as Liturgy

Ask students to respond to “The Work of My Hands,” a liturgy for daily commutes by A New Liturgy.

  • What elements of worship and prayer (praise, intercession, confession, etc.) do the creators include in their liturgy for commuters?
  • Why do you think they include each element?
  • How does this liturgy prepare people for work and for coming home from work?
  • Are there things you think could be added?
  • How could you see something like this being used in your own setting?

Critique Available Worship Resources

Ask students to respond to one chapter of the book Work in Worship, available at the TOW Project.  These include prayers, readings, sermons, hymns and sample services.

  • What theology of work and/or vocation is taught by your chosen set of resources?
  • Are there things your chosen resources leave out? Are there emphases that surprise you?
  • What theology of work and/or vocation do you need to teach your congregation?
  • Develop an adaptation of one of these resources for use in your setting. Be able to explain why you made the changes you did.

Very Common Prayer

Ask students to respond to the article “Blessing our Pets – and More” by Pam Tinsley and the accompanying Weekly Prayer Cycle for vocations by Demi Prentiss and Fletcher Lowe.

  • What insights can be gained from this article for designing worship that focuses on the “Monday through Saturday self”?
  • What might you add to or subtract from the prayer cycle for your particular situation? How could you incorporate these or similar prayers into your weekly worship?

Work in Contemporary Song

Ask students to respond to one of the songs on work from the Porter’s Gate Worship Project. (Note: the entire CD is available for purchase, and five songs can be viewed for free.)

  • What theological principles are taught by the song?
  • What are some Scriptural passages referenced explicitly or implicitly by the song?
  • How well does the song capture the experience of the workplace?
  • How could the song best be used in worship?

Course Modules in Mission and Evangelism - More Ideas for Assignments on Work

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Here are more sample assignments to help inspire fresh thinking about how to incorporate a concern for vocation, flourishing and economic justice in a seminary course on Ecclesiology and Missiology.

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Ask students to write a paper addressing the following question:

Lesslie Newbigin’s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society includes a chapter about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel.” Newbigin says: “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables its members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in the light of their Christian faith.” Explain how you respond to this statement from Newbigin. Describe a number of specific strategies that might help to facilitate “the congregation as hermeneutic of the gospel” in your local church setting. How could you communicate both this challenge and your practical suggestions to your church leadership team?

The TOW Equipping Church Overview paper might provide additional resources for this essay.

Business as a Personal Mission

Assign students to study a particular example of business as mission, ideally by meeting with or interviewing those involved in the endeavor. (The Business as Mission LinkedIn group is one place to start looking for a specific organization to study.)  Ask them to write a paper answering the following questions:

  1. What models of mission does this particular organization use?
  2. What cultural context is the organization trying to impact? How has it chosen to impact this context?
  3. What goals is the organization working towards? What specific strategies does it use to reach those goals?
  4. In what ways does the for-profit nature of this organization make it different from traditional mission organizations? What are the advantages? Disadvantages?

Learn from Lay Christians Reflecting on Their Work

Ask students to respond to these articles from workplace Christians at The High Calling:

For each of these articles, answer the following questions:

  • How do these Christians view their faith and their work?
  • How do they care for their co-workers?
  • How do they witness to Christ?
  • How do they negotiate ethical dilemmas?
  • What do they most need from the church?

Are the answers to any of these questions surprising to you?

Examples of Integrating Work into The Regular Seminary Curriculum

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Integrating modules related to work and the economy in core seminary courses is an ongoing challenge, but it can be done. This article gives real-world examples.

Curricular Integration Workshops

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In March of 2018, Alistair Mackenzie and Will Messenger of the Theology of Work Project met individually with 15 faculty on the campuses of three Oikonomia Network schools: Asbury, Assemblies of God and Western. These meetings represented a joint effort by the ON, the Theology of Work Project and the three schools to take curricular integration of faith and work to the next level. The insights from this initiative can serve to inspire and inform future curricular thinking by educators everywhere.

Our meetings covered a variety of different disciplines including New Testament and Old Testament, systematic theology, preaching, church history, ethics, missional formation and social entrepreneurship. The agenda for each meeting was to identify appropriate biblical/theological materials and think together about how these elements might be applied and integrated into courses.

Participating faculty forwarded selected syllabi to us a month in advance of the visit, to enable us to come up with specific ideas about integration. Each faculty member then met individually with us on two successive days, for 90 minutes each day. Our goal was to work out concrete changes that could be made to each class. Faculty will report on these changes in future issues of the ON newsletter, after teaching revised classes in coming semesters.

Prior to each seminary visit, we invited each faculty member to join us in an individual Skype call. Most took advantage of this opportunity. This helped considerably to clarify expectations and to enable us to come prepared with specific suggestions about relevant ideas for courses.

A number of faculty approached our visit with suspicion. They suspected we had a predetermined package of resources to sell, a particular view of capitalism to champion, or were involved in some sort of evaluation process. Once we clarified that our goal was to help them incorporate biblical materials about work into their classes according to their own perspectives, suspicions faded, but it did make for an awkward start in some cases.

In every case, we enjoyed mutually stimulating conversations. It is unusual for most academics to open up in-depth discussions about courses they are teaching. This requires openness and vulnerability. We were grateful for that trust. Many participants said they had never engaged in such a deep conversation about their course content, and certainly not as it related to integrating faith and work.

Integrating modules related to work and the economy in core seminary courses remains a long-term challenge. We had hoped that in each class, faculty might find half a dozen places where significant interaction with theology of work-related concerns might be introduced, but the reality was that most limited their anticipated changes to one or two minor additions. Often, they felt their syllabi were already too crowded. Yet all faculty expressed appreciation for our conversations and suggestions, saying in most cases that otherwise they couldn’t have taken the time necessary to go looking for this sort of material for themselves.

We realized from these comments that looking for applications to faith and work feels like trying to learn a new discipline. We didn’t experience resistance to the topics we were talking about in theory. It was the practical pressure of crowded syllabi and multiple expectations that faculty identified as the limiting factors.

Two big takeaways for us:

  1. Course curricula are so full that in order to be considered, new elements must be small and directly relevant bite-sized modules or short videos that can be creatively integrated within present topics and assignments.
  2. We were confirmed in our perception that most theological coursework doesn’t train students to equip congregants for their work outside the church. It is rare to find specific ways in which course content is designed to ensure that pastors are trained to equip people to live as Christians in their workplaces.

Only a few participants were previously aware of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary and associated faith at work resources that are available free online. Only one person had used this previously in coursework. Most said they needed assistance to appreciate how much source material is there, how it is organized and how it can be accessed online. In addition, most participants said that they would have still been unlikely to incorporate use of this Bible commentary in their teaching if they had not received the sort of specific examples relevant to their particular syllabus that we provided in the workshops. At two seminaries, we also made larger group presentations about resources available at the TOW website at faculty meetings, which proved very helpful.

We ended up producing numerous lists of possible pieces for classroom input, student readings and videos in different subject areas, to be presented in future articles.

Conversations with New Testament Professors

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Alistair Mackenzie reports on his meetings with seminary professors teaching New Testament, as part of the Curricular Integration partnership between the Oikonomia Network, the Theology of Work Project, and Asbury, Assemblies of God, and Western Seminary.

Our conversations with New Testament professors quickly highlighted the fact that, although they share some common concerns, they also cultivate their own distinctive specialised perspectives.

Some scholars love delving into the historical background to the text. We spent time talking with these professors about:

I can’t help recalling (having received his permission to recall it here) my three conversations with Fredrick J. Long at Asbury. His enthusiasm for these topics was contagious, as he described what he had discovered in the course of writing some New Testament reflections for a book (forthcoming June 2018) on Entrepreneurial Church Planting: Engaging Business and Mission for Marketplace Transformation. Thinking about themes of entrepreneurship and business in the lives and ministries of Jesus, his disciples, Paul and the early Christian community in Acts had clearly become an absorbing study for Fred. He has now condensed his research findings into three short chapters that can provide a very useful starting point for anyone else embarking on this study.

Fred’s journey exemplified for me the excitement and new perspectives that can be gained when we look at familiar texts through different lenses.

Other scholars were primarily concerned with exegesis and taking the text very seriously. What does it say and what did it originally mean? And where are the New Testament passages that talk about work?

  • We noticed that when John the Baptist talks in Luke 3:8-14 about “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he identifies workplace ethics issues (see also the short Rev. Lyle Mook video on this passage).
  • We discussed how the majority of Jesus’ parables (24 out of 37 according to Fred) describe business settings, and talk about the proper use of wealth and resources. Yet they seldom offer simple interpretations, and frequently raise as many questions as they answer. For example, what did Jesus mean when he said “Are you envious because I am generous?” in his Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).
  • We conversed about how we can understand the words of Paul about slavery when he talks about Mutuality in Working for the Lord in Ephesians 5:21-6:9, or “Stay Where Your Are!”in I Corinthians 7:20-24, or Slaves and Masters in Colossians 3:18-4:1, or Philemon and Work.

And then there were conversations with those who were eager to discern much more immediate applications of NT teachings:

These were invigorating and fruitful discussions. Yet I am left thinking that, in spite of the work that has already been done about How to Read the Bible with Workplace Eyes, we can still do a lot more to help bring the New Testament to life for workplace Christians.

Example - Work in Ethics at Western Seminary

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Josh Mathews, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, reports on the recent curricular integration workshop at Western Seminary. As part of a joint initiative between the Oikonomia Network, the Theology of Work Project, and three ON schools, Will Messenger and Alistair Mackenzie helpedJosh Mathews integrate modules related to work and the economy into a course on Ministerial Ethics.

Tell us about the class you examined in the curricular workshop.

The class Will, Alistair, and I worked on is called Ministerial Ethics. It is a summer semester course that runs from late April through early August. The class met for a three-day intensive June 20-22. Students do reading and writing assignments leading up to and following after class time.

The goal of the course is to introduce ethical systems and concepts and help students develop an ethical approach that incorporates scripture and can be applied to the complexities of pastoral ministry and other ministry leadership.

What specific changes did you make to this class?

Using Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor and his talk “Four Ways the Gospel Transforms Work” as a jumping-off point, I added a teaching module on the integration of faith and work. This included a point on their own future ministry, impressing upon them that a robust vision of ministry and work will enhance their vocation, whether in church ministry or elsewhere. Another point highlighted the role of the pastor as an equipper of the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). Students are assigned a final synthesis paper for the course, the topic of which they may choose. Some have indicated that they would like to research and write on topics related work and church ministry, which I encouraged them to do.

I also shared the following list of a few additional resources:

What was your goal in making these changes – what did you want students to gain?

My goal was to expose students to the concepts and impress upon them the importance of this perspective for their ministry preparation. One of the key aims is for students, most of whom are preparing for church ministry, to appreciate the different ways those in their congregations are seeking to live out the Christian life in their workplaces.

What was easier to do, or harder to do, than you had expected?

It is always difficult to find adequate time to develop these thoughts well. There is a lot of material to cover in this class and a limited time in which to cover it.

How did it go with your students – what did they experience and what did they take away from the changed part of the class?

Their engagement in discussion after the teaching module was positive. It seems they understood its importance and were considering ways to implement it into their thinking and ministry. I believe at least one or two students are planning to write papers on related topics.

What new questions were raised, either for you yourself or by your students in class?

Perhaps they are not new questions, but the main things that come to mind had to do with practical application. Things like, “How, as a pastor, can I help individuals in my church see the significance of their work and bridge the gap between Sunday and Monday?”

Will you keep the change if you teach this class again? Modify it? Are there other changes you’re considering?

I will keep the change when I teach this again in the future. I might also try to think of a short writing assignment that gives students a chance to work out some implications and applications of the principles we cover briefly in class.